There are few sights as magical and ethereal to behold as the northern lights, which is why seeing them is a top ten feature on many people’s bucket lists.
But you don’t have to take an expensive, long trip to the Arctic to fulfil this dream; Scotland is actually the same latitude as coveted lookout spots in Norway and Alaska, which means you’re in a with a good chance of seeing them here, especially on the higher grounds in the Cairngorms.
In fact, the Cairngorms was officially recognised in November 2018 as one of the best places in the world to see the spectacle, with Tomintoul and Glenlivet being awarded gold tier ‘Dark Sky Park’ status by the International Dark-Sky Association. This makes the region just the second of its type in Scotland, along with Galloway, and the most northerly in the world.
But these pesky “Mirrie Dancers” can be unpredictable and ensuring you’re in the right place at the right time is a challenge. Nevertheless, there are some steps you can take to boost your likelihood of seeing these wondrous dancing sky lights.
1. It sounds obvious but make sure you’re looking north!
The Cairngorm Mountain car park is a perfect, north facing location. As is Feith Musach, north of Tomintoul. Another ideal spot is the Glenlivet Estate. “Dava Moor, between Grantown-on-Spey and Inverness, is also a good lookout; the hills aren’t particularly high, but they look north”, says Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays.
Glen Tanar Visitor Centre is also a Dark Sky Discovery Site, an officially recognised place where anyone can stargaze.
Photo credit: Cairngorms, Gordon Mackie
2. “Head closer to the coast, where there is less chance of cloud, such as the nearby Moray Firth”
…so says Scot Mountain Holiday’s Andy. Other local enthusiasts agree and have reported “wonderful” sightings on the Dava road above Forres, where you have an expansive view back over the Moray Coast. Look out for silhouetted clouds, which can be a sign that the northern lights are soon going to break through.
Photo credit: Aurora over the River Spey, Nancy Chambers
3. Get away from man-made light, especially cities and towns, from which it is highly unlikely you’ll sneak a peek
Even the glare from headlights, if you’re watching from your car, can get in the way of seeing the Northern Lights. One of the best places to go in the Cairngorms is the Glenlivet Estate, hence its Dark Sky Park status, which is due to its low levels of light pollution. Its status certifies that it is free from light pollution and obscuring artificial light. Here, one of the best spotting posts is Scalan, in the Braes of Glenlivet.
Photo credit: Glenlivet, Dave Newlands
4. Learn more about the lights; the better educated you are, the more likely you are to spot the lights of the Aurora Borealis
…and know when you’re spotting them, which can be a problem for novices! Glenlivet Estate runs “Dark Sky” events which are popular with both visitors and locals interested in astronomy. As well as these workshops, there are often other events laid on such as stargazing and telescope sessions with experts, for example with local astronomer and wildlife expert David Newland. Despite his years of experience chasing the Aurora, David remembers vividly the first time he witnessed the phenomenon:
5. Download an app such as AuroraWatch UK or the Glendale Skye Aurora,
Watch monitor geomagnetic activity in realtime, and receive “aurora alerts”, to let you know when there’s a stronger likelihood of visibility in the Cairngorm area. While it’s fantastic to have this knowledge at your fingertips, remember that you will only get it when connected to the internet, which can be a challenge in more remote areas. You can also follow @Aurora_Alerts and @aurorawatchuk on Twitter. Be ready to leap into action when you’re tracking alerts because, as they’re posted in realtime, every second counts!
6. Make it an adventure.
Visitors talk about the thrill of chasing the lights and the delicious anticipation when you settle in your spot, with hot chocolate flask and blanket at the ready. If you make the trip about more than the lights – about the wild experience of being out in the dark, with only the wildlife for company – then the disappointment, if you have to endure it, is much easier to bear. Spend time with a Speyside Wildlife Guide who can show you nocturnal animals.
Photo credit: James Machin
7. Wrap up warm and don’t forget to bring a torch
Ideally, you’ll be in blackout conditions, so you’ll need it. Don’t forget your camera, either, and remember you’ll need a longer exposure time to capture the lights in their full glory. Local lights enthusiast Nancy Chambers loves going to “watery venues” because of the reflection from the water, which looks stunning, especially in photos. She recommends the banks of the River Spey, Lochindorb, Milton Loch and Loch Garten.
“The camera will often see more than the eye,” she says. “Often the lights will look just like a film of mist to the naked eye, but with the camera you get some spectacular results as you are exposing for around 20-30 seconds.”
8. Lastly, if you don’t see them, don’t be too disheartened.
Even if you don’t manage to spot the northern lights, the chances are you will witness some dramatic stunning sunrises and sunsets, which are characteristic of the area, while you’re here says Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays.
So, while the lights are undoubtedly an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime view, there are many other equally unforgettable views throughout the Cairngorms. Better still, you don’t have to chase them because they jump out from around the bend of every corner.
“The Cairngorms is in the rain shadow of the hills which means you often have clouds breaking up, which gives that striking contrast when the sun breaks through”Andy Bateman, Scot Mountain Holidays