And so to the west coast - a leap across the narrow span of the country and our first High School visit. From the hill to the north, the school dominates the view of the town. Bigger than Tesco’s, grey-roofed and square, the uniformity outside belies the brightness inside, the smiles in the corridor and bowls of fruit in the staff room.

For me, Ullapool is always a bit of a homecoming, a fond reminder of passing through here for the first time by bicycle in summer 1986, and being beguiled to stay a month by a job in the Ceilidh Place, somewhere where I always now run into friends and acquaintances.

The cluster of fishing boats with their entourages of shrieking gulls and the rhythms of the CalMac ferry to and fro the Western Isles, gives Ullapool a sense of activity and excitement. Ben Mor Coigach with its fluted escarpment stretches a long landmark ridge above the town. The Summer Isles have a lure to the north-west. Looking to the other side of long, fjordic Loch Broom, a familiar winding track is scratched into the hill. I’ve walked and staggered bicycles up it to get over the pass towards Dundonnell, Scoraig. The headland of the Cailleach (old woman, or hag-goddess) between Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom, reclines its face in profile at the outer reaches of the peninsula. In the harbour, the resident seal periscopes up to gaze soft eyes at tourists. And this summer the harbour railings flutter yellow with the ribbons that have been tied for Madeleine McCann; a family connection in the town.

Glance at the ‘lost and found’ adverts in Ullapool’s community newspaper, and you get a sense of this place.
‘Have you lost a surf board?’ asks one ad.. ‘If so, ring Barbara.’
Missing items are garden steps, a branch lopper and a rechargeable electric drill. These have all been loaned out and the identity of the borrowers forgotten. The owners would like them back now for their own lopping and drilling, please.

Picture: www.cpre.org.uk

Look at a satellite image of Europe at night and Earth mostly glitters and glares back at you with artificial light. If you look up at the night sky from many such places, it can appear that the stars have dimmed or even ‘gone out.’ The north-west of Scotland is one of the few remaining places to have dark skies, where star-gazing can happen naturally whenever there is a clear night.

When we visited, with midsummer approaching, nights were retreating. But winter in places like this can be a reminder that we earthlings are small huddling creatures on Earth’s surface, and that beyond the lights along the harbour wall, there is something very much bigger than us. We see the same star patterns that inspired our ancestors to question and discover thousands of years ago. But we also see beyond humankind. Observing the movements of celestial objects - the stars and planets - has inspired fundamental questions about our own origins and place in the Universe. Is there a God? Are we the centre of the Universe?

It makes me wonder if, in a ‘dark sky’ environment, imaginations might live a little differently to places where artificial light is King, perhaps akin to George Scott-Moncrieff’s assessment of island folk: ‘remoteness and the inevitability of being often alone and quiet, do give them a chance, too rare in the predominantly urban population, to live with their eyes beyond the world.’[i] Some of our humility is perhaps lost with our lost sight of the stars. This loss also threatens a dulling of the senses, a detachment from our own environment.

For some African communities, the night sky is a formidable ‘box of tricks’ to be treated with respect. A Ugandan friend told me that when his grandmother passed on her stories to them as children in the roofless compound, she would instruct them not to look up at the moon and stars, for fear of the patterns and spirits entering their dreams and causing them to wet the bed. A pointing finger might be enough to provoke a spirit, she said.

A traditional story in Senegal has it that a dictatorial Sun ruled over the Earth, keeping all in perpetual heat and light. Such was the scorching on Earth that the Moon disobeyed her husband, and came between him and Earth to create an eclipse. Her tears at his anger fell to Earth and made life much more bearable there. Finally, God was forced to separate the embattled couple, giving day to one and night to the other and their children, the stars. And that is why we have night and day.

In one of the schools we visited, I found by chance in a book about the sea, a colour plate of the micro-organisms that make up plankton. I’d found stars! They glittered from the page, gathering to make a jewellery box of colour, light, and stellar shapes - spines sparring out from circular centres. The word ‘plankton’ comes from the same root as ‘planets’, for they too are wanderers, of the ocean rather than space, and an ‘astronaut’ is of course a ‘sailor to the stars.’ I thought about the deep oceans and about space and how in both we have vastnesses that are hard for us to know, in which are suspended bodies that hold light or life or danger or mystery, and in which lurk things no human has ever seen. Look at a Hubble image of the edge of the observable universe, which capture a time billions of years ago when galaxies were just being created, and it could equally be micro-organisms swimming in the black depths of the oceans.

Envisaging space requires a stretching of mind and imagination that is almost overwhelming. The scale, the sense of time, the need to speculate are as likely to make us close a door as to enliven our minds with wonder and curiosity. Thankfully, young people are not easily defeated.
We gave the pupils at Ullapool a challenge – to imagine the journey of an earthling or ‘starling’ (or ‘alien’ as they would have it) from the far distance of space towards Earth. They had to conjure up the sights and sounds and tastes and smells which they would experience en route.

Trying this out for myself, I found my imagination repeatedly fastening itself on marine imagery. My ‘starling’ once in ‘flight’ developed a strong fish-like tail which propelled her towards Earth. ‘I tasted salt, and thought I heard snatches of strange singing, screaming, chains tinkling, as I glimpsed bright clusters of stars, hanging in big curtains around me, near and far. The air rushed in my ears. I was going too fast to enjoy this properly. I stopped the ferocious beating of my tail, and started gliding, still heading for Earth, buoyed by a strange current.’ And on approaching a dark nebula my character found: ‘It wasn’t a hole I had seen, but a mass of writhing black eels. Their skins squealed and slithered against each other, and their eyes gleamed greyly.’

The pupils took up this challenge bravely and many of them created rich and sensual experiences as story. Who are we to question the authenticity of what they describe?

Journey To Earth

I was looking out far into the distance and looking at the planet that I had longed to visit all my life. I was getting ready for take off. I had seen others do this many times before. I coiled my spring, closed my eyes and jumped.
The icy air rushed onto my face. It felt like millions of tiny icicles were stinging my face. When I opened my eyes I looked below. I saw a dark space. There were millions of stars and few planets some with rings around them and some with swirling clouds above their surfaces.
I stopped and realised that I would have to push with my springs so I did and off I went. It felt fantastic to be flying but it was very cold compared to my home star but I was exited to be going to Planet Earth.
I looked into the distance and saw a small star and as I neared it I saw that it was moving. It moved about an inch and then it stopped. I bounced round to the side of the star to see hundreds of tiny red things pushing the planet. These were Things. They were tiny with long red tails and they were making an ear-piercing noise that sounded like a mouse stuck in a mouse-trap. I had heard that they moved their planet so that they could get a different view of all the stars but I had never seen it.
As I was getting nearer to Planet Earth I could see fluffy white clouds swirling around above the Earth’s blue and green surface. The Earth looked beautiful from where I was. I couldn’t wait till I landed.
As I stopped to watch the beautiful planet I noticed from the corner of my eye a shooting star was nearing where I floated. I turned round to move but it was too late. I was being swept away by the star. The star was powerful. I felt myself being pulled over and over and rocks hit me and dust went into my eyes so I couldn’t see.
Suddenly I felt myself falling. I felt out of control as I tumbled down into a place that seemed to have a lot of gravity. On my star we could float around no problem because there was no gravity. As I hit the ground I saw a lot of strange purple grass and it was a mountainous place and it had a long blue stretch of water that sparkled when the sun shone on it. As I looked around I saw that the land was very different from the land on Polaris. It was cold and strange white shapes moved beside me and when I looked up I saw and heard a loud roaring noise. I didn’t know what it was but it looked like a giant bird gliding across the sky.
I had thought that the land would be similar to that on Polaris but it was not. I looked back and I saw my home star twinkling in the evening sky. It looked so far away. Earth had felt so much closer than 432 light years away when I had looked down on it from Polaris. I felt very homesick and decided to go home.
So I coiled my springs once more and leapt into the air leaving behind me the strange purple grass and white shapes. I couldn’t wait to get back home.

By Sarah McInnes, 2/2 Ullapool High School

Ullapool chose Polaris to add to the Highland Constellation. It is our current ‘Pole Star’ – the North Pole appears to point at it - and has been a crucial navigational aid for sailors and travellers of all kinds through the ages. It seemed an appropriate choice for a place which has depended so on the sea. Positioned in the tail of the small bear, Ursa Minor, Polaris appears to be fixed and unmoving, prompting John Keats to say of it in the first line of a sonnet, ‘Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou’. It is the centre around which all northern stars spin as the sky rotates during the night, and around which the small bear swings by his tail.

The pupils gave reasons for their choice in the postcards that they sent to Brora Primary.
‘Our star is the North Star,’ wrote Lewis. ‘I didn’t want to choose the bear’s bottom, but I don’t mind.’
‘We chose this star because it is the easiest to spot in the sky,’ said Nicole Gilchrist.
‘If you were travelling from England to Scotland, you could follow it north,’ wrote Emily.
These qualities also came though in the pupils’ poems to Polaris.

Polaris, you are a map of the north
Polaris, your beam is as sharp as a hunter’s spear
You’re glued to the centre of the Universe
and the beginning of another
Your bearing guides us through the night
Polaris, you’re our chosen star.

Olivia Osborne, Daniel Nelson, Seumas Charity, Sarah Mackenzie, 2/2 Ullapool High School

Polaris, you are an immobile compass
you are a sleepy statue
you are the tip of a tail
you are stuck pointing North
you are a static star fixed in the night sky
you are our direction
you are our anchored point that
guides us when we are lost

Mhairi Mackenzie, Elisabeth Lucas, Louis Chautems, 2/2 Ullapool High School

Our idea that stars are fixed things has given us words like ‘stare’, to look fixedly, and ‘stern’, to be rigid. But even Polaris will progress, first becoming a more accurate Pole Star around 2100, and then giving way to one of its neighbours, like Vega which has previously been a Pole Star and will become so again around AD 14,000. Over tens of thousands of years, the drift of stars and shifts in Earth’s axis of rotation cause this.

People would once have marked time by the predictable procession of the stars – their calendar and clock. Both the stars and geology force us to view time in a different way. We see Polaris as fixed. We see Assynt’s monumental skyline as fixed. And yet if we look beyond our human lifespan, we learn of water-lines heaved up and resettled, as rock tips and tumbles, is eroded, heats and cools.

An interpretation board on the harbour front tells us, ‘the view across the bay may look peaceful – but it tells a story of dramatic changes.’ It goes on to say that above a diagonal line from the loch, the rocks were thrust here from 70 km east by a series of violent earth movements some 430 million years ago. Poet Norman MacCaig captured this sense of the violence of the geological (and human) history of the land to the north of Ullapool in his poem, A Man of Assynt:

‘…Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out/these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,/and left, on the hard rock below — the/ruffled foreland —this frieze of mountains, filed/on the blue air — Stac Polly,/Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven,/Canisp — a frieze and/a litany…’

‘..Who possesses this landscape? —/The man who bought it or /I who am possessed by it?/False questions, for/this landscape is/masterless/and intractable in any terms/that are human./It is docile only to the weather/and its indefatigable lieutenants —/wind, water and frost./The wind whets the high ridges/and stunts silver birches and alders./Rain falling down meets/springs gushing up —/they gather and carry down to the Minch/tons of sour soil, making bald/the bony scalp of Cul Mor. And frost/thrusts his hand in cracks and, clenching his fist,/bursts open the sandstone plates,/the armour of Suilven:/he bleeds stones down chutes and screes,/smelling of gunpowder…’[ii]

On our first constellation visit to Ullapool in May, and every time I come, I walk north along the shore of Loch Broom towards Rhue. Over twenty years I have watched an abandoned boat giving in to the elements. This time, the rib cage had opened onto the shore, the final timbers relaxing with rot in an admission of its temporality. With an international geology conference going on in the town and my head full of stars, my life, the life of a boat, even the term of human existence, seemed like the single blink of a cat’s eye.

When thinking about the connections between words - stars and rigidity - I was intrigued to discover that in Scots, ‘starn’ is both the pupil of the eye and a star. This led me to some word-play. After all, the expression, ‘to have star(n)s in one’s eyes,’ can quite literally be true.

Scots language:

starn: star, pupil of eye, stern

shot starn: a meteor

a constellation of starns

When Gill took pupils into the astro-dome, she always pointed out constellations, and told the stories behind them. At Ullapool, with pupils at the end of their first year at high school, there was a concern that this might seem childish. She went ahead anyway, and told the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda. The pupils lay in the dark to listen and she waited for the sniggering. After she finished there was a silence until out of the darkness a small voice said, 'Can you tell us another story?' We never get too old to enjoy the telling of a good story.

Constellation myths depend on something happening on Earth that results, through supernatural interference, in representation in the celestial skies. It may be a punishment, as it was for Cassiopeia, or for safety as it was for the Seven Sisters, or so a figure can be commemorated and their significance never forgotten by Earth-dwellers. In Greek and Roman legend the Great Bear and Little Bear, Ursa Major and Minor, were placed in the sky by Jupiter for their own safety and to allow mother and son to finally live close by one another after years of separation.

Beautiful huntress Callisto, having given birth to Jupiter’s son Arcas, is tracked down by the furious wife Juno, who turns her into a bear, forcing her to lurk in the forest of Arcadia in fear of being hunted herself. Years later, when Arcas has grown into a brave hunter himself, they come face to face in the forest. Seeing a bear rearing towards him, rather than his long-lost mother, he draws his bow. Luckily Jupiter is nearby to intervene, quickly turning Arcas into a bear as well, picking both up by their tails, and swinging them to safety in the heavens. In doing this, some say, he stretched their tails to abnormal lengths.

The pupils at Ullapool High School came up with ideas for a contemporary retelling of the story. We wrote and recorded them as short radio plays. The adaptation depended on the characters transforming into an appropriate animal or avatar. For the story to work in the same way as the original, this transformation had to create an inherent danger of son killing mother when they re-met.

Two stories were written by different classes. In one, the Juno character turned Callisto into a cigarette. Not very lyrical perhaps, but clever, in that wicked stepmother Juno kept the cigarette carefully until Arcas was sixteen and then produced it for him to experience his first smoke. At this point, Jupiter had to intervene. The play ends with two drunk revellers looking at the night sky.

Scene 6: On the beach
Rob: Give me another beer, Timmy. Whooooh, what are they in the sky, dude?
Timmy: GLUGGING SOUND I don’t know Rob, they weren’t there when we were starting the fire five minutes ago.
Rob: GROANING Where’s that beer gone to, mate? You know, those stars look like they’re moving closer together!
Timmy: I could do with a smoke! Those objects look like cigarettes, almost.
Rob: Don’t be stupid.
The End

In the other version, Callisto works in a hospital canteen where she is seduced by a top surgeon. When his wife, the hospital receptionist, learns that a child has been born, she turns Callisto into a mouse, leaving her to roam the canteen, scavenging for crumbs at night and avoiding poison and mouse-traps. Years later when the son comes to the hospital canteen on work experience, she presents herself to him on a plate of cheese and faces death when he raises a knife to defend his shrieking customers. Once again the Jupiter character is there to intervene, and the play ends like this.

Scene 6: A garden
Sound effects: OWLS HOOTING
A: Hey look up there.
B: What is it?
A: There are two new constellations.
B: Oh yeah, I’ve never seen them before.
A: They look like mice.
B: They’re very close together.
A: There’s a big one and a little one.
B: Like mother and son!

The End

[i] Scottish Islands, George Scott-Moncrieff, Oliver and Boyd, 1963
[ii] A Man in Assynt, The Poems of Norman MacCaig, Polygon 2005

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