Annular Solar Eclipse - Strathy Point

By Russell Cockman


Helmsdale group

The first solar eclipse of 2003 occurred on the 31st May. Due to the dynamics of the moon's orbit this eclipse occurred when the lunar disk was not large enough to cover the sun and the eclipse was therefore "annular"; weather permitting, at maximum eclipse the sun/moon would appear as a "ring of fire" in the sky with almost 97% of the sun covered. The "path of annularity" crossed the northern Atlantic, Iceland, the North of Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetland. The eclipse was eagerly awaited as the North of Scotland was specially favoured geographically and remarkably, this was the last of three significant astronomical events visible from Scotland during the month, the other two being, the transit of Mercury on the 7th (observed) and the total lunar eclipse on the 16th (clouded out).

A 12-strong contingent of keen and dedicated observers from the Association of Falkirk Astronomers (AFA) and Stirling Astronomical Society (SAS) ventured to the North of Scotland to view the first solar eclipse of 2003, on the 31st May. Circumstances of the eclipse were such that the moon's disk would not be big enough to cover the sun and the eclipse would be "annular" in character, although an impressive almost 97% of the sun would be covered.

All of the UK was favoured to view the eclipse, but for most the eclipse would only be partial; for a precious minute or two for observers in the far north of Scotland the moon would be completely surrounded by the blazing disk of the sun creating a 'ring of fire' low in the north-eastern sky. At sunrise the eclipse would already be well underway with annularity occurring approximately 20 minutes later. This was always going to be a difficult eclipse to observe because of the unpredictability of the weather, the need for an unobstructed sea horizon to the NE and the low elevation of annularity above the horizon. We almost did it!

We set up base in Helmsdale, a picturesque fishing village on the north east coast, famous for the quality of its salmon fishing on the Helmsdale River, the fossils found along the coast and the goldrush of 1868/9 that transformed the appearance of a few of the inland burns almost overnight. In fact, to this day the Kildonan Burn remains the premiere UK gold panning location (I was quite lucky to find 0.62g of gold in a day's panning- exhausting!). To this list should be added the "La Mirage" Restaurant where anyone who wants to be noticed should dine, its walls decorated with numerous signed pictures of visiting stars great and small photographed with Nancy, the Barbara Cartland look-alike resident icon. By the way… the fish teas are highly recommended!

We were accommodated in a couple of inexpensive B&B's; low price, but the breakfasts were huge, consisting of cereal, fruit juice, as much toast as you could eat, lashings of tea and coffee and the piece de resistance cooked breakfast- egg, two sausages, three bacon rashers, black pudding slice, white pudding, mushroom, waffle and tomato. Enough to last all day!!

We occupied our daylight hours visiting some of the local attractions, the Timespan Historical Centre, the RSPB site at Forsinard or just sightseeing around and about. Some of us even tried our hands at finding our golden fortune panning the gravels of the Kildonan Burn.

Strathy Eclipse

Weather prospects at our original location at Sarclet Head, south of Wick, Scotland, were very poor with forecast of hill and sea fogs, so we set off earlier than planned from our base to journey to Strathy Point on the north Scottish coast where the forecast seemed better. We arrived many hours before sunrise to find an almost deserted, though clouded out, viewing location, one which became much busier as the hour approached! Fortunately through the night clear skies pushed in from the south until at sunrise only a thin band of sea mist/cloud filled the northern horizon… just enough to hide the eclipse for the crucial 30 minute period after sunrise.

By sunrise scores of observers were occupying strategic locations in the area, some on higher ground, others departed for ground closer to the coast. Sun-moon rise came and went out of sight; the light was strangely subdued and gloomy, as were our spirits, as precious minutes and the opportunity to observe annularity, ticked by. In the direction of the eclipse two bands of high cirrus clouds were visible, the upper one white, the lower one red, both having a brighter knot directly above where we presumed the sun/moon to be, but lacking the radiance normally expected of sunlit clouds.

Then something strange happened. As we waited for the eclipse to show through the mist a roughly circular reddish patch about 2' in diameter became apparent just above where we suspected the sun/moon to be. What was unusual was that the patch appeared to be in clear sky, though it probably was just thinner mist illuminated by the obscured sun. As I watched the patch an almost indiscernible point of red light appeared below which, as I thought about what it might be, slowly developed a recognisable shape- the uppermost cusp of the crescent sun. As the minutes passed more of the crescent rose through the mist and it was so beautiful. The sun was a lovely red colour totally lacking in brilliance (and safe to view with the naked eye) due to the low altitude and scattering effects of the sea mist acting as a solar filter. Before long the entire crescent became visible and we marvelled at how far the moon appeared to have moved off the sun's disk, although it took another 45mins for the moon to finally depart. Before long the sun lost the red hue and took on a more normal colour and brilliance and it definitely was time to don the solar filters for both eyes and cameras. We waited until 4th contact had passed, right on schedule at 04:44UT.

We celebrated our Scottish eclipse with a small toast to the memories that this special event had left with us. We departed tired, but content, for the hour's drive back to Helmsdale… and sleep.