In shaded, boggy ground there lie blood-sucking creatures so vicious that grown men and women will run screaming for their lives. Great swarms of the predators will descend upon unsuspecting tourists, feeding unremittingly on their bare skin until they die a horrible, really horrible death …
Well, not quite. Certainly not the death bit. And possibly not the rest of it either.
An alternative take on the dreaded Scottish midge is that this summer-time nuisance is just slightly annoying. They can be irritating for sure. They might even drive you to keep moving rather than standing still. You might possibly retreat to your car or tent to escape them early morning or evening. And at worst you might decide to move to a different location away from streams and rivers or to the coast, where there might be an onshore breeze. But as far as I’m aware no one has ever, ever died or even caught a disease from the humble midge.
o O o
Sometimes the perception is far worse than reality.
I sometimes receive queries from people contemplating a visit to Scotland. “And what about midgies?“, they ask. “Will they be bad that time of year?“. In the words of that erstwhile Scottish philosopher: “maybes aye, maybes naw“.
In an effort to put things back into perspective (and support Scotland’s tourism industry), let’s examine the facts:
What is the midge?
The highland midge (“Culicoides impunctatus”) is a small flying insect found in boggy and shaded areas of (particularly) the west coast and highlands of Scotland, although they’re also found in similar habitats throughout the UK, Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. They do feed on blood but most comes from cattle, sheep and deer.
They’re very small (around 1.4mm). This is particularly annoying since they can penetrate cuffs, necklines and so on as well as most tent mosquito netting (tent manufacturers don’t yet seem to have cottoned on to the fact that there may be a market in midge-proof netting).
They’re by no means a recent phenomenon. Back in 1872 even Queen Victoria was forced to abandon a Highland picnic after complaining of being ‘half-devoured’ by the beasties.
Is it dangerous?
No. You’re likely to develop a small red mark on your skin but this tends to disappear after a few minutes or hours. Some people, however, experience itching, swollen bites and discomfort. Antihistamines such as Piriteze, Autan and Anthisan are useful because they rapidly calm down the itch and reduce the red lumps that cause the itch in the first place.
For most people midges are simply annoying, particularly if you encounter a swarm.
In other parts of the world insect bites can spread many serious diseases (malaria, sleeping sickness, river blindness), but fortunately with the notable exception of Lyme’s disease from ticks, insect-bourne diseases are far less common in the Scottish Highlands.
When are midges worst?
Midges tend to cluster near their breeding areas (near water, peat bogs and shrubs), away from direct sunlight and strong wind. They like calm, damp and overcast days and can even appear in light rain. They tend to stop flying in light winds of more than 6 mph,
Highland midges tend to be prolific during June to September. They’re most active early in the morning (between 5am to 9am) and at dusk – essentially, when the light dims.
It’s the female midge that bites, attracted by our natural body odour, sweat and the carbon dioxide we breathe out. But not everyone is affected equally, probably due to skin type and diet. Perfumes, aftershave and scented soaps can also attract them. For some reason, they also seem to be more attracted by dark coloured clothing.
There’s now an online midge forecast available in the summer months providing a forecast for up to a week ahead. But given that the conditions where midges thrive are so localised this isn’t particularly reliable.
How can I avoid them?
The best ways to avoid midges are to:
- Keep moving, since midges tend to hover in one place in the shade
- Avoid areas that are wooded, damp, dimly-lit and still
- Sit in direct sunlight and avoid going outdoors on still summer mornings/evenings
- Cover your arms and legs
- Find somewhere with a breeze
- Wear Avon’s ‘Skin So Soft’ Body Oil (the blue bottle), Smidge or another insect repellent
- Avoid wearing dark clothing.
Some people swear by other solutions including burning citronella candles, cigarette smoke, eating garlic and eating marmite.
If all else fails, buy a midge hood – widely available throughout the Highlands and Islands !
Should I cancel my trip to Scotland and go to England instead?
Definitely don’t cancel your holiday ! Midges are a minor irritation and far outweighed by the many positives of a holiday in Scotland.
Oh … and the worst midges I’ve ever encountered were in Kielder Forest, in England.