Aurora hunting in Orkney

Now that autumn is on the way and the longer nights are starting to return, attention is turning to Orkney's skies and the chance to see one of nature's great phenomenons...

Orkney is full of festivals throughout the summer months, attracting visitors from around the world to the islands.

But, as we head towards the autumn and (whisper it) winter, perhaps the most spectacular event of the year will be unveiled once again.

You can’t buy a ticket, and there is no official programme, but that’s part of the beauty of chasing the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

The northern lights over the Italian Chapel in Orkney - image by Pawel Kuzma

‘The Lights have captured the imagination of people around the northern hemisphere,’ said Daf Smith, the man behind the incredibly popular Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook. ‘They are a rich source of stories, myth and legend and we’re really lucky that Orkney is one of the great viewing platforms for them.’

Daf is part of a growing band of dedicated ‘aurora hunters’ in Orkney, local residents all keen to enjoy the perfect Northern Lights experience, taking advantage of our ideal location.

The awe-inspiring phenomenon is caused by solar wind from the sun colliding with magnetic particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, but things closer to ground level have to be right for it all to come off.

Orkney's landscape is perfect for aurora watching - image by Premysl Fojtu

‘You need a still, clear atmosphere and a good view to the north with no moon,’ said Daf. ‘Somewhere without light pollution is essential too.’

When these conditions all align and everything is just right it can lead to a spectacular display in the skies above the islands.

Perhaps it’s the dawn of social media and the proliferation of digital cameras, but sightings of the ‘mirrie dancers’ seem to be far more common in recent years.

Inevitably, for most of us, it’s the morning after by the time you realise what you missed. Your Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of images of green, red and purple light, skimming across the darkened Orkney sky. That’s usually the point where you make the ‘next time’ pledge.

So, where’s the best place to start so you don’t miss out when that ‘next time’ occurs?

The first port of call should be the aforementioned Orkney Aurora Group page. Members post regular updates on the potential for a display, and you’ll even get real time information and images from those ‘out in the field’, tracking down a sighting of the Northern Lights.

The mirrie dancers over Kirbister Loch in Orphir - image by John Wishart

‘If there is a display in Orkney then somebody will be reporting it on our page. There are others that have up-to-the-minute information too, like Aurora Hunters UK,’ said Daf. ‘But you can always learn to read satellite information and magnetometer ground stations, then you can predict the night for yourself, that’s where the fun is!’

It can be a tricky thing to do but you don’t have to be Professor Brian Cox to crack the code. There are plenty of websites that can help with hints and tips, including the Space Weather Live site. You can even sign up for alerts from the AuroraWatch UK website, run by Lancaster University.

Once you’ve got the right night and perfect solar conditions, the next challenge is to identify the ideal spot to see the mirrie dancers in all their glory. In an archipelago of around seventy islands you’ve got plenty of choice in Orkney, but where is the ideal location?

Well, the clue is in the name.

‘The further north you go, the better the view you’ll get,’ said Daf. But, seeing as Orkney is about as far north as possible, the difference between separate places is negligible.

‘All you really need is a view north without light pollution. Lots of our members head out towards the coast in Birsay or the top of Wideford Hill. The beach at Dingieshowe is another popular location, and there are always images from the likes of the Ring of Brodgar and the Broch of Gurness,’ said Daf. ‘But I just shoot from my garden in Harray!’

A display of the northern lights over Deerness earlier in 2016 - image by Premysl Fojtu

Capturing the moment forever is a big part of the Northern Lights experience. Highly sensitive and powerful digital cameras mean anyone can take a beautiful image of the Aurora, and social media means they can be shared around the world in an instant. But much like learning how to predict when conditions will be right, getting to grips with your camera can be a challenge.

In basic terms you should be setting your camera to manual and working with the ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings until you find the right combination. A slow shutter speed of up to and around twenty seconds is usually ideal, but it really is a case of trial and error. Luckily, Daf has published a very helpful video with some of his recommendations.

A display of the Northern Lights doesn’t last forever, so it’s understandable that you’d want to capture the moment via your camera. But the last thing you want is to only see one of nature’s most beautiful sights through the viewfinder of your Canon or Nikon.

So remember, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Orkney under a blanket of dancing and shimmering light one clear and calm night in the coming months, just stop a while and take it all in.

If you want to experience the Northern Lights in Orkney, take a look at Visit for travel and accommodation advice.

Find the Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook. Newsletter

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