The nights might be long and the weather unpredictable, but with snow arriving as early as November, the chance of bright blue skies and crisp days, log fires, and of course plenty of whisky to keep you going, Scotland in winter is a great time to visit.
A winter break in Scotland can take a little more planning than a trip in summer, but don’t let that stop you. Here is all you need to know about visiting Scotland in winter.
Things to do in Scotland in Winter
1. Visit a Winter Festival
Go ice skating, drink mulled wine, wander the Christmas markets, enjoy the Christmas lights or meet a reindeer.
Whilst Edinburgh and Glasgow put on the biggest winter, Christmas and Hogmanay Celebrations, outside of the cities, Oban’s starts with a firework display and Ullapool’s is a week-long celebration of Highland culture. More information on Scotland’s winter festivals.
Don’t fancy the Christmas markets? Check out these 2017/18 winter festivals instead:
- In Edinburgh, discover the sculptures at Ice Adventure, walk along a botanical outdoor trail of light to celebrate Christmas at the Edinburgh Botanics and explore the Giant Lanterns of China at Edinburgh Zoo.
- In Glasgow, Celtic Connections is a celebration of Scottish music with shows in January.
- The incredible Viking Fire Festival Up Helly Aa will take place on Shetland on Tuesday 30th January 2018.
2. Get outside for a walk
Walking in Scotland in winter can be magical, especially if there is snow on the ground. While climbing up above the snow line is for those with experience in winter hill walking and using crampons and ice axes, there are plenty of lower level walks in Scotland which will give incredible views of the snowy hills.
Have a look at my guide to walking in Scotland for my favourite walks, and if you do want to try your hand at a small hill, my guide to beginners hills. If you are planning on heading into the hills, read this advice on winter walking from WalkHighlands.
Remember that the days are very short in Scotland in winter, there are on average 6 hours of proper daylight – so carry a torch. If you do get into trouble, phone 999 and ask for the Police and then Mountain Rescue. More advice on what to wear in Scotland in winter is below.
If you fancy getting serious about winter walking, think about a winter skills course.
3. Get on the piste – skiing in Scotland
If the snow does arrive in earnest, then head to either the Cairngorms National Park or the Nevis Range where the high altitude often allows for skiing and snowboarding.
The largest ski resort in the UK is at the Glenshee Ski Resort in the Cairngorms National Park, with 22 lifts and 36 runs – check out the huge Glenshee piste map.
The Nevis Range by Fort William also offers winter activities on Aonoch Mor piste with 35 runs and, for non-skiers, the only gondola in Scotland – the Nevis Gondola. Both ranges have runs suitable for beginners.
4. Get active outdoors
Did you know the world’s best indoor ice climbing is actually in Scotland? At Kinlochleven by Glencoe is the Ice Factor, where 400 tonnes of snow make up their 12m high ice wall. Learn to ice climb or learn winter skills to get you out climbing on the snow and ice for real in Scotland’s mountains.
In the Cairngorms National Park near Aviemore is the Dog Sled Centre where you can go on a sled dog safari, learn to drive a sled, or go on a night sledding experience.
Also in the Cairngorms is the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd where you can visit the reindeer in their mountain wilderness, walks start everyday at 11am. Visiting reindeer in Aviemore, Scotland is especially fun at Christmas!
5. Chase the Northern Lights
You don’t need to go to the Arctic to view the ‘wee dancers’. Take a trip to the Outer Hebrides, or Orkney and Shetland, the Cairngorms, or Applecross on the west coast, keep an eye on Aurora Watch and keep your fingers crossed.
For the best chance of viewing the northern lights in Scotland, you will need a clear view north – i.e no mountains in front of you, and a clear night. While you are most likely to see the Aurora Borealis in the Highlands where the light pollution is lowest, during a strong storm they can be viewed across the whole country.
Winter in Scotland FAQs
The weather – is it really that bad?
In one word – no. However, winter is like any season in Scotland – you never know what the weather is going to be like. So, prepare for everything – sun, rain, hail, and snow – and often within seconds of each other.
Follow the Scot’s philosophy, just wait 5 minutes and it will probably change again.
The one thing you will have to deal with is the cold. Temperatures generally range from just below zero to +10 degrees; however, in 2010 we had a winter as low as -16 in Edinburgh where the snow stayed for 2 weeks.
This was November on Ardnamurchan on the west coast of Scotland – the only way you can tell it is winter is the hat.
What should I wear in Scotland in winter?
If you are just visiting the cities, then dress how you normally would on a cold and wet day – wear a good waterproof and woolly hat or hood. In winter an umbrella is generally useless, the wind in Edinburgh can destroy one in seconds.
In the countryside and the Highlands, then you need to gear up. You will need proper outdoor clothing – think quick drying, lots of warm layers (try a warm base layer, then a thin fleece) and a wind and waterproof jacket. Good waterproof jackets are made with either Goretex or Nikwax coating.
I also wear a waterproof bobble hat and carry lightweight waterproof trousers which pack up really small to fit in my bag, and use touch screen gloves – so I don’t have to keep taking them off to use my phone.
If you are planning on doing any walking or hiking then you will need waterproof hiking boots and a couple of pairs of great socks.
How do I take great photos of Scotland in winter?
Well, I must admit it is a challenge – either the bright winter sunshine and snow can leave your photos underexposed, or the dull grey skies can leave your photos rather lacking in colour, not to mention rain on your camera lens!
However, for photographers the views in winter are incredible, especially when the snow line is around 500m, which leads to beautiful layers on the hills.
If you do fancy improving your winter photography, this guide to taking photos in bad weather in Scotland from fellow Scotland travel blogger Kathi has a few great tips!
Any winter driving tips?
The main concerns driving in Scotland in winter will be wind, snow, ice, and driving in the dark on single track roads.
- Most cars here don’t use snow chains as due to Scotland’s maritime climate and salty air, the snow rarely stays for long.
- While all the main trunk and A roads (managed by Transport Scotland, or local authorities) are regularly gritted throughout winter, minor B roads can be a hazard.
- One thing to remember is stopping distances – in winter, this is a lot shorter than you expect, so slow down carefully.
- If you are hiring a car, it is also not recommended not to hire one with rear wheel drive – they aren’t great in the snow.
- If you do get stuck, starting in a higher gear might help you get up that hill and carry a shovel – just in case you need to dig out your car.
- If you do start to slide, don’t use your breaks, use a low gear and steer into the skid.
- It is also worth remembering sunglasses as low winter sun can be a hazard in the evenings.
Winter weather driving advice:
- For winter driving advice visit Police Scotland.
- The Met Office put out yellow and red snow and ice weather warnings, you can download an app to your phone which will alert you.
- Follow the trunk road gritters on the Transport Scotland website – look out for Mr Plough!
- The Transport Scotland website also notifies you of road closures due to essential winter roadworks or weather.
If you are planning a road trip in Scotland in winter have a look at Adventures Around Scotland’s winter road trip tips.
Best places to visit in Scotland in winter?
If you are looking for snow, then the Cairngorms National Park is your best bet. The centre for winter activities is Aviemore where you have access to the ski-slopes, activities in Rothiemurcus Forest, great walks at Loch Morlich and animal adventures. Otherwise head to the Nevis Range by Fort William or Torridon for incredible mountains views.
Is anything open?
Scotland is winter is much quieter than summer – and because of this, a lot of tourist attractions close for winter. This includes both Historic Scotland and NTS properties which reopen at Easter, although the grounds are often open for visitors.
However, a lot of private castles and attractions do stay open, and some even have Christmas markets like Glamis Castle.
Finally, how much daylight is there?
Not much! Although we do not have eternal night here in Scotland, it can feel like it – it is no wonder so many Scots are prescribed vitamin D. Expect it to get light around 8.30am and be dark by 4pm.
With only around 6 hours of daylight a day in winter you need to squeeze a lot in, or be prepared to spend plenty of time in front of a roaring fire, or one of Scotland’s many distilleries – thankfully Scotland in winter can easily be warmed up by a wee whisky!
Love, from Scotland x
Thanks to Simply Hike for providing me with my outdoor winter gear.