In this illuminating article, we’ve brought you everything you need to know about seeing the northern lights in Scotland.
We’ve covered when to go, how to see them, and Scotland’s 13 best spots for experiencing nature’s most famous light show.
The northern lights are often visible in the nation. They are also known as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ (which means ‘merry dancers’) in Scotland. But to stand a chance of spotting them, you need to know when and where to go.
So pack some sandwiches, bring some binoculars, and get prepped to stay up late. Tonight, Budget Travel Plans are taking you to see the northern lights!
Insider Tip: Looking for places to stay on the Isle of Skye?
Here are three of our favourite cabin experiences:
• Dunvegan Camping Pods: check availability and book here
• Skye Eco Glamping: check availability and book here
• Lusa Bothy: check availability and book here
Here are three of our favourite affordable hostels:
• Portree Independent Hostel: check availability and book here
• The Cowshed Boutique Bunkhouse: check availability and book here
• Broadford Backpackers Hostel: check availability and book here
Here are two of our favourite hotels:
• Skeabost Hotel: check availability and book here
• Sligachan Hotel: check availability and book here
Can You See the Northern Lights from Scotland?
In short, yes.
But before you get all excited, here’s a bit of a reality check: in Scotland, you’ll need to be pretty lucky to see them. For that reason, don’t book a trip to Scotland if your sole goal is spotting the northern lights. But if you want to combine an outside chance of seeing the northern lights with lots of hiking, exploring and adventuring in a lovely place, then Scotland is perfect.
If spotting the northern lights is your primary Euro-trip goal, I recommend heading to Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Iceland.
When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Scotland?
Usually, the best months are the darkest months. In Scotland, that’s November, December and January, but October and February can be pretty good too.
The northern lights, of course, are best seen in the middle of the night. Though they can appear at any time, they’re usually at their best and brightest some time between 10 pm and 2 am. So brew up a big batch of coffee, and settle in for a late night.
Where Is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights in Scotland?
Broadly speaking, you want to get as far north as you possibly can. The closer you are to the North Pole, the better chance you have of seeing the northern lights.
But no matter which area of Scotland you visit, you should always venture to the most remote, unpopulated parts of that area. Less light pollution means darker skies, which means you have a much better chance of seeing the northern lights.
For example, if you’re on the Isle of Skye (where there’s a good chance you might see the northern lights, but more on that later), don’t expect to see them in the centre of Portree.
To find the darkest skies in Scotland, seek out the nation’s so-called Dark Sky Discovery Sites (which are large areas with no light pollution). Here’s an excellent map of them all.
Another of my favourite resources for spotting the northern lights is AuroraWatchUK, which has a helpful list of all the best times to see the northern lights in Scotland (and other parts of the United Kingdom). There’s even a specific section for Shetland, the absolute best place in Scotland for seeing the northern lights (but we’ll get to all that soon).
Quick tips to see the northern lights in Scotland:
- Arrive early, an hour or two before you expect to see the northern lights. If you give your eyes lots of time to adjust to the dark, you’ll be able to enjoy and experience the northern lights much more.
- Get some long exposure shots on your camera to let in more light. Don’t be surprised if your photographs make it look better than the real thing, you sneaky little trickster.
- Avoid times when there’s a full moon. More light from the moon means a brighter sky, which means less chance for the northern lights to stand out.
Alright, now that we have all of that stuff out the way, here we go, the 13 best places to see the northern lights in Scotland. We’ve covered islands, mainland spots, southern surprises, and plenty more.
The Shetland Islands
Because they’re the most northern part of the UK (and therefore closer to the North Pole than any other part of the region), the Shetland Islands are pretty much always going to be the #1 choice if you want to see the northern lights in Scotland.
Yeah, it’s a remote place, but if you’re serious about spotting the Mirrie Dancers, it’s where you want to be.
The Shetland Islands are a big set of islands off the eastern part of Scotland’s northern coast. They’re around 130 miles (210km) from the mainland, so they’re pretty far north.
The best places for spotting the northern lights are the remote areas in and around North Roe, Haroldswick, and the strangely-named Gloup. But in truth, any quiet, unlit area on Shetland is a much better bet than any other part of Scotland.
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The Orkney Islands
The Orkney Islands are plonked between the Shetland Islands and the Scottish mainland, making them the second-best place to see the northern lights in Scotland.
The best places to see the northern lights on Orkney are the remote spots in and around Hollandstoun, the Brough of Birsay, Start Point Lighthouse, the Broch of Gurness, Inganess Bay, and Wideford Hill.
Or for something massively unusual, wander over to the Ring of Brodgar, a bizarre stone circle surrounded by remote lochs. If you see the northern lights here, it’ll be one of the strangest (and probably best) experiences of your life.
The Trotternish Peninsula
The Trotternish peninsula is the northern ‘finger’ of the incredible Isle of Skye—so the most northern parts of this peninsula are the most northern parts of the entire island.
Anywhere on the Trotternish peninsula is a good option, but Shulista Croft Wigwams (basic but welcoming glamping lodges right on the island’s northern tip) are our top pick. Even if you don’t see the northern lights here, it’s a lovely place to be—it’s one of our favourite places to stay on the whole of Skye.
The northwest of the island is also a pretty choice. Find a quiet, dark spot close to Dunvegan, and you’re in with a good chance of seeing the northern lights.
Lewis and Harris
Part of the Outer Hebrides archipelago, oddly-named Lewis and Harris is the most oversized island in Scotland and sits north of the much-more-popular Isle of Skye.
There are many popular spots for seeing the northern lights along the northwestern coast of Lewis and Harris, between Barvas and Port of Ness. Go anywhere between those two places, and you’ve made a good choice.
Tiumpan Head and Bosta Beach are also good options. But for a genuinely surreal experience, head to the Callanish Standing Stones, a bizarre Neolithic ritual site that predates Stonehenge. Seeing the northern lights here is incredible.
Close to Lewis and Harris, you could also try looking for the northern lights on both Uist and Barra, two other parts of the sprawling Outer Hebrides.
The Isle of Coll
You probably haven’t heard of this place.
West of the Isle of Mull and south of all the other islands we’ve featured so far, the Isle of Coll is a tiny little place, but it’s fantastic for stargazing and northern-lights-spotting.
The folks who live on this island have repeatedly rejected the Scottish government’s offers of artificial street lighting. This means deep nights of sleep, cozy nights, and massive chances of seeing the northern lights. The entire island has an official dark sky status—and because only around 200 people live there, it’s tranquil, peaceful and alluring.
Even if you don’t see the northern lights on the Isle of Coll, you’ll still fall in love with the place.
Alright, we’re finally moving away from all the islands and onto the Scottish mainland.
Caithness is the northeastern region of mainland Scotland, making it one of your best options if you can’t be bothered to trek to one of the islands.
The best places to see the northern lights in Caithness include Noss Head, Duncansby Head, and Dunnet Head. All three are cliffy locations with unlit lighthouses.
Bordering Caithness, and stretching to the most northwestern parts of mainland Scotland, you have Sutherland, an immense region with many barren stretches.
Lochinver, Gairloch, Ullapool, Durness and Tarbet are all great places to base yourself if you want to see the northern lights in Sutherland. Stay in any of them, and wander to any remote, unlit spot, and you’re in with a good chance.
Situated in the central part of western Scotland, vaguely between Fort William and Oban, Rannoch Moor is popular for hiking, animal spotting and birdwatching.
And because it’s so vast and dark (known as one of the last-remaining genuine wildernesses in Europe), it’s also a great place to see the northern lights.
It’s not as far north as most other places we’ve featured on this list. But because it’s so flat, you get great views of the sky no matter which part you visit. Find yourself a spot you like, plop yourself down, and hope for the best—you have your choice of around 50 square miles (130 square kilometres).
Galloway Forest Park
Alright, this place isn’t very far north, sitting around 140 miles (225km) south of the most southern stretches of Rannoch Moor.
But because it was the first officially-designated Dark Sky Park in Scotland (and the fourth in the entire world!), the stars look much brighter here than in most other places on the planet. And that makes it an excellent choice for possibly seeing the northern lights.
People flock here to star-spot from all over the globe.
Even if you don’t see the northern lights, you’ll probably see more stars than you’ve ever seen, a decent consolation to appease your potential disappointment.
If you’re keen to stay in the south of the nation, and you don’t want to venture very far north, it’s the best place to see the northern lights in Scotland.
Cairngorms National Park
Cairngorms National Park is another region with an officially-designated Dark Sky Park.
Northeast of Galloway Forest Park, between Perth and Inverness, you have the Cairngorms.
The Cairngorms is the most prominent national park in the UK, with many dark sky areas. But the official dark sky area is known as the Tomintoul and Glenlivet International Dark Sky Park, and measures in at a hefty 88 square miles (230 square kilometres).
Any part of that dark sky region is an excellent place to see the northern lights.
The Fife Coast
Okay, let’s move away from the hills and mountains and towards the seaside.
One of Scotland’s most underrated coastal regions, the Fife coast runs in a big half-circle from just north of Edinburgh to south of Perth. It’s a good choice if you don’t want to head up to the Highlands in your pursuit of seeing the northern lights in Scotland.
To see the northern lights on the Fife coast, go to any of the remote bays and beaches between Crail and St Andrews. The tiny peninsula of Out Head, just north of St Andrews, is my personal favourite.
The Aberdeenshire Coast
The Aberdeenshire coast runs from Findhorn to the south of Aberdeen, along the most eastern part of mainland Scotland.
Some of the best places to see the northern lights along the Aberdeenshire coast include Balmedie Beach, Aberdour Beach, Spey Bay, and the beach between Findhorn and Burghead (part of excellent Roseisle Country Park).
Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat (in Central Edinburgh)
Our last entry on this list is also our most leftfield one.
Let’s be honest. There’s very little chance of seeing the northern lights in Edinburgh. But if you’re in the capital city, and you can’t (or don’t want to) visit any other part of Scotland, these two city-centre hills are your best bet.
If the northern lights are super bright, and the sky is super clear, there’s an outside chance you might see them from the top of both Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat.
Final Thoughts and Further Reading
There you go, you little star-spotters—everything you need to know about the northern lights in Scotland and the 13 best places to see them.
If you want to know anything else about venturing around Scotland, check out our articles:
- Where to Stay in Skye
- How to get to Skye
- 5-day Isle of Skye Itinerary
- 12 things to do in Skye
- Best time to visit the Isle of Skye
- 16 best campsites on the Isle of Skye
- Exploring Skye’s Fairy Glen
- 19 Pubs on the Isle of Skye
- 23 Restaurants on the Isle of Skye
- 9 Beaches on the Isle of Skye
- Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye
- Coral Beach on Skye
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!
Paul McDougal is a handsome and hilarious travel writer originally from the UK. He likes hitchhiking, working remotely, and having absolutely no idea what’s going on.