Chase northern lights & Scottish clans on a budget
Do tales of uprisings, mist-swathed castles and forested mountains have you dreaming about a Scottish escape?
Observing The Arctic Circle’s northern lights is a far cry from most peoples’ reach of places to visit! And, this may come as a surprise, but another great place to catch nature’s very own theatrical performance, is along the northern reaches of Scotland. It wouldn’t make sense though, would it, to chase the northern lights, without immersing yourself in more of Scotland?
From the great capital of Edinburgh to the Orkney Islands and Skye, you’ll travel through 8,000 years of history and become engaged in Scotland’s rich cultural heritage.
The country is endlessly inspiring, from its wild and windswept landscapes to its colourful history of bloody battles, ancient rituals and feuding clans. For many, it’s Scotland’s fascinating cultural legacy that’s most intriguing. A story set in the castles and clearings that are still around today.
Here, we will take a look at the great clans of Scotland, the people and places that shaped the country’s turbulent past. And all this while chasing the northern lights:
- Dark sky sites
- On a budget
- Isle of Skye
- Outer Hebrides
- Island of Lewis
- Hebridean Dark Skies Festival
- Dumfries & Galloway
DARK SKY SITES
The best time to enjoy stargazing is when the moon’s not shining bright! And, when the sun has set enough so that twilight does not affect observations. With this in mind locations throughout Scotland have been identified as ‘Dark Sky Sites’. And they are only dark during these times, equating to about two weeks every lunar month.
Some of the best “Dark Sky Sites” to stargaze in Scotland include:
- Isle of Skye
- Dumfries & Galloway
- Tomintoul & Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park
- North West Sutherland
- Outer Hebrides
ON A BUDGET
Now you can leave the beaten track to stay in the most remote viewing locations. Bunk Campers offers vacation-makers a practical and budget alternative for enthusiasts wanting to experience the Northern Lights! Also known as the Aurora Borealis, these incredible bright dancing lights according to the Northern Lights Centre are electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.
With transport and accommodation in one, vacation-makers have the freedom and flexibility to photograph these “Lights” as they appear from one location to the next. All campervans & motorhomes for hire can be ferried across to the Scottish Islands. Therefore enthusiasts are within easy reach of the most isolated locations, and offered the best views of the Aurora Borealis.
And on-board heating ensures holiday-makers are warm even on the coldest nights. Too, also they can enjoy all the perks of home. This includes comfortable beds, cooking facilities, a dining area and electric hook-up.
Bunk Campers offer a wide range of 2-6 berth vehicles to suit all tastes and budgets.
Bunk Campers have drafted Responsible motor homing to chase the Northern Lights.
ISLE OF SKYE
Isle of Skye clan – The MacLeods
Their Motto: “Hold Fast”
Descending from the seafaring Norse Kings, they are one of the most acknowledged clans of all time! And their history stretches back over 800 years.
Containing some of the most spectacular landscapes in all of Scotland, the Isle of Skye is one of a collection of beautiful islands in the Inner Hebrides. It is separated from the mainland by the “Sound of Sleat,” and the inner sound is the Isle of Skye.
Here lies the Dunvegan Castle, which has been the ancestral home of the chiefs of the MacLeod clan for eight centuries. Expect to see treasures like the Dunvegan Cup, alongside idyllic gardens and items associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie.
In addition, nine locations on the Isle of Skye have been officially named ‘Dark Sky Sites’ after they were judged to be perfect spots for stargazing!
The Outer Hebrides has some of the darkest skies in the whole of the UK. Many astronomical sights can be seen through the naked eye, including:
- The Orion Nebula (over 1,500 light years away),
- The Milky Way Galaxy,
- And one of the Milky Way’s companion galaxies the Great Andromeda Galaxy.
- The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, can also be seen, and is one of the UK’s best spots for watching the phenomenon.
ISLAND OF LEWIS
Ross & Cromarty, The Mackenzies
Motto: “I Shine Not Burn”
Extending from the Island of Lewis in the west through to Ross on the east coast of the mainland, the Mackenzies are still one of the principal clans of Scotland. Their most beautiful stronghold is widely regarded as Eilean Donan. One of the most recognized castles in Scotland (appearing on everything from biscuit tins to calendars). This Scottish icon sits at the meeting point of three great lochs and is surrounded by forested mountains – attracts countless visitors each year.
The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival
It’s programme includes live music, film, theatre, art, planetarium screenings, and stargazing events across the island.
Here are some past experiences at the astronomy festival:
- You Are Here, an interactive digital map of the stars above the Isle of Lewis, created by Edinburgh design studio Ray Interactive. The map, in An Lanntair’s main gallery, updates live as time passes, the presence of visitors generating unique abstract animations – a reminder that all life originates in the stars.
- Stargazing events at community venues across the island with Stephen Mackintosh of Highland Astronomy, who will take audiences on a walk to some of Lewis and Harris’s best stargazing spots.
- Chasing the Aurora, an opening talk by astrophotographer Wil Cheung in partnership with Outer Hebrides Tourism.
- David Bowie in Space: The Concert will see Hebridean musicians plus special guest vocalists performing imaginative new arrangements of Bowie’s space-themed songs, from Starman and Life on Mars to Blackstar.
Inverness, The Mackintoshes
Motto: “Touch Not the Cat Without a Glove”
Sitting pretty on the banks of the River Ness (not far from the monster of the Loch), Inverness has been fought over by highland tribes more times than it would care to remember. Famous for its salmon fishing, the Mackintosh clan came to dominate the area after Shaw MacDuff helped King Malcom IV quell a local uprising and was given a castle here as his reward. Whilst the original Mackintosh castle was demolished, visitors to Inverness can still get a historical thrill by making a trip to Cawdor Castle, which is often associated with Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Eagle Brae Log Cabins, Beauty, Inverness-shire
And Eagle Brae’s five-star cabins are set within the northern Highlands. The cabins are enveloped beneath soaring mountains, and amongst wild glens and vast lochs. Its far away from light pollution, providing a great place for stargazing holidays. If the Northern Lights don’t make an appearance during a stay, there’s still a good chance of seeing the Milky Way, meteors and other astronomical delights.
The sustainable log cabins are warm and cosy with log-burning stoves and biomass boilers. They are also dog-friendly!
Head to Aberdeenshire and the Moray coast, where there are plenty of clear skies and limited pollution (essential for a chance to spot the light displays). Here you can visit Rattray Head Lighthouse, or Cullykhan Bay near Fraserburgh, or Cullen Bay.
Located over 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland, Shetland is also a magical place from which to potentially get a glimpse of the Northern Lights (known locally in Shetland as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’). Stay in a lighthouse, or take to Eshaness for the majestic views and history.
Glencoe, The Macleans
Motto: “Virtue Mine Honour”
Glencoe is literally translated as, “Valley of Weeping,” a woefully appropriate name considering the brutal massacre of the Mac Donalds by the Campbell clan that took place here in 1692. A consequence of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the murdered families of Glencoe actually belonged to a subsection of the clan known as the Macleans.
History aside, this glen – with its giant peak known as the “Great Shepherd of Etive” – looks both picturesque and formidable no matter the weather. Be sure to keep a look out for the native golden eagles and wild red deer as you travel through the area.
DUMFRIES & GALLOWAY
Dumfries & Galloway, home to Galloway Forest Park, which has glens, lochs and some of the highest hills in southern Scotland. With so few buildings and very limited light pollution it was a natural choice to be the first “Dark Sky Site” to be named as such in the UK. A visit to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is a must, as is meeting with a Dark Sky Ranger at one of the visitor centres. Also, head to Moffat, the UK’s first Dark Sky Town.