Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | November 25, 2012

Under Northern Skies

I was recently invited along to a focus group entitled ‘Above Me The Wide Blue Sky’, where creative arts organisation, Fevered Sleep, were collecting stories about people’s relationships with the environment. They asked us:

If who we are and what we call home is inextricably linked with nature, what happens when everything starts to change?”

The discussions around the table ranged far and wide, as you would imagine in a roomful of people that included, amongst others, Highland Rangers, foresters, lighthouse keepers, farmers and nuclear development workers, each with a whole lifetime of experiences to share. Nevertheless, the skies above Caithness were returned to time and again as one of the elements that makes Caithness unique.

The relatively flat, low-lying and treeless terrain of the county, coupled with a sparse and widely dispersed population, and therefore very few built-up areas, create an environment that incorporates vast acres of sky into almost every vista. These seemingly endless skies have been the inspiration for many artists, poets and storytellers; the lack of light pollution makes them the ideal place for astronomers to gaze upon the stars – Castletown Heritage Centre was awarded official ‘Dark Sky Discovery Site’ status in October – or to enjoy the spectacle of aurora borealis dancing through the night skies; and tourists are drawn to the region to indulge in these panoramic skyscapes and the sense of space and freedom that they imply.

One participant at the focus group observed that, in Caithness, a cloudless blue sky is deemed dull and boring due to the monotonous enormity of it. The beauty of the skies emerge through the changes in light and cloud cover that take place in them. Author, James Hunter, would agree. In his book, On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands (1995, Edinburgh), he calls to mind:

“[these] huge Atlantic skies on which there is continually played out the meteorological drama that results from weather front after weather front advancing from the ocean”, attributing the origin of such phenomena to “the extraordinary translucence of an atmosphere which, especially when the wind blows from the west or the north, is almost wholly free of smoke, dust, fumes and other debris of that kind.”

Growing up in one of the biggest towns in Britain, my experience of the sky was limited by the buildings surrounding me, and thoughts of the sky were rarely – if ever – at the forefront of my mind. Here, in this wide open land, I am becoming aware of my ignorance of the skies above me. I am slowly learning to understand how cloud patterns can help me to anticipate the day’s weather, and I am getting better at predicting how long it will take before an approaching rain shower will drench me. Working alongside the foresters in the depths of Dunnet Forest, where the trees shield us from the blowing of the wind, most of the sky is obscured from our view so that changes in the weather take us by surprise. It is only at lunchtime, as we head down the main track towards Dunnet Bay, that we can see what the skies are telling us.

Whilst I arrived in Caithness looking for stories about life in the wind, I have come to appreciate these skies as being inextricably linked to experiences of the windy Caithness environment. Air, sea and sky are as much a part of this land as rocks, soil and people.

This precious relationship with the Caithness skies is a theme that has recurred in numerous conversations that I have had with people during the course of my fieldwork, and when I listen to people here talk about wind farms, the intrusion that the turbines make on the skyline is often one of their concerns. Of course, the visual impact of wind farms is regularly high on the list of objections in any part of the UK, but in a region where uninterrupted skies are such a distinguishing characteristic of life, I wonder whether the changes that the turbines bring about will ever come to be widely accepted. It is unfortunate that the very environmental conditions which make for these exceptional skies are the same factors which make for an optimal wind farm location. As the structures are erected, the material reality of the environment and, seemingly, people’s relationships with it are altered. To paraphrase Fevered Sleep’s question for us during the focus group:

How – if at all – do the changes in the landscape wrought by the development of wind farms change your relationship with the Caithness environment?

What other changes have you seen in the Caithness landscape over the years? And how have they changed your perception of the local area and your place within it?



  1. One of the saddest aspects of living in urban areas is the seemingly never ending light pollution which blocks our ability to appreciate the night sky and all its wonders. The photographs of the day sky are lovely but is there any chance of some of the night sky being shown.

  2. The night skies in Caithness are beautiful – unfortunately my camera is not up to taking pictures in the dark. However, this link takes you to a selection of lovely YouTube videos uploaded by a local timelapse photographer of the more spectacular elements of the night skies above Caithness – have a look.

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