Conditions were perfect: a good aurora forecast, a good weather forecast and a new moon, thus a nice dark sky. The Northern Lights, or Aurora borealis had already been seen in parts of Scotland a couple of weeks before but not in Knoydart which had been sitting under oppressive dark clouds for months. I’d been meaning to get a timelapse of the aurora all winter and wasn’t going to let this chance pass me by. So, I cycled five miles with a bike trailer laden with camera gear, down jacket, flask of tea and some of my wife’s home-made flapjack, up to “Doune Top” near Airor where you can get a clear view over the back end of Skye to Torridon in the north.
Within minutes of getting there I could see a faint green light on the horizon. It was starting! A few frantic minutes of setting the camera up for the timelapse and then I sat down with a cup of tea and watched the lights glow. Pulses of intense colour slowly moved across the sky and pale green strokes of green rose into the atmosphere. It was eerie but beautiful. I sat there for nearly four hours, as frost developed on me and the camera. It wasn’t a patch on the aurorae I had seen in Lapland a few times, where deep, pulsating curtains of colour swayed right overhead. This was low on the horizon but to see it on my home patch made it pretty special.
So what causes the aurora? Every now and then the sun spews out a mass of highly charged particles: a coronal mass ejection. When they hit the earth’s magnetic field they are drawn to the poles where they react with the earth’s atmosphere and produce light. I’m no astrophysicist but that’s my understanding anyway. In days gone by, the indigenous people of northern Canada and other high latitude regions such as Siberia and Lapland had their own interpretations of the lights: dancing spirits of dead children, pathways to heaven and omens of war, to name just a few.
This video shows 75 minutes of the aurora condensed into five seconds. I would have had more to show you but the frost on the lens ruined the image. This may have been the last chance to see the aurora in Scotland this spring but with the sun’s activity set to peak in 2013, hopefully we should see a few more from the autumn onwards. Keep your eyes on the skies.