Can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland? What are the Northern Lights? When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in 2020? Where is the best place to see Northern Lights in Scotland? Want tips on how to improve your chances of viewing the aurora borealis in Scotland?
When people talk about seeing the Northern Lights they tend to mean travelling to somewhere like Norway to see them. You can actually see them 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 see 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.
Make 2020 or 2021, the year you 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 September in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Locals said that was quite early as normally they wouldn’t see them until October.
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) it’s virtually impossible to see them during the summer months.
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:
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.
So where can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland? In theory, the Northern Lights can 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”. This is why Scotland’s Highlands and Islands are such a great place to stay to see the Northern Lights.
We recommend booking your accommodation in a remote area with little or no light pollution so you might be able to see the Northern Lights from where you’re staying. It’s also important to remember that there’s no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights so choose a destination that interests you in other ways too.
Some of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands are:
The Outer Hebrides is a fantastic place to see the Northern Lights in Scotland and I’ve been fortunate to see them several times whilst on holiday on North Uist. This island chain has little light pollution so take your pick from Lewis, Harris, South Uist, North Uist, Benbecula, Barra and Eriskay.
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There are 9 Dark Skye discovery sites on Skye so you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to finding somewhere without light pollution.
The Isle of Coll is proud to be a Dark Sky Island. The Coll community has rejected the introduction of street lighting making it one of the best places to observe for star-gazing and aurora-watching.
As the most northerly part of the mainland, Sutherland and Caithness are a good place to stay to increase your chance.
Orkney is off the north coast of Scotland so another good place for Northern Light hunting. Try setting up watch on the beach at Dingieshowe, the coast at Birsay, or the top of Wideford Hill.
The islands of Shetland are the most northerly part of the British Isles so they are a good place to see the Northern Lights. Avoid places with street lights, such as Lerwick, as this can reduce your chances.
In Shetland they call the Northern Lights the “mirrie dancers” which is a perfect name for these dancing ribbons of light. T
The area of Moray is one of the more southerly areas where you might have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Scotland. Moray’s Astronomy Club, Sigma, sometimes runs public aurora watching sessions.
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Great Little Breaks have some short break holidays at locations in Scotland suitable for seeing the Northern Lights
Check out our directory for some stunning holiday accommodation in the Scottish Highlands & Islands to see the Northern Lights.
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. AuroraWatch UK share it’s data so you can monitor geomagnetic activity in real time.
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.
Please remember that the Northern Lights are unpredictable and even if they are forecast, you may not see them.
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.
A full moon can 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. Use a compass to make sure you know where north is. A smartphone normally has a compass.
It takes a bit of dedication to see the Northern Lights. We are not great at staying up late. If there’s been an aurora alert but we can’t stay up any later, we go to bed set our alarm every hour so we (it’s normally down to me!) can check out the window to see if anything is happening. If you get up in the night for the loo or to get a drink, don’t miss the opportunity to look outside.
Choosing accommodation with large windows can help you do this without having to actually go outside in your pyjamas.
Scotland’s winters can be cold. A clear night sky will be ideal for watching the Northern Lights but the temperature will drop even more. Dress in your warmest outdoor clothing including gloves and a hat.
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!).
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.
It’s worth checking at any time though if it’s dark.
They don’t usually exhibit for long so you need to keep looking. A northern lights display could last only a few minutes. A good display may last for no longer than 15-30 minutes. Displays could continue for several hours if you’re very lucky.
This may sound obvious but if you’ve only seen them in stunning photos, you may not know that they don’t always look like that.
The Northern Lights are created by the Earth’s spectra of gases and the height in the atmosphere where the collision of particles from the sun and the Earth’s gases takes place.
Our naked eye can most easily see the green-yellow part of the spectrum where the sun emits most of it’s light. You’re most likely to see green but the they can also appear white/grey. If you’ve never seen them before and are looking on a cloudy night, you might not be sure what you’re seeing.
We have seen them as wispy grey or white clouds, which can be easy to miss. It was only when they started moving in a strange way, we realised that they were actually the Northern Lights.
Our eyes don’t see such bright, vivid colours that are captured by a camera. This means photos of the aurora are normally more impressive than what you will see live. They can also be happening but not visible to the naked eye.
Although everyone would love to capture amazing images of the Northern Lights we suggest that you don’t be too fixated on taking photos, just enjoy watching the magical, shifting ribbons of colour, especially if it’s your first time.
Don’t give up. If you don’t see them the first time, keep on trying. When you do see them it will be worth it!
Watching this short film will give you an idea of the kind of thing that you should look out for when you’re watching the aurora borealis.
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 include equipment, camera settings and more and don’t forget to share your photos with us on social media.
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