Can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland, UK? What are the Northern Lights? What is the best time to see the Northern Lights? Where is the best place to see Northern Lights in Scotland? Need tips on how to view the aurora borealis?
When people talk about seeing the Northern Lights they tend to mean travelling to Norway, Iceland or Finland to see them. You can actually see the Northern Lights in the UK and Scotland is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights (also known as the aurora borealis).
Photo: Maria Macdonald, Taigh Mairi Anndra self-catering holiday cottage, South Uist
Read our top tips on how to view the Northern Lights and then take a holiday to Scotland to view this breath-taking natural spectacle before it's too late. Aurora may not be visible from the UK by the middle of the century according to research by the University of Reading in January 2017.
What does aurora borealis mean?
The Northern Lights are also known as the aurora borealis. Aurora means “sunrise” in Latin and is also the name of the Roman Goddess of the dawn, Borealis is the Greek name for the north wind. In the southern hemisphere they are known as aurora australis.
Northern Lights - folklore and myth
In Scottish Gaelic folklore the Northern Lights are known as the Na Fir Chlis which in English is “the Nimble Men” and in Shetland the Northern Lights are called the “mirrie dancers”. In Scotland, the Northern Lights were described as battles amongst sky warriors or fallen angels. People believed that blood from the wounded fell to earth and spotted the “bloodstones” or heliotrope found in the Hebrides.
In Norse mythology, the aurora was considered to be a bridge of fire leading to the sky built by the gods. Some Inuit people believed they could see the spirits of their ancestors dancing in the aurora.
What are the Northern Lights?
Storms on the sun send a solar wind (a stream of charged particles escaping the Sun) across space. If Earth is in the path of the particle stream, the Earth's magnetic field is distorted by the solar wind. The interaction of this solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere causes the Northern Lights as the charged particles strike atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, this excites those atoms, causing them to light up.
The process is similar to how neon lights work (eg. on business signs.) Electricity is used to excite the atoms in the neon gas held in the glass tubes of a neon sign. Electricity is used to excite the atoms in the neon gas within the glass tubes of a neon sign which then produces the vibrant colours.
What do the Northern Lights look like?
The aurora can appear in many different forms and some are more impressive than others. You need to look out for patches or scattered clouds of light, sweeping arcs, rippling ribbons or shooting rays that light up the night sky with an ethereal glow. Sometimes is takes a while for you to be sure that you are actually looking at the Northern Lights.
What colour are the northern lights?
The Northern Lights are normally green and pink but aurora watchers have also reported shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple. Sometimes the colours can be quite subtle.
Best places to see Northern Lights in Scotland
Where can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland? In theory, the Northern Lights could be seen anywhere within the UK if geomagnetic conditions are very active. Usually, it's the north of the UK which gives you the best chance of seeing the "mirrie dancers" which is why the Highlands and Islands are such a great place to stay to see the Northern Lights. They're also a lot cheaper to get to than Norway or Iceland and other popular places.
In the Scottish Highlands and Islands some of the best places to view the Northern Lights are:
- Isle of Skye - there are 9 Dark Skye discovery sites
- Isle of Mull
- Caithness coast
- Orkney Isles
- Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles which includes Lewis, Harris, South Uist, North Uist, Benbecula, Barra, Eriskay, etc).
- Moray coast
- Wester Ross coast (eg. Gairloch area)
- Ullapool and surrounding area
Check out our directory for some stunning holiday accommodation in the Scottish Highlands & Islands to see the Northern Lights.
— Marcus McAdam (@mmcadamphoto) 15 March 2016
How to view the Northern Lights - our top tips for increasing your chances of seeing the Northern Lights
- It needs to be a night with increased solar activity - we list some ways to find out when the Northern Lights may be seen below.
- It needs to be a clear night - you may be able to still see them through broken cloud but if you can't see the stars then you won't see the northern lights.
- Find a dark location away from light pollution from street lights, cars and buildings. The lack of large cities and towns in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland means you won't have to go far to find your perfect spot. For us last year, it was conveniently in the garden of the holiday cottage we were renting.
- A full moon will also make the northern lights difficult to see.
- Look north but be aware that if there are high levels of geomagnetic activity you should check in all directions.
- Wrap up warm and take a flask of tea or a hip flask of your favourite single malt (as long as you don't have to drive!).
- Although everyone would love to capture amazing images of the Northern Lights don't be too fixated on taking photos, just enjoy watching the magical, shifting ribbons of colour, especially if it's your first time.
- Preserve your night vision by using a torch with a red light instead of white light. White light negatively affects your night vision. Torches with red lights are available from Amazon.
- Be patient. The best times to view are generally between 9pm and 12am so be prepared to wait. There will be some incredible night skies and shooting stars to look at while you wait.
- Don't give up. If you don't see them the first time, keep on trying.
Best time of year to see Northern Lights - when can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland, UK?
So when is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Scotland? The Northern Lights don't appear on set dates each year. The aurora are only visible in dark skies so the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Scotland is the autumn and winter months. We saw them in 2015 in September and locals said that was quite early as normally they wouldn't see them until October.
Can you see the northern lights in the summer?
The Northern Lights can happen at any time of year but because summer nights are very light in the north of Scotland (and the rest of the aurora-watching places) so it's virtually impossible to see them during the summer months.
Best months to see the Northern Lights
A clear, dark winter night can give you breath-taking views of this display. As a general guide, we recommend:
We don't suggest you plan a holiday to see the Northern Lights in the months of:
- June - the longest day is 21 June when there is very little darkness
Although there is still a chance you may see the aurora if it's dark enough at night, if your main aim is to see them, you're best to avoid these months.
Northern Lights Scotland forecast 2017 - will I see the Northern Lights tonight?
For a Northern Lights forecast in the UK, there is AuroraWatch UK, part of Lancaster University, which provides free alerts when the aurora borealis may be visible from the UK including Scotland's Highlands and Islands. I use their free smartphone app which I discovered when on holiday north of Ullapool last autumn. AuroraWatch UK share it's data so you monitor geomagnetic activity in real time. So if you want to know whether you'll see the Northern Lights in Scotland or the UK tonight, check out the latest info below which is direct from the AuroraWatch website.
Videos - See the Northern Lights in Scotland
Watching these short films will give you an idea of the kind of thing that you should look out for when you're watching the aurora borealis.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
Taking photographs of the Northern Lights can be tricky but worthwhile because the camera sees the aurora better than the human eye. Check out the guides below which includes equipment, camera settings and more and don't forget to share your photos with us on social media.
- Northern Lights Photography - the definitive guide by Dave Morrow
- How to photograph the Northern Lights - a good beginner's guide from Photography Life
Resources and further reading
- Follow @AurorawatchUK on Twitter for alerts and news
- Great Little Breaks have some short break holidays at locations suitable for seeing the Northern Lights
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