Guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Scotland

Activity, Nature

Posted by Kate A on 20th November 2015

Northern Lights in Scotland

It’s easy to forget just how far north Scotland and its islands really are. With its close proximity to the Arctic Circle and famously dark skies, Scotland is the best place in the UK to spot the Northern Lights.

So, what are the Northern Lights?

Also known as Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights are caused by solar wind from the sun colliding with magnetic particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating vibrant streaks of green, purple, pink and red which seemingly appear to dance across the sky in an ethereal glow.

Where can you see the Northern Lights?

You might think you need to head to the likes of Norway or Iceland to see this magical phenomenon, but Scotland is an equally magnificent place to admire the show. Your best bet is to head up to the north of Scotland, around the Caithness coast. The Orkney Isles and The Outer Hebrides are also prime aurora-spotting territory.

When can you see the Northern Lights?

The best time to see the Northern Lights is on a cold night in January when the skies are at their darkest and clearest, but the long crisp nights of the autumn and winter months, from October to March, also offer spectacular displays.

Experience the Aurora Borealis

Top tips for viewing the Northern Lights

  1. Firstly, you need almost complete darkness with the sky free of clouds. Scotland’s remote villages on the north coast are perfect, with no light pollution obstructing views of the aurora. Websites such as AuroraWatchUK are well worth keeping an eye on, as they provide regular updates on any geomagnetic activity.
  2. Set up camp outside as soon as it gets dark. It’s likely that if the activity is weak, you may not notice the faint colour and movement at first. Adjust your eyes to the night sky and keep watch. Don’t be disappointed if you only see a faint glimmer of colour.
  3. If you have a camera, set it to a long exposure (at least 30 seconds) as the camera will let in more light and colour. When photographing the aurora, be sure to have a subject in the foreground to focus on. Shine a torch on the subject to focus your camera before taking the photo.

Need a base for your Northern Lights adventure? Read on to discover some of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Scotland.

Best places to see the Northern Lights in Scotland

Caithness

Northern Lights in Caithness

Situated at the most northerly tip of the mainland, the beautiful and historic Scottish county of Caithness boasts very little light pollution, which means it is one of the top places to see the Northern Lights in Scotland.

Grab a flask of hot chocolate and look to the skies on a cold night, some of the best spots to catch the dancing lights are around Dunnet Head, Thurso Harbour, Duncansby Head, and Noss Head. And even if you don’t get to spot them, you’ll be treated to the breathtaking scenery of this unspoiled part of the north coast which offers an abundance of water sports like surfing and cliff diving during the day.

Stay nearby: Quarryside Farmhouse, Castletown | Sleeps 6 + 2 dogs

Surrounded by rolling countryside on the Caithness coast, this traditional farmhouse enjoys spectacular views from every window. Its elevated position overlooking patchwork fields and the sea is perfect for watching the Northern Lights.

Caithness cottages

Outer Hebrides 

Northern Lights on the Isle of Harris

The Outer Hebrides are another favourite place in Scotland to see the Northern Lights, located north-west off mainland Scotland. The Isles of Lewis and Harris tend to be the most popular places to fall under the auroral spell, however, South Uist, North Uist, Benbecula, Barra and Eriskay are also good spots.

Full of natural wonder, these enchanting islands offer a mixture of terrains dotted with historical riches and awe-inspiring beauty spots. During the day you can explore golden beaches, towering mountains, ancient buildings and nature reserves, so there’s always plenty of extraordinary sights to see, from dawn until dusk.

Stay nearby: Lormac, Stornoway | Sleeps 4

Enjoying a prime spot on the Isle of Lewis, this cosy log cabin is perfect for watching the night skies. As darkness falls, you can admire the show from the comfort of the master bedroom’s private balcony, or you can set up your camera for a dramatic shot on the decked area outside.

Outer Hebrides cottages

Shetland 

Northern Lights on Shetland

Clustered in the cold water of the North Sea, the Shetland Islands are the closest British Isles to the North Pole, making them an incredible place to catch the aurora in winter. Referred to locally as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’, keen observers checking the skies on clear nights could certainly expect to see these dancing ribbons of light several times.

Shetland promises an abundance of things to do during the day too, from wildlife watching in nature reserves to wandering the crumbling ruins of ancient castles. Adrenaline junkies can make the most of the water sports on offer, while families can enjoy a host of thrilling attractions.

Stay nearby: Marrats Houl, Unst | Sleeps 2

With panoramic views out to sea on Unst, the most northerly island of the Shetland Isles, this lovingly restored Shetland croft house has all the makings of a perfect aurora-watching retreat. Start your day with an invigorating stroll along the surrounding coastal paths or moorland trails, and as the sun begins to set, wrap up warm and make yourselves at home on the courtyard for an epic display of lights.

Shetland cottages

Orkney 

Northern Lights on Orkney Islands

An archipelago of 70 islands in northern Scotland, the Orkney Islands are perfectly positioned for an aurora borealis chase. Some of the best places to hunt for the lights are along the coast at Birsay, from the beautiful beach at Dingieshowe, or the summit of Wideford Hill.

Before looking out for this natural phenomenon, you can spend your days beachcombing, rock pooling or building sandcastles along the coast, bagging some Munros, or seeking out fascinating relics of Orkney’s Norse heritage such as standing stones, burial chambers and the magnificent St Magnus cathedral.

Stay nearby: Lower Midgarth, Rendall | Sleeps 7

This charming single-storey cottage is perched on the north-east side of Orkney’s West Mainland. Close to the coast, venture out to catch a glimpse of the aurora dancing over spectacular cliffs, sandy bays and moorland.

Orkney cottages

Isle of Skye

Northern Lights on the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is home to no less than nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites, so you’ve certainly got a great chance of glimpsing the Northern Lights here. For some of the best views, head to Glendale which is often aglow with auroras. Rubha Hunish, the northernmost point of the island, and Duntulm Castle are also brilliant spots to see the lights dance amongst the Milky Way.

While you wait for the magic in the sky to happen, you can spend the day meandering across the island’s incredible landscape. Go wild swimming in the Fairy Pools, scale the famed Old Man of Storr, sip a dram of whisky at Talisker Distillery, or go wildlife spotting amongst the many sparkling lochs and forgotten glens.

Stay nearby: Colquhoune's Byre, Glendale | Sleeps 2 + 2 dogs

Escape to this remote, romantic hideaway on the western point of the island in Glendale. A seating area outside is perfect for watching the Northern Lights sweep across the sea, before cosying up inside beside the glowing wood burner.

Isle of Skye cottages

Moray Coast

Northern Lights on the Moray Coast

The star-studded skies of the Moray Coast are a magnet for aurora hunters in winter when wide-open northern horizons are filled with nature’s light show. Nairn and Portknockie are both great spots to base yourselves for the night. Moray’s Astronomy Club, Sigma, sometimes runs public aurora watching sessions, perfect for learning more about this spectacular phenomenon.

This part of the Scottish coast isn’t only famous for the Northern Lights, it’s also a top destination for birdwatchers with thousands of migrant seabirds to observe. Before setting up camp for an evening of stargazing, you can watch them swooping across the swirling waters of the sea, you might even spot a dolphin leaping from the crests of the waves too.

Stay nearby: Wellside Farmhouse, near Forres | Sleeps 6 + 2 dogs

Only a short drive from Roseisle and Findhorn beaches, yet enjoying a peaceful location in the countryside, this characterful cottage is a superb spot for watching the night skies. On a chilly evening, keep warm by the BBQ and keep your fingers crossed for a colourful show.

Moray cottages

Lochinver 

Northern Lights in Scotland

Situated on the west coast of Scotland, the small fishing village of Lochinver is well known to stargazers. During autumn and winter, the harbour makes for a magical spot to watch auroral displays, especially when the lights reflect in the still sea waters.

During the day, the area surrounding Lochinver is prime hill-walking country and a nature lover’s dream with sightings of the rare golden eagle, sea eagle and pine marten common. With around 200 or so lochans teeming with all kinds of fish, the area is a huge draw for anglers too.

Stay nearby: Ca Na Each, near Lochinver | Sleeps 4 + 2 dogs

Ca Na Each is a cosy cottage with stunning sea and island views. With the Northern Lights having already been spotted from the cottage, this is a tried and tested location to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon. Simply step outside and watch the skies.

Lochinver cottages

Why not add aurora hunting to your bucket list this year and make the most of Scotland’s dark skies to witness nature’s most extraordinary light show? Within our collection of holiday cottages in Northern Scotland, we’ve got a great selection of properties which allow you to enjoy this incredible stargazing destination just by stepping out the front door. Browse our full portfolio by clicking the button below.

Northern Scotland cottages

For more inspiration for your Northern Scotland holiday, have a browse of the following guides:


Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.