Sleeping under the Northern Lights in the Scottish Highlands

In Oban we’re lucky to have the mountains on our doorstep, but it’s fair to say that the weather doesn’t always play ball.  This summer has been particularly changeable so when we finally had a run of nice weather a couple of weeks ago everyone was anxious to make the most of it.

Every now and then you’re presented with a forecast so good that it can’t be ignored, even on a weekday, so we’ve pioneered the concept of ‘Munro Mondays’ – straight up a summit after work, camp / bivi on top and descend at sunrise to hopefully be back at the desk, in body if not in mind, by 9 am (a Munro is a Scottish hill over 3000 feet, roughly 920 metres).  Last Monday looked promising so a few of us decided to head up the western summit of Ben Cruachan (Stob Dearg).  I took a direct but boggy route up, and as it turned out, the others came up via the dam and camped at the saddle so I had the summit to myself.

I set the bivi bag up and watched the cloud drift in far below.  The sun dropped behind the peaks of Mull, leaving a rich orange glow in the west I’ve come to associate with evenings spent up high.  I watched Marie and Jacq’s headtorches a mile or so away in the saddle until they switched off.  By 10 pm the residual glow had disappeared completely and the clouds effectively blocked what little light pollution there was. Initially the only illumination was from the rising Milky Way; bright against the thick blackness below.  No wind; absolute silence.  Around 10:30 the aurora began to flicker into life in the north.  The clouds had filled in completely to form an unbroken sea stretching between horizons. I’m sure there are more dramatic mountain vistas in the Highlands than Cruachan can offer, but it is hard to beat for unimpeded visibility – it’s the tallest thing around.  Tonight, there was absolutely nothing obstructing the view until the curvature of the Earth got in the way.

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The lights, initially sporadic torch-beams directed skywards, built in intensity and formed a band across the northern horizon.  Over the next hour the band rose higher until it arced magnificently from east to west and illuminated the clouds.  I took some pictures then retired to the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag.  By this time a cool breeze had set in, so I plugged myself into my mp3 player to drown out the rattle of the wind on the bivi bag.

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I woke again at 3 am; the Milky Way was not where I had left it and the moon had risen.  Once again the wind had dropped to an absolute calm and the lights were glorious.  Olive green patterns danced, curled, sketched and erased whilst the violet and blue torch beams made stately progress from west to east.  A picture which will be permanently etched into my memory.  In recognition of the occasion, the shuffle on my mp3 player served up the Foo Fighters!

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As always, the photos don’t really do the scene justice.  Perhaps hardest to convey is the sense of space; perched atop a platform the size of a small room, half a mile above an endless sea of cloud and a hundred miles below the flickering aurora.

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By 5 am the lights had to compete with the approaching daylight in the east, and by 6.30 the sun was up, accompanied by the return of that chilly wind which threatened to scupper my plans for a bacon roll by repeatedly blowing out the stove.  I watched Marie and Jacq working their way up the Cruachan Skyline (it’s a lot further than you think from the saddle!) to finally stand on the summit a few minutes after sunrise.  Then it was simply a race down to get to the car and work, only hampered slightly by the bracken near the road, which I’m sure had grown since the previous evening.

Marie and Jacq summiting Ben Cruachan in the morning.

Today we were discussing the likelihood of combining a perfect cloud inversion, benign summit weather and an active aurora, all of which are pretty unlikely occurrences in Scotland in their own right.  I think it will be a while before the stars align again…

I’m yet to set up an online shop but please contact me at sam@samcjones.com if you would like to buy prints.  Guide prices: 

  • 10″ x 8″ print: Unframed £12 + postage; Framed: £30 + postage.
  • 16″ x 12″ print: Unframed £15 + postage; Framed: £50 + postage.

I can also print and frame panoramas; please email me for details.  Generally, photo quality is excellent on 70 cm wide prints for example.  See my galleries for other oceanography and landscape photos.

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