The aurora borealis is one of the most beautiful phenomena in the natural world. These dancing, skipping, multi-coloured lights are caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with the earth’s magnetic field, and they are most visible in northern countries like Scotland.
In this article you’ll discover the best places to view the northern lights in Scotland as well tips to help you see them, advice for photographing them, and information on Scotland’s fabulous dark sky parks.
What are the northern lights?
The northern lights – also known as the aurora borealis – is a naturally occurring spectacle that most people have heard of but few have actually seen.
In Scotland we call these lights ‘Mirrie Dancers’ and they’re often seen in the remotest parts of the country during autumn and winter when the nights are long, cold and clear.
There’s a lot of science behind the northern lights and having a wee bit of background knowledge about what causes them to appear can drastically improve your chances of seeing them.
So what, exactly, are they?
To look at, the aurora borealis is a dancing light display in the sky comprised of shimmering bands of changing colours that range from green (the most predominant colour) to yellow, blue, and purple.
Their intensity starts off as barely visible, but as the sky darkens they become ever brighter until the flickering ribbons are replaced by intense coronas of shifting colours that are occasionally joined by arcs, rippling curtains and shooting rays.
To say it’s impressive is a bit of an understatement.
These lights are, in actual fact, caused by activity on the surface of the sun over 92.94 million miles away.
Vast solar storms are constantly erupting on the surface of our nearest star which create enormous clouds of electrically charged particles that travel out into the solar system.
Although the majority miss our planet, some collide and become captured by the earths magnetic field which pushes them towards the north and south poles.
As the particles accelerate they slam into molecules in our atmosphere which makes them heat up and glow. The heated particles are also moved by the lines in the earth’s magnetic field, creating the famed wavy patterns in the night sky.
But what about the colours?
Well again, there’s some interesting science behind the phenomena. The two main gases in our atmosphere are nitrogen and oxygen, and if you remember your science class at school you’ll know that different gases radiate different colours when they’re heated.
That’s why the northern lights are usually seen as green and yellow, as oxygen produces these colours when heated, while blues and purples are caused by heated nitrogen.
The quantity of these elements varies between the layers of our atmosphere, so as the solar particles hurtle towards us they create different colours depending on which elements they heat up.
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The best places to see the northern lights in Scotland
That’s the science bit over, now how to put that knowledge to good use?
First off, because the aurora borealis is concentrated at the poles they’re most visible at high latitudes which is why Scotland is such a good place to see them.
The northern tip of our mainland lies at the same level as Stavanger in Norway while our northernmost Shetland Isles are equivalent in latitude to Bergen, meaning your chances to see the lights will improve the further north you go.
Second, we know the aurora doesn’t begin until 80 miles (128.75 km) above the earth’s surface which means it’ll be completely obscured by any low-lying cloud, and because it’s so high up it’s also faint, so any nearby lights will almost entirely block it out.
Third, because the phenomena is completely dependent on solar activity we’ll have the best chance of seeing it if there are strong storms on the sun’s surface, which means we need an accurate solar forecast.
So that’s four variables that affect our ability to see the northern lights: how far north we are, how much light pollution there is, what Scotland’s weather is doing, and how much solar activity there is.
I’ll cover the last two variables further down this page, but for now let’s take a look at places in Scotland that are great aurora-spotting locations with minimal light pollution.
Caithness is a region of Scotland situated on the northernmost part of the mainland facing the Atlantic Ocean and the Pentland Firth.
Due to its remoteness, Caithness is only lightly populated so it’s a great place to see the night sky – as long as you stay away from the two main towns of Wick and Thurso that is.
Although they’re not exactly the biggest towns in Scotland they still have enough light pollution to wash out the aurora borealis, but it’s easy to leave the lights behind by driving west.
From the middle of the north coast all the way around to the west coast there are only a few villages scattered about, meaning the skies are almost completely unobscured after sunset.
Coupled with the fact there are few roads in this part of Scotland you have the makings of a first-rate northern lights experience.
One spot I recommend for viewing the sky is Ben Hope, or at least the area surrounding it. Ben Hope is located in a stunning landscape that’s entirely devoid of human settlements so the sky is pitch black at all times of the year.
There’s a minor road running along the eastern bank of Loch Hope that allows easy access, and if you follow the Ben Hope trail a short distance you’ll quickly find yourself in an elevated position that’s free from trees and has open views looking towards the west.
The Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides is an island chain off the north-west coast of Scotland comprising over 70 islands, 15 of which are inhabited by just 27,000 people in total.
These islands are some of the most beautiful in Scotland, in particular Harris and Lewis with its white sand beaches, crystal clear sea and unspoilt landscape.
As a place for watching the northern lights, Harris and Lewis takes my number one spot. Getting there isn’t particularly difficult either thanks to Stornoway airport which serves flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow, but if you’re heading south to Uist and Barra be aware the only way to get there is by ferry.
Pretty much anywhere in the Outer Hebrides is a great place for watching the northern lights, but the east coast is particularly good as the skyline is completely uninterrupted and there are roads (and ferries) allowing access to the rest of the island chain.
Shetland and Orkney
These two groups of islands lie to the far north of Scotland but they have regular ferry services from the mainland.
Shetland is an interesting enough place, but for me, Orkney pips it to the post as a tourist destination. There are over 5,000 years of history to discover on Orkney including the ancient stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness as well as the unbelievably well-preserved ancient settlement of Skara Brae.
There’s also the small fact that Orkney can be reached in under an hour by ferry from the mainland (Gills Bay in Caithness to St. Margaret’s Hope on Orkney) as opposed to Shetland which has a 12-hour sail from Aberdeen, making Orkney much easier to hop over to with your car.
Shetland admittedly does have the largest prehistoric fort in Britain – Mousa Broch – and the islands are a third bigger than Orkney, but both are fantastic places for wildlife spotting and for bird watching they’re two of the best locations in the UK, let alone Scotland.
As far as seeing the northern lights goes, both islands are almost entirely treeless so if you can get to an elevated position you’ll have uninterrupted views in all directions. Plus, due to the fact there are only 22,000 people on each island group there’s very little light pollution.
The Isle of Skye
I admit I’ve got a bit of a love/hate relationship going on with Skye. It’s a stunning place to be sure, and natural wonders like The Quiraing and The Storr are jaw dropping, but this is one island that has sadly become a victim of its own success.
Visit at any time during peak season – i.e. May to September – and you’ll find it’s absolutely jam-packed with tourists, bringing with them all the problems of too many people in a small area.
That means it’s impossible to find accommodation unless you book months in advance, the roads are crammed with coaches, and all the most popular attractions are heaving with crowds.
If you want to watch the northern lights in peace, Skye is not the place to go.
That being said, if you time it right and book your trip late spring or early autumn you’ll find there are far fewer tourists and you’ll be able to enjoy the stunning landscape in (almost) peace and quiet. As a bonus, thanks to the Skye bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh you can save a packet on ferry costs as well.
The northern tip of the island is highly recommended for viewing the northern lights as houses are few and far between, as is the western part of the island at Neist Point.
Galloway Forest Park
This is the most southerly location in this list but don’t think that means there’s less of a chance to see the northern lights because Galloway Forest Park is one of the darkest places in Britain.
This vast forest lies on the west coast of Scotland south of Ayr and west of Dumfries in a region that’s relatively flat and lightly populated. While there are more villages here than you’ll find further north it’s almost entirely comprised of farmland, so very little – if any – light pollution manages to escape into the park.
Even if you don’t manage to see the aurora borealis there are fun times to be had in the forest thanks to an extensive network of mountain biking routes including the world-famous 7stanes trails.
There are also three excellent visitor centres at Kirroughtree, Glentrool and Clatteringshaws so if you’re unsure where to head first you might like to visit one of the centres and ask the staff for advice.
This region lies on the north-eastern corner of Scotland between Banff and Nairn.
The main benefit here is that there’s lots of places to visit if you’re looking for a good family day out (Portsoy, Cullen and Lossiemouth spring to mind) and it’s not heaving with tourists so you can explore the region in relative peace and quiet no matter the time of year.
Because Moray lies just outside of the Highland Boundary Fault the coastal region is quite flat so you get great views looking towards the North Sea, and coupled with a light smattering of settlements it’s possible to find lots of spots with superb inky-black night skies.
Other than being so close to Speyside whisky, one of the highlights of Moray is its position close to the Cairngorms National Park, especially the area surrounding Tomintoul and Glenlivet which is home to Scotland’s second – and the world’s most northerly – dark sky park.
This area is widely regarded as one of the best in the world for stargazing and the Glenlivet Estate, in particular, is a fantastic place, not just for catching sight of the northern lights but also for its forests, mountain biking trails, riverside walks, castles and distilleries.
Northern lights forecast
Monitoring solar activity is a science in itself and there are a number of online resources that monitor and compile data to predict the best times to see the aurora borealis. In fact, solar forecasts are now so advanced they can predict with a high degree of accuracy the chances of seeing the lights hour by hour.
Many of these online resources use data compiled by hobbyists so there’s often a minor difference between the forecasts, which is why I recommend taking a look at two or three to get an average prediction before heading out into the cold night air.
The most popular of these forecasts are:
There are also apps you can download onto your mobile device that present forecasts about the northern lights in a format that’s easier to understand (i.e. less technical) than most of these websites. Two of the best apps are Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts and My Aurora Forecast.
For weather forecasts to avoid those infamously cloudy Scottish skies you’re spoilt for choice, but my personal recommendation is to check the Met Office website as it’s (usually) pretty accurate.
What is a dark sky park?
Light pollution is an increasing concern for the environment, for a number of reasons. Little more than 100 years ago you could walk outside at night and see the vast expanse of the Milky Way with its thousands of pin pricks of light, even in a city.
Today, unfortunately, the situation is very different and starlight is almost completely washed out in towns and cities. Even in the countryside you’ll only see a tiny fraction of the stars in the night sky, and of course, trying to see the northern lights is almost impossible anywhere there are houses.
This constant overpowering man-made light has other negatives too, including its disruption to animal’s ability to navigate and the effects of sleep deprivation in humans due to a reduction in melatonin.
Thankfully, environmental campaigners are fighting back and there are now areas of the world that are protected from excess light pollution, two of which are the Cairngorms and Galloway Forest park.
These two regions are designated as dark sky parks which means they have exceptionally dark skies thanks to the careful management of man-made lights.
Galloway Forest park was the first place in the UK and the fourth in the world to be given this accolade due to the fact there are hardly any people that live in the 300 square miles of the forest. That means the sky is almost pure black when the sun retreats and over 7,000 stars and planets become visible to the naked eye.
If you’ve never seen the night sky when there’s no light pollution you’re in for a real treat if you visit one of Scotland’s dark sky parks. The number of stars you’ll see is nothing short of breathtaking and they’re the perfect place for stargazing and watching the aurora borealis come alive.
If you’d like to find out more about dark sky parks head on over to the International Dark Sky Association website where you’ll find lots of information about the impact of light pollution on our planet as well as the work that’s being done to combat it.
Tips and advice for watching the northern lights
1. Know the solar cycles
The key to viewing the northern lights is knowing that the sun goes through different phases of activity, each of which is called a solar cycle. These cycles last, on average, 11 years, and they have stages that range from very quiet to very active. Quiet stages are referred to as solar minimum, and active stages are referred to as solar maximum.
As you’ve probably already guessed from the name, your best chance of seeing the northern lights is when the sun is at its solar maximum stage, as that’s the time when the most charged particles are flung out into space towards the earth.
It’s obviously good to know when these cycles occur but it basically boils down to the fact that the last cycle ended in 2019 and the current solar cycle will continue ramping up until it reaches solar maximum in July 2025.
After that the sun will slow its activity levels again until solar minimum is reached in 2030. While you might see the aurora in Scotland in the years surrounding the solar minimum, you’ll have the best opportunities in the years either side of the solar maximum.
2. Understand the KP index
If you look at any website dedicated to the aurora borealis or solar activity in general, there will almost certainly be a reading that indicates the likelihood of seeing the phenomena.
This reading is called the KP index, and understanding it is essential to make the most of the many websites dedicated to the northern lights.
As mentioned earlier, the further north you go the more likely you are to see the northern lights because the charged particles thrown our way by the sun are concentrated at the poles.
The index ranges from 0 to 10 and it basically describes how strong the sun’s activity is. So if, for example, the KP index was 0 (the lowest level of activity) you would need to be close to the North Pole in order to see any lights.
As the suns activity increases the KP index rises, with each increase in level indicating an extra 350 km in latitude south from the North Pole where you can see the northern lights.
Bear in mind the KP index rating of a location doesn’t change, and here in Scotland we have a rating of KP 5 for the northern mainland out to the Shetland Isles, and a KP rating of 6 for the tip of the northernmost mainland down to the Scottish Borders.
So in a nutshell, the next time you check a solar activity forecast and you notice there’s a KP index of 5 or 6, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to see the northern lights in Scotland.
3. Maintain your night vision
When the sun’s activity is strong, the aurora appears as bright, dancing ribbons of colour that fill the sky. In reality however, for the most part the lights are quite faint and get fainter the further south you go.
That is the reason I mentioned dark sky parks earlier in this article as even the slightest amount of light pollution can completely ruin your chances of seeing the lights when the KP index is low.
One of the biggest advantages you can give yourself other than finding a viewing spot as far north as possible and as far away from towns and cities as possible, is to make sure you don’t lose your night vision.
It can take up to an hour for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark but they will lose the adaptation within a couple of minutes of being exposed to bright lights, so there are a couple of points to keep in mind when you’re aurora-hunting.
First off, do not look at your phone screen unless you absolutely have to, and even then only if you’ve set the brightness down to a bare minimum.
Even the lowest setting can be too bright for your eyes once they’ve adjusted, but there are light dimming sheets (Amazon link) that you can place over the screen to cut down on all that annoying screen glare.
Likewise with torches, they’ll ruin your night vision within a few minutes of use so I recommend not switching them on unless you absolutely have to.
That being said, premium torches come equipped with red filters which don’t affect your eyes, so if you’re serious about seeing the northern lights and you’re heading out into the middle of nowhere you’ll find a red light torch (Amazon link) an invaluable tool.
How to photograph the northern lights
It’s all very well going to the trouble of roaming the wilds of Scotland in order to see the aurora, but wouldn’t it be nice to take a few photos of the experience as well?
You may well think it’s an impossible task for a novice photographer, but if you’ve got a little know-how under your belt you’ll be able to take Instagram-worthy shots that will amaze your friends and family.
But before you whip your camera out, you need to be aware of a few things. First, it’s going to be nighttime (well, obviously…), and that means it’s going to be cold, so you’ll need to make sure you’re wearing warm clothes which include gloves, preferably fingerless so you can operate your camera.
Second, you should forget about trying to capture the aurora with your phone because the tiny sensor will struggle with long exposures and the noise will almost certainly ruin the shot. While top-end phone cameras are getting better year by year, they still can’t compete with even a cheap mirrorless camera.
Although you’ll get the best images with a full-frame sensor, I use a micro four thirds camera and still manage to take decent photos. Note that all the following camera specs are based on micro four thirds, so you’ll need to double the numbers for full frame gear.
As far as the lens goes I use a 10 mm F2 from Laowa (20 mm F4 full frame equivalent), but if you have an even faster lens then all the better. Photographing the night sky is all about getting as much light into the sensor as possible so I recommend using at least an F2.8 aperture.
If you don’t want to spend £300+ on a premium lens I can confirm the 7artisans 7.5 mm F2.8 (Amazon link) also does a great job.
You’ll notice both these lenses are very wide angle, and there’s a good reason for that. For astrophotography, there’s a rule about how long you can keep the shutter open before the rotation of the earth makes the stars blur, which is:
500 / lens focal length = Exposure time.
This is for full frame, so if you have an M43 camera you’ll have to double the focal length.
A quick bit of maths with my Laowa 10 mm lens gives us 500 / 20 = a maximum of 25 seconds, whereas a 25 mm M43 lens (50 mm FF equivalent) would only allow a maximum 10-second exposure i.e., 500 / 50 = 10.
A long exposure is great for stars but the aurora is constantly moving so you need to balance the two. As a rule of thumb, anything from 2 to 10 seconds should be enough to pick up lots of detail in both the aurora and the stars.
The last thing to consider for the lens is to open it up to its maximum aperture to allow the most light in, and set the focus to infinity so that everything will be in focus from the foreground to the background.
To set up your camera, attach it to a tripod and adjust the angle till you find a scene you like the look of. The old two-thirds composition rule works great for shots of the night sky so try to fill the upper 2/3 of the frame with sky and the lower 1/3 with ground.
Next, level the left/right tilt of your camera using the on-screen inclinometer or a bubble level. You can buy bubble levels from Amazon for a few quid but you’ll need a torch to see it in the dark which is why I prefer to use the camera’s built-in indicator.
Set your camera’s ISO to a setting that’s as high as possible without creating a noisy mess. You’ll probably want to do a bit of research online for your specific camera, but for my Olympus EM1 I tend to use ISO 3200. You should also set your camera to capture RAW as you’ll have much more flexibility in editing compared to shooting JPEGs.
Finally, set your camera to fire on a timer which will help reduce the vibration when you press the shutter button. A 5-second delay should do the job nicely.
Note that these recommendations are really just guidance to use as a starting point for your nighttime photos and for your first few shots you might like to play around with the ISO and shutter speed till you work out what works best for your set-up.
The final stage of photographing the aurora borealis takes place when you get back home and import your photos into your editing software. This is a whole tutorial in itself so I won’t go into details here but you’ll find a wealth of information on the internet, such as the excellent Digital Camera World website.
Frequently Asked Questions about the northern lights
What is the best time of day to see the northern lights in Scotland?
Being a natural phenomenon the northern lights appear randomly in Scotland, but you’re more likely to see them when the sky is darkest.
Due to its high latitude, Scotland has short nights in summer and in places like the Shetland Isles it barely gets dark at all.
The following times of day in central Scotland are an indication for when it’s dark enough to see the northern lights.
Sun rises 5.22am
Sun sets 7.11pm
Sun rises 6.20am
Sun sets 5.52pm
Sun rises 7.23am
Sun sets 4.37pm
Sun rises 8.23am
Sun sets 3.49pm
Sun rises 8.47am
Sun sets 3.53pm
Sun rises 08.11am
Sun sets 4:51pm
Sun rises 7.08am
Sun sets 5.51pm
Can you see the northern lights in Edinburgh and Glasgow?
It’s very unlikely to see the northern lights in Edinburgh or Glasgow, although that isn’t to say it never happens.
If the aurora is particularly strong it can be seen over the capital city when there is little moonlight, but only in those elevated areas that are away from street lights.
The best locations for seeing the northern lights in Edinburgh are Calton Hill, Blackford Hill and Holyrood Park.
The northern lights are very rarely reported in Glasgow but they might be visible away from the city centre in places like Pollock Country Park
What time of year is best to see the northern lights in Scotland?
Solar activity can create the aurora borealis at any time of the year, but your ability to see it is totally dependent on how dark the sky is.
Therefore, in Scotland it’s best to view the lights in autumn and winter (from September to March) when the nights are longest and the skies are darkest.
Can you see the northern lights with the naked eye?
You can see the northern lights with your naked eyes, but only in conditions where there is very little ambient light and there is virtually no light pollution. It is almost impossible to see the northern lights during the day as sunlight will completely wash out the colours of the aurora.
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