Among all the magnificent Scottish animals you might hope to encounter on your trip around the country, Scottish midges are certainly not one of them. But there are ways to deal with midges and other beasties (insects) in order to avoid a “ruined holiday”. Here’s everything you need to know about Scottish midges, clegs and ticks.
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We’ve all seen them. The viral videos of some fearless nutter with a death wish standing in the Scottish Highlands on an overcast day they are quickly surrounded by a chaotic swarm of tiny black flies. (If you haven’t here’s one featuring my pal Calum Maclean.)
The dreaded Scottish midges.
The most numerous of Scottish animals, more biomass than all Scottish people combined. Don’t quote me on that – but that’s what it feels like when you encounter a swarm of them.
“When is the best time to visit to avoid the midges?” and “Are the midges going to ruin our experience?” are the two most asked questions about Scottish wildlife that find their way into my inbox.
But the answer – like so many other things in life – depends. Yes, it’s possible to avoid midge season entirely, but that doesn’t mean that their active time is a total no-go period. You can still have a great time in Scotland, even if there’s midges around.
In this post, I answer some of the most important questions about midges –
- What are Scottish midges?
- When is midge season?
- Where and in what conditions do they thrive the most?
- How to avoid midges in Scotland?
- What are the most effective remedies?
I’ll also cover other Scottish beasties (or insects) that you may encounter – many of which are actually more likely to really “ruin” your trip – like horseflies and ticks.
Table of Contents
What are midges?
Midges are tiny black flies that live seasonally in the British Isles, Scandinavia, other regions of northern Europe, and as far away as Russia and China. It’s also known as the Highland midge or ‘midgie’ (although, you’ll usually encounter multiple ‘midgies’).
Female midges are known to form large swarms to prey on animals (including cattle, sheep and deer) and humans to suck their blood. You may not notice them until it’s too late and you’ve been bitten. They make very little noise and are very small – much smaller than mosquitoes. Your skin will itch before you know it.
You may wonder if Scottish midges are dangerous? Luckily, I can put your mind at ease. Midges are not dangerous and their bites do not transmit any diseases. But they are annoying and usually itchy. Some people react worse than others though, so you may be one of the lucky few who aren’t bothered by them.
Things you must know about Scottish midges
It doesn’t take long for midges to mature and lay their own batch of eggs – that’s why there can be multiple generations during one season.
Scottish midges love overcast and wind still days, even better if it is a little muggy or dreich (humid). Rain does not deter them. On days like these, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter midges.
Midges are most active during the morning hours and before sunset, but they can be around and bite at any time of the day.
There are the fortunate few who hardly get bothered by midges, while others seem to attract them like honey – I’m one of the latter… Some people get bitten a lot more than others.
Where Scottish midges live
Midges require standing water to lay their eggs – sheltered lochans, puddles, bogs etc. – and they “hunt” near to their breeding grounds. When choosing a site to camp or spread a picnic blanket, consider if there’s any standing water nearby.
They also love sheltered spots in glens or forests – areas where it tends to be less windy.
Midges will invade tents, but funny enough they don’t usually come inside houses as much. But don’t take my word on it..
What midges hate
Since they are so tiny, Scottish midges can’t deal well with wind – they simply can’t fly in it and are blown away by the breeze. Above 10km/h or 6mph is ideal.
They also don’t love harsh sunlight and dry air, so on dry, sunny days there are usually fewer midges around. Unfortunately, not the most common weather in Scotland…
In the case of a particular dry spell (think weeks without rain, and hot weather), there may not be enough standing water for midges to breed at all. Many Scots think back to the glorious summer of 2018, when we had 7 weeks without rain and there were hardly any midges at all. Too bad that clegs (or horseflies) loved these conditions and became a nuisance – read more about clegs below.
When is Scottish midge season?
The first wave of midges usually hatch in late May and from then on it’s a continuous feast for them until the end of September or early October. That’s when it gets too cold for them to successfully continue breeding.
Can you avoid midges?
There are two ways to avoid Scottish midges.
1) One is to travel outside of midge season. Since this starts at the end of May and can last well into September though, that can be difficult to do when you travel during (what I consider) the best time to visit Scotland.
If you don’t mind travelling during the off-season, October to mid-/late May is virtually midge-free.
2) The other approach to avoid midges is to learn about Scottish midges (for example, what they like and dislike), and adjust your behaviour accordingly.
Consider what weather conditions midges love and hate, what time of the day they are most active in, what areas they are most likely to inhabit, or what attracts them to you.
For example, midges can’t fly in the wind – even the softest breeze is too strong for them – so if you can gain higher ground to leave sheltered areas or head for the windy coast.
What to do when you’ve been bitten by midges
Not everybody reacts the same way to midge bites. Some people have tiny red spots that don’t itch at all, others have super itchy red blotches on their skin for days. That’s life.
Try not to scratch the bite as that just agitates the itch. An anti-itch pen can help to relief the pain.
If you react strongly, taking an antihistamine or even applying a cortisol cream can help a lot.
Will Scottish midges ruin your holiday?
Unless you’re camping it’s pretty easy to get away from Scottish midges. Just don’t stand still for too long. Keep moving, wear the right clothes and use repellant. On some trips I don’t even notice there’s midges around at all.
If you are camping I’m sharing a few tips on dealing with midges below. You’ll probably notice them a lot more, but there are ways to minimise their nuisance.
And don’t forget, in the end, midges are simply that – a nuisance. They aren’t dangerous and their bites are not painful.
If you can’t avoid midges entirely, there are a few things you con do to deter them.
The best midge repellant is to stay close to a person they love even more!
Jokes aside, I recommend using midge repellent like Smidge or Avon Skin So Soft. Smidge isn’t so easy to get abroad, but it can be bought in shops all over the Highlands.
It also helps to cover up and wear long-sleeve clothes.
If you’re staying outside, light a scented candle that contains citronella, lavender or bog myrtle – although I wouldn’t entirely rely on just that.
You might also like: A packing list for Scotland & tons of packing tips
Things to do differently
As mentioned above, you can change your behaviour to avoid midges:
- Travel to areas that are less notorious for their midge populations, like for example coastal regions.
- Keep moving – you can outrun or outwalk midges if you just keep moving.
- Get a midge net to cover your head. It looks ridiculous but you’ll be so happy about it – especially if you are camping or hiking. Make sure this is a net with extra fine mesh.
- If you can, avoid camping and stay in accommodation. It means you have somewhere comfortable and midge-free to escape.
- But if you are camping, keep your flysheet/inner tent closed – even if you only leave your tent for a moment.
- Eat inside, especially at dinner time. It can be tempting to have eat alfresco in the summer, but the midges will probably catch up with you.
Other beasties in Scotland
As mentioned above, midges are annoying, but they are neither dangerous, not are their bites painful. This is not the case for some other beasties (insects) that are common in Scotland
The Notched-Horned Cleg is a large fly, about 1-2 cm long. You can see them easily when they approach you (and they are actually quite beautiful), but they are persistent buggers.
Unlike midges they don’t care about wind and can out-fly even strong winds. That means you also can’t outrun them, as they simply pick up the pace.
The bites of clegs are pretty painful at the moment they bite you, because they don’t sting, they actuallycut you with their razor-sharp jaws. There’s often a bit of bleeding and the bites stick around for a while. For me, the bites go bright red and are pretty itchy.
Clegs love hot and dry weather which means, if there’s no midges there’s usually horseflies…
The bad news is that they are not easy to deter. They don’t really react much to repellant spray and they are known to bite through clothes.
When you get bitten, keep an eye on the bite and make sure it doesn’t get infected. Avoid scratching the bite and if in doubt speak to a doctor or pharmacist.
Now, the most dangerous insect you’re likely to encounter in Scotland is the tick.
Ticks are small, spider-like creatures that feed on the blood of mammals, including humans. They start out teeny tiny, but grow as they fill up with blood. If you don’t spot a tick and remove it, it will keep feeding and grow up to 1 cm long – not very nice to look at.
In the UK, ticks can transmit Lyme disease (also known as Lyme borreliosis), a bacterial infection. There is no vaccine for Lyme disease but it can be treated. The earlier it’s diagnosed the better. Unlike in Europe (and some parts of England), Scottish ticks do not transmit tick-born encephalitis (TBE) though.
Ticks tend to live in vegetation close to the ground – meadows, woodlands and in Scotland especially in bracken/ferns. The best way to avoid them is to wear long sleeves, especially when walking through their preferred habitat.
Checking for ticks
Ticks are less likely to transmit diseases if you remove them within 24 hours. That’s why it’s important to check your entire body for ticks every day you’re out and about in Scotland.
Ticks tend to bite in areas on your body that are “dark” or hard to reach/see – arm pits, knee pits, between your toes, intimate areas, on your back, your hairline etc. It can be tricky to spot them by yourself, so ask your travel buddy to help out.
People have all sorts of tricks to remove ticks. I use a tick remover which comes in two sizes. Slide the tick remover between the tick and your skin and lift up carefully. Make sure the entire tick is removed. It’s easy enough to rip off the head and leave it in the bite which can cause irritations.
You could also carry a tick removal card which fits in any wallet.
How to tell if you’ve got Lyme disease
After you’ve removed the tick, keep an eye on the bite. It may be a bit red, but the colour should fade within a few days. If it doesn’t – or you develop a circular rash around the bite – go to the doctor. The rash is a common symptom – but there are also other symptoms including muscle pain, a high temperature and more.
Scottish beasties like the Highland midge, the horsefly and the tick are an annoying part of spending time in the great outdoors, but they shouldn’t deter you from enjoying the Scottish countryside.
I hope that this article has answered some of your questions about midges and other insects you may encounter in Scotland.
Now you know how to deal with Scottish midges, you can continue planning your trip!