Northern Lights in Scotland Hero - D3RX via Flickr

How to See the Northern Lights in Scotland

In Aurora Guide by Inka Piegsa

When thinking about Scotland, country of history and mystery, what first comes to mind are castles, wild mountains, lochs, and bagpipes – but perhaps not necessarily that it’s one of the best places to see the northern lights.

The aurora is called the Mirrie Dancers in Scotland. The northern lights are created by electrically charged particles of the sun interacting with the atmosphere of the earth and creating an awe-inspiring spectacle of color and movement. The colors are caused by the type of gas particles emanating from the sun and the atoms they encounter as they hit the earth’s atmosphere.

Given that the north of Scotland is at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and the Nunivak Islands in Alaska, it’s no surprise that there is a great chance to see the Mirrie Dancers in one of the many. Below you’ll find when and where to go to see the aurora in Scotland with your own eyes.

When See the Northern Lights in Scotland

Northern Lights in Scotland - C Hollingsworth via Flickr
Photo credit: C Hollingsworth via Flickr

If you plan a summer holiday in Scotland, you are out of luck when it comes to seeing the northern lights. Whilst it is a perfect season to enjoy hikes or chasing Nessie through the lochs, it’s not appropriate for chasing Mirrie Dancer. The midnight sun makes it impossible to see the northern lights.

The best time to see the northern lights in Scotland is December through February, the darkest months of the year. You could celebrate Christmas in a loch-side lodge, toast Hogmanay (the New Year) in January in Edinburgh, or take advantage of less rain in February.

Where to See the Northern Lights in Scotland

Northern Lights in Scotland

If you are a true northern lights enthusiast, you’ll be delighted to find so many places in Scotland with great dark skies and good northern views. For the best chance to see the aurora in Scotland, plan a multi-night itinerary to several of these places – this will improve your odds!

Shetland

Northern Lights in Scotland - Shetland - Ronnie Robertson via Flickr
Photo credit: Ronnie Robertson via Flickr

The Shetland Islands are the British Isles that are closest to the North Pole. This makes them a good destination to see the northern lights in winter! Stay away from places with street lightning such as Lerwick or you will be disappointed.

Even if you don’t see the northern lights, you can attend one of the Up Helly Aa fire festivals in January.

Orkney

The Orkney islands are an archipelago of 70 islands in northern Scotland. Some of the best places to watch include the coast at Birsay, the beach at Dingieshowe, or the top of Wideford Hill. There is even a Facebook group called Orkney Aurora Group where local residents and enthusiasts post the latest information.

Island of Lewis & Harris

Northern Lights in Scotland - Pixabay

The Island of Lewis & Harris is on the Atlantic side of Scotland, forming the northernmost part of the Outer Hebrides. It’s another favorite spot for lovers of the northern lights. You can catch a ferry from Ullapool to Lewis & Haris for a weekend of trying to see the aurora.

Lochinver

Lochinver is a small village on the Scottish Highlands’ west coast. Adjacent to the beautiful Assynt district, it’s well known to stargazers as well as birdwatchers. The village may be remote and small, but it’s also an important fishing port. This means it has good views out across the water if you’re trying to spot the northern lights.

The Isle of Skye

Northern Lights in Scotland - Shetland - Ronnie Robertson via Flickr
Photo credit: Ronnie Robertson via Flickr

The Isle of Skye is another northwestern Scottish island. The Trotternish peninsula the north features nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites. This means you have a good chance for dark skies – and the northern lights if the conditions are right! While you wait for the magic in the sky to happen, stay in one of the quirky and cozy Shulista Croft Wigwams.

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park is twice the size of the Lake District in England! It contains six of the UK’s highest mountains, as well as lakes, forest, lochs, and even beaches! If you want to observe the northern lights from the Cairngorms after days of outdoor exploration, Aviemore is a good starting point.

Galloway Forest Park

Although not as far north as other destinations on this list, Galloway has another requirement for successful aurora borealis watching: a very dark sky extending over 300 square miles of dense forest.

The Galloway Dark Sky Park is dedicated to keeping the atmosphere as free of light pollution as possible. Base yourself from Glentrool, Kirroughtree, and Clatteringshaw for an aurora expedition. All three of these towns have observation and information centers.

Edinburgh

Northern Lights in Scotland - Michal Ziembicki via Flickr
Photo credit: Michal Ziembicki via Flickr

If the aurora borealis is really strong you might even be able to see it in the capital city of Edinburgh. The best observation points are Calton Hill, Blackford Hill or the legendary Arthur’s Seat, reached via a steep and long staircase.

Other Possible Aurora Spots in Scotland

Northern Lights in Scotland - Paul Wordingham via Flickr
Photo credit: Paul Wordingham via Flickr

In addition to the above listed, there are a few other spots you might add to your list while trying to see the northern lights in Scotland:

  • Dunbar – East of Edinburgh along the coast
  • Caithness – Far northeastern Scotland
  • Applecross – Near the Isle of Skye on the Scottish mainland
  • Rannoch Moor – A remote, inland moor with dark skies

These aren’t as good as the others mentioned, but can be part of a larger aurora-chasing itinerary.

Tips to View the Aurora in Scotland

Northern Lights in Scotland - Pixabay
  1. Plan your trip well in advance – As mentioned above, the best time of year to see the Northern Lights is in the winter months. Scotland is an increasingly popular aurora destination, so be sure to book accommodation in advance!
  2. Check the forecast – Seeing the aurora borealis is kind of a lottery, but you can improve your chances by consulting aurora forecasts. A few good ones include Aurora Service and AuroraWatch UK.
  3. Bring the right gear – Winters are cold in Scotland and even more so when the conditions for actually seeing the northern lights are just right. Dress warmly – and don’t forget gloves and to keep your feet and ears warm!
  4. Be patient – You may be in for a  wait of many hours to only see seconds of the lights. Or, you may be very lucky and see them for an hour. Be patient, have your camera ready, but above all, enjoy.

Northern Lights Tours in Scotland

Northern Lights in Scotland - Pixabay

One of the best ways to see the northern lights in Scotland is by booking a tour. This puts the burden on the tour provider to try and find the best place and conditions for seeing the aurora. Some tours even offer a refund if they aren’t able to help you see the northern lights.

We’ve searched high and low and have found it hard to verify any good tour providers that offer northern lights tours in Scotland. If you know of one (or you offer one yourself!) let us know and we’ll add the links here!

Other Aurora Resources

Northern Lights in Scotland - Shetland - Ronnie Robertson via Flickr
Photo credit: Ronnie Robertson via Flickr

If you’re planning an aurora trip, don’t forget to check out our other aurora guides. We’ve got them for Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and other northern lights destinations.

If you want to try and photograph the northern lights while you’re in Scotland, here’s a list of astrophotography tips. We also recommend these night sky cameras.

Now you’re all set to try and see the northern lights in Scotland. Good luck chasing the Mirrie Dancers!

Have other questions about seeing the aurora in Scotland? Let us know in the comments!

Featured photo credit: D3RX via Flickr

About the Author
Inka Piegsa

Inka Piegsa

A former attorny turned travel writer, Inka's interests are history and astronomy. She has written for BBC/Travel, BBC Sky at Night and many more. After years in Turkey, she now lives in Spain.