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A sporadic blog about Scotland and tourism that isn't grumpy all the time.  Promise.

The Hype of the Northern Lights in Scotland

Gilbert Summers

“The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen mean home sweet home to me...the Northern Lights of Aberdeen are what I long to see…”

Ah yes, dripping with nostalgia, that snatch of the song ‘The Northern Lights’ is entirely appropriate for the phenomenon itself. Why?

Well, the composer, Mary Webb, was from Leamington Spa, England, and had never actually been to Aberdeen or seen the Aurora borealis when she wrote the song (apparently for a home-sick Aberdeen lass with whom she worked in London, England). So it’s a bit made-up, a bit hyped perhaps - somewhat like the chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Scotland.

The song "The Northern Lights"

The composer of the song sent the lyrics to a quite famous Scottish tenor Robert Wilson (1907-64). He in turn popularised it. By the way, Wilson was also noted for other Scottish hits such as Tilliedudlum Castle, Kittlin up ma Futtret, Oh My Jock Mackay,  A Shandie after Hochmagandie, Bonnie Mary of Argyll, The Gay Gordons and many others. OK, OK, so I made up two of them but you get the picture…

Anyway, we’re getting away from the Northern Lights here. The point is the song is still warbled out to this day by a whole heap of people, many of whom have never seen the Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, or anywhere else. Quite why they should be coming over all trembly about them I don’t know. Oh, wait. Maybe it’s because the Aurora borealis is actually quite heavily promoted here in Scotland these days. The Heavenly Dancers, the Fairy Dancers or whatever are now part of marketing Scotland.

Digital Photography and the Northern Lights

Intriguingly, I reckon this has only really happened since the advent of digital photography. In the twenty-plus-odd years I worked on national tourism promotional material I don’t really remember being asked to say much about the Aurora borealis. But things are different now.

Well, it’s so easy on a digital camera. Whack up the contrast, saturate the colour and - behold - that faint greenish smear has now become a glowing green curtain. Don’t get me wrong. The results can be beautiful. But why do so many lucky snappers exaggerate the effects?

Deciding that the peelly-wally green glow to the north was not going to do anything, I took a picture looking west. It's spring, so the constellation of Orion is marching round the horizon. And this is a reminder that dark skies aren't too hard to find. And they're quite interesting even if the 'Fairy Dancers' aren't cavorting...

Deciding that the peelly-wally green glow to the north was not going to do anything, I took a picture looking west. It's spring, so the constellation of Orion is marching round the horizon. And this is a reminder that dark skies aren't too hard to find. And they're quite interesting even if the 'Fairy Dancers' aren't cavorting...

If I actually saw some of the colours in the night sky that are published as a realistic representation of this phenomenon, then I would either a) get any medication I was on thoroughly checked, or b) head for a very deep bunker because night had become a kind of psychedelic day and it must be the end of the world.

Trust me, the Northern Lights have been part of my culture and environment for long enough. Born and brought up in Scotland somewhere north of 57 degrees, pretty much at the 58 degree end, (about the same as the south end of Norway), the location lends a little credibility to my claim.

What the Northern Lights often look like. But see the next pic after I did some tinkering.

What the Northern Lights often look like. But see the next pic after I did some tinkering.

What you can make the Northern Lights look like. This is what you can do if you just turn up the brightness using a photo editing program. Still a kind of blurry Northern Lights, but more vivid. Note to self: get a better tripod.

What you can make the Northern Lights look like. This is what you can do if you just turn up the brightness using a photo editing program. Still a kind of blurry Northern Lights, but more vivid. Note to self: get a better tripod.

By the way, our favourite photo editing program is the foolprooof and friendly PicMonkey. Check it out.

The Aurora Borealis - part of growing up in the north of Scotland

My earliest memory of the light show is seeing what looked like green headlights sweeping the sky a couple of times. I was probably still at school. Then I moved south to Aberdeen for a university education. (Yes, I said ‘south’.) One night, returning to a wee cottage I rented, north of the city, I remember parking, looking up and seeing a great display. Maybe that was the first time I ever saw reds up there, as well as green. Pretty special show that night.

Look, it's waving luminous green curtains in the night sky, OK? That's what the Northern Lights are all about. It's a bit more tinkered with than some aurora photographs, but only a little.

Look, it's waving luminous green curtains in the night sky, OK? That's what the Northern Lights are all about. It's a bit more tinkered with than some aurora photographs, but only a little.

I don’t really remember anything remarkable until I permanently lived ‘up north’ on the shores of the Moray Firth, for a long spell starting in 1989. They flared a lot, that year, looking out over the Firth, I remember...then again at some point, oh, must have been some year after 1998. Apparently they can be on an 11 year cycle. So maybe it was 2000. Maybe I got the dates wrong, but, hey, the lights were there all right, like the dolphins in the Moray Firth: not always around, but just enough so that you’d probably remark on seeing them...it was part of life on the coast, if you kept your eyes open.

(Just a second: dolphins leaping while the Northern Lights fill the sky? Hey, I think I’ve just come up with the ultimate Moray Firth promotional image…)

Where to See the Northern Lights

There’s a ton of advice out there about the Aurora borealis. It’s got to be dark, away from light pollution of course. You’ll need patience, possibly strong drink, woolly mitts and and so on. A torch is handy if you’re going to be fiddling with your camera. The advice I never hear though is, basically: see that faint greenish glow to the north you thought was moonlight or maybe the last vestige of a sunset? Those are the Northern Lights. Yes, really. That’s it most of the time. You’d never have noticed if I hadn’t pointed it out, would you?

Darth Vader photographs the Aurora borealis? Well, to be honest, it's me in a dressing gown. I was about to go to bed, stuck my head out of the window and saw the glow. Unfortunately, a security light was still on behind me. And, yes, for this picture, of course the brightness is turned up a bit. 

Darth Vader photographs the Aurora borealis? Well, to be honest, it's me in a dressing gown. I was about to go to bed, stuck my head out of the window and saw the glow. Unfortunately, a security light was still on behind me. And, yes, for this picture, of course the brightness is turned up a bit. 

The horizon glow may get brighter, it may form searchlight-like columns. Sometimes it really will form those waving green glowing curtains in the sky. Just now and again it will become spectacular and memorable and unmissable. The rest of the time you’re just going to have to use a photo editing program and whack up the colours.

In spite of my banging on about spending years and years in the north of Scotland, my best ever views of the Northern Lights were from a hotel balcony overlooking Loch Lomond. There was a tracing of snow on Ben Lomond. The sky went wild. It even reflected in the loch. It  was just before digital cameras became widely available. Maybe it was around 2000 as well. I took no photos that night, mainly because I was, uhmm, between cameras. And I’ve wished it otherwise ever since.

Don't Expect Too Much from the northern lights

In summary then: don’t expect just too much from this northern phenomenon in Scotland. There will be exceptional displays occasionally - and lucky the photographer who catches them. And for sure there are some extraordinary photographs around that capture the phenomenon. Be prepared to stay up half the night in the winter, if you are really serious.

Dark skies in scotland

Related to the Northern Lights promotion is the bandwagon of ‘dark skies’. Fair enough. In Scotland, Galloway, paradoxically in the south, started off this one with a Dark Sky Park in the Galloway Forest Park.  Also, these days, you even find maps of northern Scotland with good specific ‘dark sky’ places marked. Hey, anywhere with no streetlights is good. And that’s great big chunks of countryside up here. You don’t really need a map.

Me? Here on the shores of the Firth? There are no streetlights between me and a dark firth right now if I look from the window to the north. Actually, there’s not much more than a strip of shingle between me and the breakers. I keep the tripod at the back door just in case. Maybe for the Northern Lights, or maybe the leaping dolphins. It’s only a matter of time...

If you want to know more about how to photograph the Northern Lights then this guy is technically awesome. Or maybe awesomely technical. (And, no, he doesn’t know he got a link from me.)

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