By Promote ShetlandNovember 9th 2021

The Mirrie Dancers are the Shetland name for the Northern Lights, with the word 'mirr' meaning 'to shimmer'. But what causes these lights to shimmer and dance across northern skies in winter? And where do they come from? Aurora expert Richard Ashbee explains all.

Experiencing the Mirrie Dancers or Northern Lights is on most people’s bucket list, and many are surprised to find that they can be seen in the UK.

Shetland is known for its big skies, and this is great for seeing the aurora, the wide vistas can be filled with green , purple and sometimes red racing across the sky. These nights are what dreams are made of and we want to preserve these memories through our photos.

Seeing the Northern Lights cannot be guaranteed at any time, even near the Arctic circle so you will need to combine the aurora experience with other activities such as wildlife watching, attending festivals or see the other 'fire in the sky’– Up Helly Aa (usually between January – March).

Shetland is the ideal place to see the aurora in Britain as it is the most northerly place in the UK. The Out Stack, north of Unst is roughly 400 miles south of the Arctic circle, nearer the Arctic circle than to London.

How are the Northern Lights created?

It’s amazing to think that the Northern Lights created by the sun, a star that is 93 million miles away. It is connected to the Earth by much more than sunlight and warmth. Solar activity determines how often the aurora appears, which is good news for anyone wanting to see the aurora as the sun is becoming more active month by month.

Sunspots activity follows an 11-year cycle with the next peak expected in July 2025. Typically it takes 3-5 years to achieve maximum, but 6-7 years to drop back. When energy is released by solar flares or big storms called Coronal Mass Ejections(CMEs), which erupt near sunspots, charged particles are spewed into space and if they are Earth directed, these storms manifest themselves as auroras.

Green is the most common colour reported by members of the Shetland Aurora Hunter Facebook group (60%), with multi coloured aurora reported by 30% of members and other colours (9%). Red aurora is the rarest (1%).

How can I tell if the Northern Lights are going to appear?

By far the easiest way to find out when the aurora is going to show, is by joining Shetland Aurora Hunter on Facebook. Information is regularly updated on the current activity, members sightings, weather and road conditions. The group was set up to share these experiences and photos and now has a membership of over 6,000.

Once you know that the aurora is active, check that you have some clear sky – a part clear sky is still ok if it's in the north. Go to a dark site; you are less likely to see the aurora in a light polluted area unless it's very strong. Seek out a low horizon to the north and find a site within 15 mins from your location as the aurora can develop quickly.

Give your eyes at least 10 mins to adjust to the darkness and try not to use a torch otherwise your night vision will be affected. Wrap up warm, or your viewing will be short lived. I remember on a few occasions where people turned up to see the aurora in shorts and a t-shirt and another where two women arrive in slippers and dressing gowns. They only stayed a few minutes and missed some great aurora activity.

It's sometimes difficult to see the aurora especially when it is not very active, so take a photograph looking north, if it shows green then you're in luck. You will only see colour if it's a very strong aurora otherwise you may only see a white cloud like band with your eyes.

Look northwest and check by taking another photo, it may show more colour. I was once taking photos of the aurora when a minibus pulled up. Folk came over and asked where to see the aurora. I said it was good here and showed them the photos, but they said it might be better about a mile up the road and, as they travelled up, missed the best of the action.

How long should I wait for the Northern Lights?

Chances are it will develop and become stronger, if you wait. Look for any shafts of light appearing and a ripple effect as the aurora becomes more active. Stay as long as possible. It can flare up for a short time then fade before it get stronger again.

At a couple of places I've heard cheers coming out of the darkness as a fantastic sky develops; that’s the power of the aurora.

When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Shetland?

The aurora season in Shetland normally runs from mid-August to the end of April, but is weather dependant. The longest run of consecutive nights recorded by Shetland Aurora Hunter members was 10 nights in February 2021. Usually the peak hours are between 9pm and 2am but it can be as early as 6.30pm, so keep checking the Facebook group.