Last updated on May 8th, 2020
One of the best anti-midge sprays is Smidge, but if you’re not sure about insect bite treatment you should head on over to the NHS insect bites and stings page which has a number of suggestions including applying over-the-counter antihistamine cream. Learn more in this complete guide to avoiding Scottish midges.
Scotland’s midges – a guide to what midges are, where they live, and how to protect yourself from them
The Scottish midge is a Highland menace that’s been the bane of anyone who enjoys the great outdoors ever since people first settled on this fair isle.
These horrendous wee beasties can be found right across the west coast and the Highlands in swarming clouds that have caused more misery than our changeable climate ever has.
Scotland isn’t alone in the world for having midges but we do seem to suffer from them more than most, mainly due to the fact that our climate offers them the perfect breeding conditions.
They’ve been known to bring grown men to tears and have cut-short countless holidays, yet if you ask most international visitors about midges they’ll likely say they don’t know what you’re talking about.
Those beautiful travel agency photos plastered all over the internet of Scotland’s mountains and glens are designed to make you whip your credit card out and book a summer Highland’s holiday.
But how many travel agents are going to tell you about the reality of the midge problem when they’re about to earn a nice juicy commission from your hard-earned money? Not a single one I’m guessing.
That’s bad news for tourists and good news for the insects because anyone who ventures into the great outdoors unprepared will inevitably get eaten alive by the little blood-suckers.
So with that in mind, in this article I’m going to try to redress this apparent lack of information by telling you everything you need to know about the Highland midge.
You probably won’t be able to escape them entirely, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of how to deal with them when you get here.
What are Scottish midges?
If you’re reading this in the US and you’re wondering what a midge is you’ll no doubt know them as ‘no-see-ums’ (congratulations by the way on having a much better name for them than we do. No-see-ums. A perfect description!).
These insects are part of the Ceratopogonidae family of biting flies and they exist on every continent on earth except for those places that are either too cold (like the north and south poles) or too hot (like the permanent deserts of North Africa).
Size-wise they’re tiny – hence the no-see-um name – and are generally only 1 to 3 mm in length, but don’t let their size fool you because they pack one hell of a punch with their bite.
It’s actually only the females that do the biting and they’re happy to munch on any vertebrate whether it’s cows, sheep, deer or you and me.
While the males of the species prefer to chow down on dead plant matter, females need protein to prepare for their egg-laying – which they do in vast amounts.
We have 37 species of midge here in Scotland but the most prevalent is C. impunctatus which loves laying its eggs in wet soil, something we’re not exactly short of in this country.
While it’s obviously impossible to accurately gauge their numbers several studies have estimated that for every 2 square metres of ground there will be half a million eggs, so across the known areas where Scotland’s midges have been found there could be up to 181 TRILLION of them!
You’ll get a good idea of the size of these swarms if you go romping about the countryside at dawn and dusk when they’re most active, especially if you don’t protect yourself.
To be honest it’s difficult to describe just how bad they are if you’ve never been to Scotland in the summer but let me warn you they tend to get everywhere. In your ears, in your hair, down the back of your shirt, just everywhere.
They are, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a real highland menace.
Where are the midges in Scotland?
The greatest numbers of midges are to be found in the West Highlands as that’s where you’ll find their favourite habitats.
Thanks to the dense low-lying plants that thrive in Scotland’s remotest regions the ground underfoot is mostly damp and boggy which is the perfect condition for the females to lay their eggs.
You’ll also find them on the north coast and all along the west coast, but because the wind tends to be stronger on the coastline there’s a good chance you won’t be affected by them too much there.
The very worst places are those that are close to their breeding grounds and females have been found up to a mile away from their broods. You’ll also find them in their greatest numbers close to their food source, so basically anywhere there are sheep, cattle and deer – which roam right across the Highlands.
If you take anything away from this article remember that if you head anywhere that’s exposed to the wind there’s a much lower chance of getting bothered by the wee menaces than there is in sheltered locations like a glen.
You’ll also hardly ever see them once you reach elevations of 1500 feet or more so you might consider moving the mountain climbing/coast-walking sections of your Scotland itinerary higher up your list.
But if you want to escape them completely then I advise you to head to Scotland’s east coast as they’re rarely seen around there, especially the south-east towards Edinburgh.
In fact, I can confirm this is indeed true because I live in East Lothian on Scotland’s south-east coast and I’ve never been bothered by midges, even when walking through the countryside at their favourite time of day.
If you want to find out more about visiting East Lothian (whether it’s to escape the midges or not), check out my Complete Guide to Places to Visit in East Lothian.
When is the midge season in Scotland?
Quick answer – May to September.
Long answer – it depends on the climate each year because unfavourable weather (for midges) will delay their emergence, but I’m afraid you’re guaranteed to find swarms of them in the height of summer no matter what the elements are doing.
If the weather is humid and still the number of midges will skyrocket which is made even worse if Scotland has a wet summer (which it often does). In fact, it’s not uncommon for midges to torment visitors well into early autumn if the conditions are in their favour.
Thankfully for those of us that live in Scotland we can avoid midge season by exploring the countryside when they’re lying dormant, however, if you’re coming here between June and August for your holiday you’re just going to have to put up with them.
I really can’t stress enough how bad the midge swarms are in the Highlands except to say it’s such a problem that it accounts for a major loss to the nation’s economy due to the fact that outdoors workers find it almost impossible to get anything done when the midges are out in force.
During midge season the Scottish Forestry Authority estimates that 20% of working days are lost due to midge attacks but this probably pales into insignificance when compared to the impact on tourism.
One estimation is that Scotland’s tourism industry loses up to £270 million each year due to people staying away. Yes, they really are that much of an irritation, but continue reading and I’ll show you how you needn’t be one of the unlucky ones that have their holiday ruined by these horrible biting insects.
The midge lifecycle
The Scottish midge follows a predictable breeding pattern where you’ll start to see them at the end of May and they’ll start dying off in September – basically right in the middle of your summer holidays. Meanwhile, the females are laying more broods ready to annoy the sightseeing plans of the following year’s tourists.
When summer’s nearly over the eggs hatch and the larvae dig down into the soil a few centimetres for protection against the harsh Scottish winter climate. They then move up and down through the soil looking for organic debris to eat which will keep them going until they’re ready to emerge again in May.
As soon as May hits (how do they know it’s May anyway? Do they have calendar notifications on their little midge iPhones?) the larvae pupate for 24 to 48 hours, after which the adult males emerge, followed shortly after by the females.
Depending on the weather there will be a second or third generation roughly 6 weeks apart and after the males have mated they’ll die off, leaving the bitey females behind to lay their eggs across Scotland’s boggy, wet ground.
That first batch is produced using the female midges own protein reserves, but if there are to be any more broods she’ll need more protein, and that’s when they start hunting for sources of blood – i.e. you and me.
Thankfully the bite-a-thon declines once the temperature starts to fall so you’ll rarely be bothered by them once autumn comes along because the females die off from the cold. Unfortunately, their trillions of offspring are quietly waiting underground ready to emerge once the temperatures rise again, at which time the entire life-cycle repeats.
Take a look at this list for a broken-down version of events.
- In mid-May, the male midges emerge from the topsoil layer after their long winter hiding from the cold.
- 7 days later the females appear, they find the males, mate, and the males then disappear. That’s basically a Saturday night where I’m from.
- In another week the eggs mature and hatch into soil-dwelling larvae.
- The larvae go through 3 stages until they pupate into adult evil vampiric bloodsuckers.
- Females lay another 2 batches of eggs with around 200 eggs per brood depending on the weather conditions.
- The females die off in late September.
- The larvae from each generation bury themselves underground to hide from the winter and re-emerge the following May, ready to continue the life cycle.
The Scottish weather and midges
There are certain weather conditions that are favourable to Scotland’s midges and others that will drastically reduce their numbers, but as our weather is so unpredictable it’s almost impossible to guess how much of an impact the elements will have on them.
Basically, if the weather is mild and damp then expect to get bitten, but if it’s hot and dry you can be relatively well assured their numbers will be low as they hate blazing sunshine.
Unfortunately, this is Scotland and blazing sunshine is about as rare as flying pigs or hen’s teeth, but at least you can avoid heading out into the Highlands when the weather’s in their favour.
Keep the following information in mind the next time you venture outdoors in Scotland.
Midges LOVE these weather conditions:
- No breeze, or at least any windspeed under 5mph (8km/h). Anything over that and the wee blighters struggle to take off.
- Dawn, dusk and when there’s cloud cover. Midges don’t like it when it’s hot so they’ll be more active when the sun is obscured by clouds (which happens a lot in Scotland).
- Warm and damp weather in the Spring when you’ll find the first generation of the year’s midges arrive.
- Warm and damp weather in early Autumn when the third generation of midges hatch.
Midges HATE these weather conditions.
- Windy days. Thankfully it’s generally windy in Scotland, especially in the higher regions. Midges can’t fly when the wind is above 7mph (11km/h).
- A cold and dry Spring means the hatching of the first generation of midges is delayed. Rejoice!
- Hot, sunny days. Direct, unobscured sunlight makes midges much less active which is why you’ll hardly ever see them on a sunny mid-afternoon.
- A dry and hot June and July will drastically reduce the number that survives in the second generation.
The Scottish midge forecast
Aside from knowing when midge numbers will be at their peak and in which environments, there’s another tool you should use to steer clear of the worst affected areas in Scotland.
The company Smidge is at the frontline of Highland midge defence, and their insect repellent is the number 1 go-to spray that’s used by locals to protect themselves.
What you might not know is that Smidge is also actively involved in researching the movements of insects, with the findings uploaded into their online Midge Forecast.
This genuinely useful tool comprises a map of Scotland overlaid with scores from 1 to 5 which indicate how good or bad the current midge situation is throughout the country.
I think the Midge Forecast goes above and beyond what you’d expect from a company that sells insect repellent, and from the times I’ve used it, it appears to be pretty accurate.
Smidge uses a combination of insect traps to record midge numbers allied with weather stations that monitor how windy and sunny it is, with the final verdict updated regularly throughout the season.
I strongly suggest you take a look at the forecast before you head on out into the Highlands and if the map shows a 4 or a 5 in the area you’re going to you might want to reconsider your plans.
What’s it like to get a midge bite?
Painful then itchy… question answered.
A slightly longer explanation might be required, but the age-old saying ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ is totally relevant to how unpleasant Scotland’s midges are so take a look at this BBC short clip about a guy standing still for ONE minute in a midge swarm. Just look at his wee red face!
Started itching yet?
Anyway – back to midge bites. As I mentioned earlier, it’s only the females that actually do the biting as they need enough reserves of blood protein to make their eggs, but it’s the way they go about harvesting their juicy red meal that has given them such a fearsome reputation.
Midges feast primarily on mammals, most of which have a thick layer of skin protecting the gooey bits inside. To overcome this barrier, midges have developed toothed mandibles that work like saws to cut through the skin, and even though they’re only a millimetre or two in size as soon as they make the cut you’ll feel a sharp pinprick.
That’s compounded by the fact there are swarms of the flying monstrosities all over the Highlands, so while the odd bite here and there might be tolerable getting a hundred of them at a time is really quite painful.
Much like the mosquito, the Highland midge secretes a substance that stops your blood from coagulating and it’s from the constantly oozing wound that the females feed – for up to 3 minutes at a time if left undisturbed.
So that’s the painful bitey bit out of the way, but what happens afterwards?
Well, that’s the worst part in my opinion because now we have to put up with the maddeningly itchy red bump that’s left behind.
As soon as you get bitten your body will flood the area surrounding the wound with histamine in an attempt to flush out the intruder. That’s great, but a side effect is that histamine increases blood flow and boosts your white cell count which causes the red inflamed swelling we all know and hate.
Another side effect of histamine is that it sends signals to the nerves surrounding the bite which your brain perceives as an itchy sensation. We then scratch the itch to relieve it but this just increases the inflammation making it even itchier. It’s a vicious cycle – aarrgh!
Scottish midge bite treatments
So what can we do? Well, the first thing is to try to resist scratching. Yes I know that’s hard but if you scratch the bite you might inadvertently break the skin leading to possible infection and a wound that takes much longer to heal.
If you’re not sure about insect bite treatment you should head on over to the NHS insect bites and stings page which has a number of suggestions including applying over-the-counter antihistamine cream.
I’m not going to tell you what I think the best treatment is but I’ve been using Anthisan for years and it’s always worked for me. You can get it in your local chemist, or follow this Amazon affiliate link.
I’ve also heard from people who swear that applying heat from a hot water bottle helps with the itch, but then the NHS website says to apply a cold compress so I’d give the heat treatment a miss personally.
Other natural treatments I’ve heard of include applying honey to the affected area as well as aloe gel, but again I’ve never used those treatments myself and I’d always suggest going by the NHS guidelines instead.
How can I protect myself from midges?
If I was feeling snippy I’d tell you to just avoid going outside, but that’s not really helpful when you’ve come to Scotland for a walking holiday is it?
What I’ll tell you instead that because Highland midges are such a constant problem we resourceful humans have invented lots of ways to deal with them, most of which involve wearing anti-midge clothing, but there are a couple of other gadgets you could use as well.
First off, if you’re choosing between staying in a tent or a hotel you might want to consider the hotel, even though it’ll be a lot more expensive. Midges hate air-conditioning and they’re reluctant to go inside buildings so a hotel will pretty much guarantee a good nights sleep free from itchy, buzzy critters.
A tent, on the other hand, poses no problem for the little sh*ts and they’ll quite happily invade your personal space and possibly ruin your outdoors adventure while they’re at it. Whether you want to risk it is entirely up to you.
If you’re in a group you could consider investing in a midge trap (this and all following are amazon links). I’ve heard great things about these from people who’ve stayed at campsites where they’re installed though they might not be the ideal solution if you’re backpacking.
A midge trap works by releasing carbon dioxide, heat and moisture to mimic a bloody-carrying mammal so the biting insects that follow these markers are irresistibly drawn to it. Once the midges (or any other similar insect) is in the vicinity it gets sucked into a container by a strong fan and a trap (usually a sticky pad) stops them escaping.
They can protect an area up to 1 acre in size but the big downside is that they can take a few days before they’re effective. Still, if you’re in a caravan or a camper van and you’re planning to stay in one location for a week or more a midge trap might prove invaluable for your holiday.
Another gadget – ok, it’s not really a gadget – that flying insects hate is the midge candle. These produce a strong scent when lit and are a natural way to keep midges away and I absolutely recommend you buy a few for your next Scottish holiday. They help with insect swarms and they look nice too, and I think there’s something incredibly relaxing about watching a candle burn down in the evening.
On a similar note, you could try burning wood in a campfire as the smoke will usually deter insects – but only if it’s directly in their flight path. Smoke is as much use as a chocolate teapot if the wind blows in the wrong direction.
So what else can you do to protect yourself?
I think the easiest option is two-fold. Step one is to cover yourself from head to toe so no exposed part of your skin is visible, and step two is to use a good insect repellent to make your body appear as unappetizing as a week-old kebab.
The trousers are great as they’re breathable so you don’t get too hot, and you can zip the legs off to convert them into shorts once the midges have died down later in the day. The tops meanwhile are thin enough to keep cool but cover everything apart from hands and neck, and the arms can be rolled away when it gets too hot.
I’ve never worn a mosquito hat but I know people who do and fair enough if you don’t want to scrape thousands of insects out of your hair, nose, and ears each night. There are loads on Amazon but this one comes recommended to me by a friend who’s got one.
Phase 2 of the ‘Out About Scotland anti-midge protection plan®’ is to use a quality insect repellent spray, and I’ve used quite a few in my time so I’ve got some good suggestions for you.
Insect repellents come in two forms – those that contain DEET, and those that don’t. DEET, if you don’t already know, is a chemical formula that blocks the insect’s senses so that the smells (sweat, breath) that we produce doesn’t attract them. High-content DEET sprays work fantastically well but the downside is they’ve been known to irritate the skin of some people.
I’ve no idea which brand will work best for you but I’ve used Jungle Formula both overseas and in the Highlands and it worked every time.
An alternative that’s even better than using DEET is Smidge which offers up to 8 hours of protection without using any nasty chemicals. I’ve only got great things to say about this stuff and I love the fact it actually moisturises the skin at the same time as offering protection, and it smells nice too.
If I had to pick between the two I’d say go with Smidge, but if you can’t find a stockist or you don’t like shopping on Amazon just get any generic DEET spray instead.
There’s one other product I want to mention that seems to be a bit of an old wives tale though I’ve never used it so I can’t comment too much, but Avon Skin So Soft is supposed to be a pretty good insect repellent.
How well it works I can’t say, but I guess even if you get bitten you’ll at least have nice silky-smooth skin afterwards.
What other biting insects live in Scotland?
We’re pretty lucky in Scotland because other than the odd angry seagull we don’t have too many critters that can cause us harm, though there are a couple of other insect species that can be pretty annoying.
In towns and cities you can expect to see wasps wherever there are people and discarded food lying about, but I personally don’t see wasps as a problem. Yes, their sting hurts, but seriously, what do people expect when they instantly start flapping their arms around as soon as a wasp comes nearby?
My experience shows that a gentle hand movement deters wasps most of the time so there’s absolutely no need to be a giant baby and start screaming and flapping about whenever a tiny 1cm insect comes into range.
Besides, they’re only attracted to the food people can’t be bothered to dispose of properly anyway, so if the litter is cut down the wasps will be less of a problem. And before anyone says they serve absolutely no purpose remember they eat garden-destroying aphids and other pests, so I reckon we should be grateful there are wasps in the world.
That being said, if you’re intent on deterring them you could do a lot worse than use Wasp-ex. It’s made from natural oils like basil oil and it doesn’t harm the environment. Click on the image to be taken to Amazon.
So what else is there?
I absolutely don’t consider bees to be a pest either as they’ve got no interest in harming people unless they get annoyed by the previously-mentioned adult-babies, and as there’s a massive decline in the populations of the world’s greatest pollinators we need to actively encourage them.
One Scottish insect you might need to be wary of though is the Cleg, otherwise known as the horsefly.
You’ll find these relatively large flies in the northern Highlands between June and September and they have a notoriously vicious bite. This is really quite painful and always seems to result in a red inflamed lump that’s much worse than you’ll ever get from a midge.
Luckily, horseflies don’t congregate in large numbers and they’re not particularly common in most areas, but take care if they’re about. The normal reaction to a bite is a large, itchy red weal that lasts for days, and sometimes weeks.
Another pest we have in Scotland is the black fly which is much smaller than a Cleg but larger than a midge, and also packs a powerful bite.
While not dangerous they’ve very unpleasant and like midges prefer to swarm in large numbers, though thankfully only in localised areas like woodlands and lochs.
Their bite is much worse than a mosquito and the raised sore they leave behind is unbelievably itchy, so I’d advise from staying away from their hotspots of Speyside and Aviemore in May when they’re most prevalent.
Well, that just about sums it up for this article and I genuinely hope it’s been of some use to you, especially if you’re intending to plan a Scottish summer holiday.
That being said, I’ve got a great article you might like to read about summer in Scotland that’ll tell you all about our summer weather as well as offer a few suggestions for summer activities and places to visit that guarantee a great time when the sun decides to come out.
Check it out with this link: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Scotland in Summer.
Whatever you decide to do, have a great holiday in Scotland, and I hope to see you again at outaboutscotland.com soon.
Frequently Asked Questions
Midges are part of the Ceratopogonidae family of biting flies that exist on every continent on earth except for those places that are either too cold (like the north and south poles) or too hot (like the permanent deserts of North Africa).
Several studies have estimated that for every 2 square metres of ground there will be half a million eggs, so across the known areas where Scotland’s midges have been found there could be up to 181 Trillion of them.
The greatest numbers of midges are to be found in the West Highlands. They tend to live close to their food source which is cattle, below 1,500 feet. The east coast of Scotland is relatively free of midges.
May to September, though it can vary because because extended cold periods delay their emergence.