Circle of light that set the cash tills ringing

Eye witness: Eclipse of the sun. Dawn in Durness
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The Independent Online

Jonathan Alford stared wide-eyed at the red glow on the horizon in front of him. At seven months he did not understand the significance of what he was watching. But should he ever witness an annular eclipse of the sun again from mainland Britain, he will be at least 90 and probably a great-grandfather.

A timely gap in the clouds was all it took to make the arduous journey to the northernmost reaches of Scotland worthwhile - a relief for baby Jonathan's parents, Andrew and Sarah, and an array of pagans, druids, sun-worshippers, dedicated astronomers and the plain curious who had made the effort to get here.

"We had to come and see this eclipse and share it with Jonathan," said 29-year-old Sarah. "We drove up from Kent on Friday and had to sleep in the car overnight because there was no room left in any of the hotels or guest houses in the area.

"I know Jonathan doesn't know what's happening, but we will tell him about it and show him the pictures we've taken so he can can tell his children, grandchildren, or even, hopefully, great-grandchildren. Even if we'd seen nothing just making the trip would have been an adventure."

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon covers the centre of the sun but not its edges, so that a ring, or annulus, of light forms around the moon. The next time an annular eclipse will be visible from the UK be in 2093, and the last one was on 8 April 1921, so there was little wonder that yesterday's event attracted the interest of "eclipse-chasers" from around Britain, Europe and the US.

The normally quiet and secluded Sutherland coastline was jammed early yesterday morning with caravans, camper vans, tents and cars full of bleary-eyed motorists parked in almost every major layby and passing place for 100 miles or more.

The veteran astronomer Sir Patrick Moore and Queen guitarist Brian May, who is also a physicist and astronomer, chose to watch the eclipse from Durness where the darkness was made even more oppressive by the black shapes of the surrounding mountains of Lewisian Gneiss, some of the oldest rocks in the world.

By the time the first touches of red sunlight began to seep through the cracks in the clouds the usual dawn chorus of birdsong and rhythmic crashing of the waves on the golden sands had been joined by the mumble of reverential whispers, tent flaps being unzipped and the sound of cash-tills ringing in Durness village.

Small groups of sky-watchers, many armed with an array of telescopes and cameras, stood and watched for an hour as a red glow spread across the horizon but seemed unable to break through the clouds. As the clocked ticked past 04.45 - the optimum time to see the full eclipse - many were beginning to give up hope. But at 04.47 the clouds parted and revealed a bright red crescent with the imprint of the moon blocking out more than two-thirds of the sun. Not the full eclipse but a startling and eerie sight.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said computer programmer David Reed, who drove up non-stop from Gloucester on a whim. "I might only have seen part of the eclipse but it was worth the trip. It was amazing."

In the dedicated campsite in the centre of the village, whose historical boundaries include evidence of cave dwellings, stone circles, chambered cairns, eighth-century Christian settlements and Viking artefacts, there was an audible ripple of excitement in a cacophony of languages.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," said Hans Schaar, who had travelled from Amsterdam. "I probably would have come to Scotland on holiday anyway, but the chance to see this eclipse made up my mind for me."

Durness hadn't seen an invasion on this scale since the Second World War when the area was a key military base. Hotels, guesthouses and camp sites were celebrating a welcome £100,000 increase in trade for the area.

"We could have filled our rooms several times over," said guesthouse owner Joan Ritchie.

As they walked from the beach back to their car, Sarah and Andrew Alford stopped at the John Lennon memorial - a garden created by the villagers to celebrate the fact that the songwriter used to holiday in Durness as a boy - and could only agree with its sentiment. Inscribed with the words from the Beatles' track "In My Life" it says simply: "There are places I remember all my life."