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Best Time and Places to See the Northern Lights in Scotland

Best Time and Places to See the Northern Lights in Scotland

Hunting out the Northern Lights in Scotland? Read on to discover the top spots for spotting the Aurora Borealis.

I love Scotland – it’s a seriously underrated destination. And, as somewhat of an Aurora enthusiast, I love that you can (sometimes) see the Northern Lights from the very northern fringes of the country.

One thing I’ve learned on my many trips to the Highlands is that, if you travel to Scotland in autumn or winter, you might just be fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights. 

Though, for full disclosure, I’ll tell you that it’s not as easy as spotting the Northern Lights in Norway or Iceland. But I love a challenge, and I’m here to show you that it certainly can be done. So wrap up warm and cross those fingers.

Read on to discover my top tips for spotting the Aurora Borealis in Scotland.

What Are The Northern Lights?

Northern Lights Scotland

Allow me to nerd out for a second: This spectacular display happens when charged particles drive into the Earth’s upper atmosphere via magnetic field lines. The phenomenon’s name comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek wind god, Boreas.

As a “solar wind,” the sun supplies the energy needed to power this magnificent show. When charged particles from solar winds enter the atmosphere and magnetic field of the Earth, the Northern Lights naturally result. 

Techy jargon over… Back to Scotland.

The Scots know the Northern Lights as Na Fir Chlis, or “the Nimble Men,” in Scottish Gaelic legend. Or you might hear people refer to them as the “Mirrie Dancers” on the Shetland and Orkney Islands.

Are the Northern Lights Visible in Scotland?

Shetland Islands, Scotland

Short answer: Yes. 

Long answer: It’s tricky and timing is everything, but it’s very possible to spot the Northern Lights in Scotland. 

The country is far enough north to provide an excellent chance to see the Aurora Borealis and has several places where you can see them. So stick around as I share my top tips, my fellow Northern Lights hunter.

Where Can You See the Northern Lights in Scotland?

Alright, I’ve teased you enough. Let’s get into the top places to spot the stunning colours dancing across the sky.

Shetland Islands

Bressay in the Shetland Islands in Scotland

Given that your chances of viewing the lights increase as you travel farther north, it should be no surprise that the Shetland Islands offer one of your most incredible opportunities to view the kaleidoscopic phenomena.

Locals attest that you can see the auroras several times throughout the winter, with a mixture of low-level displays and one or two more stunning ones. 

Outer Hebrides/Isle of Lewis and Harris

Outer Hebrides islands Scotland

The Outer Hebrides are a different group of islands I recommend considering for observing the Northern Lights in Scotland. This Atlantic Ocean archipelago in the northwest boasts stunning, isolated islands far from light pollution.

Take advantage of a visit to the Isles of Lewis and Harris if you’re going to the Outer Hebrides. The sky is dark and there’s minimal light pollution in this area, making for ideal conditions for a potential glimpse of the Northern Lights. 

There are many secluded beaches on the Isle of Harris, while Lewis’s flat, open countryside offers expansive, deserted vistas ideal for scenic views.

Orkney Islands

Stromness village Orkney islands Scotland

Yeah, yeah, you might be bored of all the islands by now, but they really are going to give you your best chance at spotting the phenomenon.

The Orkney Islands is a group of 70 islands that sit at a prime location for observing the Aurora Borealis in Scotland. The seashore at Birsay, the beach at Dingieshowe, and the summit of Wideford Hill are some of the most fantastic spots to observe the lights. Wrap up warm, it gets seriously cold here.

Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye, Scotland

Skye is popular all year round in Scotland with locals and tourists, but travelling to Skye in the fall or winter means fewer crowds and better chances of catching the Northern Lights.

Though, some spots of Skye are better suited for viewing the Northern Lights than others because the island’s high mountains often obscure the sky regions — where they are most likely to be visible. 

Rubha Hunish’s northernmost point offers a great chance of seeing the lights dance across the limitless ocean. Glendale, where you will also find the renowned Fairy Pools, is an excellent place where you can occasionally see the lights.

Edinburgh

The Balmoral Edinburgh
Peek at The Balmoral / Envato

Before you get too excited, this is RARE. However, technically you can spot the Northern Lights in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. 

You’ll need an excellent vantage position to see the Northern Lights in Edinburgh. Take a stroll to a higher elevation, such as Calton Hill, for a breathtaking view of the metropolitan skyline. 

Other incredible spots to see the lights are Blackford Hill and the fabled Arthur’s Seat, accessible via a winding, steep staircase – an excellent climb, either way.

Aberdeenshire and Moray Speyside

Slains Castle - Dracula Castle - Aberdeenshire

When the northern horizons have nature’s light show in the winter, it draws aurora seekers to the Moray Coast’s starry skies. 

Both Nairn and Portknockie make excellent bases for the night, while the Moray Astronomy Club’s Sigma organisation occasionally hosts open aurora viewing events ideal for learning more about this unique phenomenon.

Since this region of Scotland experiences less rain than the west does, there may be a clear sky at night to view the Northern Lights. 

Caithness

Duncansby Head, Caithness, Scotland

The historic Scottish county of Caithness, located at the northernmost edge of the mainland, has very low light pollution. And, if you haven’t learned by now, this makes it one of the best sites in Scotland to view the Northern Lights. 

There are many locations to go aurora hunting in this region, including the charming lighthouse at Noss Head. Around Dunnet Head, Thurso Harbour, and Duncansby Head are other incredible locations to see the dancing lights. 

The Cairngorms

Cairngorms national park, Scotland

Alright, so The Cairngorms might be the last place I’m going to share with you, but do not underestimate it. 

The UK’s largest National Park might just be one of the best places to spot the Northern Lights – as long as you choose a location away from trees and the sharp inclines of the many mountains in the region, with as much of the sky visible as possible.

You can find the ideal viewing conditions in the national park; try looking north from the Cairngorm Mountain parking lot, or visit the Glenlivet Estate, which is well-known for its dark-sky events. 

Psst… After you’ve spotted the lights, travel to Royal Deeside to see some castles.

What is Scotland’s Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights?

Isle of Skye, Scotland Northern Lights

December through February is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Scotland as they are the darkest months. You need more than just a pitch-black night, though – only under conditions of active solar activity will you be able to observe the Northern Lights.

If you want a more solid chance to glimpse the Northern Lights in all the glory, I recommend a trip to the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia. Spotting the Aurora Borealis in Iceland or Norway is a treat. You can also visit Finland or Sweden to catch the lights.

Why are September and March The Best Time to Visit Scotland for Northern Lights Viewings?

Duncansby Head, Caithness, Scotland

Scotland has a higher chance of experiencing the Northern Lights between September and March. The reason is that when the night sky is dark, you can more clearly see the aurora’s colours.

Early fall and early spring are also statistically linked to times when there is more significant solar activity, so that’s why September and March are typically the ideal times to see a spectacular Northern Lights display.

What Else Should I Know About Seeing the Northern Lights in Scotland?

  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast, as you will need a clear night sky to see the aurora. Use this UK tracker to check for Scotland, specifically.
  • I don’t want to sound like your nagging Grandma, but seriously, wrap up warm. It can be cold at night, even in the summer. Also, pack snacks and drinks, as you may be there for a while. 
  • This one isn’t crucial unless you’re looking to flex on the ‘Gram – make sure you have a good camera with a tripod to capture the lights. 
  • Be patient. It may take a while to track down the lights, but once you see them, it’ll all be worth it. 
  • And lastly, enjoy! If you are lucky enough to see the lights in Scotland, be sure to soak in the full experience. 

A view towards the quay
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