It seems like just about everyone has the Northern Lights on their bucket list. You can’t blame them, as there is something purely magical about the way they light up the night sky in vivid colours. It’s definitely worth seeking out the Northern Lights, and you can do that right here in the UK! Don’t jump to book a flight to Norway or Iceland, simply drive up to Scotland and visit these places in the UK where you can see the aurora borealis.
Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash
Rationally, we know the Northern Lights are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The lights seen above the magnetic poles of the northern hemisphere are known as the aurora borealis, while those of the southern hemisphere are called the aurora australis. Okay, so we didn’t know that before, but we do now.
Even though there’s a scientific explanation for the Northern Lights, there is also something magical about them. It feels like anything could happen under those dancing lights, like beautiful magic in the real world.
What is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Scotland?
There are certain times of the year that are best for seeing the northern lights in Scotland. Your best chances are during March, April, September and October. This is also outside of peak season, so you’ll find it to be calmer and less crowded around popular places.
Additionally, aim to avoid going during a full moon, as this will impact your chances as well.
As lovely as warm weather can be for a holiday, you actually have the best chance of sighting the auroras during cold weather, with a sky clear of clouds and light pollution, and increased solar activity.
Spotting the northern lights is tricky, but so worth it if you get lucky! Let's get into the best places to spot the northern lights in Scotland.
Galloway Forest Park
Did you know that Galloway Forest Park is the only Dark Sky Park in Scotland? It was also the first Dark Sky Park to be granted this status in the UK, back in 2009. There is an increasing number of reports of visitors seeing the aurora borealis in Galloway Forest Park. Even if you don’t get treated to a colourful sky, you’ll see more stars than you would in the rest of Scotland.
While in Galloway, you can take the time to stroll along the beaches that this region is famous for. On a clear day, you can see all the way over to the Emerald Isle. Galloway Forest Park is filled with hiking trails, bike routes and miles of endless forests. It’s often referred to as the ‘Highlands of the Lowlands’, and you’ll quickly see why it’s earned this esteemed title.
Check out the best campsites in Galloway for your campervan trip in this part of Scotland.
This historic Scottish county is known for having very low light pollution, which makes it perfect for spotting the Northern Lights. You have several options for seeing the aurora borealis here, but our favourite would probably be at the charming lighthouse at Noss Head. Alternatively, you can go to Thurso Harbour, Duncansby Head or Dunnet Head.
While in Caithness, try to visit some of the thirty-one castles in the region. If you’re strapped for time, we’d recommend prioritising Ackergill Tower, Scrabster Castle and Thurso Castle. This is also a popular stop on the famous North Coast 500 itinerary, known as the Scottish Route 66.
The Shetland islands
Located over 100 miles from the coast of Scotland, the Shetland Islands are considered by many to be the best place to see the northern lights in the UK.
These remote islands are actually closer to the Arctic Circle than to London by about 200 miles, so it’s not surprising that you’ll get a great view of the aurora borealis.
While in the Shetland Islands, you can immerse yourself in the rich Viking history. If you time your trip right, you can even be here for the Up Helly Aa fire festival that honours Viking traditions and celebrates the rebirth of the sun after winter.
There is also plenty of wildlife to spot in the Shetland islands, including seals, orcas, otters, seabirds and the famous Shetland ponies. You can take long strolls along the beaches and gaze out all the turquoise waters.
The Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides are known to be the best places in Scotland to see the Northern Lights. This is because the Outer Hebrides have some of the darkest skies in all of the UK. Most evenings, you can even see the Milky Way, Orion Nebula and Great Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye. In winter, it gets dark in the late afternoon, so you’ll have hours to spot the Northern Lights.
You’ve got your pick of islands in the Outer Hebrides, with Lewis, Harris, Barra or Uist. The Isle of Lewis is particularly renowned for seeing the Northern Lights, but you’ve also got a high chance on the other islands.
We recommend timing your visit for the Dark Skies Festival in February each year, which features live music, film, visual art, theatre, food, astronomy lectures and, of course, stargazing.
Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is always a popular tourist destination, renowned for its rich history, impressive ruins and picturesque landscape. We recommend embarking on a road trip through the Isle of Skye to get the most out of your time here.
Travelling to the Isle of Skye during autumn or winter gives you the best chance of catching the Northern Lights. Your best chance at spotting the Northern Lights is at Rubha Hunish’s most northern point, where you’re not obstructed by the high mountains, and you can see the lights reflecting along the ocean. You also might be able to see them from Glendale, which is also where you’ll find the renowned Fairy Pools.
While on the Isle of Skye, you can visit various landmarks, including Dunvegan Castle, Armadale Castle and the Old Man of Storr.
The Moray Coast
It might surprise you to learn that Aberdeenshire and Moray Speyside are actually on the list of best places to see the Northern Lights in the UK. This region of Scotland experiences less rain than the west does, which provides the clear skies required to spot the aurora borealis.
The Moray Astronomy Club’s Sigma organisation occasionally organises events for viewing the aurora, which anyone can attend. Time your trip to coincide with one of these viewing evenings for the highest chance of spotting the Northern Lights in Scotland.
While visiting the Moray Coast, stay in some of the picturesque villages dotted around the region, such as Crovie and Gardenstown. You’ll also get some of the best fresh seafood in all of Scotland!
Cairngorms National Park
This is perhaps the most popular destination in Scotland on this list, and coincidentally it’s also great for seeing the northern lights.
Cairngorms National Park is one of the UK’s largest national parks and is considered one of the ‘top 20 places to visit in the world’, according to National Geographic. And with some scheduling, you can time your trip to this incredible place to coincide with seeing the Northern Lights.
You just need to find the right place within the park, away from trees and the sharp inclines of the many, many mountains in the region, to ensure as much of the sky is visible as possible. Aim to pitch north of the Cairngorm Mountain parking lot, or head to the Glenlivet Estate, which is known for its dark-sky events.
We’ve even rounded up the best motorhome campsites in the Cairngorms for your trip.
Your next trip to Scotland should include catching the Northern Lights, to tick this once-in-a-lifetime experience off of your bucket list. There’s no need to go all the way to Iceland or Norway to see the aurora borealis, as you can see the Northern Lights right here in the UK. It’ll be a cold night, but the time will fly by as you gaze up at the dancing lights. It’s supposed to be an item on your bucket list, but we have no doubt that you’ll be eager to repeat the experience.
So pack some warm clothes, hire a motorhome in Scotland or bring your own, and keep your eyes trained on the sky.