When and where to see the Northern Lights in Scotland


Scotland was once again lit up this weekend by a fantastical display of the Aurora Borealis. Chances of seeing the Northern Lights are not guaranteed but you can increase your odds by visiting these places in Scotland at a certain time of year.

By Angus Wright

There are many natural attractions to Scotland which draw thousands of tourists into the country every year. From it’s stunning coastline to rolling glens, Scotland offers something for everyone looking to escape the cities and get back in touch with nature.

One phenomenon brings more tourists here than anything else – the northern lights. These astrological light shows stun locals and visitors alike every time they appear. So where, and when, is the best time to see this amazing spectacle?

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are caused by a series of collisions at a molecular level in the Earths upper atmosphere. The Sun releases charged electrons which accelerate as they approach our atmosphere. These electrons travel along with magnetic fields and once they reach the atmosphere, collide with molecules of oxygen and nitrogen. These collisions produce visible light if enough are concentrated in one area. When seen from Earth, you can see a range of colours from deep pinks and purples to vibrant greens. The colour of light produced depends on whether the electrons collide with oxygen or nitrogen molecules and how fast they are travelling at the point of contact.

The northern lights are also known by a couple of other names. Nicknamed the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ by locals as they dance and flicker across the night sky. They are also known as the Aurora Borealis – this is derived Aurora the Roman goddess of dawn and Boreas, the Greek name for North wind.

The best places to see the Northern Lights

As the name suggests, the Northern Lights are easier to see the further north you travel. The north of Scotland, including the islands of Orkney and Shetland, will give you the best chance of spotting the Aurora. The north of the country is on a similar latitude to other areas where the lights are prevalent such as Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska. As you get further north, not only do the lights become brighter, but also more frequent.

When planning a trip to see the Northern Lights, not only do you need to consider the latitude you are on but also the impact light pollution can have on your experience. If you are in any kind of proximity to a city or town this can dramatically reduce the likelihood of seeing the Aurora.

While heading north will increase your chances of seeing the lights, this isn’t your only option. Some of the best places to see them are located all around Scotland. Just to name a few, there are:

  • Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast
  • The isles of Lewis, Harris, and the most northern tip of Skye
  • Far north-west of Scotland including Applecross and north of Ullapool
  • Galloway Forest Park
  • The Cairngorms
  • Rannoch Moor and Perthshire
  • Angus and the coast of Fife such as St Andrews
  • Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat (if Northern Lights are particularly strong)
  • Shetland, Orkney, and Caithness

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights

Location is very important when trying to view the Aurora, choosing the right time to go can massively increase your chances of getting a glimpse of the lights. As they have the longest periods of darkness, the best seasons to see the Northern Lights are Autumn and Winter. As the more northerly areas of Scotland are less densely populated and have more hours of darkness, this makes them the best places to see the lights.

As well as gauging the right time of year to go and see the Aurora, there are also a lot of environmental conditions to consider when making your way out. The ideal conditions for viewing the lights are cold nights with clear and cloudless skies. When they are active, the Northern Lights can be seen from when it gets dark, right through the night until it begins to get light again.

Other facts about the Northern Lights

While there are ideal conditions for viewing the Aurora Borealis, they are always active. Depending on the energy transmitted during the collisions between particles in the atmosphere, either visible or other frequencies of light which cannot be seen with the naked eye.

If you want to photograph the lights, even if they seem faint, you can see much more in your pictures than with the naked eye. The camera will pick up light which is not visible, some editing software will also help to bring out even more colours which may have been missed.

In places such as Alaska and Greenland, the northern lights can be seen most nights of the year as conditions are perfect most of the time, combined with their ideal locations, close to the Arctic. It is not only in the north the Aurora can be seen; they have been spotted as far south as Mexico.

Some people have reported not only seeing the Northern Lights but also hearing them. There have been few recordings of any sound associated with the lights, however, many people still report hearing something when viewing them. Experts have put this down to “signal leakage” caused by overstimulated visual centres in the brain or by the energy created by or associated with the Aurora. It is reported that early explorers would cover the eyes of those reporting to hear the lights to stop the phenomenon.

Have you seen the Northern Lights in Scotland? Do you have any more tips on how or where to see them? Let us know!