Midges in Scotland – How to Protect Yourself

The 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 onto 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!

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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 natural 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 Scottish 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 midge candles. 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.

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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.

camp fire

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.

For the clothes, I can only recommend what I use myself, and that’s wearing convertible lightweight hiking trousers to protect my legs and a thin base layer shirt to protect my top half.

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 someone who’s got one.

Phase 2 of the ‘Craig Smith anti-midge protection plan®’ is to use a good 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.

insect protection hat

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?

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My experience shows that a gentle hand movement deters wasps most of the time so there’s absolutely no need to be a 40-year-old adult-baby and start screaming and flapping about whenever a tiny 1cm insect comes in range.

Besides, they’re only attracted to the food people can’t be bothered to dispose of properly, so if the litter is cut down the wasps will be less of a problem. And before anyone says they serve absolutely no purpose, 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 wasps you could do a lot worse than use Wasp-ex. It’s made from natural oils like basil oil and doesn’t harm the environemnt. 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 number, 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.

Horse Fly

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 to take part in and places to go 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.

Cheers, Craig

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