An evening with Bute's stargazers at Ettrick Bay

PAGE one of the BBC's Stargazing Live Star Guide features a list of helpful hints for 'Getting Started' as an amateur astronomy enthusiast.

The problem is that the very first line of the very first suggestion says: "Choose a clear night." And if you live in the west of Scotland and are planning to start your star-gazing in early January, you'll know that is an awful lot easier said than done.

And yet, on a wet and windy January evening and underneath a stubborn blanket of grey cloud which you'd normally expect would make for a right old damp squib, there is not a seat to be had in the tearoom at Ettrick Bay as budding astronomers from Bute gather for the island's contribution to the national Stargazing Live project being run by the BBC.

Many of those present, handed copies of the Star Guide as they entered the room, are already among the 70-plus membership of the Bute Astronomical Society - which is still less than a year old, and yet has already confirmed beyond doubt that there's a lot of interest on the island in what goes on in the night sky.

And though the night sky is hidden from view tonight - thus making that BBC Star Guide, with its neat diagrams of what can be seen above our heads, depending on which way you're facing and at what time of the year, unfortunately redundant - there's still plenty to learn about the stars and planets which, when you get one of those clear nights, can be seen from ground level with some pretty basic equipment.

A large part of that education tonight is down to astro-photographer Douglas Cooper, a Brandane and a former pupil of Rothesay Academy who is a member of no fewer than three groups of stargazers - the Stirling Astronomical Society, the Association of Falkirk Astronomers and now the Bute Astronomical Club. "And guess which one I'm most proud about!" he says by way of an introduction.

Douglas begins by mentioning some of the subjects covered in the BBC's three-part Stargazing Live series, which aired the previous week and aimed, among much else, to trigger an interest in astronomy among whole new sections of the population.

One subject covered in the TV programme, hosted by Professor Brian Cox and comedian Dara O'Briain, was a partial eclipse of the Sun, which occurred during the series' brief run. Douglas, however, says that is not the only notable event to have happened in the night sky recently, and produces a photograph of a partial eclipse of the Moon on December 21 to prove it.

And there's more. Back on October 20 the passage of a comet, Hartley, a few hundred thousand kilometres above the Earth - a real near miss in astronomical terms - was clearly visible from large parts of Scotland, and a fascinating sequence taken every few minutes over a period of just half an hour, really brings the comet's brief fly-past to life.

"You might think there's nothing much that happens up there," Douglas says, "but occasionally you get something that's really quite exciting in astronomical terms."

And while it's true that Hartley was just one bright dot in a star-strewn sky on the clear night it passed by us, and the rest of the starscape in Douglas's Hartley sequence remains unchanged, there's still something undeniably magical about looking up at the stars and seeing something on the move.

Even when there isn't something moving across the night sky, though, there's still plenty to look at. The constellations clearly visible above our heads are just as fascinating to us today as they were to the Babylonians and ancient Greeks who first gave shapes to the clusters of stars which lit up the sky at night, and Douglas's collection includes lots of spectacular images which bring even the most familiar shapes to life.

A vivid image of the Plough high above the Kielder Forest in Northumberland, taken during a 'star camp' which attracts astronomers and astro-photographers from all over the north of Britain every autumn, is particularly arresting - but a useful hand-out, produced as part of the Stargazing Live project, gives plenty of useful pointers to those who would like to take pictures of the night sky without having to spend vast amounts of money on top-of-the-range equipment.

Another image in Douglas's collection, again taken during that Kielder star camp, shows part of the Milky Way, the galaxy of at least two hundred billion stars of which our solar system is a tiny part. "Looking at that," he says, "it's maybe a wee bit nave to think that we're on the only planet with a sun going round it which perhaps has life on its surface.

"Don't kid yourself that we're anything special. Surely out of that lot there's got to be something else out there with life on it.

Although," he adds quickly, "I don't particularly believe in UFOs!"

As well as more still images, including some stunning shots of the Aurora borealis, or northern lights, above Glen Lyon in Perthshire, and one featuring five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter, viewed from Earth), Douglas's collection also includes a fragment of a meteorite - a composite of iron and nickel which attracts lots of interest as it is passed around the room, giving local hands the chance to touch something of unimaginable age, which must have travelled for millions of miles before somehow, by a freak of chance, stumbling into the Earth and its atmosphere.

It's all enough to make you stop for a minute and get all thoughtful and introspective about how small and insignificant we all are, in comparison with how much of everything and everywhere else is out there.

But all that deep philosophical stuff will have to wait for another day, because next on to the rostrum is Alasdair Taylor from the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Glasgow with another selection of spectacular images of the cosmos, most of them courtesy of NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website.

Alasdair's choice begins with a bizarre-looking shot which at first looks like bacteria viewed through a microscope, but which turns out to be black sand dunes on the surface of Mars; he has, from the same source, also picked out a stunning shot of a rare green flash - and an even rarer blue one - from the setting Sun, something which apparently (and here I'm showing up my lack of film knowledge in a very embarrassing light) will be familiar to anyone who's watched Pirates of the Caribbean.

My own favourite, though, is another APOD image, featured on the site on January 4 this year, featuring the Earth's two largest satellites - a partial eclipse of the Sun in which a small blemish on the photograph turns out to be the International Space Station, which zipped across the scene in less than a second.

Douglas Cooper retakes centre stage for the last talk of the night, a brief summary of what to look out for if you fancy viewing the night sky through a telescope, and how - again - you don't need all-singing, all-dancing equipment with a huge price tag to look in pretty close detail at the universe, or at least the small part of it visible from our corner of the Earth.

Sadly, the rain battering off the outside of the tearoom windows, and persistent cloud cover which shows no inclination whatsoever to move along, ensures that there will be no stargazing at Ettrick Bay tonight.

But I, along with many others, still have my Star Guide to hand - and the next time we do get ourselves a clear sky, like that first handy hint on the Getting Started page suggests, I'll be out there peering up at the sky, delighted at being able to say, thanks to Douglas and Alasdair and the Bute Astronomical Club and yes, even Dara O'Briain, that I know just a little bit about what is out there. Starstruck? You bet I am!