Dragonflies and damselflies in Scotland

Some 23 species are currently breeding residents, though some are very uncommon. This compares with just over 40 breeding species for the UK as a whole. The highest numbers of species in Scotland are to be found in the south, and on part of the west coast. Worldwide they are most abundant in the tropics. Despite its northerly location, Scotland is home to a number of these fascinating insects that are either rare or do not occur anywhere else in the British Isles. They include some that are restricted to cool, and even sub-arctic, climates. Their diversity is reflected in the many superb dragonfly habitats of the region - which include ancient forests, Sphagnum bogs and runnels, loch-studded moorlands, woodland streams, lowland, reed-fringed pools and marshes. Scotland is also a region of climatic contrasts. The west is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream and is the recipient of prevailing weather systems from the Atlantic. The south-facing coast of Galloway is warm, and sheltered by the Irish Sea. On the east side of the country the cooler influences of the North Sea and continental weather are felt. This combined with the mountainous terrain of the Highlands and a north-to-south spread of over 600km (including the Northern Isles), gives an exceptional range of environmental conditions. How this effects their distribution and ecology is one of the many attractions of studying dragonflies and damselflies in Scotland.

What’s in a name?

As mentioned earlier, dragonflies and damselflies are the two main sub-divisions of a single, very distinctive group of insects that scientists refer to as Odonata. The name refers to the powerful jaws of both adult and larval stages. Confusingly, the expression ‘dragonfly’ is also often used for members of the Odonata as a whole. Here we leave the terms ‘dragonfly’ and ‘damselfly’ to their more specific meanings.

English names

As well as their scientific Latin names, all Odonata now have well-established English-language names. Perhaps surprisingly for such conspicuous creatures, these are of quite recent origin, almost no species having been given a special name in the more distant past, in either England or Scotland. ‘Devil’s darning needles’ and ‘horse-stingers’ are widespread, and rather derogatory, colloquial titles used to characterise the group as a whole. The most widely accepted modern English names remain those listed by the British Dragonfly Society and it is these we have used throughout this publication.

Gaelic names

In Gaelic, dragonflies have a variety of names which are similarly suggestive of superstitious distrust - perhaps inspired by the larger, fast-moving, highly coloured species:

  • Ceann-nathrach [head of snake]
  • Cuileag-lasrach [blazing fly]
  • Damhan-nathrach [spider-snake]
  • Tarb(an)-nathrach [bull-snake]
  • Tarbh-nathair-neimh [venomous bull-serpent]

Cuileag-nan-cruinneag [fly of the damsel] seems to suggest that the smaller, more delicate damselflies were not thought to be so fearsome. Modern Irish Gaelic names have been developed and are listed in the species table. In Scotland every pool or lake, almost regardless of size, is a ‘loch’ or a 'lochan'– a Gaelic word which appears on the map right down to the border with England. (The term is also used for narrow inlets of the sea).

Dragonflies and damselflies recorded from Scotland

All the species that have been found in Scotland, including extreme rarities, are listed below. Their status since 1900 is indicated as follows: black text: established resident species; blue: rare migrant or vagrant only; red: species moving north – new to Scotland after 2000. The English names below are those currently used by the British Dragonfly Society. In a recent account of the dragonflies of Ireland, the opportunity was taken to assign Gaelic names. These are shown below where a species occurs in both countries. They were designed to more accurately reflect features or characteristics of each species – for example the Beautiful demoiselle’s Irish name means ‘Jewel-wing’.  


English name Scientific (Latin) name Latin translation Ainm Gàidhlig
Damselflies Zygoptera Paired wings Cuileagan Cruinneig
Beautiful Demoiselle Calopteryx virgo Beautiful winged virgin Òigheag Bhrèagha
Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens Shining beautiful wing Òigheag Ghleansach
Emerald Damselfly Lestes sponsa Robber bride Cruinneag Uaine
Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula Red-bodied small bride Cruinneag Dhearg
Northern Damselfly Coenagrion hastulatum Widespread (thing) living in the fields marked with a little spear. Cruinneag a’ Chinn a Tuath
Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella Widespread (thing) living in the fields, young woman. Cruinneag Liath
Variable Damselfly Coenagrion pulchellum Widespread (thing) living in the fields, pretty. Cruinneag Chaochlaideach
Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum Probability of confusion carrying a goblet-shaped mark Cruinneag Chumanta
Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans Thin tailed, elegant. Cruinneag Ghrinn
Dragonflies Anisoptera Unequal wings Tarbh Nathrach
Azure Hawker Aeshna caerulea (Aeshna has an uncertain meaning), sky blue. Tarbh Nathrach Liath
Common Hawker  Aeshna juncea Of the rushes Tarbh Nathrach nan Cuilcean
Migrant Hawker Aeshna mixta Multi-coloured (spots) Tarbh Nathrach Ballach
Southern Hawker Aeshna cyanea Brilliant Blue Tarbh Nathrach a’ Chinn a Deas
Brown Hawker Aeshna grandis Large Tarbh Nathrach Ruadh
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator Master emperor Tarbh Nathrach Ìmpireil
Vagrant Emperor Hemianax ephippiger Half-master with saddle markings Tarbh Nathrach Dìollaideach
Hairy Dragonfly Brachytron pratense Short abdomen of the meadows Tarbh Nathrach Gaoisideach
Golden-ringed Dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii Club-shaped abdomen named after Bolton Tarbh Nathrach Òrfhàinneach
Downy Emerald Cordulia aenea Club-shaped abdomen with a metallic sheen Smàrag Umha-dhathte
Brilliant Emerald Somatochlora metallica Green body with a metallic sheen Smàrag Ghleansach
Northern Emerald Somatochlora arctica Green bodied of the Arctic Smàrag na Mòintich
Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata Spirit level (this was T-shaped like the dragonfly) with four spots Ruagaire Ceithir-bhallach
Broad-bodied Chaser Libellula depressa Spirit level with the flattened abdomen Ruagaire Leathann
Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens Straight abdomen that becomes dark blue Uachdarair Dìreach
Common/ Highland Darter Sympetrum striolatum Narrow abdomen with three stripes on its body Gathair Cumanta
Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii Narrow abdomen names after Fonscolombe Gathair Dearg-fhèitheach
Yellow-winged Darter Sympetrum flaveolum Narrow abdomen with yellow (wings) Gathair Buidhe-sgiathach
Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum Narrow abdomen with blood red (body) Gathair Dearg
Black Darter Sympetrum danae Narrow abdomen with a golden body Gathair Dubh
White-faced Darter Leucorrhinia dubia Doubtful (initially there was doubt over this species identity) white nose Gathair Bàn-aghaidheach

* includes ‘Highland Darter’ (see section on “Moorland mires and flushes”)