Updated: May 7
It might come as a surprise but it is actually possible to spot the Northern Lights in the Scottish Highlands and they have been seen in Fort Augustus without having to go to Norway or Alaska and break your piggy bank. Northern Scotland has in fact the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and that represents a good chance of spotting the Aurora Borealis!
But let’s go with order, what are exactly the Northern Lights? These are collisions between solar electrically charged particles that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the north and ‘Aurora australis’ in the south. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding; combined with oxygen they produce a kind of green-ish light that is also the most common to see, when combined with nitrogen they produce red-ish or blue-ish lights. Without going too technical, the lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, curtains or shooting rays but whatever it’s their shape the result is truly spectacular.
What is the best time to see the Northern Lights? As per our previous post, Autumn and Winter seasons, mainly from October to March, are probably the best time of the year to spot the Norther Lights. Cold nights and clear skies with limited light pollution can give you breath-taking views of Aurora Borealis.
Where to spot them in Scotland? North of Scotland generally offers better chances of spotting the ‘Aurora’ but when the right conditions are met and the light pollution is at a minimum it can been seen from anywhere.
This is a list of some of the best places: • Shetland, Orkney and Caithness (eg. Noss Head, Wick) • Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast (eg. Nairn, Portknockie, Cairn o’ Mount) • Lewis, Harris and the most northerly tip of Skye • Isle of Coll • Isle of Mull • The far north west of Scotland (eg. Applecross, Lochinver, north of Ullapool) • The Cairngorms • Galloway Forest Park – the only Dark Sky Park in Scotland! • Rannoch Moor and Perthshire • Angus and the coast of Fife (eg. St Andrews) • Wester Ross coast (including Gairloch and Ullapool)
Don’t forget to check the AuroraWatch website that provides free alerts when the Aurora is luckily to be visible, they also have an app version you can check from your smartphone. Another website with alerts, live information and maps, is www.softservenews.com. Here you will also read about KP numbers which represent the strength of the Aurora.
A few tips if you are going out into the wild to spot the Northern lights: • It needs to be a clear night • Find a dark location away from light pollution such as street lights, cars and buildings. • Wrap up warm and be patient, it might take a while before you can actually see something in the sky • Be aware that our eyes don’t see bright, vivid colours that are captured by a camera. Don’t be disappointed by what you see and and bear in mind photos of the aurora are normally more impressive than what you will see live. • Don’t give up. If you don’t see them the first time, keep on trying.
This post was first published 9th October 2019