It’s June and summer is finally upon us. This means milder weather and longer days, with the longest day of all taking place on 21 June, the day of the Summer Solstice. As the Sun sets so late and rises so early, it barely gets dark at this time of year. Indeed, this month’s image, which was taken shortly before 11:00 pm on a night close to the Summer Solstice, shows just how light it can be. I spent quite some time then, sitting on a small promontory facing west over Loch Sunart and watching the slimmest of crescent moons traverse the twilit sky as midnight approached. There sure is something magical about these light nights and it is little wonder that the summer solstice and midsummer have been celebrated for time immemorial
This year, the summer solstice occurs on 21 June at 10:13 am. It is the exact moment when the North Pole is at its maximum tilt towards the Sun, when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and when the Sun rises at its closest to north-east and sets at its closest to north-west.
Although the summer solstice is a precise moment in time, many people refer to it as the “Longest Day” because it is the day when the number of hours of daylight are at their maximum and the number of hours of night are at their minimum. For instance, on 21 June this year, our sunrise here on the Peninsula will be at 4:27:36 am and our sunset will be at 10:22:23 pm, giving us 17 hours, 54 minutes and 47 seconds of daylight.
While the summer solstice marks the astronomical start of our summer, it has traditionally been celebrated in Scotland as midsummer, the halfway point in the growing season and a time when people hoped for bountiful harvests. The celebrations began as a Celtic fire festival when bonfires would be used to bless crops and beasts. Animals would be walked around the fire in a sun-wise (clockwise) direction and torches would be lit from the main fire to then be carried around homes and fields, also in a sun-wise direction, to bless families and the crops.
Also, people used to gather herbs at this time, and either scatter them into the fire to complete the ritual, wear them along with flowers to ward off evil spirits, or place them under their pillows as good luck charms to manifest good dreams. Birch branches were sometimes hung above doors for protection. This was also believed to be the best time to collect honey from beehives, which is why the first full moon in June was called the “honey moon”. Unsurprisingly, this became the traditional month for weddings.
With the coming of Christianity, many pagan midsummer celebrations were moved to the feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June, with bonfires remaining central to them. People would light the bonfires on midsummer eve and then stay up until midnight to welcome in midsummer day. They continued to gather herbs and flowers to protect themselves from evil spirits and one of the most powerful plants was ‘chase-devil’, which is now called St John’s Wort. It was used in potions and woven into garlands because people believed that this would provide them with protection.
Finally, herbalists continue to use St John’s Wort in medicines to this day. It contains many chemicals that act on messengers in the brain that regulate mood and there is some strong scientific evidence that it is effective for mild to moderate depression.
As June is the month of the Summer Solstice and the Longest Day, our night sky never quite gets dark and it’s not the greatest for spotting faint stars. However, there are 2-3 hours when you can spot the Summer Constellations that are up in the southern night sky just now and you can use the four bright stars, Arcturus, Antares, Vega and Spica to find your way around them. We also have the second-largest and second-brightest full moon of the year this month, making it a Strawberry Supermoon and, if you stay up to the early hours in the second half of the month, you’ll be able to enjoy a procession of planets rising in the east with all seven of the other planets in our solar system being visible to varying extents.
This month, the sun sets around 10:00 pm, so the stars and the constellations start won’t become visible until about 11:30 pm and with sunrise at about 4:30 am, it means that you only have about 2-3 hours to spot them. In fact, it never really gets dark, but it is possible to spot the Summer Constellations that are up in our southern sky just now. Unlike the few big and bright Winter Constellations, these Summer Constellations are more numerous, smaller and fainter, but you can use four bright stars that are easy to find to navigate your way around them. These stars are Arcturus, Antares, Vega and Spica.
Above Scorpius, you will find Ophiuchus (the Serpent-Bearer). It is a large constellation, which straddles the celestial equator, and it is commonly depicted as a man grasping a snake. This snake is represented by the constellation of Serpens (the Serpent), which is immediately to the west of Ophiuchus. Above Serpens, you’ll find the semi-circular constellation of Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), which is made up of 4 bright stars that represent the crown of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos in Greek mythology, who helped the hero Theseus kill the Minotaur and find his way out of the labyrinth in which the creature lived.
High up in the south-eastern sky, you will find Vega, the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre) and the fifth brightest star in our night sky. Vega acts as the guide star to the Keystone, a rectangle of four stars in the constellation Hercules, the fifth largest constellations in our night sky. To find the Keystone, trace a straight line from Vega and towards Arcturus. You will find it about one third of the way along this line. The Keystone represents the body of Hercules and is home to M13, the Great Global Cluster, a bee-like swarm of a third of a million red giant stars. It is one of the brightest globular clusters and although it is visible to the naked eye, it will be easier to see when using binoculars or a small telescope.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 7 June and you will find it over in the south-western sky as darkness falls, while a few days later on 9 June and 10 June you will find it close to Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo.
This month’s full Moon is on 14 June, becoming 100% full at 12:52 pm. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 13-14 June and 14-15 June. It will rise in the south-east at about 10:00 pm on 13 June and at about 11:30 pm on 14 June. In Colonial America, this full Moon was referred to as the Strawberry Moon because this was when these the red strawberries ripen there. Europeans have dubbed it the rose moon, while other cultures named it the hot moon because it occurred at the beginning of the summer heat.
This month’s full Moon will be the second of 4 supermoons this year, making it at Strawberry Supermoon. As it will be 222,238 miles from Earth, its second closest approach of the year, it will appear as second-largest and second-brightest full moon of the year. However, the best supermoon will be on 13 July, when it will be closer to the Earth at some 222,089 miles away.
The last quarter Moon is on 21 June, the day of the Summer Solstice, when it will rise close to Jupiter in the eastern morning sky. On the following morning of 22 June, it will rise between Mars and Jupiter and on 23 June, it will rise beneath Mars. Three days later, on 26 June, it will be a crescent moon and it will rise slightly above and to the right of Venus, out a little bit further to the north-east.
There is new Moon (no moon) on 29 June.
There are no planets in the evening sky this month, so if you do want to see some you will need to stay up late or get up early to watch them as they rise over in the east.
Saturn is the first to appear, rising in the south-east at about 1:00 am to traverse the night sky in the constellation of Capricornus. Next to rise is a very faint Neptune, clearing the eastern horizon at around 1:30 am between Aquarius and Pisces, to then be followed about half an hour later by the mighty gas giant, Jupiter which will be shining brightly in the near dark sky.
After another half an hour, at 2:30 am, you will see a less bright Mars rise a little below and to the left of Jupiter, followed by a magnificently bright Venus, rising at 3:30 am further round towards the north-east. If you use a telescope, you may be able to pick out a very faint Uranus, close to Venus, however, as it will be almost 10,000 times fainter, it will be very difficult to see.
Finally, you will find Mercury to the lower left of Venus during the last week of the month because it clears the horizon at around 4:00 am. This is when the innermost planet will be most easily visible this month but because it rises so close to sunrise, it may be lost in the dawn twilight.
June is a quiet month meteor showers because most of them occur when it is daylight. In reality, we need to wait until the Perseid Meteor Shower in August for our next good show. Radiating from the constellation of Perseus, it will peak on the night of 12-13 August. Unfortunately for this year though, a full Moon occurs on 12 August, so all but the brightest meteors will be drowned out by strong moonlight at the peak. So, if you do want to look for the Perseids, then it would be best to take advantage of the moon free mornings in late July and early August.
This year, the summer solstice occurs on 21 June at 09:13 GMT (10:13 BST) and is the exact moment when the North Pole is at its maximum tilt towards the Sun. However, many people refer to it as the “Longest Day” because it is the day when the number of hours of daylight are at their maximum and the number of hours of night are at their minimum. This is because it is the day when the Sun rises at its closest to north-east, reaches its highest position in the sky at noon and then sets at its closest to north-west. For instance, on 21 June this year, our sunrise here on the Peninsula will be at 4:27:36 am and our sunset will be at 10:22:23 pm, giving us 17 hours, 54 minutes and 47 seconds of daylight. On June 20, our hours of daylight will be 3 seconds less and on June 22 they will be 5 seconds less.
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.