The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights in Scotland

Where to find the best view?

You are not mistaken, the exotic phenomena of the northern lights can indeed be seen from Scotland! The far North of the country in fact lies at the same latitude as much of Norway, Alaska and other countries more well known for this phenomenon.

Their latin name is Aurora Borealis, named after Aurora - the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas - the word for North wind in Greek. This natural wonder is something that has baffled and intrigued mankind for centuries, and the fact it can seen from the United Kingdom is Scotland’s best kept secret!

If visitors get the timing spot on, then they are in with a steady chance to see the dancing lights without having to count their pennies.

What causes the Northern lights?

The science of this spectacle is still debated by scholars, however current understanding tells us that it is caused by gaseous particles that accelerate and collide with charged particles in the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

They are charged using energy from the sun in the form of a ‘solar wind’, and such collisions take place along the lines of magnetic fields. Each type of gas particle involved causes the variations in colour.

The most common colour is that of a pale yellow or green that is produced by oxygen molecules roughly 60 miles above sea level.

Purple and blue light is also fairly common, and this is produced by Nitrogen. Oxygen at an even higher altitude (up to 200 miles above sea level), produces all-red auroras that are extremely rare.

These playful streaks that paint the night sky form different shapes and patterns that bring the sky to life. Each rainbow that graces the dark canvas lasts for a different length of time, sometimes minutes or occasionally just a few seconds

When is the best time to see the Northern lights in Scotland?

The beauty of the northern lights in Scotland often blinds people to the fact it is a naturally occurring phenomenon and notoriously difficult to predict. In fact it is unusual to have an idea any earlier than two hours in advance of it happening. The sight is highly dependent upon solar activity, and the when or how frequently sunspots occur. The autumn and winter seasons provide the greatest chances of experiencing the auroral displays, due to the cold, clear nights and increased periods of darkness which stack the odds in favour of seeing the lights. In particular if there is increased solar activity and little light pollution. It is also widely understood that the best time of day to spot them is in the early hours of the morning.

Where is the best place to see the Northern lights in Scotland?

The northern lights in Scotland are most often seen in the far northern reaches, but if the conditions are there, then the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ can be seen from almost anywhere in the country! For this to happen the geomagnetic conditions must be particularly active. Some of the most favoured spots in which to marvel at the northern lights in Scotland include:

1. The Cairngorms

The Cairngorm Mountain Car Park, Dava Moor, Feith Musach (North of Tomintoul) or the Glenlivet Estate (which has just been awarded ‘Dark Sky’ status) are perfect locations in the Cairngorms since they are facing North. One such individual, Nancy Chambers, enjoys observing them from “watery venues” due to the reflection of the lights on the surface. Her recommended spots include the banks of the River Spey, Lochindorb, Milton Loch and Loch Garten. 

2. Far North-West Scotland

Favourite spots include Ullapool, Applecross and Lochinver. Look for silhouetted clouds, which are a sign the northern lights are about to break through. Also make an effort to find an elevated position from which to spot them, for a full panoramic view!

3. The Orkney Isles

Scottish islands are some of the most northern locations in the country (and remember the more North the better!). They also have significantly reduced populations to the mainland, meaning less light pollution and a greater chance of seeing the ‘Mirrie Dancers’.

4.  Shetland

This is the closest part of the British Isles to the North Pole, making it the best place to see the northern lights in Scotland (and the rest of Great Britain) so remember to tell your friends! 

Through winter, a keen individual observing each day on a clear night could even hope to see the aurora several times. There will also be quite a number of low level displays, but also spectacular ones!

5.  Caithness Coast (Noss Head and Wick)

You can greatly increase your chances of seeing the northern lights in Scotland if you go near the coast, where there is less chance of cloud. Noss Head and Wick are spots that are regularly recommended by local enthusiasts and visitors.

6.  Aberdeenshire and Moray Coast

A real magnet for aurora enthusiasts, because Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast provide a carpet of clear, dark skies and open northern horizons! SIGMA - the Moray Astronomy Club is filled with aurora-spotting veterans. Moray Firth and the Dava Road above Forres are other favourite spots of local enthusiasts. Portknockie, Cairn o’Mount and Nairn are more spots worth considering.

7.  Isle of Skye

Scattered across this island are 9 ‘Dark Skye’ discovery sites from which one can watch the northern Lights in Scotland. Most auroras here appear white to the eye, since it is very rare that colours would be visible at this latitude (57.5° North).

8.  The Western Isles / Outer Hebrides

Prime aurora spotting territory! Best seen from this area in January, but fear not, the autumnal and winter months also offer breathtaking displays.Some spots to consider would be Lewis, Harris, South Uist, North Uist, Benbecula, Barra and Eriskay.

9.  Galloway Forest Park

The Galloway Forest Park is the only Dark Sky Park in Scotland! Although this is further South than some of the other spots in the UK, there are increasing reports the northern lights in Scotland being spotted here.A final top tip is to download an app such as AuroraWatch, which monitors geomagnetic activity in real time and put out “aurora alerts”. We hope this guide was useful in assisting your search for the northern lights in Scotland!

Summary

A final top tip is to download an app such as AuroraWatch, which monitors geomagnetic activity in real time and put out “aurora alerts”. We hope this guide was useful in assisting your search for the northern lights in Scotland!

Read our guides on where to stay and what to do in elsewhere in the Highlands.

Hillwalking In The Highlands

Hillwalking In The Highlands