Many people visit Scotland during the summer months – but the longer, drier days also bring more tourists to stand in the way of your picture-perfect landscape shot and accommodation prices are soaring. That’s why, in Scotland, autumn travel is becoming increasingly popular and the winter months are turning out to be a great time to travel to Scotland too! Here are 10 unbeatable reasons why I love spending the off season in Scotland!
When is the best time of year to go to Scotland?
To be entirely honest, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Scotland is a great holiday destination at any time of the year and every season has something different to offer. Personally, though, I prefer travelling Scotland during the off season, escaping the growing crowds that flock to the Highlands in the summer.
Visiting Scotland in autumn and winter gives you the opportunity to see nature change its colours and to experience the landscapes of the Scottish Highlands, the Caledonian pine forests and the white sandy beaches in a completely different light.
I am already planning several trips around Scotland for the time between September and February and I can’t wait to experience these wonderful seasons in Scotland. I will try to convince you with 10 unbeatable reasons to travel Scotland in the off season as well – but first a quick FAQ about autumn and winter in Scotland.
Scotland Autumn & Winter FAQ
When is Scottish autumn and winter?
Scottish autumn lasts roughly from September to November. Winter lasts from December to February or March.
How cold does it get in Scottish autumn and winter?
Whether or not you consider Scotland a cold country, of course, depends on what you are used to from back home. Visitors from the sunshine state of Florida might be rattling their teeth on a Scotland trip in off season, while people from Chicago or Toronto will laugh at the fact that our traffic comes to a halt when we get an inch of snow.
Average day temperatures in Scottish autumn are between 7 and 15 C (44 – 59 F), and in winter it gets a bit colder with average day temperatures between 0 and 10 C (32 – 50 F). Below 0 temperatures are fairly rare – although it can go as low as -5 C (23 F). However, wind chill is real in Scotland and it can feel quite a bit colder in the wind even if the barometer shows above zero temperatures.
I find a good 3-layer system (top, warm jumper & padded jacket) does the trick, but I will tell you more on packing below.
Does it snow in Scotland?
Yes, it snows in Scotland during the winter, but usually in very moderate amounts. From late autumn and throughout the winter you will most likely see the hills of the Highlands covered in snow, but the majority of roads down in the valleys will be unaffected by it. The further norht you go and the smaller the roads, the higher are your chances to encounter snow on them.
Snow in the cities is not unusual, but it does not always stay on the ground and only rarely will be covering the streets for more than a few days.
However, that does not mean, that Scotland is not great for snow sports and activities – as you will soon read more about!
How long are the days in autumn and winter?
The days in Scotland in autumn and winter are a lot shorter than in the summer. I find it alright up until the clocks go backwards at the end of October (UK Daylight Saving Time) but from then on the days shorten rapidly.
The shortest days in central Scotland last for about 7 hours from 9 am to 4 pm – further up north, the shortest day of the year will be even shorter. This is a great overview to give you an idea of sunrise/sunset times in Scotland every month.
What is the weather like in Scotland in autumn and winter?
The weather in Scotland is always unpredictable – it’s as simple as that. You could have a week of crisp clean air and sunshine, or muggy rain for days. It’s best to come prepared with waterproof shoes and a good attitude.
What should I pack for Scotland in autumn and winter?
Check out my complete packing list for Scotland and carefully read the sections about autumn and winter travel, as well as my must-have essentials for every trip to Scotland.
Can you see Northern lights in Scotland?
Since Northern light tourism is a thing, a lot of people wonder whether they will be able to see this beautiful natural light show on their trip to Scotland.
The quick answer is yes, there are Northern lights in Scotland. However, you guessed it, there is also a longer answer. Conditions have to be a certain way in order to see Northern lights anywhere in the world – and that is often a problem in Scotland. I’ll tell you more about that below!
10 Reasons to travel Scotland in Autumn & Winter
#1: It’s budget-friendly
Unless you are a billionaire with a bottomless bank account, you will be interested to hear that the off season in Scotland is generally speaking more affordable and budget-friendly than travelling here in the summer months. High demand and limited space in hotels and B&Bs between May and August mean that prices for accommodation, rental cars and activities are soaring.
Between September and March, however, you barely have to worry about busting your travel budget. Apart from a few exceptions (like the Christmas and Hogmanay period), tourism is quieting down and so are the prices! As always, I like to check AirBnB for the best prices to save money!
#2: The crowds disappear
If you always wanted to have the Fairy Pools on Skye or the ruins of Doune Castle to yourself, there is no better time to visit Scotland than autumn and winter. During the darker months even some of Scotland’s most popular tourist destinations, like Skye or Inverness, are quiet and empty. Admittedly, you might have to put up with some more rain and wind, but at least you know you can book a spontaneous trip and still find accommodation anywhere in Scotland.
Without the crowds, accommodation is cheaper and more easily available, popular tours are not booked out far in advance (and most tours are still running in off season) and your photos will capture the raw wilderness of the Scottish Highlands without people in brightly coloured rainjackets ruining the view.
#3: The seasons are great for photography
Speaking of photography; the autumn and winter in Scotland are a delight for photographers.
During the day, the low winter sun dips the Scottish mountains and coastlines in golden hues and because it is either rising or setting most of the shorter days, the golden hour lasts much longer than just an hour!
Additionally, I love the mysteriousness the winter clouds and colours add to the Scottish landscapes in off season!
Night Sky Photography: Finally, with such long nights, winter is the best time of the year for stargazing in Scotland. There are several dark sky discovery spots all over Scotland, and two official Dark Sky Parks at the Galloway Forest Park and the Isle of Coll. You have not seen night skies like this before!
Northern Lights in Scotland: If you’re lucky, you might even spot northern lights in the night sky – however, the conditions have to be perfect: cold, crisp air; clear skies; the moon not too bright and no light pollution from nearby cities. Unfortunately, all these things don’t always happen at the same time, which makes spotting Northern lights a bit harder than other destinations around Europe. Your best chance to see them is the north coast as well as the Orkney islands. Good luck!
#4: Late risers won’t miss a sunrise
I love capturing sunrises and sunsets – but during the summer that can mean getting up at 4 am or not going to bed before midnight. During my recent hike across the Outer Hebrides in July, I tried both – and failed miserably. The truth is a jam-packed holiday in Scotland can be exhausting!
In the off season, you won’t have that problem though. During the autumn and winter, the sun rises as late as 9 am and sets as early as 4 pm – there is no way you will miss either on your travels!
#5: The landscapes look incredible
Scotland’s landscapes are incredible all year round. In autumn, the trees of the deciduous woodlands all over Scotland turn into spectacles of orange, yellow and red. The best places to visit for autumn colours are the forests of Perthshire and Stirlingshire, and the best time for autumn colours is late September or early October.
During the winter, the fallen leaves give way to beautiful views across mountains and lochs in the Scottish Highlands. The mountains are covered in snow, some lochs freeze over and you can watch the wildlife roaming those bizarre frozen landscapes.
#6: Scotland has amazing winter festivals
The Scottish know how to party and most of Scotland’s significant holidays happen during autumn and winter.
First is Saint Andrew’s Day on November 30 – it is Scotland’s official national day and marks the beginning of the Advent season as well as the season of winter festivals. St Andrews is, of course, a brilliant place to celebrate Saint Andrew’s Day, but events and activities take place all over Scotland. These celebrations may even last until December 3.
The Christmas season in Scotland is marked with Christmas markets all over the country. There are several in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also winter festivals with markets and events in other cities like Aberdeen, Stirling or Perth. At the markets, you can buy local design, eat your body weight in hearty street food and ride ferries wheels or carousels. There are often also ice skating rinks and other special attractions at these markets,
Next up is New Year’s Eve, which is called Hogmanay in Scotland. Edinburgh hosts the biggest Hogmanay event in the country, with a massive outdoor ceilidh, a street party in the Old Town, music stages around Princes Gardens and much more. My favourite part of the Hogmanay activities in Edinburgh is the torchlit procession with the Up Helly Aa Vikings from Shetland. There are also Hogmanay parties in other parts of Scotland and it is quite common that bars and pubs put on a special night of live music and activities, and charge anywhere between £10 and £30 for tickets.
Perhaps Scotland’s most unique winter festival is Up Helly Aa, a Viking tradition celebrated in towns all over the Shetland Islands. The largest and most popular Up Helly Aa fest is in Lerwick, the capital on mainland Shetland, and takes place on the last Tuesday on January every year. The festival involves a procession of up to a thousand “guizers” who dress in themes costumes and burn a purpose-built intricate galley. In Lerwick, the party goes on all night, as the themes squads make rounds in local pubs and halls to perform dance numbers and skits.
Finally, to mark the end of the winter festivals is Burn’s Night on January 25. It marks the birthday of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, and celebrates his life and poems. The highlight of every Burn’s Night event is his poem Address to a Haggis which is usually performed as the night’s main course – haggis, neeps and tatties – is served for dinner. Many Burn’s Night events will include food, music and poetry and they are a great opportunity to experience Scottish traditions.
#7: Great winter activities in the outdoors
The Scottish Highlands are great for winter outdoor activities, whether you are a beginner or an experienced winter mountaineer.
You could try your hand at indoor ice-climbing at the Scottish Climbing Centre in Kinlochleven, and then try it on a real frozen waterfall as well. For winter mountaineering, make sure you pack your crampons and ice axe or hire all the equipment you need from Tiso.
There are five ski resorts in Scotland – two in the Highlands (Glencoe and Nevis Range by Fort William) and three in the Cairngorms (Cairngorm Mountain, Glenshee and The Lecht). Glenshee is the largest ski resort in the UK and has 21 lifts and tows. You might not be able to compare Scottish ski resorts with those in the Alps, but for a day out in the snow, they are large enough!
If you like a more mellow approach to ski sports, like myself, why not head out with a pair of snowshoes? We rented out snowshoes last year at the Nevis Range, took the gondola to the top and enjoyed the gorgeous views from the scenic loop trails.
#8: The wildlife watching is fantastic
You might Spring and Summer are best for wildlife watching in Scotland, but think again!
In autumn you can witness deer in rut season – the Isle of Rum is a particularly popular destination to see their dramatic battles. Wild salmon will be leaping up the rivers to reach their spawning grounds, grey seal pups are born along the west coast and the Moray Firth and peregrine falcons can be spotted hunting for prey in the north and western Highlands.
During the winter, when the trees have lost their foliage, it becomes much easier to spot Scottish forest animals, like mountain hares, red squirrels and ptarmigans. Winter is also the season when vast numbers of geese travel to Scotland from their breeding grounds further up north.
Don’t forget your binoculars!
#9: Scottish food is made for colder temperatures
Where I come from, British cuisine does not necessarily have the best reputation, but Scottish food is in fact incredibly diverse and creative – it is however not made for warm summer days of over 25 C.
Scottish food is made for colder temperatures – rich autumnal stews made from local squash and root vegetables, pies topped with crunchy puff pastry, wintery soups with celeriac and mushrooms.
Omnivores will get to enjoy local game, creamy seafood soups and plenty of warm fudgy cakes; but vegans can also indulge in veggie stews, soups and all kinds of hearty comfort food. Eat it in front of a cosy fireplace, and you have won at Scottish life.
#10: It’s actually not freezing
I have already talked about the weather in Scotland during autumn and winter in the FAQ section of this post. Here I want to re-emphasise, that off season travel in Scotland is actually a lot warmer than spending the darker months in other places around Europe. You can go to a Christmas market without freezing your toes off before you downed that first cup of mulled wine – try that in Austria or Germany. You can spend a day playing in the snow and walk around in a warm knitted jumper rather than five layers of padded jackets and warming baselayers.
I love how in Scotland you get all the benefits of a beautiful autumn and winter without having to freeze!
Autumn and winter are a perfect time to visit Scotland if you are looking for unique light for photography, fun outdoor activities in the snow, cosy country pubs and authentic Scottish traditions. I love travelling Scotland in the off season, and I hope you will give it a go now too!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.