Many people assume that if you want to see the Northern Lights you have to travel right up towards the Arctic Circle. The reality is though that when conditions are right you can often see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis in Scotland. On this page we are going to take a look at some of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Scotland. This locations guide will give you some excellent options if you are heading to Scotland in search of the Aurora Borealis.
The magical light displays that often light up the skies in the Northern Hemisphere really are the stuff of legend. People travel from all over the world to see the phenomenon, yet sometimes even when you head right up to the top of Norway or Canada, you still come back without seeing a thing. All you really need to see the Aurora is some good planning and a great location. Rather surprisingly to some people, Scotland has plenty of these. But before we give you some great places to visit, when can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland?
The Aurora At It's Best
The Northern Lights Reach Scotland
Unlike places such as Norway, Canada or Greenland the Northern Lights don’t tend to visit Scotland quite as often. To have a chance of seeing that mystical glow you need conditions to be excellent. The Aurora happens as a result of solar particles entering the earth’s atmosphere. You can predict how strong the lights are going to be much like you can the weather. If there is a large solar storm out in space, then a few days later chances are the lights will be at their best. The strength of the displays are measured on a scale known as the KP scale. This means a level 1KP prediction will be low level activity whereas a 9KP level is the highest the scale can reach.
So if you want to see something from Scotland you need the Aurora forecast to reach around the 6KP mark. If this is the case then a glow should be visible near the Northern horizon. If it reaches 7KP or even 8KP then the light will be much brighter and higher in the night sky. So how often are you likely to witness activity at this kind of level?
Well it’s important to remember that the Northern Lights run on a long cycle of around 12 years. This means some years are more active than others. The good news is that 2013 is expected to be the year when the cycle reaches it’s peak, hence it will be the best year for viewing the Aurora. During the winter of 2012/13 and possibly the following year as well, there should be regular times when the Aurora reaches a level 7KP. Hence lots of chances for viewing the lights.
As well as a strong level of activity you also need clear skies and total darkness. So the winter months are obviously the best time to go looking for something. So now you know the likelihood of seeing something, where should you be heading?
Northern Lights From Shetland
The Shetland Isles
The most obvious place to start is the most northerly part of Scotland. This takes us to the Shetland Isles. As the name suggests these are islands so are not part of the mainland. They actually sit around 70 miles north of the mainland and are probably the place in Scotland that sees the Northern Lights most often. The islands themselves consist of one large one and a few small ones. Lerwick is the largest town on the island and is a good place to use as a base if you are planning a visit. There is also a nice guesthouse at Brae which is on the north of the island and is probably the best spot for Aurora viewing.
The weather in the Shetlands can be quite savage in the winter and there are often poor conditions, but you do usually get a few clear nights if you stay for a week or so. Being quite a long way north of the Scottish mainland you do sometimes find that Shetland is a little exposed to winter storms, but if you get lucky with the weather then there is nowhere else better in Scotland to view the Aurora from. So because of this Shetland tops our list of the best places to see the lights from.
Durness Beach, A Great Viewing Spot
If you want to keep your feet firmly on the mainland then one of the best places to visit is Durness. This is right on the northern tip of the mainland as is facing north, hence it’s an ideal spot for Aurora watching. There is plenty of accommodation here and there should be something to suit everyone’s needs. Despite Durness being the largest town for miles around it is still comparability small so there is no real issue with light pollution when you are looking skywards.
As is so often the case the weather can play a big part in a visit here. Being on the coast and along way north this area can often see some pretty poor conditions, but despite that fact you do still get some good clear nights. The area is very isolated so getting here is not all that easy, you are going to be looking at a fairly long drive wherever you are coming from.
As well as being a good spot for Aurora sightings this area also has some beautiful wildlife, some stunning scenery and a rich history. If you do plan a trip here then there is plenty to do during the daylight hours to keep you entertained.
Isle Of Lewis In Red
The Isle Of Lewis
Another island that is a great spot is the Isle of Lewis. This is one of the most northern of the islands on the west coast of Scotland. It is easy to get to only being around twenty miles from the mainland. There are regular ferries from Ullapool and these run all year round except when the seas are especially rough. Lewis itself is a beautiful island and has some incredible wildlife and scenery on it and in it’s surrounding waters.
Stornoway is the largest town on the island and this is a good place to stay as there is plenty of accommodation here and in the surrounding area. For the best place to view the lights from head to the tip of the island known as Port Of Ness. This is an ideal spot and there are often some great lights shows on offer when the Aurora is active. From Lewis you can also travel to the Isle of Skye which is a slightly larger island which has some incredible mountains and lochs to behold. For an all round experience Lewis certainly is a great spot to visit.
Aberdeen, A Busy City
The Aurora In Aberdeen
If you are looking for somewhere easily accessible then Aberdeen may be your best bet. This is the largest city in the North of Scotland and it also has it’s own airport so getting here is quite simple. Aberdeen has a rich history and there is plenty going on in the city to keep people occupied. In this area there is lots of choice when it comes to where to stay, you can book self catering holiday cottages or you can opt for a hotel or guesthouse.
Aberdeen itself is not in a great location for seeing the Aurora. The city lights are to bright and the city is not in a great position on the coast. Ideally you want to drive around 20 miles north to Fraserburgh. This is a little place on the coast that faces north, from here you can often see a glow in the sky when there has been a good sized solar storm. Being on the east coast of the mainland this area also tends to get more clear nights as it is usually protected from the worst of the weather. So although this is further south than the other places we have looked at, you may actually stand a better chance of seeing something here.
The Road To Applecross
Get Up High
One superb idea for Northern Light spotting in Scotland is to get to a high location. Obviously the further North the better but any location where you gain some decent altitude is ideal. Some people opt for hiking up a mountain and camping out overnight to do this. We like this idea as it gets you a long way from civilisation and any light pollution which increase your chances of seeing the Aurora. Plus when you are higher up you can see the horizon better. There are hundreds of mountains to choose from but one that we recommend would be Ben Hope. This is the most northerly mountain over 3000ft in Scotland and the views north are unobscured by other peaks. Plus it's quite remote so it makes it the perfect location to go in search of displays.
If hiking up big mountains is not for you then don't panic, you can still get high whilst say in your car. There are many mountain passes in Scotland that climb high and stay high. One of the best of these is the road from Loch Carron to Applecross. This small single track road is notorious for getting some serious altitude. The pass climbs to well over 1500ft and as you travel down towards the village of Applecross the road faces north. The only issue with this road is that it is very tricky to drive in the dark and it often gets blocked by snow in the winter. However, in clear weather conditions it's perfect for a bit of high altitude viewing.
So Why Scotland?
There are so many countries around the world that are better for seeing the Northern Lights than Scotland. So what are the benefits of traveling to this small country when you are in search of the Aurora? Well Scotland is easy to get to, there are two large cities with big international airports, these being Glasgow and Edinburgh. There are also cities such as Inverness and Aberdeen that are further north that also have very good airports. Getting around the country is fairly simple, there are well maintained roads that are easy to navigate and they are usually fairly easy to drive on.
The really great thing about Scotland is the variety of scenery. In the far north of the country there is some beautiful wild untamed wilderness with stunning sea lochs and massive wide open spaces. The Highlands have some incredible rugged mountains and there are lots of great activities you can enjoy here all year round. For a truly unique Northern Lights experience, head high up a mountain when clear skies are over head and a solar storm is forecast, this will give you a light show you will not forget.
There are lots of other great places in Scotland that you can view the Northern Lights from but we have highlighted some of the best. These take into consideration the geographical location and also the weather conditions and ease of getting there. If you are planning a trip then another decent idea is to tour round the north of the country, with 2013 being one of the best years for activity now is the perfect time to visit. There are some lovely little towns and villages dotted around that are sure to give you a very warm welcome. If you do time your visit right and there is a good level of solar activity then you should manage to catch a glimpse of the famous Aurora Borealis.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on May 07, 2018:
Seeing the Northern Lights is still on my bucket list and another visit to Scotland is also something I would like, so this sounds ideal.
G Mackie (Caithness, Scotland) on September 14, 2013:
Great article - just one comment - from the northern highlands of Scotland you can see just see the aurora above the horizon at Kp of 2, so there is a pretty good chance of seeing them when the conditions equate to Kp=4 or above.
I live in Caithness and in the past 12 months I've seen the northern lights 24 times, with a handful of them being very memorable.
Cat R from North Carolina, U.S. on July 02, 2012:
Beautiful and with a ton of history. And yes, I am one of those that didn't know...
mecheshier on July 02, 2012:
Great Hub. I did not know you could see the Northern lights from Scotland. Thank you for sharing such wonderful info and beautiful pics. Voted up for awesome.