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The Northern Lights in Iceland and Scotland

In a world full of man-made creations and a fast pace of life, sometimes we need to step back, slow down and marvel at some of the world’s breathtaking natural wonders.

The Northern Lights – also known as the Aurora Borealis – are the epitome of natural wonders and 2012 is one of the best years to witness this natural phenomenon as NASA predicts the strongest Northern Lights activity in 50 years.

So, what are the Northern Lights?

To put it as simply as possible, the lights occur when electrically-charged particles from the sun are blown towards the Earth in solar winds. These particles then collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a display of colourful lights that can be seen near the Earth’s magnetic poles. The colour of the light display depends on the gases and the distance above the Earth’s surface. Blue or purple lights: less than 120km, green or yellow lights: 120km-150km, and red lights: more than 150km.

Where can they be seen?

Like any other natural phenomenon, the exact place and time of sightings of the Northern Lights can be hard to predict, but the main places to see them are in the northern hemisphere in destinations such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Greenland, Alaska and north-western parts of Canada.

Iceland

In my hunt for the Northern Lights, my first stop was Iceland; a fascinating country with many beautiful natural sights such as the cascading Gullfoss Waterfalls, the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the spurting Great Geysir, Humpback, Minke and Blue whales in the bay of Reykjavik, and geothermal pools and spas such as the Blue Lagoon.

I was staying in Fosshotel Lind, a comfortable three-star hotel situated in the centre of Reykjavik just a few minutes’ walk from Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street.

Situated just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the best places to view the Northern Lights. Despite bad weather during most of my trip in Reykjavik, we perservered and on the last night a Reykjavik Excursions coach picked me up from my hotel and headed in convoy with twelve other coaches south of the city where it had been reported that the cloud was finally clearing. Northern Lights Tour starts from €33 per person.

I stood with the other hopefuls next to a beach on the south-east coast of Iceland staring up at the sky and willing the clouds to break and clear the path for the lights.

One hour later, the disheartened among us started heading back to the warmth of the coach when suddenly a man shouted “They’re coming!”.

Excitement rippled through the crowd and sure enough, the clouds had cleared to reveal a cluster of sparkling stars and a strip of vibrant green Northern Lights as they danced across the black sky.

If there is ever a time when a human can be made to feel like a tiny ant on this vast planet, it is while witnessing an impressive display of solar activity. They appeared to be putting on a show for their audience as they jumped and darted across the velvety sky before gradually fading into the atmosphere.

Scotland

Scotland was my other destination in my brief chase of the Aurora Borealis and though it might not have been regarded as one of the top spots for Northern Lights sightings in the past, recent images and media coverage have revealed some stunning displays that have already taken place this winter.

The Isle of Eriska is a beautiful private island in the Scottish highlands, close to Oban, that features a five-star Eriska Hotel, 3AA Rosettes restaurant and a golf course that is situated on the shores of the loch against a backdrop of majestic hills and snow-capped mountains.

The island’s isolated position enables it to be a fantastic viewing point for the Northern Lights and because it has no surrounding light pollution, guests will have a higher chance of seeing a spectacular light show within a tranquil and natural environment.

From West Scotland, I headed north-east on the train to the town of Wick after hearing that the lights had been spotted in a magnificent display the week before. This charming estuary town is home to cobbled streets dotted with cafes, bookshops and gift shops.

My accommodation was the Norseman Hotel located on the banks of the River Wick and was pictured in one of the breathtaking images that captured the Northern Lights at the end of January.

Despite not seeing the Northern Lights during my trip to Scotland, I was reassured when the receptionist of the Norseman showed me the recent photos that revealed a surreal crescent-shaped display of vivid green shades above Wick’s church and river.

The Northern Lights are one of the most magical examples of Mother Nature’s handiwork and a trip to encounter these beautiful mesmerising lights should be promptly added to your list of holiday destinations.

Top Tip

You will have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights if:

  • you are in an area away from light pollution;
  • avoid a full moon and cloudy skies;
  • use a digital camera with an ISO setting of 1600 and remember to turn the flash off;
  • and wrap up warm – it could be a long wait.