Midges in Scotland
When it comes to midges in Scotland, let's not beat about the bush. Especially as, if you beat about bushes in the Highlands in the summer, you're liable to disturb clouds of midges. But are these little beasties that much of a problem? Will they spoil your trip? I've travelled in Scotland for, oh, years and years, and my answer is: possibly a little - but it all depends where you go. If you travel in the Lowlands, and a breeze blows, then midges in Scotland won't be any problem at all.
But first, I'll clear up an orthographic point, especially if you've been using Google to search for biting insects in Scotland. Midge and midget are two entirely different words. We're talking insects here. Compared to these tiny insects, midgets are really, really huge. The Highland midge is only 1.5mm long, so it should be easy to tell the difference.
I can confirm that biting or otherwise aggressive midgets are not an issue anywhere in Scotland, not even in Glasgow (except perhaps at Old Firm football matches). Yes, I know, unless you are from Scotland that bracketed aside is probably opaque. Anyway, the Scots pronounce the insect as 'mi-jee', emphasising the first syllable. Sometimes midges are called gnats, though the US English 'no-see-ums' is much more colourful and also accurate. Make no mistake, when the conditions are right, these wee beasties can be a bit of an irritation.
Midges - a Highland problem?
Firstly, some biology. Species of midge that have a taste for us belong to the genus Culicoides. This is a world-wide genus, and the tropical species are even worse. (Don't ask.) There are more than 30 Culicoides species of midges in Scotland. The biting species vary with habitat. The species C. impunctatus is the one you usually encounter in the Highlands.
You meet it there because it lays its eggs in wet soil. So anywhere with a good growth of plant species such as sphagnum moss, various rushes or damp-loving grasses will be a potential midge breeding ground. That type of habitat includes much of the high-rainfall Highlands with their acid boggy ground.
(Pictured here) Midges landing on my hat in quite big numbers, near Shieldaig, Wester Ross
Only half the midge population bites!
Now the good news. Only half the Highland midge population actually bites. The other half is male and feeds on flowers. (Everybody say 'ahwww'.) Basically, the female reaches the adult state with enough reserves to lay one batch of eggs. After that, if she comes over all broody again (and she will) then she needs a blood meal. She needs the protein in the blood to develop the yolk in her eggs.
And that's quite enough detail. Except to say that only about 10% of the females actually get a drink in their little lives. And I can't say I'm sorry about that. That means that 90% of Highland female midges in Scotland just hover around muttering 'Don't know about you, but I could murder a forearm...'
(Pictured here) On the way up Stac Pollaidh / Polly. A fine day in the north-west Highlands, with Suilven on the left and Cul Mor on the right. These are the names of the mountains in the background, by the way, not the women in the foreground. And we’ve just got high enough to catch the breeze and avoid Scottish midges.
How to avoid being a Scottish midge meal
There is a wealth of advice available on how to avoid being bitten by midges in Scotland, much of it distilled lovingly down and appearing on this page (which has all you need to know). Midges like to fly, and hence bite, near the ground and seldom attack more than 10ft (3m) above it. So, you could learn to stilt walk. (See? I told you we'd be practical.) Midges are attracted to dark clothing, so wear light colours and cover up. I like to think that some kind of Klu Klux Klan outfit, plus the stilts, might make you practically invulnerable, though a little conspicuous if travelling in a group. (Hmm. I don't know, maybe that observation is in bad taste….)
(Above) Midges in Scotland love still, warm evenings after rain - as here in the valley of the River Dee, near Banchory, Aberdeenshire. The June evening when I took this picture, I was being eaten alive by the wee beasties. But you'd never know from the photo, would you?
On the subject of what to wear; because midges have very shallow biting jaws, attacks are confined to bare skin. They don't bite through cloth: not even those really cheap t-shirts you got from Walmart. They home in on their prey by detecting the higher than normal levels of the carbon dioxide that we exhale, although it's unlikely you'll be able to hold your breath for the entire length of your Scottish visit unless your travel agent has really messed with the schedule.
Studies have also shown that midges that feed on humans aren't really that fussy. They are equally happy to feed from cattle, deer, sheep, dogs, cats, rabbits or mice. You could choose one of these as a decoy species and let it accompany you on your Highland travels. I'd go for something portable, though if you choose a mouse, remember that, to something that size, being bitten by a midge would be, for us, similar to being attacked by, say, a small but homicidal sparrow. Midges are also especially active in low light and in still conditions. Highland hoteliers rely on this to keep guests in the bar when they might otherwise be taking a romantic walk to watch the sunset. Midges, therefore, are an important element in the Highland economy.
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Control that midge
No effective blanket spray exists for getting rid of midge on the breeding grounds. You would have to spray most of the Highlands, creating ecological havoc. Ditto biological controls. Dragonflies, amphibians, fish and bats do their best to eat as many as possible. So just remember that if you are a hotelier contemplating one of these midge-zapper devices all you are doing is reducing the food for the local bats.
As for repellents applied to the skin, there is a choice of sprays and creams, some using natural products. At the moment Smidge That Midge Insect Repellent is getting great reviews - see the adverts below. Avon Skin So Soft is also popular. I like my midgehood though - I wear it over my much loved Tilley hat (as vaguely seen in a pic above.) These also help in keeping away clegs (horse-flies). To be honest, if the midges in Scotland are bad, then clegs are worse! We had a bad experience of Scottish clegs in Knoydart. Oh, and on the road to Stronachlachar in the Trossachs.
Scottish clegs (horseflies)
I think clegs are similar to the US 'blue-tail fly', but perhaps someone can clarify that for me. Don't get me started on these sly and treacherous insects. Clegs - or horseflies - are much bigger than midges, for a start. The worst thing is the way they silently land on you and the damage is done before you are aware of them. And how do they know that you can't see the backs of your own arms, elbows and backs of legs? Clegs are active on warm days in the Scottish countryside - but usually not in anything like the numbers of midges. Reviews of the Smidge spray also say it is effective against clegs... ( hmm, must buy some for Johanna!)
So, basically, midges are part of the Highland experience. They won't totally wreck your holiday and should be no more than a minor nuisance for which remedies are available. Really serious outbreaks may require a midge-hood. And if you spend a day above, say, 2000ft / 700m - or at lower levels if the wind blows - you won't even encounter them.
So, now you know all about the Scottish midge. An irritation. A real nuisance sometimes. But not really a health risk.
But if you intend to roam about Scotland's countryside, you should be aware of ticks in Scotland. They are potentially a much bigger issue. Seriously, take a look on that link. (But you'll still visit, won't you?)
Finally - and this paragraph has been written quite some time our thoughts on midges was first published - I have to confess that a recent incident involving midges has made me think I have been a little too easy-going about these wee beasties. You can read about it here on a short blog piece somewhat dramatically called:
The Attack of the Killer Midges. It is seldom I actually inhale midges but this was exceptional. Moral: never forget your midge hood in high summer in the Highland moorlands.