As evidenced by the astronomical alignment of many groups of standing stones the Highlands has long been a place where people gazed at the heavens for meaning or inspiration. Due to its extremely low levels of light pollution the north coast has in recent years built an enviable reputation as one of the best places in Europe for stargazing and chasing a sighting of the Northern Lights. The appeal of the Highlands is well documented, but unknown to many, when the sun goes down then a whole new set of attractions reveal themselves.
Our pagan ancestors studied the heavens to help plan their harvests and many standing stones align with the rising sun on the longest and shortest days of the year. The alignment of Bronze Age constructions like the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney and Callanish standing stones in Lewis reflect the importance of the moon and stars to our forefathers.
Visiting the stones here is a powerful experience at any time, but to watch the sun rise over them on the summer solstice is especially moving. Unlike Stonehenge you can get up close and touch the stones, you can become fully immersed in the experience rather than watching from afar. As dawn breaks and the first rays of the new season’s sun illuminate the landscape, the feeling is celestial.
If solitude and serenity is what you seek and you would like the opportunity to watch the dawn break over a lone standing stone then there are dozens of them dotted on hill tops all-round the Highlands where you are unlikely to see another person. For some it can be a spiritual connection to the pagan ways of the past, for others just a way of trying to see the landscape as our ancestors did, either way there are fewer and fewer locations around the world where you can wake up, look around you and see little evidence of 20th century civilization. The Hebrides is certainly one of them.
The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are a spectacular natural phenomenon which have a place on many peoples bucket list. The good news is that with a bit of luck and some preparation you won’t have to travel up to the Arctic Circle to see them. Part of the attraction lies in their elusive nature, you can never guarantee when or where you will be treated to a display but by following a few simple steps you can maximise your chances. Flexibility is the key so if for example you rented a camper van you could cruise around some of the most promising locations in the northern Highlands to chase a sighting. Try and find a north facing spot where the skies are clear, if you can’t see the stars then you will have little chance of taking in the aurora. There is a downloadable aurorawatch app that can help enormously. Although it can never say for sure if you will see the lights, it can be set to alert you when solar activity occurs and when and where conditions are most favourable. The low population density of the north-west makes it easier to get away from the light pollution caused by street lights and cars, sworn enemies of the aurora photographer. Persistence and patience are also frequently required but the reward, a multi coloured display across the horizon is truly a once in a lifetime experience
It can be a fun adventure motoring around the highlands in pursuit of something as intangible as the aurora so it’s important to recognise that failure to spot it should not be too disappointing. Part of the appeal must surely be the places that such a quest will take you. The best spots for viewing are often remote, quiet and peaceful, a beach where you can only hear the waves or a mountain side with no evidence of civilization. The further away from street lights the better so a camper van gives you a unique benefit in this regard with the added bonus of waking up in a different naturally spectacular place every night.
Skye & Lochalsh enjoy some of the darkest skies in Europe. Free from the light pollution which blights towns and cities the inky black skies present the heavens in all their spectacular beauty. A group of local enthusiasts have founded the Dark Skye initiate and have mapped and recorded nine different locations where the blackest of the black skies best present the skies in all their spellbinding beauty. These locations throughout the island all enjoy easy access, with firm ground for wheelchairs, and promise an unforgettable experience on a clear night. The remoteness and lack of lighting make these ideal for astronomy and astro photography, with patience you can be richly rewarded with amazingly crisp images of neighbouring planets and even deeper space objects. The wonders of Skye do not cease when the sun goes down.
If you crave one more nocturnal adventure whilst motoring around the north then for a truly complete sensory experience a midnight moonlight swim is just the thing. There are enough remote spots to make sure you do not offend anyone if you are skinny dipping in the summer. Care is obviously needed in the winter months when solar activity tends to increase, the water may be a bit chilly, but the prospect of floating in the dark with just the lights of the Milky Way, moon and aurora to distract you is surely too tempting to miss. Pack a wetsuit and a flask and head to Clashnessie or Durness for a truly unique night out.
Intrigued yet? Hire a campervan and take to the roads!
Photos courtesy of Bunk CampersTags: astronomy, Aurora Borealis, campervan hire highlands, campervan hire scotland, dark skies park, highland experience, highland road trip, Northern Lights, wild swimming