Rachel Sermanni plays Whatever Gets You Through The Night, Fri 15 Feb
Short days and long winter nights may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the new Lewis festival aims to celebrate the beauty and magic of darkness
'The skies here are incredible on a clear night, and especially in winter,' says Andrew Eaton-Lewis, events and marketing co-ordinator for An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway. 'You can see all kinds of astronomical sights through the naked eye including the Orion Nebula, the Milky Way Galaxy and the Great Andromeda Galaxy. The Northern Lights can also be spotted. Did you know that because of light pollution 80 percent of Europe and America never experiences proper darkness? Here we do, and that's something this festival wants to celebrate.'
He's enthusing about the sights on his home island ahead of this month's first ever Hebridean Dark Skies Festival, which Eaton-Lewis has programmed as a multi-arts event based at An Lanntair, but also as a celebration of the particular kind of isolation found on Lewis; not that the island is culturally isolated, thanks to the internet and an arts programme the equal of any other town-based centre.
'Dark Skies is aimed at everyone. We've made a particular effort to try and appeal to all age groups and interests,' says Eaton-Lewis. 'We've got a strong pre-school and schools programme, an award-winning children's theatre show in Andy Cannon's Space Ape, an indoor planetarium with screenings for all ages, science talks aimed at teenagers, events for an older audience, and we're taking the festival out to Calanais Visitor Centre and Gallan Head. There's been a lot of interest – some events are almost sold out already.'
Two highlights he's personally looking forward to are the opening gala film Wunder Der Schopfung ('Wonder of Creation', Germany, 1925), with a live score by jazz duo Herschel 36, and Whatever Gets You Through the Night, a night of music and film which follows on from Eaton-Lewis' previously curated events in Glasgow and Edinburgh, featuring artists including Emma Pollock, Rachel Sermanni, the Lewis-based Gaelic singer Ceitlin LR Smith and local band the Sea Atlas. 'I first saw Wunder Der Schopfung at the (Bo'ness) Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in 2016 and thought it was extraordinary,' says Eaton-Lewis. 'A strange journey through the history of the universe, with cutting-edge special effects for the time and a very modern score for the 21st century.'
'One of the first ideas I had for the festival was to ask Emma Pollock if we could use her song "Dark Skies", which she wrote for Whatever Gets You Through the Night, for the trailer,' he continues. 'It felt important that this festival is not just about astronomy, but about dark skies in a broader sense. From an emotional perspective, the night-time can be a time of struggle or celebration, excitement or fear, hope or despair.'
Natalie Marr is an artist and researcher at the University of Glasgow, who will be collaborating with Pollock on an event. 'We'll be discussing our different approaches to the night sky through the sharing of stories and creative materials,' says Marr. 'Then later my plan is to head outside at Gallan Head and get up close and personal with the dark skies of Lewis. My research is about International Dark Sky Places and the cultural value of dark landscapes. Besides incredible views of the universe, they invite us to re-imagine our relationship to place and to planet.'
Eaton-Lewis says there has been interest in the festival from as far away as London, and if visitors travel, they're very welcome. 'We have a world-class arts centre with a high-quality programme and a broad audience,' he says, noting that the festival is already set to return in 2020. 'There's a perception that winters on Lewis are long and difficult because of the darkness and the often harsh weather, and while there's some truth to this, it's also incredibly beautiful. There's something magical about the darkness, especially once you leave Stornoway. You're completely enveloped in it, and the skies are like nothing you will ever see in a city.'
Hebridean Dark Skies Festival, An Lanntair and various venues around Lewis, Fri 8–Thu 21 Feb, lanntair.com/darkskies
An ambitious programme features stargazing events, workshops and talks led by leading scientists, as well as film, music and theatre, all located on the Isle of Lewis, which has some of the darkest
skies in the UK and is one of the best places in the country to see the Aurora Borealis. The 2019 festival features Chris…