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Midges in Scotland

Midges in Scotland

When it comes to midges in Scotland, let’s not beat about the bush. Especially as, if you beat about bushes in the Highlands in the summer, you’re liable to disturb clouds of midges. But are these little beasties that much of a problem? Will they spoil your trip? I’ve travelled in Scotland for, oh, years and years, and my answer is: possibly a little – but it all depends where you go. If you travel in the Lowlands, and a breeze blows, then midges in Scotland won’t be any problem at all.

But first, I’ll clear up an orthographic point, especially if you’ve been using Google to search for biting insects in Scotland. Midge and midget are two entirely different words. We’re talking insects here. Compared to these tiny insects, midgets are really, really huge. The Highland midge is only 1.5mm long, so it should be easy to tell the difference.

I can confirm that biting or otherwise aggressive midgets are not an issue anywhere in Scotland, not even in Glasgow (except perhaps at Old Firm football matches). Yes, I know, unless you are from Scotland that bracketed aside is probably opaque. Anyway, the Scots pronounce the insect as ‘mi-jee’, emphasising the first syllable. Sometimes midges are called gnats, though the US English ‘no-see-ums’ is much more colourful and also accurate. Make no mistake, when the conditions are right, these wee beasties can be a bit of an irritation.

Midges landing on hat in quite big numbers, near Shieldaig, Wester Ross

The midges have landed. All over my battered old Tilley hat, as it happens. ‘Smidge that Midge’ cream is definitely helping at this point, which is why they are on the hat and not on my ears. It’s early evening near Shieldaig, August. And very still after rain.

Midges – a Highland problem?

Firstly, some biology. Species of midge that have a taste for us belong to the genus Culicoides. This is a world-wide genus, and the tropical species are even worse. (Don’t ask.) There are more than 30 Culicoides species of midges in Scotland. The biting species vary with habitat. The species C. impunctatus is the one you usually encounter in the Highlands.

You meet it there because it lays its eggs in wet soil. So anywhere with a good growth of plant species such as sphagnum moss, various rushes or damp-loving grasses will be a potential midge breeding ground. That type of habitat includes much of the high-rainfall Highlands with their acid boggy ground.

Only half the midge population bites!

Now the good news. Only half the Highland midge population actually bites. The other half is male and feeds on flowers. (Everybody say ‘ahwww‘.) Basically, the female reaches the adult state with enough reserves to lay one batch of eggs. After that, if she comes over all broody again (and she will) then she needs a blood meal. She needs the protein in the blood to develop the yolk in her eggs. And that’s quite enough detail. Except to say that only about 10% of the females actually get a drink in their little lives. And I can’t say I’m sorry about that. That means that 90% of Highland female midges in Scotland just hover around muttering ‘Don’t know about you, but I could murder a forearm…

The mountains of Suilven (left) and Cul Mor (right) from Stac Pollaidh path - one place to experience midges in Scotland

The mountains of Suilven (left) and Cul Mor (right) from Stac Pollaidh path – not too many midges, yet!

(Above) On the way up Stac Pollaidh / Polly. A fine day in the north-west Highlands, with Suilven on the left and Cul Mor on the right. These are the names of the mountains in the background, by the way, not the women in the foreground. And we’ve just got high enough to catch the breeze and avoid the midges in Scotland.

How to avoid being a midge meal

There is a wealth of advice available on how to avoid being bitten by midges in Scotland. Not all of it is on this page, though this has all you need to know. Midges like to fly, and hence bite, near the ground and seldom attack more than 10ft (3m) above it. So, you could learn to stilt walk. (See? I told you we’d be practical.) Midges are attracted to dark clothing, so wear light colours and cover up. I like to think that some kind of Klu Klux Klan outfit, plus the stilts, might make you practically invulnerable, though a little conspicuous if travelling in a group. (Hmm. I don’t know, maybe that observation is in bad taste….)

Midges in Scotland love still, warm evenings after rain - as here in the valley of the River Dee.

A lovely evening, after rain, looking up the valley of River Dee. It’s still, moist, full of atmosphere – and as I take this picture, I am being eaten alive by midges but you wouldn’t know, would you?

On the subject of what to wear; because midges have very shallow biting jaws, attacks are confined to bare skin. They don’t bite through cloth: not even those really cheap t-shirts you got from Walmart. They home in on their prey by detecting the higher than normal levels of the carbon dioxide that we exhale, although it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hold your breath for the entire length of your Scottish visit unless your travel agent has really messed with the schedule.

Studies have also shown that midges that feed on humans aren’t really that fussy. They are equally happy to feed from cattle, deer, sheep, dogs, cats, rabbits or mice. You could choose one of these as a decoy species and let it accompany you on your Highland travels. I’d go for something portable, though if you choose a mouse, remember that, to something that size, being bitten by a midge would be, for us, similar to being attacked by, say, a small but homicidal sparrow. Midges are also especially active in low light and in still conditions. Highland hoteliers rely on this to keep guests in the bar when they might otherwise be taking a romantic walk to watch the sunset. Midges, therefore, are an important element in the Highland economy.

Control that midge

No effective blanket spray exists for getting rid of midge on the breeding grounds. You would have to spray most of the Highlands, creating ecological havoc. Ditto biological controls. Dragonflies, amphibians, fish and bats do their best to eat as many as possible. So just remember that if you are a hotelier contemplating one of these midge-zapper devices that all you are doing is reducing the food for the local bats.

As for repellents applied to the skin, there are a variety of sprays and creams, some using natural products. At the moment Smidge That Midge Insect Repellent seems to be popular. I like my midgehood though. It’s more useful than a knighthood and I wear it over my much loved Tilley hat ( as vaguely seen in my Twitter profile pic! Oh, and in a pic above.) These also help in keeping away clegs (horse-flies). To be honest, if the midges in Scotland are bad, then clegs are worse! We had a bad experience of Scottish clegs in Knoydart. Oh, and on the road to Stronachlachar in the Trossachs.

I think clegs are similar to the US ‘blue-tail fly’, but perhaps someone can clarify that for me. Don’t get me started on these sly and treacherous insects. They are much bigger than midges, for a start. The worst thing is the way they silently land on you and the damage is done before you are aware of them. And how do they know that you can’t see the backs of your own arms, elbows and backs of legs? Clegs are active on warm days in the Scottish countryside – but usually not in anything like the numbers of midges. Reviews of the Smidge spray also say it is effective against clegs… ( hmm, must buy some for Johanna!)

So, basically, midges are part of the Highland experience. They won’t totally wreck your holiday and should be no more than a minor nuisance for which remedies are available. Really serious outbreaks may require a midge-hood. (That’s what I am wearing in my Twitter account photo in a failed attempt to look mysterious. What was I thinking about?) And if you send a day above, say, 2000ft / 700m – or at lower levels if the wind blows – you won’t even encounter them.

So, now you know all about the Scottish midge. An irritation. A real nuisance sometimes. But not really a health risk. But if you intend to roam about Scotland’s countryside, you should be aware of ticks in Scotland. They are potentially a much bigger issue. Seriously, take a look on that link. (But you’ll still visit, won’t you?)
  • Midges are Scottish insects. So are flechs, horny gollachs and slaters. You’d like the page on Scottish words.
  • And someone asks a Scottish question about midges on that link.
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