The Sun Disappears over the Orkneys: 31 May 2003

The Prospects

An annular eclipse, the first of the new millenium and the first to be seen from the UK since 1921, was due to sweep north west from Northern Scotland, across Iceland and ending off the west coast of Greenland. This unusual event, with the sun barely risen and the shadow just scraping along the top of the Earth, also took in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and it was from the latter that a handful of us decided to attempt to see the event.

An annular eclipse is like a total one in that the Moon moves completely in front of the Sun, but is too far away from the Earth to cover it completely. Providing you are in the zone of annularity, at maximum eclipse you see the sun as a ring of light (or annulus) surrounding the blackness of the moon. Fred Espanek's NASA / GSFC page gives full details and an animation can be seen on the Eclipse 2003 pages at Andrew Sinclair's site.

Unlike at totality, the sky is not sufficiently darkened to allow you to see the sun's corona and other features. However, with maximum eclipse occuring just minutes after sunrise the sight of the Sun rising as a substantial partial eclipse followed by the bull's eye of annularity should be spectacular naked eye event, clouds permitting of course.

The weather prospects rated a clear view at around 30%, with no one location on the track being especially favoured weatherwise, though in the past I have had good experiences of nice weather off north west Scotland in May. I chose the Orkneys over the mainland of Scotland as being in my opinion the best compromise of relative ease of accessibility, duration of eclipse and altitude of the Sun. Importantly, it was somewhere I had not been before, so in the event of not seeing the eclipse, at least a good holiday would have been had.

At Kirkwall, the main town on the Orkneys and our base, maximum eclipse was forecast for 04:46BST, half an hour after sunrise and with the sun at an altitude of 2 degrees. Clearly a good view to the north east horizon would be required, but with the Orkneys being relatively flat, virtually treeless and surrounded by sea, finding a suitable site did not prove to be a problem.

The Event

The sun disappeared just after dawn on Sat 31st May in the Orkneys, but unfortunately for the wrong reason - namely low cloud. Despite getting ourselves up to some reservoirs at the top of a hill just half a mile from our B&B, the cloud remained stubbornly thick and not a trace of the sun was seen.

View NE 6 mins before max. eclipse

Shaun and Yet Wha survey the north eastern sky 6 minutes before maximum eclipse. Shame about the clouds, but in all other respects the location, by the reservoirs at the top of Inganess Road in Kirkwall, was the perfect spot!

04:38BST; Minolta Dimage 7, 1/16s @ f/2.8; 7mm; ISO400

Thus annularity came and went unseen, but did not go completely unnoticed. With the sun 94% covered by the moon the light level dropped to just 10% of its normal value, and a real gloom descended. I understand that normal annular eclipses can pass with almost no effect on the ground, but I guess that with the light level being so low anyway, the eye could no longer adapt to the further loss of light so a darkening was perceived.

The picture below shows that the lights of Kirkwall remained on over half an hour after sunrise, whereas on previous days I noticed them going off just before sunrise.

The view north at mid eclipse. Shaun and Neil look suitably gloomy, in keeping with the conditions. The street lights of Kirkwall remained on until nearly 5am, an indication of how much the light level fell during annularity.

04:45BST; Minolta Dimage 7, 1/11s @ f/2.8; 9mm; ISO400

The onset and departure of darkness is well shown in this time-lapse video (MPG, 1.9MB) taken by Mark Edwards from the waterfront in Kirkwall. It covers the period 04:37:44 BST to 04:52:44 and thus straddles annularity, which ran from 04:45:55 to 04:47:34. As we noticed, the return to light seems to be more rapid than the descent into darkness, presumably as the sun was getting higher in the sky as time progressed.


We returned to our B&B and back to bed until a more respectable getting up time, by which time the sky was bright and the sun began to show itself. Just typical, but not surprising really, for in the 5 days Neil and I were in the Orkneys the days were fine but the mornings and evenings tended to be cloudy.

In keeping with our choice of somewhere interesting to visit in case the eclipse failed to deliver, I took plenty of pictures of our visits and exploits in the Orkneys. It is a fascinating land of Stone Age circles, tombs and villages, Pictish and Norse influences, and a turbulent military history right up to the Second World War. Birds live in abundance on the cliffs and lochs and on Hoy there is some real walking, and of course the famous Old Man. Enjoy!

From those who had more success in viewing annularity, and indeed a good partial phase potentially visible over the rest of the UK and much of Europe try these links...

British Astronomical Association
Britain's Annular Solar Eclipse by Sheridan Williams
Space Weather Solar Eclipse Gallery

Anybody contemplating a visit to these wild but beautiful northern isles may care to get started at Orkney Tourist Board. You can read about the archaeological remains at Orkney Archaeological Trust or Historic Scotland.

4 December 2002 Solar Eclipse Home 3 October 2005

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