Northern lights, Scotland, Feb 2014

While the most recent solar cycle peaked in 2013/14, 2015 has seen as many ‘amber’ alerts in the UK as during the two previous years combined.  With more sightings of the northern lights predicted in coming months, things still look very promising.  I’ve previously provided my Top 10 Tips for seeing the Northern Lights but now you’re all prepared to head out, where should you go ?

By now you should already know that what’s needed in order to see the aurora are:

  • sunspot activity – ie a solar flare that sends charged particles hurling towards the Earth at 600+ km/sec;
  • clear skies – clouds are the main barrier between you and a great display;
  • dark skies, facing northwards – while it’s not impossible to see the northern lights with a full moon or light pollution, you want to minimise these as far as posible to maximise your chances; and
  • a fair degree of patience.

The good news is that Scotland is relatively unpopulated (compared with England, for example), and hills can sometimes shield you from nearby light pollution.  Therefore, there are many locations in Scotland that are potentially good places for viewing the aurora, particularly north of the Central Belt.

The map below from Aurora Watch UK provides a good starting point for deciding where to go.  Clearly, the further north you are, the better your chances, particularly if you can find somewhere away from local light pollution.  While there will be more frequent viewings in the far north (potentially with Kp 4+), sightings in the Central Belt will likely require an amber or red alert of Kp5/6+.  (The Kp rating is a global geomagnetic storm index from 0 to 9; a rating of 5 and above is considered to be at ‘storm’ level).

DSC_0052_edit

In addition, the UK weather and light pollution map from the Campaign for Dark Skies below provides a useful guide to the best places to see the northern lights.  On this map the best places are colour coded white, with the worst places colour coded dark yellow.  The dark grey areas have little light pollution but few clear nights per year, and the bright yellow areas indicate areas with many clear skies, but suffer greatly from light pollution.

My Top 10 suggestions of the best locations to see the northern lights in Scotland – from north to south – would be:

  1. Shetland
  2. Orkney and Caithness (eg Noss Head, Wick)
  3. Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast (eg Nairn, Portknockie, Cairn o’ Mount)
  4. Lewis, Harris and the the most northerly tip of Skye, Rubha Hunish
  5. The far Northwest (eg Applecross, Lochinver, just north of Ullapool)
  6. The Cairngorms (eg Cairngorm Mountain car park)
  7. Angus and the Fife coast (eg St Andrews)
  8. Rannoch Moor and Perthshire (eg on the road between Crieff and Aberfeldy)
  9. Galloway Forest Park – the only Dark Sky Park in the UK
  10. … and if it’s a really strong aurora, Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

Have you found any other good locations ?

Happy aurora hunting !

UK weather and light pollution map [Source www.britastro.org]

UK weather and light pollution map [Source http://www.britastro.org]

43 Comments on “Top 10 Places to see the Northern Lights in Scotland

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights | Wild about Scotland

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  3. Coming over for the Ryder Cup in Sept then heading north. Fingers crossed I’ll get a chance to see the Northern Lights!

    • Great, I hope you get lucky. The nights will be getting longer by then so there could be a chance !

  4. my bucket list lol is to see the northern lights my daughter has done a sponsored walk for me to see them iceland or scotland so opted for scotland i dont no were to go in scotland to much choice my husband will be driving begining of december for a week looking for a cottage and fingers crossed it has a hot tub lol

    • Hi Debbie,

      I hope you see them and find a nice cottage. Find somewhere reasonably far north in a place with low light pollution. A rural cottage with open views to the north would be ideal – on the Moray coast perhaps ? Just a suggestion …

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    • Normally it’s between October and March when there are longer hours of darkness, with peaks around the Autumn and Spring equinoxes. However, we’ve 3-4 years past the peak of the 11-year solar cycle now and so there’s likely to less activity this winter than in recent years. Having said that, for some reason, August has been a particularly active month (in spite of long daylight) and as active as I can remember during any time over the last few years.

      • Hi,do you think that this christmas and new year holidays are perfect time to go for aurora hunting in northern part of scotland? Thanks

      • If skies are clear AND there’s solar activity then yes. No certainties !! If you see the northern lights then it’s a bonus.

  8. Hi there! i am planning a trip with my spouse in 17-20 march 2016.. wondering if we can have a chance at the northern lights by flying in to Inverness and driving around the highlands(for a whisky trail) and the far north like Dunets head and Moray coast…? appreciate your advice as we have to book tickets soon….

    • Hi ! I’m afraid there just aren’t any guarantees to see the northern lights. The peak of this current solar phase took place 2-3 years ago so on average, you’d expect to see the aurora less often. It largely depends on (a) the level of solar activity and (b) having clear skies. I’d recommend regularly checking various aurora apps/websites eg SpaceWeather.com, Solar Monitor, AurorawatchUK.

      Having said all this, you’re planning to go the right parts of Scotland and so I’d just go ahead and book – and keep your fingers crossed. I’m sure you’ll have a great trip, and seeing any lights will be the icing on the cake !

      • I know this is a few months late, but in march 2016, we were in drummore, Dumfries. the cottage was in the right spot as after hrs sat on the beach freezing watching the northern lights, we sat on our bed watching them through the window, took photos through the night,
        Will be going back next year for sure,
        having said that we are heading up to the moray coast soon, fingers crossed we get the same chance,

      • Congratulations on seeing the lights ! It was great you managed to see them on your trip – and from your cottage window too.

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  11. Hi! Coming up to the Scottish highlands for the very fist time on Monday to Friday! Would love to see the lights! We are staying at wildside highland lodges. Any ideas of where we can see them or if we can around that area !?

    • Hi Stacey,

      I don’t know these lodges but they could well be in a good, dark location as long as you can avoid the lights of Inverness. You’ll need to check an aurora app (eg Solar Monitor, Spaceweather.com, AurorawatchUK Twitter account) for forecasts of auroral activity – and pray for clear skies! In fact conditions are unsettled this weekend (before you arrive unfortunately) and the strong ‘supermoon’ may reduce the likelihood of seeing a weak aurora. It’s just a case of keeping a close eye on the forecasts, getting lucky, finding a dark spot locally and keeping your fingers crossed.

  12. thanks for this guide! the most helpful i’ve been able to find on this so far. i’ll be in scotland in january and am hoping to spot some activity from Cairngorms, near Aviemore. However, i won’t have access to a car. is it possible in the Cairngorms (or anywhere in scotland, really) without one? thanks!!

    • Thanks very much for your kind comments! The Cairngorms are a good location for seeing the northern lights and while there are local buses during the day I think you’ll struggle on public transport at night. One option would be to get a taxi – it’s about a 15 minute journey from Aviemore along the ‘ski road’ to the Cairngorm Ski Centre. That’s a good spot: dark, elevated with a good view to the northern horizon. But there’s nothing open after 5pm and so it could be very cold (!). Another idea is to buddy up with someone with transport at the Youth Hostel? I hope something works out.

  13. Can anybody recommend a cottage to see northern lights early January 2017

  14. Hi, I will be staying in Ballater,Cairngorms in the latter weeks of Jan 2017. is the area to south to have any chance seeing the northern lights?

    • Hi there, Ballater is in a pretty good location being in Aberdeenshire. If you can get outside the town you’ll easily find some dark skies, so it’s largely then a question of keeping an eye on aurora forecasts and then praying for clear skies. Good luck !

  15. Hi there ,we are thinking of going to Scotland in March hoping to see the lights, we’re going in our camper van. Could u tell us of any places can acomadate us .? Thank u Siobhan

  16. Hi

    I am planing to go to Shetland or orkney beginning of march or at the end of the February. What about possibility to see northern lights ? Also how Can I go to shetland or orkney from Edinburgh ?

    thank you

    • Shetland and Orkney are in the far north, so good spots to choose. However, if you see the northern lights it will be a bonus and definitely not something that is guaranteed. Remember that there needs to be solar activity to generate and aurora (and reasonably reliable forecasts are only available for up to 3 days in advance), and you’ll need clear skies. The best thing to do is make your plans, check the aurora forecasts and keep your fingers crossed! The easiest and quickest way to travel is to fly from Edinburgh to Shetland or Orkney.

  17. Great information! We are heading to St. Andrews in March 2018. Where would you recommend that I go to have the best chance of seeing the aurora around there? It’s #1 on my bucket list!

    • Hi there,

      If the conditions are right St Andrews is a great place to see the Northern Lights. You could head out to the West Beach to get away from the lights of the town. Alternatively, I sent to a car park at Kingsbarns about 6 miles south where it was dark and you have beach access. But make sure you have a good aurora app and are checking reports in real time if there’s the likelihood of an aurora.

  18. Good day!
    I’m from Germany and planning to see the Northern Light.
    I’m thinking over to do this from Thurso now as the days get shorter and nights darker. Can you recommend this? What month would be best and how many days/nights should I plan to stay for at least two nights?

    Best regards,
    Gernot Semmer

    • Hi there! Yes, Thurso would be a good place to see the northern lights – dark, with big skies. Generally, October to March are the best months when nights are longest. It’s very difficult to plan ahead though – ideally, you’d need flexibility to be able to travel with just 2-3 days’ notice by keeping a close eye on the aurora forecast. Alternatively, you could arrange to visit for a few days up to a week, enjoy Scotland and if you happen to see the northern lights when you’re here, it’s a bonus!

  19. Hi, yes, definitely, Scotland is worth staying for a while – besides Northern Lights or not. I’ve been there some 10 or 15 years ago and realy enjoyed it. In summertime when days were long and warm to have a t-shirt on. Definitely not recommendable in February ;).
    I’ve checked some websites and they all talk about Thurso and surroundings (Dunnet Head, Caitgorn, etc.) as good locations for watching the Aurora. I’m planning to stay midst February to stay for a while. Moon sets 7 pm or so and descending, so it should become a great stay. Maybe I’ll drip some good Scotch into the Atlantics to beg the gods for good weather 😉
    I intend to from Wednessday til Sundy. Do you think, 4 nights offer a good chance.
    If not I’d love to see some scottish heritage like lighthouses, churches, castles, including some whiskey tasting (and buying *g*).

    Best wishes,
    Gernot

    • Hi there,

      Here are a couple of options to consider. If you want to go to the far north you could combine a trip north of Inverness up to Thurso (and nearby Dunnet Head) as well as Orkney (the islands just off the north coast of Scotland). Orkney has a lot to offer, particularly if you like prehistoric sights, birdlife and crafts.

      However, if you like whisky, castles, skiing and mountains then a good second option is to tour around the Cairngorms and Speyside (whisky distilleries). There are good sights for seeing the northern lights inland but also on the coast near Lossiemouth and at a popular place, Bow Fiddle Rock (near Cullen).

      To be honest, you’re far enough north in the Cairngorms/Speyside to see the northern lights. Going to Thurso/Orkney might not be much better and would save you time/money.

      Staying for 4 nights should give a reasonable chance of seeing them but as I said earlier, I think you should view it as a bonus if you get to see them – and enjoy your stay regardless.

      Hope this helps!

  20. Hi!
    On satellite images (like http://www.sat24.com) I’ve seen that the highlands block hordes of clouds coming from north. So from the southern rim of the highlands (little bit north of Perth-Dundee-line) down to England skies are clear. Is this correct? I’ll be prepared to drive whereever necessary 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Gernot

    • Hi Gernot,

      In fact, the dominant weather pattern in the UK is from the West – the weather is strongly influenced by the westerly air flow that comes in from the Atlantic. So as a generalisation, clearer skies tend to be on the East coast of Scotland/UK with the West coast (and western mountain ranges) attracting most cloud and rainfall.

      But if you want to see the northern lights you need to go … north. So I’d advise you go north or northeast of Perth/Dundee as a minimum and ideally in the Cairngorms, Aberdeenshire/Moray and anywhere north of Inverness. Shetland and Orkney are best placed in the UK.

      It can be very hit-and-miss though. At this time of the year we typically have one wet/snowy day and one clear day, with Atlantic storms blowing in every two days or so!

      Good luck!

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