I cycled up the valley to Loch Brora, where greylag geese breed, into a fierce head wind. The landscape seemed stripped by it, and sculpted by sunshine. Opposite the steep escarpment of the Carrol Rock, I searched in the undergrowth until I found the scattered rubble of a chambered cairn. Eight red deer out-stared me, as if daring me onto their territory, their coats still rough and rugged from the winter.

We stayed in a cottage at Achrimsdale just under the rise of the escarpment inland from the coastal platform. At the start of that week the hills seemed scorched with gorse and the air sang with the scent of coconut. The shocking sweeps of sky and hill and sea brought to mind Neil Gunn’s description of this landscape in his much-loved novel The Silver Darlings: ‘A coast of precipices and wings and perilous depths. A coast of hard rock and sea’[i]. The novel tells of Caithness folk who have been uprooted from their traditional lifestyle of crofting by the clearances and have re-established themselves on the coast. They start to harvest the sea as once they did the land, and gradually build with it a more confident bond. It is the story of the dawn of the herring fisheries in the north east of Scotland and the fortitude of a Highland community.

During the week, summer departed and a scalping wind arrived, bringing regret at prematurely discarded coats and hats. Collecting driftwood on the beach at Dalchalm, a host of ghost-birds hung in a formation above me, screaming. Delicate, with long speared tails separating into a V, and elbowing wings, they seemed disembodied, waif-thin. These are the Arctic terns who make an extraordinary annual traverse of the two hemispheres. Hard-wired navigators north and south, they see more daylight than any other bird on Earth. In humans, such lack of recourse to the dark would build into a hallucinatory madness. The birds daunted me, moved me on along the beach to escape their floating shrieks, to a place where cloven hooves were deeply printed into the sand.

In many cultures the Milky Way is conceived of as a river or path along which dead souls must travel in order to reach the afterlife. The Arctic terns reminded me that in Finnish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian, it is named ‘the way of the birds’. Indeed, migratory birds use the Milky Way to guide their route to warm, southern lands to escape our winters. Birds are also often associated with the souls of the dead. Cygnus, the swan constellation, flying in the northern part of the Milky Way, was seen in some pre-Christian traditions as a soul-carrier, signifying the entrance to ‘heaven’, situated in the far northern sky.

In many of the places we visited in our Highland Constellation tour, by sea, loch and mountain, birds impressed themselves on me as the ‘stars of the day’, caught glittering in sunlight, or inverted black against light as they swept between Earth and Sun, opening themselves into four-pointed stars. It was perhaps particularly our largest seabird, the gannet, with its cruciform shape that made me see stars. To watch their trademark arrow-fall, hitting the water at more than 100 kph, induces in me the same exhilaration as catching a glimpse of a shooting star. In the back of my car as I travelled, the ‘Skywatching’ book nestled cover-to-cover with the Bird Book. I liked to think of stars and birds exchanging places, slipping and soaring between pages and hard covers, transforming as they went.

It wasn’t only the children who were awed by the astro-dome experience. Many details of imagery that Gill revealed stayed with me. An Egyptian god, Horus, showering the Earth with lilies representing the rays of the sun; Venus, the very symbol of love, boiling with poisonous gases for the unwary (how appropriate the hard reality of science); a nebula resembling an eye; the Seven Sisters or Pleiades, turned to doves by Venus so they could flutter up to the heavens for safety from Orion. I tried to capture the multi-faceted fascination of the night sky in this poem for Brora Primary School.

My space

In my space
Pegasus gallops the skies and
the Bear growls at dawn.
Black holes gape
like fishes’ mouths.
The moon parades
twenty-eight shapes around me, and
the sun showers me with lilies,
their petals bringing light and heat.
Venus wanders like a mirror-ball
pouring love-light and poisonous gas.
Sizzling stars pattern the sky,
Orion belts Taurus with his sword,
the Pleiades soar like doves,
and a nebula blinks its eye
as a star dies.
I cling to a small pale pebble
in the Milky Way, amazed that
my space contains so much space.

The class at Brora chose Vega, the fifth brightest star in the Northern sky as we see it from Earth, and the jewel in the body of the harp constellation, Lyra. Vega makes a good complement to Deneb. With Altair they form the ‘summer triangle’ coined by Patrick Moore - three bright stars visible from the Northern Hemisphere, particularly prominent before midnight in the month of August.

To us, Vega and Deneb appear related, similarly bright, close together - brothers perhaps. But in three dimensions, their relationship is non-existent. Vega, bright because it is close to Earth, watches over us from only 25 light years away.

The concept of the speed of light is quite hard to grasp. However, the scenes on Earth that Vega currently witnesses were accessible to children at Brora because they could take their enquiries to parents and grandparents, something not possible for Cawdor pupils with their very distant star.

Home queries brought back the following events for 1982: The Falkland War; the birth of Prince William a year after the royal marriage; the closure of the coal mine in Brora. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released and became the biggest selling album of all time, denim was de rigueur, and so apparently was the wearing of odd-coloured socks. The two boys who came to school in their John Deere farm overalls had a good laugh about this. These insights prompted poems on the theme of ‘What Vega Sees’.

What Vega Sees

I am Vega, I can see Earth,
This is what I see:
People are roller-skating in coloured leggings,
Combing the beaches for scallops,
To cook for tea tonight.

I am Vega, I can see Earth,
This is what makes me angry:
Two armies fighting over a tiny speck of land,
So tiny I can barely see it!

I am Vega, I can see Earth,
This is what makes me laugh:
People in odd socks dancing to Michael Jackson
Doing the moonwalk on the pavements,
Turning their music on full volume.

I am Vega, I can see Earth,
This is what makes me happy:
The taste of mince and tatties on a chid’s tongue,
A big treat for the siblings.

I am Vega, I can see Earth,
This is why I like the planet:
It is sad, funny and happy altogether,
So that is why I watch over it,
In the constellation of Lyra the harp.

Georgie Trumble (10), Brora Primary School

Vega was also celebrated in the postcards sent to Cawdor with their news. ‘Right now Vega is seeing 1982 when my brother was born, and computers weren’t invented,’ wrote Robbie.
Who hasn’t at some point made a wish on a falling star? You don’t have long to make that wish, and so the Japanese haiku poem is perhaps the perfect word-jewel with which to do it. With Rachel, we made ten-pointed stars. Paper-folding technique is everything in origami, but we allowed a discreet staple or two. Then we wrote wishes, honing them to ten words, one for each of the points. That afternoon a firmament of golden stars dangled in the classroom for all our dreams to come true.

I wish to be a palaeontologist
and find undiscovered dinosaurs

Robbie Tonberg (10), Brora Primary School

One was written with the forthcoming summer holidays in mind and another, intended as a wish for a favourite uncle, became more of an affectionate statement, but to me has a great charm.

sand in my toes
wind in my hair
open windows

Madeline Scott (10), Brora Primary School

my uncle golfs
he could be professional
he’s good enough

Michael Maclean (9),Brora Primary School

The word ‘star’ has been synonymous with celebrity since at least as early as 1824. Children are all too familiar with this term and at Brora were quick to take up the idea of a ‘star interview.’ They wrote a series of questions for Vega, our star character, and passed them on to Gill. She had already become famous for knowing everything about the cosmos, and quite possibly having a privileged ear to the stars.

Vega has a reputation as a fast-spinning, vigorous star likely to burn out relatively soon. (‘You only live once’ is probably tattooed across his forehead). Despite this, Gill was able to get Vega to sit still for long enough to ask him their questions. This was what he told her:

Star Interview

How do you eat?
Why do you think they call me Vigorous Vega? I eat like a bomb of course!

Do you have a special friend?
Deneb’s a cool guy. He’s bigger than the rest of us, likes to throw his belly around. Rich too. From where you’re looking he might look close to me, but he’s 250 times bigger. So if we look as bright as each other, work out what that means! It’s a kind of long-distance relationship. We wink at each other across the light years. I’m like the wee kid brother.

What’s your favourite planet?
The one you guys are on, of course. I’m quite close to you, and the earth’s pretty, right? With its water and swirly shapes of land. My eyes just get drawn back time after time. You’re lucky to live there, I reckon!

Have you seen other life forms?
Intelligent ones? No, ma’am. There’s you humans, but I just can’t work out why you’ve not invented mobile phones yet, and still using typewriters.

What is your biggest fear?
Extinction of course! The rate I’m going, it might not be long, so they say. I like to live a bit see. Take risks, party. Means you burn out quicker.

Do you look the same during the day as you do at night?
Sure. To me, I do. What about to you?

Is it warm in space?
Warm?! You cannot be Sirius

What’s it like to live in a constellation?
That’s just patterns you guys see from your planet. It’s the stories you want to attach to us. Harps and swans and dogs and bulls. Bull, yeah. But I quite like the idea of being the ‘jewel in the harp’. Makes me sound important. And handsome of course.

What’s it like to look at us from so far away?
It’s beautiful, like I said, but it’s quite funny too. I’ve got eagle-eyes so I keep a keen watch on what you’re up to.

If you’re so sharp-eyed, what are we doing now?
Right let’s see….there seems to be a war, down at the bottom of the planet. Britain and Argentina. Over a speck of land I can hardly see. And there’s a new prince just born to Charles and Diana – William, right? Oh, and look at that! A fellow in that big continent is tying 42 balloons to a deck chair. He’s taking off, jeez, up and away, look at him go. Up, up, up! Sixteen thousand feet! Gotta go now Aurora. This is a cool spectator sport!

Vega was interviewed by Aurora Brora

[i] The Silver Darlings, Neil M Gunn, Faber and Faber, 1999


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