Our Earth-based constellation began at Cawdor. I had never been there before. I knew about a link to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And of course about a castle. In 1454 the Thane of Calder received a royal license to build a new one. The story goes that he dreamt he should fasten a kist of gold to the back of a donkey and build wherever it first stopped to rest. The animal stopped under a holly tree above the Cawdor burn. The tree still stands where it grew and can be seen in the vaulted cellar of the keep which was built over and about it in that year. It’s not the first time that a donkey has had a role in an extraordinary story. And there’s almost a star or two in this one – with holly leaves coming to so many points, just as we imagine stars to do.

From our visit to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, I had learnt something about the Hubble telescope. Since its launch in 1990, it has become one of the most important instruments in the history of astronomy and has been responsible for many ground-breaking observations. Many of the startling photos that Gill showed the children on our tour had been taken by Hubble – the whirlpool galaxy; the stellar spire of the eagle nebula which is 57 trillion miles high; the tadpole galaxy streaming through the cosmos a mere 420 million light years away. Whenever Gill got the children kneeling down two sides of a length of newsprint to ‘paint the universe’, the inspiration of Hubble’s pictures was clear. Circles, rings and spirals were swiped in red, blue, aquamarine. Great clouds and whirlpools streaked across the paper in bold droplets of paint. The Hubble Telescope had allowed them to see beyond white pinpricks of light against a black background.

I loved the feel of the word ‘Hubble’ in my mouth, ripe with comic possibilities. Of course it was named after the astronomer, Edwin Hubble. Just at the time we began our star tour, in late April 2007, the telescope was celebrating its 17th birthday in orbit outside Earth’s atmosphere. This is apparently a ripe old age in Telescope Years, and the outdated technology had struggled to survive in extremes of heat and cold. In 1993 it had to be fitted with an additional lens in order to sharpen its vision. After several failures, another servicing mission is under debate and without a re-boost, drag will cause Hubble to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere some time after 2010.

Hubble. The word wouldn’t go away. It tumbled around in my head and my mouth, until it linked itself up with the three witches, and their dark rhythmic chorus as they circled round and round. ‘Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’ This odd association resulted in a celebratory ditty.

Birthday message to the Hubble Telescope launched from Cawdor Primary School

Hubble, Hubble, you toil and trouble
circling way outside earth’s bubble.
At seventeen thousand miles per hour
you send us snaps of meteor showers
planets, galaxies and stars.
But we wonder how you are?

Hubble, Hubble, you have no double
up there alone without a cuddle,
exiled to the celestial park
to spy black holes and brave the dark.
Your shiny dress is like a queen’s
but you’re still in orbit at seventeen.

Hubble, Hubble, are you in trouble?
They gave you glasses when you saw double.
Burnt by sun and iced by night
you never stop for a rest or a bite.
Happy Birthday Hubble, Hubble,
won’t you return now into earth’s bubble?

(The Telescope was launched 24/4/1990)

I need have had no worries about the children’s willingness to join me in word-play. That first morning in the astro-dome they gazed up at the stars projected over them. ‘Cool’ and ‘wow’ popped and fired across the dark firmament. The mention of the brightest star in the sky, the eye of the dog Canis Major, prompted a boy’s question to cut clear through the hooting and cawing: ‘Are you Sirius?’

The name ‘Sirius’ comes from the Greek, meaning searing or scorching. The children at Cawdor Primary School chose for their own star Deneb, a blue super giant, one of the hottest and most visible stars to the naked eye. It is 259 times the diameter of our sun, and with 500,000 times its luminosity. Its appearance to us is dimmed by its distance – a mere 3000 light years or so away. All the schools would choose stars that stay above the horizon as seen from Scotland. Out of all these ‘circumpolar’ stars, Deneb was superlative and the children were proud, even awed by it, as is shown by what some said in their postcards.

Deneb is the brightest star of the constellation Cygnus, the swan. On a dark night Cygnus can be seen soaring through the Milky Way high above us. Deneb had already started to sparkle with poetry. We read Kit Wright’s poem The Magic Box[i] in which a collection of sensually precise and sometimes supernatural things are collected together into a metaphorical box as a kind of gift: ‘the swish of a silk sari on a summer night’; ‘a cowboy on a broomstick/and a witch on a white horse.’ It struck me that we could make a kind of ‘time capsule’ of words, a casket such as could be sent to a favourite star as a way of communicating about our lives and making a connection with it.

Imaginations livened by the Kit Wright poem, we all had a go at writing lines encapsulating the sensations that we love. We chose the best, and arranged them together into this poem to send to Deneb from the whole class.

We will send to Deneb…

We will send to our star
a dolphin leaping out of the sparkling water of the Moray Firth
a Chinese kite with bright red eyes
a cousin coming down the aisle in a wedding frock.

We will send to our star
a segment of sweet orange slipping down a throat
galaxy chocolate melting on the tip of our tongues
the glowing warmth from within a house.

We will send to our star
the feel we get from a computer game high score
a cat’s fur standing on end
the smash of front forks on a bike.

We will send to our star
the shout of a trumpet’s note
a football getting kicked in the air
the ‘boing’ of the trampoline.

We will send to our star
the sound of rain tapping on the roof
crickets’ wings in the early evening
cows mooing in the moonlight.

We will send our message on a spaceship shaped like a swan.
When its wings are stretched out they will be as big as our playground,
each leg like Big Ben.

After three thousand light years, the swan will reach the star.
Elegant and quiet, it will touch down,
spit the message from its beak,
and melt our words onto Deneb’s scorching surface.
Then the swan will turn for home.

In pairs, the children wrote their own versions of how they would send the message to Deneb. This resulted in some lyrical ideas, poems in their own right.

We will send the message
by a silent whisper
out of an open window
carried by the howling wind.
When it arrives
it will brush past Deneb’s ear
and suddenly disappear
into the darkness of a
black hole.

Christina MacIntosh (11) and Rhowan MacKinnon (9), Cawdor Primary School

April’s unexpected gift of summer spilt into early May. Children leapt and ran across the school field each lunchtime or chatted with us at the picnic tables. Rhys showed us a set of sable paintbrushes he had inherited from his artist grandfather and looked forward to using. The local woodlands held the first promise of unfurling bluebells in pools of sunlight. Afternoon tea was offered in a stone-wall-enclosed lawn across the road from the Post Office and a few strides from the school. One evening on the seafront at Nairn, temperature still in the twenties, the whole local population seemed to have emerged from the dark half of the year to stroll, kayak, run. Sanderlings and godwits flocked in the margins between land and sea, close to smiling teenagers twittering into mobile phones.

At over 3000 light years away, Deneb sees us and we see Deneb at around the time that the wheel was invented on Earth. It is the Bronze Age, when Clava Cairns, a few miles from Cawdor, was being built. One clear bright, early May evening, I cycled out there. The site consists of three burial chambers, aligned on a North-east to South-west axis. Each cairn consists of large water-worn pebbles and boulders, piled in a bun shape, with an outer kerb of larger stones, around which stands a stone circle. The two outer cairns have passages to a central chamber aligned South-west to the Midwinter sun, our closest star, while the central cairn has only an inner chamber with no connecting passage.

Surrounded by high trees planted by the Victorians, it is a monumental place, calm and reverent. It nods at our own forebears, but highlights how little we understand of them. They seem no less ancient and mysterious to us than the stars. The trees whisper but the stones hold their secrets. Close by, the Culloden railway viaduct strides its legs across a steep sided valley – a giant’s work of a more recent period.

The children had recently been on a field trip to Clava Cairns. Rings and stones and swaying trees had created a sense of sanctuary in their minds, which they linked to the grandeur of a huge, bright, distant star and the cosmos in these short lines:

the sun gallops round the circle
the trees sway back and forward
the rocks glide around the circle
midwinter leaps away into spring
the Seven Sisters dance in space

According to the interpretation on-site, Clava Cairns show the ‘esteem in which builders held the light of the sun and the colour, shape and texture of stones.’ In places, constellations of cup marks cluster on the stones. Ground and worn as if hollowed over time by fire or ice or water, I imagined them as the places where apple-sized stars had fallen to earth; where earth and sky had met.

Back in the classroom, we read Alasdair Gray’s short story Star[ii], collected in the publication for NVA’s ‘Storr’[iii] installation on Skye in 2006. A lonely boy sees a star fall in his back-yard, secretly retrieves and enjoys it. When threatened with having to part with it, an impulse makes him swallow it, whereupon he and the star return as one to the cosmos.

The story burnt in imaginations and so we wrote our own about falling stars. I had seen ‘star writers’ named on the classroom wall, and couldn’t resist this collision of interests for my own story.

A Sudden Fall

One beautiful night when you could see all of the stars, a gardener called Emily was in her garden watering her dead flowers. She struggled at keeping her garden tidy and alive.
Suddenly a shiny star fell from the sky. It landed in the Amazon Rainforest next to Emily’s little garden. It sounded like a cat’s whine when you stand on its tail. Emily was scared and excited at the same time.
The very next day she packed a red bag. In it she put in a survival kit and a phone. So an hour later she went out into the Amazon Rainforest. It was hot and humid in there. Emily looked up in trees and in the canopy as well. Finally she found the star in a pit under a very old tree. It felt like loads of feathers touching your cheek. It kept on whining and vibrating in Emily’s hands. It looked like a piece of a red rock. She looked at it closely. It was a map of the Amazon rainforest. She wondered what was it for? It reminded her of when she went orienteering when she was little. Suddenly the trees got thicker and thicker.
‘I don’t think this is the right way,’ Emily whispered.
She was right. Suddenly she heard parrots and toucans up in the canopy. She took the bright out star from her bag and looked at it. She followed the map on the star.
Emily and the star were really pleased to get home on time to water her flowers because it had not been raining today. The star led her out of the rainforest just before tea.
She and the star became friends. Emily made a promise to the star not to share it with anyone. She went and watered her flowers, then she went back inside to have tea.
She was just having tea when someone knocked on the door. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. The star jumped into her dinner to hide from the people at the door. Meanwhile Emily went to open the old door. At the door two men were standing. They were from the Amazon Museum. They were the security people. The taller man was holding a big tracking device. The smaller man was holding a little cage.
‘Do you have any stars in your house, miss?’ shouted the tall man.
‘No, I don’t,’ Emily replied in a quiet voice.
‘Ok then we’d better go and look for it in the rainforest,’ whispered the small man.
Emily went back to her dinner. She took a spoonful and ate it. It felt a bit crunchy and got stuck in her teeth. Emily felt sick. She had eaten the star. First she went purple then she went red, then green and finally she went bright yellow. All of a sudden she sailed through the window with the star up to the night sky where they joined the constellation of the swan and their name was Deneb.

Olivia Murray (10), Cawdor Primary

Spook – a – star

Lindsay woke up with a shudder of fear. Lindsay saw a glow outside her window, coming from the vegetable garden. It was one o’clock in the morning; she quickly put on her night light and ran straight to the garden.
She searched through the roses and up the runner beans. And there it was - falling from the deep night sky, it was a star. She quickly grabbed it and ran inside. It was a cold, misty night and steam came of the star as she ran towards her bedroom.
She slowly thumped through the house, forgetting that her mum and dad were in bed. The warmth of the star warmed her bedroom. She investigated the star.
‘Lindsay’, shouted her mum. She quickly closed her eyes, and as soon as she heard her mum and dad starting to snore again she re-opened her eyes.
But worse was still to come. This time her mum marched right into her room, and flung open the door. But Lindsay was gone. Her mum knew straight away that she would be in the en-suite bathroom. She was right. Lindsay heard her mum coming towards the bathroom door. She didn’t know what to do, so she quickly dropped the star in the toilet pan and flushed it away. But when Lindsay’s mum entered the room, Lindsay was gone too.
‘I am on the other side now’, Lindsay thought. ‘I have joined the stars’.

Connor D. Morrison (11), Cawdor Primary School

The Star

Lara sat in the stuffy classroom staring out of the window.
Her twin brother Christopher sat opposite her at the rough, wooden table pulling off splinters of wood. Suddenly Lara heard a sharp whistle and she saw something shooting through the air outside.
As soon as the bell rang for the end of school, Lara rushed out into the playground feeling excited. She wanted to find the thing that fell on the grass outside. Lara crawled through the long grass searching for it until she felt something round and cool.
She picked it up and studied it hard. It had smooth edges and was the colour of honey and oranges. Lara squeezed it and it gave her a warm, tangy feeling. It was a star! Lara was flabbergasted.
‘Lara,’ shouted Christopher, ‘I’m going home.’
Lara ran after him clutching the star.
At home Lara went to her room and played with the star happily on her bed when in burst… Her brother! He asked what she was doing.
‘Um, I um,’ she stuttered, ‘I was just…’
He reached out and grabbed it before she could finish her sentence. Lara and Christopher struggled over the star until they both fell down exhausted. They let go of the star and it hit a corner of Lara’s bedside table. There was a loud crack as the star broke in half. Suddenly they were both swallowed by a bright light that shone from the cracked star. Lara and Christopher floated up high into the air where they became the constellation Gemini.

Jessamy Cowie (10), Cawdor Primary

A Star Falls

Sophie woke up, where was she? Eventually she remembered. Her parents had sent her away to a camp in the mountains as they had wanted to go on holiday.
Sophie tossed and turned in her sleeping bag. For some reason she could not get to sleep. Perhaps some fresh air would do her good she thought. So, taking care as to not waken anyone in her tent Sophie climbed over the sleeping bags and out through the flap of the tent.
As she sat outside breathing in the cold, crisp night air and looking into the dark blue sky she heard a high pitched whining sound. Sophie looked up. For an instant she thought she had seen a star falling. Impossible, she rubbed her eyes again.
Suddenly the whining sounded closer. It came from further up the mountain. Sophie decided to have a look.
After a lot of looking and just as she was about to give up, she spotted it! A glow came from a nearby clump of heather and being Sophie she had to have a look.
A crystal-like star was lying amongst the stems. It suddenly lit up and a red and orange glow came from within it and at that moment Sophie had the same feeling, a glowing warmth inside, as if she had found a friend.
Every night Sophie looked at it under her sleeping bag. It always comforted her, for she had often felt lonely being an only child.
One night when she thought no-one was looking Sophie took it out from under the covers and stared at it then suddenly a jeering voice came from out of the darkness.
‘What have you got there Sophie?’
It was Angela, Sophie’s worst enemy!
‘No-noth-nothing,’ Sophie replied
‘Show it to me,’ demanded Angela
Angela moved forward, her face was visible now, she clutched Sophie, ‘Give it to me or else!’
Sophie knew what ‘or else’ meant and it wasn’t good. Sophie wished she could get away, if only she could be a star…
A whirling sensation filled her, she was changing shape and Angela’s angry face was getting further and further away, she and the star were going up into the sky…together.

Eliza Petrow (11), Cawdor Primary

The Star Writer

She was at her desk as usual, hands frozen over the computer keys, when the star fell out of the sky.
She was a writer who couldn’t write. Every time she had an idea, it got stuck between her brain and her hands. She so much wanted to write a book that could go on a shelf in a library and that people could read. So she would spend long hours staring at the screen, or out of the window. Which is how she came to see the star.
It darted like a bright tadpole into the mountains of the night horizon, and she thought she heard a high whine, like a very distant firework. Although it was still dark, she started to pack a rucksack with oatcakes, cheese, a flask of tea and a warm jumper.
As the sun rose the next morning, she walked up into the mountains. She had spent so much time at the computer recently that she was unfit and it was hard work. But she had seen which mountain the star had landed on, and she was determined.
When she had puffed her way to the top, she still couldn’t see the star. A wave of disappointment hit her, but as her breathing calmed, she heard a low whining noise. She followed it to a low flat rock, a bit like a huge table. The whine was coming from a star-shaped bottle. She unscrewed the lid. Inside it was a liquid. It was turquoise and smelt like the sea. But when she tipped it slightly, it changed to a deep pink and smelt of garden roses. A smile lifted her face.
She put the lid back on, wrapped the bottle in her scarf, put it carefully in her rucksack and hurried back down the mountain. The strange star-bottle had made her think about something she used to do long ago.
Back in her room, she swept the computer off the desk with a clatter. She took out a pad of paper. Out of a drawer, she took an old fountain pen that she hadn’t used since she was a girl at school. She put the star-bottle on the desk, opened it, and let the pen drink in the liquid. She took a deep breath.
Suddenly, all the ideas that had been stuck between her head and hands came pouring out in squiggles of red, blue, purple and green. She wrote and wrote and wrote, all through the next night until morning came. The star-bottle glinted at her from her desk, and every now and again, it let out a sighing whine.
The next evening, she was writing again, the bottle singing along to her, the colours of the ink changing with every word, when she heard a bang on the front door. It gave her such a shock that she splashed yellow ink all over the front of her white T-shirt, like a big bright sun. She froze. No one ever knocked on her door.
She crept down the stairs and opened the front door a crack. On the doorstep was a man in uniform. On his head he wore a star-shaped helmet. He had a star on his shoulder like a sheriff, and he was holding up an ID card.
‘Star Police,’ he said with a twinkly smile. ‘How’s your cosmos today?’
She couldn’t reply. This time, the words got stuck between her head and her mouth.
‘Looking for a star,’ the man said. ‘One’s gone missing. You seen anything unusual?’
She shook her head, and then watched him turn away. Then she slammed the door and drew all the bolts across. She ran upstairs, and feeling that time was short, she wrote in a terrific frenzy, trying to empty her head onto the page. She wrote faster and faster, ripping pages off her pad until they fluttered like pigeons around her ankles. She built up speed until she was writing at twice the speed of light, writing to the very end of her story.
She was on the last few lines, when she realised that the ink was getting fainter on the page. When she looked at the bottle, she saw that it was almost dry. She had built up such a heat in her scribbling that words seemed to jump before her eyes, and waves of heat rose from the page. Even the pen in her hand seemed to be pulsing like a heart.
Another knock came on the front door.
She quickly wrote the final words of her story, squeezing out the last few drops of ink. As she laid the pen down, all the pages she had written rose from the floor and attached themselves like wings on either side of the star-bottle.
The door banged again below. She knew what she had to do.
She opened the window wide, so the cold air flooded in. The wings fluttered in the breeze, and then started to beat strongly, rising the star off the desk. She watched as the star-bottle-bird-book went through the window and soared into the night sky, trailing behind it a beautiful whine. It got smaller and smaller until the bottle looked just like the other stars around it. But on either side of her star were spread the pages of a book, covered with all her colourful words.
Now everyone in the world would be able to read her story when they looked into the night sky.

Linda Cracknell

During the week, the children had imagined a journey in space, painting it with Gill in the style of Miro. David Bowie’s Space Oddity extended this voyage, chilling it with Major Tom’s experience of getting lost. We finished the week with a celebratory reading of the children’s work and a much-requested return to the astro-dome. We sang ‘Major Tom’ again, whose words we now knew even in the dark. It was strangely moving as the stars turned over us, and the children bellowed out their enthusiasm for the song, the stars, and the last days in which their creativity had sparked and darted like a meteor shower.

Deneb continued to burn bright for them, at school, and quite possibly at home too. At the garden open day at Cawdor Castle a month later, the following tribute was written anonymously:

Dazzling star
Echoes the
Northern memories of
Earth’s ancient
Bronze glow

[i] 'The Magic Box' from Cat Among The Pigeons by Kit Wright, Viking Kestrel, 1987
[ii] From Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Canongate Books 2001
[iii] The Storr: Unfolding Landscape

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