Introduction: The Constellation Journey

map by Gill Russell

The word ‘planet’ derives from Greek planasthai, ‘to wander.’ The planets used to be considered ‘wandering stars.’ For the three wandering ‘stargirls’ as we became known, Gill Russell (astronomer/artist), Rachel Hazell (craft bookbinder) and myself (writer), our journey in the spring and summer of 2007 took us both around the northern skies and around the north of Scotland as we spun between ‘fixed’ stars, and fixed locations, visiting Highland schools and helping children to expand their understanding of the cosmos through creative work with words and paint and paper.

Stars are a dazzling starting point for learning. From different latitudes of our planet, people see different parts of the cosmos. The stars appear in different orientations. But nearly every culture has seen patterns in the sky, and attributed to them their own ‘hall of fame’ of stories. Stars reinforce our common humanity and link us to others. Indeed, astronomical knowledge defies cultural boundaries. In Western Europe, we have a system of Greek constellations with Latin names, containing stars with Arabic names.

As creatures that walk upright, the heavens are half our visual field. The stars have inspired countless poems, guided sailors, been used to foretell the future. They have provoked us to devise technology for seeing and understanding what is out there, and even to travel amongst them. But they are ancient and their stories reach far beyond our own.

On our way through the Highlands, we helped children from fourteen schools to select between them seven stars. Each star was chosen for brightness and visibility, for connection to place through name or history. In each location we helped the children select and celebrate ‘their’ star. Each star was also chosen for its visible relationship to those chosen before, because they were going to belong together. Their pattern has become a new constellation, ‘The Jumping Fish’, in celebration of Highland Year of Culture 2007. On the way to this, our star-gazing, and our stravaiging described pathways between beacons on two maps. This is the story of those two constellations. One celestial, one terrestrial.


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


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


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.


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


Over the sea to Skye, not on a boat but a bridge. The name ‘Skye’ is sometimes said to come from ‘sgiath’ or wing, and today I feel like I’m soaring, the hills around me peaking at odd angles. The road-bridge seems to tip and disorientate, gives me the sort of view I associate with aircraft.

Lack of sleep the previous night makes the scenery on the way to Portree shock. Crags soar, squalls dizzy, cliffs are impossibly sheer. Loch and land and sea exchange places. It is many years since I have been here. It is both familiar and strange. The place-signs nod me through, poetic and rhythmic – Skulamus, Strollamus. To the north, the Quirang beckons, the Storr, the Star.
In the classroom, fast-growing creepers of stories rise up and bind us to our seats. How the Great Bear and Little Bear arrived in the night sky with extravagantly long tails. I tell them Judy Paterson’s version of a Scandinavian story – How the Bear Lost its Tail[i] - with the fox as trickster.

We read about a nine-headed giant who once raided Skye and other Inner Isles in search of maidens to feed his nine hungry mouths. The giant was eventually defeated on his home, Stack Rock, and his body thrown in pieces into the sea. The body parts, nibbled by fish and worn to bones, drifted in the flotsam and jetsam and finally formed themselves into the cliffs and rocks of the Outer Isles, where even today, when we look at the map, we see the outline of the giant in their shapes.

Intoxicated by story, we draw lines between stars in a map of the night sky, and make up our own stories.

The Golden Eagle

One hot sunny day King Scott went for a walk and met a beautiful woman called Henrietta. She was lying on the river bank picking flowers for her brother. She always spent time with her brother. Henrietta even went hunting with him.
A few days later Scott’s wife Queen Rebekah heard about Henrietta so she went through the woods and saw her. She turned Henrietta into a big, lovely, golden eagle. Henrietta tried to hide because of the hunters who hunt in the woods. She hid in a hole in a tree. Henrietta was really scared because the hunters could kill her.
Later on Scott went for a walk in the woods again to see if he could see Henrietta. He looked at the river, but then he remembered his wife turned Henrietta into a golden eagle. Instead he went to see were she was hiding. He looked in trees but it was too late. Henrietta was caught. Her brother found her just when she arrived in another tree. Before her brother shot her with his bow and arrow, King Scott turned him into stone.
After that Scott took Henrietta by the tail and swung her round and round then he threw her up into the heavens and poor Henrietta became a beautiful eagle constellation in the starry sky.

By Emma Macleod P5, Portree Primary School

The Annoying Midges

One day midges were annoying the whole of Skye who were thinking of an idea to get rid of them. There was a man called Bob who was about sixty and hated all the midges although he had to go outside to do his job. Sometimes he took days off from his job because of it. He was a very angry person. Everyone wore hats, trousers tucked in their socks, gloves and long sleeved tops so they weren’t bitten as much. Some children got a rash because of the bites.
Bob saw his friend Fred to think of an idea to get rid of the midges. Fred was fifty five. He was thinking that he should sell free midge sprays to kill them but Bob didn’t agree because it would be too expensive to get them. Bob thought that everyone in The Isle of Skye should stay inside so the midges would get bored and go away.
That was exactly what happened and everyone in Skye stayed indoors for nearly a week. The midges never gave up until some people put on their fires so the smoke would make them go away so they weren’t bitten again.
The midges got very bored and extra hungry not annoying anyone and eating their blood. Some midges died of starvation not having anything to eat for almost one and a half weeks.
In the end the midges went away and the people never saw them again. The midges went straight to the moon and started to eat it. The moon got annoyed and it shined on them but the midges kept eating the moon. The moon had no choice but to use its powers and turn them into a constellation. On Earth Bob was playing football which was his hobby. Fred was on a plane to France to see his parents which he hasn’t seen for a long time because he was too scared to go outside because of the midges.
Now you can see the constellation of the midges. Everyone is pleased that the midges are gone and wear short sleeved tops and shorts.

Kenny Nicolson P5, Portree Primary School

We also devised together a story about the infamous Skye midge. The children gave me all the ideas and I wrote it. At the top of the jagged Cuillin mountains, the wind is called on for his help. Lazy and reluctant at first, will he agree?

How Skye was Saved from the Midgies

The swarm of midgies dive-bombed Sam for the third time that morning. They stuck in his beard and stung his eyes where they had crowded in behind his glasses. He threw the letters he was about to post through the door of Number 5 into the air, chucked the post bag onto the ground, and howled, ‘I’m going to do something about this’.
A highland cow raised its shaggy head and stopped chewing to look at him, a stalk of grass hanging from its mouth. But no-one was brave enough to come out of their houses.
Sam marched towards the Cuillins. He had never climbed them before. They were steep and craggy and his lungs burnt red-hot as he puffed his way to the top of Sgurr nan Gillean. It took him four hours to get there and he arrived exhausted and thirsty. But before long the mountain cold seized him and he started to shiver. He needed to get on with his task, but in truth, he was a little afraid.
He stood tall and closed his eyes. Sure enough, The Wind answered him with a great sigh that nearly knocked Sam off the top of the mountain.
‘Wind,’ Sam called. ‘I need your help.’
‘Puff,’ said The Wind.
‘I’ll never post another letter until the midgies are gone,’ he said, and held up his red-speckled arms. ‘Look at all these bites!’
‘Huff,’ said The Wind.
‘I want to play football at night without having to wear a hood and long trousers,’ Sam said.
The Wind just yawned.
‘Won’t you help me blow them away?’
The Wind opened one sleepy eye and looked at Sam. ‘Don’t you think I’ve enough to do already?’ Then The Wind yawned so hard that Sam felt he was being sucked right into its mouth, where there was a great rustling noise and a smell of fresh leaves.
‘Please?’ Sam called.
‘Bye,’ said The Wind. ‘I need a snooze.’
Sam watched as The Wind swept its way down towards Loch Sligachan. It draped itself over Glamaig, its favourite resting place, and soon its soft snores were helping to push a small boat across the nearly still water.
Sam sat on the summit with his head in his hands. At least it was too cool for midgies up there. He watched the tiny cars beetling along the winding roads way below, and wondered if he would ever go back to the village in the valley.
Suddenly a thought flew into his head, and he sprang up and started running back down the hill. As he got lower, he knocked on the door of every cottage he passed. Although it was evening and the midgies were preparing for their next attack, people put on their hoods and followed him.
‘If you ever want to get another letter or birthday present or Christmas card, you’ve got to help me,’ Sam told them.
Several thousand hooded people came to surround the dozing wind on Glamaig. First, they had to wake him up.
‘Wind! Wind! Blow away the midgies!’ they shouted as one.
Eventually, he snorted, and raised his tousled head. One big bloodshot eye opened and looked at the crowd. ‘Huff,’ he said.
‘Wind!’ they shouted again.
He sat up then and looked annoyed. ‘I have too many jobs to do already,’ he moaned. ‘I have to dry all your clothes, and push all your boats along so you can catch fish. Give me a break, I’m tired.’ And he lay down again.
The crowd started to turn for home, disappointed. Their arms were flailing around their heads and they were stamping their feet. The midgies had found them.
‘Hang on.’ Sam stopped them. He spoke quietly to one or two of the people around him. He spoke to a group of fishermen and to Mairi from the local laundry. After a while they nodded and he turned back to The Wind. ‘We’ll make a deal with you, Wind,’ he said. ‘We’ll dry our own clothes from now on, and we’ll all buy engines for our boats. So you’ll have nothing to do. But in return, we want the midgies gone for ever.’
The Wind stared at him, breathing quietly. He was quite good at thinking, but he had to do it slowly. Then he let out an enormous sigh. The crowd fell onto their stomachs so as not to be blown into Loch Sligachan. They peered up to see The Wind pulling himself upright. He put his head up to the sky and swallowed the most enormous gulp of fresh Skye air. The people sensed what was going to happen next, and they all clung as hard as they could to boulders or to clumps of heather, or to each other, where they lay on the ground.
The Wind bowed his big ugly head and blew along the ground in the most ferocious gust anyone had ever known. It swept north, south, east and west across the island, rattled the teeth of the oldest men and blew the wig clean off the head of Mrs Macpherson. The people glimpsed the wig joining the black cloud of midgies that The Wind gathered in its breath, as he blew it upwards way over the top of Sgurr nan Gillean, further and further into the heavens. They saw The Wind’s tail disappearing after the black cloud as he chased the midgies away. The snapping of the midgies’ teeth got quieter and quieter, until there was silence, and the people of Skye got up, and dusted themselves down.
That evening was warm. People celebrated with barbecues in their gardens. They played football, and took picnics into the hills beside burns. They were amazed that they needed no hoods, and nothing bit them. ‘Where can they have gone?’ people asked. ‘Perhaps to the mainland,’ some said. They didn’t wait long for an answer.
The night was clear. When they looked up, they saw a new constellation. A cluster of bright stars shone down on them and they recognised the shape of a huge heavenly midge. They all looked up and admired it. The Wind had made it into something rather beautiful, but very far away from them.
‘That’s the right place for the midgies,’ Sam said. ‘I don’t think they’ll bother us again.’
The next morning, he delivered letters with a smile on his face. And he wore a short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts.

The Old Man of Storr beckons to me in the evening. I climb out of Sitka Spruce plantation to find myself alone in mist and cloud amongst the flat grey ghosts of towers and pinnacles. They grow detail and texture as the wind agrees to help me, tweaks at the curtain of mist to reveal below the Sound of Raasay, the sparkle of a boat, a fragment of rainbow, the long dark shore of the island. The horizon is a 180 degree silver screen, on which is projected several days’ weather. Above me the Old Man is silent and monumental, his pointed head still in the clouds. The curtain drops again.

South, to Broadford, weaving around loch and promontory, roads I have cycled years before, now easy in a car. On the shore at Breakish, the first flags are flowering yellow amongst the rashes. Behind them, russet seaweed spreads on the rocks. Light pools onto the sea as low rolls of cloud peel back a clear evening. A heron, huge and self-preoccupied, grooms itself on the shoreline. Walking back to the B+B, I pass four boys under fourteen, each holding a gun of some sort. Feral, but polite.

Together, Portree and Broadford primary schools choose Kochab as their star. Kyle at Portree celebrated this choice in a poem he wrote within the outline of a star:

Kochab joins the
Highland Constellation
bright, fierce, sharp-
clawed paws

Visually Kochab relates pleasingly to Deneb, Vega and Polaris – a pattern beginning to emerge. At around 125 light years from Earth, there is a local resonance. In 1882 the ‘Battle of the Braes’ took place near Portree. Crofters of the time were denied access to land to graze their stock, despite agreeing to pay a generous rent. When they grazed their stock regardless, Lord MacDonald tried to evict the leaders. This led to a confrontation between crofters and police brought in from Glasgow. The latter were ultimately defeated in a blizzard of missiles. This ‘battle’ was one of the factors prompting the enquiry that led to the Crofting Act of 1885 which gave crofters security of tenure.

The children write acrostic poems based on Kochab’s observations of 1882.

Kochab you are
Our star you see
Crofters throwing sticks and stones and more
Helping us to fight bravely
At the
Battle of the Braes

Ryan Dougan, P4 Broadford Primary School

Kochab, you are
Our historical star.
Cold winds blow near our school
History about you is dazzling
Actually our school has chosen you
Because you are the best star in the sky

Broadford Primary School

Our star. You saw a
Cold and
Battle in 1882

Callan Smith P4, Broadford Primary School

The children also commemorate this historical event by creating a story about a crofter called James, who died after the battle. As a tribute to him, the evening mist formed into the outline of a croft and rose into the night sky to form a new constellation of stars, reminding us to protect the rights of crofters forever.

In the evening on Broadford pier, the first midge of the season bites. Come back, wind! Rachel demonstrates her impression of a shooting star - an off-centre leap with arms raised. The next afternoon in the playground, twenty-four shooting stars leap and dart upwards, against the backdrop of a shimmering Broadford Bay. Then we go indoors, paint the Universe, and sing ‘Major Tom’ together one last time.

I take the road south-west from Broadford on an evening of tumultuous cloud that stacks and explodes as it’s torn on the high jags of the Cuillin summits. At Elgol, boats roll in the harbour and the surface of the water is coruscated by light and wind. I look straight into the heart of the corrugated mountain fortress. Tomorrow I will walk along the edge of Loch Scavaig towards the secret interior of Loch Coruisk. In Gaelic, Coir’uisge means ‘the cauldron of the waters’. From a distance, Cawdor’s witches nod their heads.

[i] Tales on the Tongue, Scottish Storytelling Centre

Kyleakin and Kyle of Lochalsh

These two villages face each other from promontories on either side of the Kyle (or Gaelic ‘caol’) where Loch Alsh narrows to rush between Skye and the mainland. The Kyle Akin, is named after the thirteenth century King Haakon IV who was the last Norwegian King to rule the Western Isles and sailed down the Kyle to the Battle of Largs. After a ferry had run between the two places for nearly four centuries, the high bridge with a foot on Eilan Ban opened to controversy in 1995.

The villages are now linked by a shared head teacher who plies between the two primary schools over the Kyle, and also mythically by a chain which stopped ships to extract tolls. The children at Kyleakin were quick to seize upon the story of the chain and the Norwegian princess, ‘Saucy Mary’, who is said to have put it there. Supposedly she raised enough money from tolls to build the first Castle Dunakin. The children created out of the myth a constellation story with a moral in the tail, and a nod to more recent battles with tolls at the same location.

Saucy Mary and the Chain

One day a Norwegian Princess called Saucy Mary moved into Castle Moil. She had blonde hair and was really strong. She also had a white dress and a blue and silver crown. Saucy looked rich but she wasn’t. This castle was dark, smelly and was filled with bats and rats. She hated it there but she had a lovely husband who cared for her and visited her all the time.
Saucy Mary made her way over to the Haakon pub. She bought one pint and had a chat with her friends. She realised she had no money, how disappointing, so she went back to Castle Moil, which was near the loch, and thought hard. She saw lots of fishing boats passing and she decided what to do. ‘Mmm! Lots of money,’ she rubbed her hands together in delight.
She got a chain the next sunny morning and told her husband’s servants to put the chain across from Kyleakin to Kyle so she could ask all the boats for a toll and have a chat.
When the first boat came along a big smile spread across her face. Every time a boat went past and paid her, her grin got bigger and cheesier and the horns on her helmet got longer. After a while she got richer.
But what about the fishermen?
Three of them were raging. They were red with bitterness. They were so angry about Mary they lunged forward and grabbed the chain, nearly capsizing their boat. They heaved the chain out of the water with all their strength.
Mary stood by the end of the chain. She tried to pull it off them but she didn’t have a chance against them. Her horns drooped and her face saddened. The men hauled the chain onto the boat.
‘Now that’s what Mary gets!’ said the little chubby, fat one with a snarl.
‘Yeah that’s what Mary gets…………’
‘What does she get?’ said the man with long curly hair.
The chubby one hit him on the head. ‘Look over there, it’s a whirlpool.’
They started the engine and drove slowly over and threw the chain into the whirlpool, where they watched it spinning violently. The three fishermen grinned. It twisted round and round till the chain was not to be seen.
The chain fell down to the deepest trench where the evil sea -monster, Moil, lived. He was half octopus and half shark. He smelt like blood after all the people he had eaten.
Moil was sleeping soundly when suddenly he let out a huge sneeze. The chain was still covered in the perfume which Saucy Mary had put on the day she set the chain out. The perfume-covered chain had touched Moil’s nose. He had an allergy to perfume. The great monster sneezed the chain out of the water and out into the night sky where it became a constellation.
The constellation twinkled in the midnight sky. It was like one thousand cameras flashing in front of your face. It looked like the chain was never going to end. All of the stars were different. Some were big and some were small and some of them were not as bright as others.
Once the tolls were gone everyone was relieved. The people of Kyleakin were so pleased. The fishermen were feeling very proud for what they had done. Everyone was happy about what had happened. When people looked up at the constellation it reminded them that there should never be tolls again.

Things changed in 1995 when the bridge was built. The tolls were back. People remembered the story of the fishermen and were angry…

P5-7 Kyleakin Primary School

The Skye bridge tolls were abolished at the end of 2004 and so I soared freely back to the mainland. In Gaelic ‘Eilean A Cheo’ means Island of mist and it was certainly apt for Skye that day as low cloud and driving rain drew a blind across everything above head-height.

After two days of this weather, one of those west-coast miracles happened. Clouds evaporated and the temperature rose by ten degrees. In the days that followed, mountains were re-erected, and the landscape transformed. Turning a corner or mounting a rise as I travelled between schools, a jagged horizon, pale blue in silhouette would suddenly confront me. In the classroom at Kyle, I drew breath in the middle of an instruction as a glance through the window revealed the wooded bay below, formed by the ‘Plock of Kyle’, the hills of Skye beyond, and the bridge that arced between. Stretches of water glittered in layers between hills and islands.

In those days, such views revealed themselves so casually, they were almost heart-stopping – the hills of Torridon to the north, or the distinctive twin-peaked table-top of Beinn Sgritheall to the south. And when I looked down at my feet, amongst the grasses of birchwoods on the shores, stitchwort blossomed, the star-of-Bethlehem.

‘Stars are not seen by sunshine’. So goes a Spanish proverb, and Midsummer is no time to look for stars in the sky. So at Kyle we looked for them on Earth. I told them Bea Ferguson’s version of an extended riddle[i] which involves a search for ‘a little red house with no windows and no doors and a star inside’. The children were mystified. When I sliced an apple in half across its girth, we found the answer – a perfect five-pointed star in pips and their cases. ‘That’s so cool,’ they chorused. A star on Earth. We wrote poems about finding other stars – in plankton, snowflakes, flowers.

My star in a bubble

The apple fell to the ground with a thud.
I sliced it open and the juice poured out.
The star was unleashed.
I slipped it onto a chain and wore it for the day.
It was beautiful but fading.
I locked it in a bubble and
blew on it, making it go further up.
Once it reached the atmosphere the bubble popped
but now the star twinkled more than ever.
From then on my star never moved even though others did.
My star still stood, shining, pointing North.
I named my star Polaris.

Shannon Ailin Campbell (11), Kyle of Lochalsh Primary School

The elm-tree star

Sitting under an old elm tree
I discovered a star-shaped leaf.
I took it home and went upstairs
to set it free.
I blew it up high in the sky
where it joined the tummy of a
long twisting dragon.

Christy Macrae (9), Kyle of Lochalsh Primary School

Guess what I found!

Guess what I found!
A star.
The star of all flowers
a daffodil.
I kept it in a box
then I blew it into the night
and whispered bye bye.
The roar of a dragon answered.

Eleanor Cumine (9), Kyle of Lochalsh Primary School

From the wriggling spine of Draco the dragon, the children of Kyleakin and Kyle had plucked Aldhibain to be ‘their’ star. At 88 light years from Earth, Aldhibain now witnesses one of the most tragic days in the history of the Western Isles, when men returning from the war and going home for Hogmanay, boarded the Iolaire (the Eagle) at Kyle of Lochalsh. In the early hours of 1st January 1919, the ship hit the ‘Beasts of Holm’ outside Stornoway Harbour and around two hundred of the ‘bravest and the best’ perished on the threshold of their homecoming. In both schools this history was embraced with passion, and at Kyle they re-told the story and gave the ship its own constellation so that the events of that night could never be forgotten.

Their story goes as follows:

Lewis, a 20-year-old lad returning from the war joins the celebrations in the pub in Kyle as the men wait for the ship to take them home. For some reason unknown to him, he feels nervous about the journey. He is a sensitive lad, fond of bird-watching, so when he sees the name of the ship, he feels reassured and boards it. During the storm he stays up on deck and using his binoculars, he sees how close they are getting to the Beasts of Holm. ‘Rocks!’ he shouts, but no-one hears him. He takes off his boots and jumps into the freezing sea just before the ship strikes them. He watches from the water the terrible chaos that follows, and finally the ship disappearing under the waves. But as he watches, he sees that a huge eagle rises from the wreck and soars into the night sky where it sets as stars. Today, every time people look up and see the eagle constellation, they remember the men lost that night.

Collaboratively we also wrote this poem about the sounds and sights of the cosmos.

The Sky at Night

The milky way floats
stars hiss
a comet whistles
this is our chirping galaxy
in the sky at night

A comet swings
stars jump
the moon glides around the earth,
in the sky at night

The sun howls around the planets
a satellite flies
space junk swims
a red giant lumbers
and Orion runs
in the sky at night

Saturn rumbles
a white dwarf screeches
Aldhibain howls
through the clouds
in the sky at night

Constellations flow
asteroids pound
a black hole stalks
across the Universe
in the sky that barks at night.

P5/6 Kyle of Lochalsh Primary School

We made origami stars with Rachel and the children wrote their own wishes onto them. I hope Philip’s comes true for him one day.

A green motorbike
going fast. A muddy track

Philip Hogshin (9),Kyle of Lochalsh Primary School

At a previous school, there had once been tears of frustration when the pieces of a paper star fell apart. This time, the tears were of sadness when a girl was asked to leave her star at school over the weekend. In the end she took the star, and her words, proudly home, and I was glad it had meant so much to her. But a lump had formed in my own throat, like the star in the throat of the boy in Alasdair Gray’s story. It was a reminder to me that wishing on a star is not just a game.

[i] Tales on the Tongue, Scottish Storytelling Centre