With some time to spare after travelling back across the Corran Narrows on the ferry, I found myself up at the Ardgour War Memorial looking at signs of something that had gone before which had been a small part of a huge military project that is thought to have played a key role in bringing World War I to an end ….
Time on my Hands
Last week, I found myself with an unexpected hour or so to spare at Corran Point, so decided to go for a walk and find the Ardgour War Memorial, which is located up on a bank just south of the lighthouse and above the road. The main reason for doing this was to scout out the location in advance of me going there at some point after dark to photograph the Memorial under the stars. This is something that I do when preparing for most of my night shots as it is so much easier to figure out a composition in daylight than it is in the pitch dark.
Having walked from the Corran Ferry, I reached the bend in the road by the Lighthouse and followed a track up into a field beyond a metal gate. I found the War Memorial at the top of a bank overlooking Loch Linnhe, with expansive views all the way down its full length to the south. The Memorial itself is typical of the many that you find scattered across the Highlands, consisting of a granite Celtic cross and plinth mounted on a base of what seemed to be made of local stone.
Gradually, I began thinking ahead to my future shot of the War Memorial under the stars and, eventually, I began looking at different shot angles of the Memorial to see if I could find some compositions that might work for the photograph that I had in mind. My plan is to take it later in the year when the Milky Way will be at its best, with its cloudy core above the horizon in the south to south-west sky. My aim is to produce something similar to these two shots that I’ve taken of the Strontian and Moidart war memorials in previous years.
While doing this, I noticed that the Memorial’s stone base was sitting on what appeared to be a metal ring with several bolts protruding from it. You can see the metal ring and bolts in the picture below and the more that I thought about them, the more I couldn’t help wondering what they had been used for.
Playing on My Mind
This played on my mind for a day or two, leading me to do a bit of research to find out more about them. After looking at a few sources, I found some information in the Highland Historic Environment Record, that suggested that a gun battery was built on that spot in 1917, to provide protection for the United States ships unloading naval mines at Corpach that were then transported in smaller boats through the Caledonian Canal to the US Naval Base at Inverness.
Further research uncovered a report titled “The Built Heritage of the First World War in Scotland” that was commissioned by Historic Scotland which confirms that the gun battery was built there and that it comprised two 15-pdr guns and one 7.5-inch howitzer bolted down onto steel rings called holdfasts, which were set into plain concrete slabs. It turns out that the War Memorial was built on one of these concrete slabs and the steel ring at its base is one of these holdfasts. The Imperial War Museum does have a photograph of the gun battery which was taken in 1918 and shows the Royal Marine Gun Crews manning the guns. In it, you can see that there is no parapet around the guns and that the ammunition for them was stored in wooden lockers close by. I’ve asked the Imperial War Museum for a licence to publish this photograph and hope to be able to share it with you at some point.
A Small Part of a Big Picture
Another question came to my mind while I was researching all this – Why was the United States Navy shipping naval mines to Corpach and then transporting them up the Caledonian Canal to Inverness? Well, the answer is that the mines were being used in the North Sea Mine Barrage which was a large minefield laid easterly from the Orkney Islands, right across the top of the North Sea to Norway with the aim of preventing the U-Boats making their way from their bases in Germany and out into the Atlantic to attack the convoys that were bringing supplies from the United States to the British Isles.
Laying this mine barrage was a huge undertaking and until World War II, it was the largest ever laid. It spanned the entire 230-mile width of the North Sea from Orkney and Norway and was between 15 to 35 miles wide. The Allied Forces began laying the mines in June 1918 and within a matter of a few months they had laid just over 70,000 of them at a total cost of just over £1bn in today’s money. The barrage was considered to be a great success and is credited with the destruction or damage of up to 21 U-Boats, but probably its greater effect was in shattering the morale of German submarine crews, thus helping to bring about the revolt of German seamen that marked the beginning of the defeat of Germany in World War I.
So there you have it, a tiny little bit of history hidden beneath the Ardgour War Memorial in the form of a steel ring and some bolts giving a small clue of something that went before. I would never have thought that these incongruous bolts would have been part of what today would be the equivalent of a £1bn military project that is thought to have played a key part in bringing World War I to an end. A war that left more than 16 million people dead and also helped to spread one of the world’s deadliest global pandemics, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people. Poignant, very poignant indeed.
Spring arrives this month, with the Vernal (spring) equinox on 20 March, when day and night are each 12 hours long. On that day, the Sun rises at about 6:20 am due east and sets at about 6:20 pm due west. From then on, the nights get shorter and the days get longer. British Summer Time (Daylight Saving Time) starts on 28 March, so it gets dark a lot later in the evening. Don’t be put off with it getting darker later and the nights becoming shorter. There is still much to see, with the bright winter constellations still visible and the constellation of Leo (The Lion) coming in to view. Now is also a great time of year to spot Zodiacal Light, the night sky’s most elusive phenomenon.
This month, the sun sets around 6:30 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 8:30 pm onwards. If you look south, you will still see the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini that I described in on my “Exploring Our Night Sky: February 2021” blog at the start of last month. Bear in mind that they will have moved a little bit to the west. Also, you will now be able to see some of the spring constellations coming into view, with the most significant of these being Leo (The Lion), which will be high up in the south-east sky.
Looking North, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. You can find the seven stars of the Plough up in the north-east and you can use its two right-hand stars to find the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Just follow the line between them for about five times its length and you’ll arrive at it.
Once you’ve found Polaris, you can use it to get your bearings on any night but bear in mind that all the northern constellations rotate around it in an anticlockwise direction and therefore change their position. It is also worth noting that Polaris is not that bright, with it being about the same brightness as the stars of the Plough. Its significance comes from it being directly above our North Pole.
Polaris is a second-magnitude star, about the same as the stars in the Plough or Cassiopeia, so don’t expect anything particularly bright. It’s just by chance that this millennium it happens to be very close to the pole of the sky, but there is a slow movement of the sky over the centuries that shifts the position of the stars, and 1000 years ago it wasn’t as close as it is now.
The constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer) was pretty much overhead last month and is now starting to sink down towards the western horizon but it’s still high up. It’s in the shape of a pentagon, with Capella, one of the brightest stars in the sky, at its northern tip. Next to Capella is a triangle of three stars which, though much fainter, makes the whole constellation very recognisable. Below Auriga is the constellation of Perseus who, in Greek mythology, beheaded the Gorgon Medusa for Polydectes and saved Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. Also, below Perseus, you may be able to pick out the W-shape of the constellation of Cassiopeia, so named after the vain queen Cassiopeia in Greek mythology, who boasted about her unrivalled beauty.
The first quarter moon is on 21 March and a few days before, on 18 March and 19 March, you’ll find the crescent moon lying close to, or in-between the Pleiades star cluster, the Hyades star cluster, Aldebaran, and Mars.
You’ll see this month’s full moon on 28 March and this last of the winter season is referred to as the Worm Moon because of the earthworms that come out at the end of winter. It is also known as the Crow Moon, Crust Moon, Sap Moon, Sugar Moon, and Chaste Moon. The Old English/Anglo-Saxon name is Lenten Moon.
The full moon on March 28 is the first of four supermoons this year and on that day, it will be 225,042 miles from Earth, it’s fourth closest approach of the year. It will therefore appear as fourth-largest and fourth-brightest moon of the year, but the best supermoon will be on 26 May, when it will be 221,117 miles from Earth.
Since disappearing from our night sky in late January, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury are now starting to make an appearance in our south-eastern morning sky and you might see them in the hour before sunrise, but they will be very low down on the horizon.
Meanwhile, our western evening sky will have two red ‘stars’. To the left will be the red giant Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus the bull, while to the right lies Mars. The red planet is gradually moving away from Earth as the weeks pass, fading in brightness as is does so.
If you have a telescope, you may be able to spot Uranus lying down in the lower western sky as its current brightness means that it will be only just visible with the naked eye.
Venus and Neptune are not visible this month.
We are now in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April, the night after a first quarter Moon. This means that the moon will be quite bright, so the best time to try and spot the Lyrids will be in hour or two between moonset and dawn.
The Zodiac is an 8° wide band that straddles the ecliptic, the invisible path that the Sun traces as it moves around the sky and is the region of the sky where we can find the Sun, Moon and planets (except for Pluto). It is only 8° wide because most of the planets have orbits that are only slightly inclined to that of the Earth. The exception is Pluto, whose orbital inclination of 17° takes it out of the zodiac during part of its orbit.
At this time of year, the Zodiac rises steeply from the horizon at dusk, meaning now is great for looking out for and observing one of the night sky’s most elusive phenomena: Zodiacal Light. It is fainter than the Milky Way, so the darker your sky, the better your chances of seeing it. Go to a location with little or no night pollution, on a night when the moon is out of the sky and look for it in the west in the hour or two after sunset. If you are lucky, you may spot a faint pyramid of light rising from the horizon.
This ghostly glow is caused by light from the sun, which will be well below the horizon at that time, reflecting off a fog of tiny interplanetary dust particles that fill our inner Solar System. It’s so difficult to see and many astronomers have never witnessed it, however, I was lucky enough to spot and photograph it at Sailen nan Cuileag on a dark night last month and I’ve used the resulting image as the header photo for this blog. The conditions for spotting it are good for the next 2-3 months, so do keep an eye out for it.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.