Light up the night: Where to see the aurora borealis
- Deborah Martin
- 11 August 2020
For those on the lookout for the aurora borealis, we look into the best dark sky areas in the west Highlands and Islands
For millennia, the aurora borealis has haunted the imaginations of those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it. But many don't realise that Scotland is a fantastic place to spot this natural wonder, as we're on the same latitude as northern lights hotspots in Alaska and Norway. We also have some of the largest stretches of dark skies in Europe, meaning that, under the right conditions, you can gape at endless glittering vistas.
Scotland's west coast islands make for great destinations to see these 'mirrie dancers'. Outside the October to March northern lights season, it's still worth heading out to see constellations, comets, meteor showers and nebulas blaze across the sky. With this in mind, here are some spectacular dark sky locations where you can view this magical phenomenon.
Isle of Lewis and Harris (Outer Hebrides)
Due to its remote location, the Outer Hebrides is a fantastic place for both stargazing and aurora chasing, and Lewis and Harris offer plenty of dark sky sites to explore. The Gallan Head promontory is Britain's most north-westerly point and makes for a dramatic star-spotting setting. Tolsta village in the east has a long sandy beach where you can listen to waves crashing against the shore while wishing on falling stars. Over to the west of the island are the haunting and enigmatic Calanais Standing Stones, which look unearthly when illuminated by the northern lights.
Stargazing hotspots: Gallan Head, Tolsta village, Calanais Standing Stones, Gravir village, Hushinish, Lower Shader, Scalpay and Trumpan Car Park.
Isle of Coll (Inner Hebrides)
Beyond its beautiful beaches, the Isle of Coll is notable for being one of Scotland's few official Dark Sky Parks, as well as being the second Dark Sky Island in the entire world. That's because Coll has no streetlights whatsoever, meaning you get incredible black canopies.
Coll has three official spots for gazing at sights like the Beehive Cluster, Orion Nebula and Andromeda Galaxy. For truly panoramic views, head to the Cliad football pitch. For a group experience of these starry skies, the Cosmos mobile planetarium makes regular visits to the isle to run stargazing weekends.
Stargazing hotspots: Arinagour, Cliad Football Pitch, RSPB Totronald Nature Reserve.
Isle of Skye (Inner Hebrides)
Enchanted Skye is a stargazer's heaven, with no less than nine official Dark Sky sites. Three are based at Armadale in the southwest and include the gardens of the Clan Donald visitor centre. Three are north-westerly in the Waternish area, including the Stein Jetty at Loch Bay. The other sites are Camas na Sgianadin near Broadford, Kylerhea village and Kinloch Forest.
Star-spotters who fancy the forest option should head to the remote car park just off the A851 between Skulamus and Duisdealmor. The forest also offers dramatic views over the Sound of Sleat and Knoydart Munros.
Stargazing hotspots: Camas na Sgianadin, Kylerhea village, Kinloch Forest, Armadale, Waternish.
Isle of Tiree (Inner Hebrides)
Tranquil Tiree is the most westerly of the Inner Hebridean islands. Like Coll, it has no streetlights, creating dramatically dark conditions for counting constellations. Moreover, its small size and flat topography makes it ideal for exploring.
The isle's official Dark Sky Discovery Site is at Balevullin Beach, which offers dreamy views of meteor showers, the Milky Way and, if you're lucky, the northern lights. There's even an official island telescope that you can borrow from the Tiree Trust Office for a £20 deposit.
Stargazing hotspots: Balevullin Beach, Balephuil Bay, Sorobaidh Bay, Hough and Salum.
Lochaber (West Highlands)
If you're looking to stop off for a bit of stargazing en route to the isles themselves, then head to Lochaber. Due to its minimal light pollution and showstopping destinations, you'll be spoilt for choice.
Known for its appearance in the cult film Local Hero, Camusdarach Beach at Mallaig offers a pretty arc of white sand to relax on while meteor spotting. Further inland is the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, which featured in several Harry Potter films. Surrounded by mountains and overlooking Loch Shiel, it's about as photogenic a stargazing spot as you can get, and looks incredible beneath the aurora.
Stargazing hotspots: Camusdarach Beach and Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Top Tools for Stargazers
If you're looking to track down the northern lights or just the very best dark skies in the country, then the following sites and apps will come in handy
• Aurora Service Europe: Run by passionate aurora watchers, this site will help you to find the mirrie dancers.
• Dark Sky Discovery: A list of official Dark Sky sites across the UK.
• My Aurora Forecast – For Apple and Android: Real-time information on weather conditions for northern lights hunters.
• Star Chart – For Apple and Android: A nifty app that you can point at the sky to see exactly what's above you.
• SkyView – Free for Apple and Android: An app which lets you track your favourite constellations as they move across the sky.