So, you decided to visit the Scottish Highlands in winter and I bet you wonder what it’s like to travel around Scotland during this season. How cold is it? Will there be snow? Are roads likely to be blocked? And what should you wear? This post contains everything you need to know about planning a trip to Scotland during the winter months along with my 20 best tips for making your winter holiday in Scotland a memorable experience!
Scotland in Winter FAQ
Travelling to Scotland in winter is absolutely doable and has a lot of benefits. You may ask yourself how cold it gets, that the weather will be like and what to pack for the cold season, but this FAQ should set you at ease.
When is winter in Scotland? Winter in Scotland lasts roughly from December to February, however, it can already be quite cold or even snow in November, and sometimes still in March. In 2018, the storm nicknamed “Beast from the East” brought a lot of snow to Scotland at the beginning of March. It really is a long winter season!
Is it worth travelling to Scotland in winter? Absolutely! There are so many reasons why travelling to Scotland in the offseason is a good idea – it’s cheaper, less crowded and the snow-capped peaks of the Highlands are breathtaking. If you’re not convinced, read a more detailed post about why I think you should travel to Scotland in autumn and winter here!
How cold is Scotland in winter? If you compare Scotland to some Central European countries like Austria or Germany, it really is not that cold in the winter. The average winter temperatures in Scotland are somewhere between 0 and 10 degrees C (50 F). On really cold days the thermometer can drop to about -5 C (23 F) or slightly below, but that kind of iciness rarely sticks around for too long. What makes the winters in Scotland feel cold, however, is the wind – always consider windchill which can make it feel significantly colder than it actually is!
What is the weather like in winter? When travelling to Scotland always remember one thing: it is almost impossible to predict the weather. The different regions in the Scottish Highlands and Islands are influenced by micro-climates, which means it could be snowing in one place and 20 kilometres down the road it’s beautiful sunshine. Anything is possible really, but expect cool and crisp weather and potentially rain, snowfall and ice.
Will there be snow in Scotland? Chances are high that you will see snow when you visit Scotland in the winter – although it will most likely stick to the peaks in the Highlands. Unless a storm is bringing a lot of snow, the valleys in the mountains, the roads leading through them and the coastal roads are usually snow-free and are gritted to avoid road closures.
However, things happen and you should prepare for potential changes of plan. Here are two examples: Last year I did a road trip to Fort William on the coldest weekend of the winter, and there was absolutely no snow on the roads we were taking. A few months later during the “Beast from the East” some roads had to be closed because the gritter trucks could not keep up with the weather. My tips below will help you to find a way to deal with situations like that!
How long are the winter days in Scotland? The hardest thing about Scottish winters is arguably not the weather or the cold, but rather the darkness – at least according to many of my friends who moved here from further south. The shortest day of the year lasts from about 8.45 am to 3.30 pm, but the average length of winter days in Scotland is about 8 am to 4.30 pm.
What to wear in Scotland in Winter? Because of the considerate windchill and potential for any kind of weather at any point of your Scotland trip, it is important to pack wisely. I have included a few of my top tips for what to wear in Scotland in winter in my tips below, but you should also have a look at my packing list to help you pack the right things.
20 tips for the Scottish Highlands in Winter
1) Check forecasts
I know it sounds redundant to check forecasts considering how hard it is to predict the weather in Scottish winters. Long-term predictions rarely hold up, but forecasts for the next or the same day are usually pretty accurate. It is important to look out for weather warnings on the days you are travelling and check the Met Office for any signs of extreme weather coming up. When a storm is on the way, the Met Office may declare orange or red weather warnings and advise people not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary.
This is particularly important if you have booked a ferry crossing as these are often cancelled or delayed during adverse weather. The ferry operators Calmac and Northlink are very quick in updating their schedules. The easiest thing to do is to follow them on Twitter and keep an eye out for your specific crossing.
If the weather is really bad, gritters are crisscrossing the country to make the roads fit for traffic again. You can follow live updates of the gritters online – they have names like “Gritty Gritty Bang Bang” and “Sir Salter Scott”. When life gives you lemons…
2) Shorten driving distances
Since the days are shorter in the winter you should consider that when planning your route. My classic 7-day itinerary, for example, is made in mind with long summer days, so if you follow it during the winter, you might have to leave out some stops or do some of the driving in the dark.
To get the most out of your day, get up and hit the road early. Remember, you only have about 6-8 hours of daylight in winter!
3) Plan a smart schedule
It seems like a no-brainer: schedule activities that require daylight, like guided tours, hikes or photo walks, for the middle of the day and schedule activities that are independent of daylight or the weather towards the end of the day. It gets dark early in winter, but you won’t mind if you keep activities like whisky distilleries or museums for the late afternoon.
4) Pack layers & be prepared for anything
People often ask what to wear in Scotland in winter – you might be one of them. The thing is, the weather is really unpredictable. It could be sunny, snowing or raining, ice-cold, windy or mild – sometimes all in one day. The most important rule for packing for Scotland is to pack layers, particularly a warm and insulating layer for the colder days and a high-quality waterproof jacket for wet days. I like throwing in a pair of waterproof trousers too, whether it is to go hiking regardless of the weather or simply to wander to the pub down the road from your B&B.
For more specific advice, check out my packing list which also contains tips for winter travel in Scotland specifically. And if you plan to go mountaineering, check out this list of essential hiking gear for winter.
5) Check your cancellation policies
When you book accommodation, a rental car or activities for your trip to Scotland in the winter, make sure to check your cancellation policies. In the rare occasion of a snowstorm hitting the country, you might want to reconsider driving yourself; or if you have to change your itinerary due to road closures or ferry cancellations, you’ll be glad if you booked accommodation with a flexible cancellation policy!
Many activities in Scotland run regardless of the weather (refer back to my packing tips for a rainy day), but some might get cancelled in strong winds or snow conditions. Again, it is unlikely that the weather will impact your trip to such an extreme extent, but it’s best to come prepared.
6) Don’t forget your sun lotion
I mean it – especially if there is snow, the sun can burn your skin even as far north as Scotland. I prefer applying a bit of sun lotion when I go outdoors in Scotland, even in the winter.
7) Know how to drive in bad weather
Here is the thing: driving in Scotland in winter is not hard (or any harder than in the summer) – if you know how to drive safely in winter conditions (lots of darkness, potentially strong winds or snow on the road). If you know you are not confident enough to drive a manual car through bad weather, maybe a road trip in the middle of winter is not the best idea. If you don’t drive a lot – and I’m the first to take my own advice here – reduce your daily itinerary and avoid stressing out over driving too much.
8) Go stargazing
There are several dark sky discovery spots all over Scotland – you can find them all here. These sites are always away from local light pollution, have a good view of the sky and are easily accessible, usually also for wheelchair users, and always free. At “Orion” sites, you can see at least the seven stars of the Orion star constellation, while at “Milkyway” sites you can see the milky way with the naked eye. There are also three Dark Sky Parks in Scotland, at the Galloway Forest Park, the Isle of Coll and in the Cairngorms National Park. These are internationally recognised areas with high-quality dark skies and great visibility of the stars!
Check out my Loch Ossian Youth Hostel review!
9) How to catch the northern lights
Everybody loves the northern lights, but did you know that you don’t have to travel as far north as Norway or Iceland to see them dancing in the sky? Even as far south as Edinburgh, you can sometimes see the northern lights in the Scottish sky. The main issue if spotting the northern lights in Scotland is visibility – of course, the sky has to be clear in order to be able to see the lights and that can prove tricky. It’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the aurora forecast and prepare to head out around midnight when the night is at its darkest and coldest. Chances are better when you travel north to the Highlands or Orkney!
10) The best winter accommodation in Scotland
The best accommodation for a winter getaway in Scotland, in my opinion, always has one of the following options: a sauna, an (outdoor) hot tub or a fireplace – ideally all three. It’s còsagach, you’re after – the Gaelic word describing the feeling of being warm, cosy, and sheltered. There is nothing quite like a crackling fire, a comfy couch and a dram of your favourite whisky in your hand to end a perfect day on the road in wintery Scotland! I often find the most unique stays via AirBnB!
11) Pack a thermos flask
In winter, I never track without my little thermos flask. I fill it with my favourite tea in the morning and whenever I feel like a pick me up, I will stop, breathe in the crisp countryside air and sip on a cup of steaming tea from my flask. For the really cold days (and when I’m not driving) I also bring my hipflask – nothing warms like a dram of whisky.
12) Pack waterproof shoes with good grip
While I’m not a winter hiker, I always bring my hiking boots on winter road trips through Scotland. When it’s cold outside – whether it’s wet, muddy, snowy or icy – you need to wear warm, waterproof boots with a good grip. I swear by my Zamberlan boots, but I also recently got some vegan lace-up boots (in a Timberland style) which are a perfect compromise for light walks and city trips.
13) Try snowshoeing in the Highlands
Snowshoeing is a great activity that doesn’t require a lot of skill, any prior knowledge or any more than average fitness. I’ve always wanted to try it back home in the Austrian Alps, but it took a few years of living in Scotland until I finally gave it a shot. And it was amazing – read more about my experience here!
You can rent snowshoes for £14 (half day) / £18.50 (full day) at the snowsports equipment centre at the bottom of the Nevis Range Gondola. This is only a short drive from Fort William, so very easy to include in anyone’s itinerary through the Scottish Highlands. At the top of the gondola, there are easy routes to two viewpoints from where you can enjoy views of the surrounding mountains.
14) Go skiing in Scotland
If you are more skilled and seek the thrill of the mountain slopes, try your hand at skiing in one of Scotland’s five ski resorts. Two of them are in the western Highlands: the Glencoe Mountain Resort with some of the best natural terrain in Scotland, and the Nevis Range Mountain Resort with its challenging terrain and dramatic scenery; three more resorts are in the Cairngorms National Park: the family- & beginner-friendly Lecht Ski Centre, the large and varied Glenshee Ski Centre and the Cairngorm Mountain Resort, which gets the most snow and the longest season of all five resorts.
15) Ride the Harry Potter train
To be honest, you can’t ride the actual Harry Potter steam train aka. the Jacobite Steam Train during the winter season (it only runs from April to September), but you can simply board a regular train from Fort William to Mallaig. The views are still as magnificent – maybe even more majestic with the snow-covered mountains along the coast – and you also get to ride over the Glenfinnan Viaduct for the perfect photo!
16) Try winter mountaineering
The Scottish mountains are not to underestimate during the winter months. They might not be as high as other mountain chains in Europe, but the weather is unpredictable and the summits get a lot of snow and ice, even if the valleys below are fine. It is important that you only hike during the winter if you have access to crampons and an ice axe and know how to use both.
If you are keen though, there are many opportunities to join winter mountaineering courses – the Mountaineering Scotland is a reliable site to find reputable and trustworthy courses and instructors. You can also do courses at Ice Factor, the climbing centre in Kinlochleven – or try your hand at their indoor ice climbing wall.
17) Visit a whisky distillery
If the weather is dreich and all attempts for outdoor activities fail, visit a whisky distillery – the warming dram you get at the end of the tour will make it worthwhile!
18) Check year-round opening times
Find out about attractions that are open year-round. Many tours or activities in the Scottish Highlands and islands only run throughout the busy summer months. Even some castles and museums are closed over the winter, so it is crucial to check opening times before planning your itinerary.
19) Map out cosy rural pubs and cafes
Ever since I’m travelling around Scotland as a vegan, I spend even more time researching and saving restaurants, pubs and cafes to my Google Maps. In winter, this is particularly important, whether you have dietary requirements or not. Some places close for the cold season, while others open especially for the festive season – avoid disappointment by checking opening times in advance. When the weather is bad, turn your road trip into a cosy pub or cafe crawl through the Scottish Highlands.
20) Attend a winter festival
There are many festivals in Scotland throughout the winter months. The winter festivals are traditionally Christmas festivals including markets, special concerts and lots of festive food. They happen in Oban, Inverness, Perth, Stirling and a few other places. However, there are also other festivals in Scotland during the cold season, such as the biggest Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh (that’s New Year’s Eve in Scotland), Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow or the Up Helly Aa Viking festivals in Shetland.
Other unique Scottish holidays in winter include St Andrews Day (Nov 30) and Burns Night (Jan 25). If you visit during those dates, make sure to join a local celebration!
You see, travelling to Scotland in winter can be filled with exciting adventures and relaxing getaways – there is no reason why you should not take advantage of the cheaper flights and affordable accommodation during off season!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.