One of the great experiences during the Shetland winter is the ‘Northern Lights’, or aurora borealis, known locally as ‘Mirrie Dancers’.

What are the Northern Lights?

Aurorae occur in the sky above Earth’s polar regions. The northern sky takes on a greenish glow, with other colours such as pink, blue, orange or purple also present at times. Displays vary greatly in intensity – and may do so over an hour or so but an outstanding display can occupy the whole of the northern half of the sky and shed a noticeable light over the landscape. Less powerful aurorae will produce a uniform glow towards the north-west.

Aurorae happen when electrically charged particles originating from the sun collide with particles energised by the earth’s magnetic field. The volume of solar particles varies according to the amount of solar electrical activity. A brilliant aurora on one evening may be followed by a faint one the following night, or by no aurora at all. Occasionally, great bursts of solar energy are released and these produce the most dramatic effects.

When can I see the Northern Lights in Shetland?

As Shetland lies closer to the North Pole than any other part of Britain, it’s the best place to see the Northern Lights. Over a typical winter, a keen observer checking the skies on every clear night could certainly expect to see the aurora several times, with a number of low-level displays and possibly one or two more spectacular ones. But, the important thing to bear in mind is that aurorae are hard to predict. Even if the aurora is present, thick cloud may stop you seeing it.

Should I book a trip to Shetland in winter just to see the Northern Lights?

No, because you might well be disappointed, especially if you stay for just a few days. Our advice is to combine aurora-watching with some wonderful walking, wildlife watching, use of our superb indoor leisure facilities and eating some good food. Most of our archaeological sites are open too, and you might also fit in one of our fire festivals, which occur between January and March.

In general, aurorae are most likely to be seen between mid-October and mid-March; it helps greatly to avoid times when there is a full moon and of course you should move away from areas with street lighting, particularly Lerwick, to have the best view.

Finally, don’t forget to wrap up warmly! Aurora-watching may take you outside for several hours on cold nights and several layers of insulation are best if you’re going to feel comfortable. If you’re away from your accommodation, a flask of hot tea or coffee is also a very good idea.

If you're looking for the aurora while in Shetland, these online tools may prove handy:

How do I photograph the Northern Lights?

Taking your own aurora photographs isn’t particularly difficult, provided that you have a tripod and your camera can be set for exposures of, say, 30 seconds, probably with a setting of 200 or 400ASA. Some cameras will take good pictures on an automatic setting with the flash turned off. The exposure and aperture will vary according to the brightness of the display, and you can of course experiment. You may need to use manual focusing. Check out Shetland photographers Ivan Hawick, Austin Taylor and David Gifford for inspiration.

More things to see and do in Shetland in winter