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Ben Dolphin: Still plenty to see and hear after dark

The moon in across Aberdeen.
The moon in across Aberdeen.

Monday was the shortest day of the year. In Aberdeen the sun rose at 08.46 and set at 15.27 and for the optimists among you, that’s a whopping six hours 41 minutes of beautiful winter light. For the pessimists, it’s 17 hours 19 mins of darkness and, at best, six hours 41 minutes of unusable soggy grey twilight.

Even I’d concede that the overbearing greyness sometimes makes me want to retreat into the warmth of home and seek solace in the comforting glow of a screen. But sunset needn’t mean the end of outdoor recreation and indeed it doesn’t for a surprising number of people.

Ben Dolphin

I’m not sure whether it’s a result of the pandemic, the explosion in outdoor groups or improvements in LED technology, but I’ve certainly noticed more torchlights painting wavy lines in the dark this winter. And as an unashamedly outdoorsy person I’ve actually felt a bit chastised, as night-time walking isn’t something I do very often.

In winter, a torchlit start or finish to a walk means making the absolute most of what little daylight there is, but I also know a few cyclists who relish having night-time paths to themselves.

In ecological terms you’d call that “resource partitioning”, where species occupying the same physical space and who compete for the same limited resources, alter their behaviour in order to find ways to avoid competition and peacefully coexist with one another.

Animals will eat different foods, occupy different areas of a habitat or, in the case of the individuals I know from the Mountinus bycus species, come out only at night. Indeed, you might have spotted Krissmus shoppus doing something similar this week for the same reason.

But darkness isn’t something people are forced into only by external factors beyond their control. Some actively seek it out and the night sky is undoubtedly part of the attraction.

If you give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adjust, it makes a surprisingly vivid celestial backdrop to even the shortest of evening strolls. And while there are certainly other visible things to enjoy, such as torchlight reflecting off an unidentified animal’s eyes, or a ghostly owl floating silently past you, it’s interesting to experience the natural world primarily through sound rather than vision.

Yes, you hear wildlife in the daytime, but you’re much more acutely aware of it at night. And boy, does it sound weird. It really feels like an alien world inhabited by alien creatures.

But it’s also a world we’re increasingly disconnected from, so spending time in it still feels a bit, well, wrong. Like we’re doing something we shouldn’t.

The safety concerns are justified of course, whether you’re up a hill or on the edge of town. Even familiar places feel unfamiliar when the lights go out, so it’s not something you should necessarily jump headlong into if you’re completely new to it.

Both Mountaineering Scotland and the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) have good “night walking” sections on their websites. Their advice is targeted at hillwalkers but it’s really of interest to anyone thinking of heading out after dark, even if it’s from their front door.

It’s rarely pitch black outside of course. In a town with street lighting you barely notice it’s dark at all and while it might be dark if I walk in the fields behind my house, the light from town still gives the sense that there’s a larger world beyond the confines of my torch beam. Indeed, on some nights, under a bright moon or low cloud, I don’t need a torch at all.

Personally, though, I really enjoy those darkest nights when my universe shrinks down to only what I can see in my torch beam. There’s something very grounding about existing in a world as small as that, even if it’s on a familiar path.

When everything else disappears you become more aware of yourself and it gives you a completely new perspective on your favourite places. That kind of torchlit walking really comes into its own on cold nights with frost or snow on the ground, when the beam catches your breath, illuminates snow hanging heavy on trees and makes ice crystals sparkle.

I made a point of having a sparkling walk like that just the other week. It made me realise how much I have been missing and seeing so many people enjoying the darkness has undoubtedly inspired me to get out more after sunset. If nothing else, black will make a lovely change from grey.

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast, countryside ranger and former president of Ramblers Scotland

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