Social media made me do it. Specifically, Instagram, when, back in September, my feed was lit up with pictures of the aurora borealis streaking shades of purple and green across the night sky in northern Scotland.
“I didn’t realise you could see the Northern Lights there,” said Lydia, my 10-year-old daughter, when I showed the photos to her and Alex, her seven-year-old brother. “When can we go?”
I am no astronomer, but even I knew that seeing the aurora owes much to chance. Still, I was reassured that we could find luck in Scotland after chatting to Gordon Mackie, chair of Caithness Astronomy Group, on the far north coast.
“Northern Scotland’s latitude is closer to the geomagnetic north pole [than other parts of the country], which means the aurora is seen here more often than in more southerly parts of the UK,” he told me.
“And our dark skies have very little light pollution, which makes any auroral display easier to see,” he added.
We also had timing on our side. The lead up to the solar maximum in 2024 (when the sun’s activity is at its highest) makes the chance of aurora sightings better than usual for the next few winters.
In this country, many stargazers use AuroraWatch UK, which sends out alerts when the lights might be visible. Jim Wild is professor of Space Physics at Lancaster University where scientists run the free service. He said public interest in the aurora has grown with the help of phone cameras and social media.
Of course, the UK can’t compete with the parts of Scandinavia where Northern Lights sightings are commonplace. For one of the best chances of catching the phenomena in Europe, we could have gone to Abisko in Swedish Lapland. But a trip there isn’t cheap, particularly when you’re restricted to school holidays. A five-night break would cost more than £2,100 for flights and accommodation – and there would still be no guarantee that the lights would appear.
I kept in mind that my children had been excited by the dancing lights being visible in Scotland, somewhere that felt close and familiar.
After a little research, I settled on a holiday with Big Sky Campers, a campervan company based in Inverkeithing, north of Edinburgh. In one of its vehicles, we could chase the lights – or, rather, the clear skies we needed to be able to see them. Campervanning was also more economical than fixed accommodation. Sure, there was the initial outlay of the van hire (£475 for five nights), and the train to Inverkeithing via Edinburgh (£130 with our family railcard). But, once there, each campsite pitch only cost £30 per night.
I cooked in our van, picking up supplies from local shops. And I kept driving time and fuel costs to a minimum. Admittedly, many campsites shut for the winter, so planning before setting off is vital (Big Sky Campers provided all the information we needed).
There was one source of hesitation. I had heard about irresponsible behaviour by campervan tourists in the Highlands: rubbish emptied into streams; wild camping in passing places; ambulances unable to get past large, lumbering vehicles.
Visiting in the region’s low season seemed like a relatively responsible approach. I found that a small VW van can negotiate single-track roads with ease.
Next, I narrowed down our route, with the help of Mark Washer, who runs astronomy events in Assynt with his partner, Monica Shaw.
“Northwest Scotland is a special place for stargazing,” he said
“It’s what’s known as a Bortle One site – the darkest skies in the UK”.
So that’s where we headed, armed with a suggested itinerary from Alexandra Black, who runs Big Sky Campers with her partner Rob Dawkins. The longest drive was our first, up the rugged Coigach Peninsula. After that, I kept most journeys to a couple of hours.
Each campsite was chosen for its dark skies: Clachtoll, where, according to the manager, the Milky Way is frequently visible (it remained below the horizon during our stay); Sango Sands, in the far northwest, for its wide expanse of sea and sky; and Ferry View, set among the flat fields and endless skies of Caithness.
Most other campers were couples or families following the North Coast 500 touring route.
On our first night, wandering back by torchlight from our pub dinner, we watched the moon sneak above mountain-shaped clouds, stars winking at us in the deepening night sky. I went to sleep with my phone close by, hoping for an aurora alert from my app. It never arrived.
Days were spent exploring the areas close to our campsites. We clambered up the hillside of Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve for mountain views, played hide-and-seek around the jagged rocks on Sango Bay, and met reindeer at Lichen Caithness.
The best nighttime sights were at Sango Sands. We spotted Jupiter first – a bright pinprick on the blanket of the dark sky. Then a star revealed itself, and another, and another, until the night’s full tapestry was exposed.
That aurora alert I’d been waiting for finally came on our final night, as we were brushing our teeth. We quickly headed outside. The sky above Blair Castle Caravan Park seemed to go on and on, but there was nothing to be seen except clouds.
“It’s okay, Mum,” said Lydia, slipping her arm through mine as we walked to our van, “it just means we’ll have to come back.”
Campervan hire with Big Sky Campers starts from £95 a night in the low season (Nov–March) and includes a gas bottle, bedding, towels, kitchen and camping equipment including a solar shower, insurance for one driver and unlimited mileage, with a minimum two-night stay, bigskycampers.co.uk.
Rail travel can be booked through trainline.com
aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk; download the app for alerts