What are the northern lights? Also known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights are a magical natural light display which are seen in the sky on rare occasions, in areas which are high-latitude regions, such as Scotland. The science behind them is fascinating, explaining them to be a ‘result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind.’ Aurora borealis is Latin for “morning light coming from the north.”
Depending on the strength of the occurrence, they can be very subtle to the point where some would not notice them (especially if it’s cloudy), or they can cover the skies in green, blue and red tones, showing magnificent displays of wonder. Those keen into photography can do cool things with shutter speeds to capture them in a really stunning way.
Read on to discover some of the best places for northern lights in Scotland.
When are you most likely to see the northern lights in Scotland?
The auroras are most likely to be seen in Scotland between mid-October and mid-March, and for best chances you want to avoid any times where there is going to be a full moon. They are really hard to predict, so if you hit it on the right night, it can feel like a really big achievement and can be really exciting. You are more likely to get a good sighting in the evening and it needs to be cold, the sky clear of clouds and light pollution, and there also needs to be increased solar activity.
Here are some useful websites to use when looking for the northern lights in Scotland:
Where can you see the northern lights in Scotland?
Here are five regions where you could get a good sighting of the northern lights in the north of Scotland.
North West Scotland
The Highland regions of Sutherland and Caithness are prime areas for spotting the northern lights in Scotland. Along the northern coastline of Sutherland, you have the small villages of Durness, Tongue and Melvich which are known to be good places to see the lights – find a local pub to have dinner in and then head out to try your luck. Over in Caithness on the most northerly tip, there is a great sighting spot in Castletown and also John O’Groats, the most northerly town in Scotland. This whole region boasts a remarkable openness in all directions with beaches, cliffs and tiny fishing harbours existing in peace. The dark skies here are some of the clearest you will see with acres of black skies speckled with twinkling stars.
The Shetland Islands
Shetland lies closer to the North Pole than any other part of Britain, making it one of the best places to see the northern lights in Scotland. Over winter, the locals will vouch that you can expect to see the auroras several times with a mix of low-level displays and one or two really spectacular ones. There is an abundance of open countryside on Shetland so there are plenty of places to pull up and settle down for a leisurely light-spotting session. Explore the island from where you are staying and find a remote and quiet spot where you can settle down with your fold-out chairs, tea and blanket, and camera if you want to make the memory official.
The Outer Hebrides
The Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris are two islands, joined together, set off the north west of the Scottish Highlands. There is little to no light pollution here, which means the skies are open, dark and clear – perfect conditions for a possible sighting of the northern lights. There are lots of remote beaches on the Isle of Harris which sits to the south, and the open flat countryside of Lewis offers up large empty landscapes perfect for good views. Uist and Barra are also part of the Outer Hebrides and boast clear skies too! The wildness of the west only adds to the experience of staying on these gorgeous islands.
The Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is an island set off the west coast of Scotland and is known to be a good location for aurora sightings in Scotland – especially to the north of the island. There are many remote regions which are away from light pollution, so you won't struggle to find somewhere quiet to sit and wait. There are a good few Dark Sky Discovery sites on the island. Glendale, where you will also find the famous Fairy Pools, is said to be a good location where they have been seen on occasion, but there is no telling where the lights will show face; you just need to stay remote.
Morayshire and Aberdeenshire
The Moray Coast sits north of the Highlands and takes in the northern coast between Nairn and Aberdeen. There is much to be seen along this coastline including traditional coastal villages, lovely sandy beaches, historic castles and ruins, and beautiful woodlands. Inland, you will find lots of lovely countryside to explore and the Cairngorms National Park which reaches into Moray, with Glenlivet and Tomintoul being great towns to visit – this is proper whisky country! Grab your blanket and hip flasks and make an event of aurora watching.
The Cairngorms National Park
You can usually rely on a national park to serve up remote and peaceful areas in which you can be sure of high levels of dark skies. With lots of wilderness to explore, the Cairngorms National Park is a popular spot for those into outdoor activity and adventure. A huge outdoor playground, all year round it is busy with families and friends enjoying the seasons, and getting out and about on all sorts of explorations. It settles down at night time though, making this a relaxing spot to try and experience the northern lights in Scotland. Tomintoul and Glenlivet have been awarded the status of ‘International Dark Sky Park’.
Read more about this amazing area in our guide to the Cairngorms National Park.
How to prepare for your northern lights adventure in Scotland
- Check the weather forecast – the best conditions are clear and still nights.
- Find a remote area where you are not in sight of street lights, as they can tamper with your view.
- This is not a quick adventure; you are likely going to be outside for several hours so you want to make sure you are wrapped up warmly with several layers of insulation. It is also a good idea to come armed with a blanket, and a flask of hot tea or coffee.
- Keep an eye out for unusual light patterns in the sky. Sometimes it can look like a faint flicker of colour, and other times you will have no doubt that it is the auroras.
- Take your camera – you will want to try and capture the memory.
Increase your chances of seeing the northern lights in Scotland
Have we inspired you to come on a Scotland northern lights holiday? We have some great holiday cottages in the north of Scotland that can act as lovely bases for adventurous holidays. Many of them have gardens in which you can spend long evenings in with the comfort of your kitchen and living room close by. View our coastal collection if you want to stay near the sea while our large houses can offer great accommodation for groups wanting to get into the wilderness together and experience this extraordinary phenomenon.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.