True Highlands Blog
September marks the start of Autumn – and what a fantastic time to explore the Highlands! Scotland’s summers might be notoriously wet, but autumn brings with it dry days, cosy evenings and natural wonders guaranteed to delight – dancing northern lights, golden forests, wonderful wildlife and a ‘natural larder’ bursting with berries, mushrooms and more.
The Highlands are just bursting with things to do and see in autumn – we’ve put together just a few of the highlights that we think are unmissable if you visit!
The equinoxes (Latin for ‘equal night’, as night and day are the same length) fall half way between the solstices, and this year’s autumn equinox falls on September 23rd. Thanks to the tilt of the earth and interactions between its magnetic field and that of solar wind (explained in more detail here if you’re really interested!), the equinoxes are the best time of the year to see the northern lights, or ‘aurora borealis’.
This spectacular display of dancing lights in the night sky can be seen anywhere in Scotland when they’re strong enough, as long as there’s not too much light pollution (so away from cities and towns). Fortunately for us, you can’t get further north in Britain and we have the country’s lowest population density, so have the best chance of spotting them! The Moray coast is a favourite spot for many for spotting the lights, as the skies to the north are uninterrupted – you have the expanse of the Moray Firth to look out over and admire them! This stretch of coastline also features unique rock formations such as bow fiddle rock, which provide an unrivalled shot for keen photographers as the lights dance behind them.
Thanks to Shetland Webcams, if you’re not lucky enough to catch the northern lights in person, you can still see them from anywhere in the world, from the comfort of your armchair!
To be in with the best chance of seeing the lights, keep an eye on a forecasting service such as Service Aurora – although, like any forecast, these can never be 100% accurate (as any visitor to Scotland will tell you!), they track solar activity and predict when the lights are likely to appear.
And our #1 tip – be patient! Choose your spot, bring a warm blanket and a flask of hot chocolate and enjoy the night sky – whether the lights decide to make an appearance or not!
The salmon run
Every year, Scotland’s native Atlantic salmon ‘run’ up the rivers to spawn in the gravelly riverbeds. Their incredible journeys upstream, spanning hundreds of miles, see them battling rough rapids and leaping up waterfalls – providing a spectacular display for us to see! It is this athletic display that gives them their Latin name Salar – ‘the leaper’. This journey is not only an impressive feat of strength and endurance, but a sacrifice – 90-95% of the salmon die once they have spawned, their energy drained from their long battle upstream.
September to October are the best months to see these ‘leapers’ take on waterfalls in their journeys. Falls of Shin in east Sutherland is known to the one of the best places to witness this, and an excellent path and viewing platform have been built (don’t forget to bring snacks with you, as it is easy to sit for hours admiring the fish!). The area also has pretty forest walks including a wooden sculpture trail for the kids.
If you’re further south in Highland Perthshire, the Pitlochry Fish Ladder is also an excellent place to spot the salmon. The fish ladder, a series of pools climbing steadily higher, bypasses the Victorian-built dam. There is even an underwater viewing room, where you can peer into two of the pools through glass walls and see the salmon resting between jumps.
Morning and evening are when the salmon are most active (although can be seen leaping throughout the day), so time your visit early or ate if possible. A wet period after a dry spell also provides excellent ‘leaping’ conditions.
As the days get colder, red squirrels can be seen busily stocking up on food for the winter – both storing supplies for the meagre months and piling on the pounds (well, grams) to get them through the winter. This means that they’re more active on the ground than normal as they gather food, and can be seen scurrying across forest floors, leaping from tree to tree and even raiding the odd bird feeder!
These native squirrels can be seen almost anywhere in the Highlands, as the invasive grey squirrel is almost completely absent and therefore poses no threat to the red as they do elsewhere. The Cairngorms National Park is one of the best places to see these squirrels as it has the greatest area of their natural habitat, the Caledonian pine forest. Loch an Eilein is a particularly good place to spot them as a path leads you around the loch through scots pine, birch and rowan woodland. Take care on the drive in as they are frequently seen dashing across the road in front of cars!
Highland-based conservation charity Trees for Life recently reintroduced red squirrels to areas of the north west including Shieldaig, Kinlochewe and Plockton, aiming to boost their numbers in areas that they once inhabited – and increasing your chances of spotting one across the Highlands!
Autumn is well-known as the best time of the year to forage across the Highlands, as berries ripen and mushrooms sprout. Brambles (blackberries) are a favourite of many, especially alongside apple in a crumble or pie! Rosehips (known to many children as ‘itchy bombs’ thanks to tiny hairs on their seeds that have been used in pranks for years) are less widely gathered, but make a delicious syrup rich in vitamin C – make this into a milkshake that both adults and children will love! Both of these can be gathered from fields and verges across the Highlands. Wait until after the first frost to harvest them, as this helps their outer layer break down a little. Blaeberries – like blueberries but slightly more tart – grow abundantly on low-lying bushes in forests and upland areas. Just be careful to pick them away from the edges of paths and give them a good rinse before eating them!
Chanterelle mushrooms will set you back an arm and a leg in the supermarket – but know where to look and you can gather bags full! They favour birch woodland with damp, mossy ground and can be found from September onwards. We highly recommend frying them in butter or a chanterelle risotto – yum yum! There are many more edible mushrooms that grow in the Highlands – just make sure that you know what you’re looking for and bring along a reliable mushroom guide!
For more foraging ideas, check out our foraging blog!
October marks the peak of the red deer rutting season – an impressive and also intimidating experience! As the stags compete for the hinds (females), they engage in stand-offs, roaring matches and wrestling with their formidable antlers. Despite how it looks, the stags are not intending to hurt each other – this is simply a display of strength, where the winner’s prize is ‘mating rights’ for the entire herd of females.
You don’t have to risk getting close to these battles to experience them – throughout October, the stags’ roaring can be heard across hills and moors from miles away – giving the odd camper quite a surprise awakening in the middle of the night!
The stags’ rut can be heard across most of the Highlands, but your best chances of seeing or hearing it are in the north west where populations are highest.
Finally, no blog about autumn would be complete without mentioning the rainbow of scarlet, gold, crimson and amber that appears in waves across the broadleaf forests. Highland Perthshire is one of the best places to witness this, as large areas of land are covered with thick woodland. You don’t even need to travel far for it – a drive up the A9, the main trunk road connecting the north and south of Scotland, takes you right through these woods and you rise up over the glens between Dunkeld and Calvine. If you have the time, stop off at Queen’s View looking over Loch Tummel – this spectacular viewpoint was a favourite of Queen Victoria herself, and the golden trees on the hill where you stand frame the loch perfectly – a photographer’s dream!
Tags: autumn photography, autumn scenes, autumn scenes scotland, Northern Lights, rutting, stag rut, visit highlands, visit scotland