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A stunning sight we were not expecting...

Updated: May 29

Scotland is sufficiently far north that it's not unusual to see a bit of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, periodically throughout autumn, winter and spring months. Usually, the phenomenon is quite subtle, can be challenging to spot with the naked eye, and is best seen in rural areas where the sky is darkest.

We've got an app that pings when geomagnetic activity is high enough to produce an aurora that will be visible to the eye, or even to the camera. A degree of chance plays into potential sightings, as various conditions - clouds, light pollution, timing (an aurora's duration can be mere minutes) - affect its visibility. In other words, you've got to be in the right place at the right time.

Consequently, we've only witnessed the aurora a few times since returning to Scotland permanently in 2015/2016. In each of those instances, the aurora's magenta and green hues have been very faint. The eye tends to register the magenta first and more clearly than the green, which itself often appears silvery (no less magnificent and otherworldly than the green). As a camera lens lets in a greater amount of light than the eye, photographs provide the bright, saturated images that we expect. That was the case with the first few images in the video below, made in March 2024. In these photos, the aurora is just a colourful blush above the northern horizon.

Then, on Friday 10 May at around 11:30 pm, after we'd already done our evening walk and were ready for bed after a long day at work, we got an aurora alert. Normally we would have ignored it, except that day there had been news reports of solar storms producing elevated electromagnetic activity, so we decided to venture out. This time of year, it's only just fully dark after 11:00 and the sky was relatively clear, so those conditions were in our favour. Near to our flat, the best views north are from Holyrood Park, so we headed there, still with expectations in check. Coming out from under the trees surrounding Holyrood Palace, it was Sam who saw them first. Knowing that he was seeing the aurora (for the first time in his life), Sam drew my attention toward the sky and jokingly asked if I thought the shafts of magenta light were a 'funny-shaped cloud', to which I naturally responded with an amended Star Wars quote, saying, 'well, that's no moon'. That was the first indication of a magnificent atmospheric event that occurred over the next 45 minutes. On this occasion the aurora exceeded all expectations. The light was clear, undulating and filled the entire sky. The colours were visible. Although there was quite a bit of light pollution from Edinburgh, it was extraordinary to witness the aurora borealis over the city where we live.

The video below is comprised of still images, some sequenced to show how the aurora changes over seconds and minutes.

Note: in a couple of the photo sequences, a helicopter is visible flying across the frame then hovering in the distance below Arthur's Seat, using search lights to locate an injured person. They found the individual, who was hoisted into the helicopter and taken to an ambulance waiting in the field below. We hope the person was ok and applaud the rescue team's skill and commitment.

Written by Blake

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