Guide to seeing the northern lights in Scotland

Activity, Nature

Posted by Kate A on 2nd December 2021

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. 

Read on to find out more about the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, and where exactly you can expect to see this phenomenon in Scotland.


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.

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 coastline. The Orkney Isles and The Outer Hebrides are also prime aurora-spotting territory.

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

Northern Lights in Caithness

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

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Northern Lights on the Isle of Harris

The Outer Hebrides 

The Outer Hebrides are another favourite place in Scotland to see the northern lights, located north-west off of 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: Sleatabhal, North Uist | Sleeps 6 + 2 dogs

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Northern Lights on Shetland

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. Keen observers checking the skies on clear nights could certainly expect to see these dancing ribbons of light, referred to locally as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’.

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

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Northern Lights on Orkney Islands

Orkney 

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 and building sandcastles or just walking 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: Neuketineuks, Kirkwall | Sleeps 7

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Northern Lights on the Isle of Skye

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

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Northern Lights on the Moray Coast

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

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Northern Lights in Scotland

Lochinver 

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

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Stay in a cottage in Northern Scotland

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 that allow you to enjoy this incredible stargazing destination just by stepping out the front door. Browse our full portfolio by clicking the button below.

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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.