Written by Brian Johnston
You don’t have to go quite as far as the frozen Arctic to experience the aurora borealis unfolding its eerie, dancing green lights in the night sky. You can see one of nature’s greatest spectacles on a holiday in Scotland – and take in Europe’s best stargazing there too.
Countries nudging the Arctic Circle might be the traditional destinations for viewing the aurora borealis, or northern lights, but if you’re looking for a more rounded holiday that includes plenty to do in the daytime too, then Scotland has the answer. There are dozens of spots around the northern UK perfect for viewing the aurora borealis, including the Moray and Fife coasts, the northern end of the Isle of Skye, and the Cairngorm mountains. In fact, if conditions are particularly favourable, you can even admire the natural spectacle from Arthur’s Seat, the ancient volcanic hillside that rises in the middle of Edinburgh.
What you see is an extraordinary array of lights in the night sky that usually opens with vivid waves and explosions, later quietening down to pulses of colour. The aurora is most often green, but can be blue, yellow, or violet. The phenomenon is created when electric particles from the solar wind hit the Earth’s magnetosphere and emit light, whose colour depends on gases present in the upper atmosphere.
Autumn and winter, with their long nights and clear skies, are the best times for viewing what the Shetland Islanders call the ‘Merry Dancers’. For an absence of light interference, head 160km east of Edinburgh to Galloway Forest Park, which receives Europe’s top rating from the International Dark Sky Association. It has near-total darkness, especially around Clatteringshaws: comparable to a photographer’s darkroom, and a perfect backdrop for the Northern Lights’ mysterious, multicoloured activity.
Galloway Forest Park is well set up, with three visitor centres and good walking and mountain-bike trails to fill the daytime. It has pretty scenery of hills, woodland, and lochs, and plenty of wildlife, especially red deer and squirrels. Around Kirroughtree, the kids can try orienteering or scramble through an adventure park. You also aren’t far from pleasant villages such as Creetown and Newton Stewart. The nearby, stately town of Dumfries is associated with poet Robert Burns.
Even if the evening aurora doesn’t appear, you’re compensated by fabulous stars. This is considered the best place in Europe for stargazing, with the bright swathe of the Milky Way and 7,000 stars visible to the naked eye and an astonishing array visible through the telescopes of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory.
You can admire Andromeda, our nearest galaxy, which is thought to contain a trillion stars.
The observatory displays spectacular images of meteor showers and the aurora borealis, but nothing beats experiencing the real thing outside.
As you sit in darkness, the sky is suddenly illuminated with glowing, swirling coloured lights in one of the great – but ephemeral – wonders of travel. As the lights morph in the sky, the tiny humans below can only gaze upwards in wonder.
Tucked into the southern end of Galloway Forest Park, this 18th-century mansion provides elegant country-house accommodation in 2.5 hectares of garden which are sometimes visited by wild deer. Its restaurant features regional produce such as Galloway lobster, local venison, and salmon from the Cree River. The hotel runs stargazing weekends led by astronomer Steve Owens from Glasgow’s planetarium, and also has golf holiday packages that take advantage of the region’s excellent nearby golf courses.
Dumfries & Galloway
Tel: +44 1671 402 141
Distance: 5532 km
Flight Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes
Frequency: 5 flights a week