Scotland in Winter: 12 Best Things To Do

By Craig Neil
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Table of Contents


Scotland’s winter weather can be miserable, with temperatures rarely rising above 6 °C and daylight at just 6-7 hours per day.

It’s just as well, then, that Scotland has a superb collection of winter tourist attractions with outdoor destinations like the Highlands offering unrivalled snow sports and cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow chock-a-block full of family-friendly indoor activities.

In this guide, you’ll discover the best things to do in Scotland in winter along with lots of handy travel advice and sightseeing tips that will help you make the most of your time in this amazing country.

Scotland in winter

Scotland in winter

Scotland is a world-class tourist destination thanks to its beautiful scenery, exciting cities and fascinating history, but what isn’t so popular is its frequently dismal winter weather.

It’s often said that a holiday in Scotland will let you experience all four seasons in one day, and to be honest, that’s pretty much spot-on.

While Scotland enjoys truly glorious weather in the summer months, with an average of 17 hours of daylight at an average of 19 °C, the winter months are a completely different beast.

Between November and February, the temperature rarely rises above 6 °C and the amount of daylight drops to a rather miserable 6-7 hours per day.

But that doesn’t mean Scotland should be avoided outside of the summer months, and if you come to visit us between November and February you’ll quickly find that our winters provide some of the best holiday experiences in Europe.

In the next section, I’ll cover a few reasons why a winter visit to Scotland could be the highlight of your year.

Reasons to visit Scotland in winter

winter horses

1. It’s a lot quieter

Before I tell you about the best places to visit in winter, I think it’s only fair I explain why you should visit us in this cold and damp season.

Perhaps most importantly, winter is much quieter than the rest of the year, partly due to Christmas being so expensive which means most people reduce their entertainment expenditure during November and January.

Take Edinburgh Castle for instance – one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions – which attracts around 2 million visitors annually.

Visit in any summer month and you might feel like the entire 2 million tourists are there with you, with some truly dreadful queues to fight through even before you get to the main entrance.

But in winter the queues vanish, and you’ll find yourself breezing straight to the ticket office without interruption.

Unfortunately, Scotland has become something of a victim of its own success with regard to visitor numbers, and many people find the thought of fighting through crowds rather off-putting.

The simple solution, therefore, is to visit outside the main tourist season. You’ll find great ideas for escaping crowds of tourists in my Guide to The Best Non-Touristy Places in Scotland.

winter clothes

2. It’s cheaper than in summer

This links in with the reason above – it’s quieter, so most attraction owners look to entice tourists by lowering their prices.

Visiting Scotland in winter can save you an absolute fortune compared to other times of the year thanks to restaurants and hotels offering reduced prices to get as much custom as possible.

A quick look on Booking.com will show you that most hotels more than double their prices in summer compared to winter, so if you’ve got a luxury hotel in the city centre in mind, changing the dates to earlier in the year could save you a fortune.

But it’s not just money saved inside Scotland that’ll put a smile on your face. Getting here is often cheaper in the winter months too.

I’ve been booking off-season flights for years and frequently travel around Europe in winter for a fraction of what it would cost in the height of summer, and getting to and from Scotland is no exception.

Skyscanner.com confirms this, with a winter flight from Paris to Edinburgh costing half what the airlines normally charge in Summer. Yet another good reason to visit Scotland in winter.

winter sunrise

3. There are loads of events in winter

You might be thinking that most event organisers will be closing their doors during the cold winter months, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that there are a huge number of events held in winter and no matter where you are in Scotland you’ll always find an event being held somewhere nearby.

Take, for example, The Irn-Bru Carnival that’s held from late December to mid-January in Glasgow.

Billed as Europe’s largest indoor funfair, the event is held in Glasgow’s SECC (check out my guide to the Glasgow SECC for more information) and includes over 65 rides and attractions for all ages.

Glasgow SECC

If you come to visit us in summer you’ll miss out on this fantastic family day out.

Or how about Burn’s Night, the traditional Scottish event that’s held every year on the 25th of January to celebrate the life of the national poet, Robert Burns?

Burns (famous for writing ‘Auld Lang Syne’) was born on January 25th 1759 and his life is celebrated annually with the most Scottish-themed event you could imagine.

Across the country you’ll find recitals of his poems, music from bagpipes, feasts of Haggis, and copious amounts of Scotch whisky being drunk, along with lots of traditional Scottish dancing.

I cover the event in greater detail towards the end of this article.


Map of places to visit in Scotland in winter

Now that you’ve got an idea why Scotland is such a great country to visit in winter, it’s time to look at a few recommendations for places to go that guarantee an enjoyable experience for visitors of all ages and interests.

The following list features suggestions for attractions in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Highlands, each of which is shown in the map below.


Things to do in Edinburgh in winter

As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is home to lots of attractions that will keep visitors entertained when it’s cold and damp outside, and this is a city that almost seems to have been built with tourists in mind.

From the cosy pubs along Rose Street to the sprawling maze of rooms in Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find enough attractions to keep the entire family entertained no matter the state of the weather outside.

Add to this the theatres, museums and art galleries (most of which are free), the fantastic array of places to eat and one of the best winter festivals in Europe, and Edinburgh has to be at the top of your list for things to do in Scotland in winter.

Edinburgh Castle

  • Address: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, UK
places to go in Scotland in January

Who needs sunny skies when you’ve got the grandest castle in Europe in the middle of Scotland’s capital city? Edinburgh Castle deserves its place as the number one tourist attraction in Scotland, with over 2 million visitors walking around its ancient rooms, corridors, and courtyards each year.

But while a visit to this incredibly popular attraction in summer will see you getting stuck in enormous queues as you fight to dodge a thousand eye-poking selfie sticks, visit the castle in winter and you’ll find that it’s a much more relaxed affair.

The castle is full of interesting things to see and although the entry cost is on the pricey side at £10-£20 per person, it’s so big it will take the best part of a day to fully explore.

Edinburgh Castle

On-site attractions include the Scottish National War Memorial, the National War Museum, several regimental museums, the Royal Palace, and Saint Margaret’s Chapel, to name just a few.

While you’re at the castle make sure you take the time to see the crown, sceptre, and sword of state of the Scottish Crown Jewels and learn about their incredible history before stopping to take a few photos looking out over the panorama of the city from the cannons on the half-moon battery.

After seeing that lot, tired feet can then have a rest at the excellent castle café and restaurant in the main courtyard.

And as an extra tip, make sure you’re in the courtyard to hear the ear-popping one o’clock gun being fired, a tradition that has been re-enacted every day since 1861.

You can find out more about this attraction with my complete guide to Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh’s Christmas Festival

  • Address: Princes Street, Edinburgh
Edinburgh's Christmas

Forget your high-end Christmas shopping in London or your Gluwein-fuelled Christmas markets in Germany, if you really want to experience the spirit of Christmas then you have to come to Edinburgh in December to experience our Christmas festival extravaganza.

We don’t do things by half in Auld Reekie and not only will you find one of the best Christmas markets in the UK but you’ll enjoy more Santa-themed shows and activities than you can poke a candy cane at.

The market in Princes Street Gardens is one of the highlights as it hosts more than 130 chalets selling gifts and souvenirs from haggis to German sausages, hand-carved wooden nutcrackers to personalized Christmas ornaments, and clothes ranging from cashmere tops to tartan woolly scarves.

Christmas market

If you want to enjoy family shopping while sipping on a warm glass of spicy mulled wine, Edinburgh’s Christmas market is the place to go.

Nearby you’ll find a funfair with a big wheel, the (slightly terrifying) star flyer, a Christmas theme park for younger children, an ice skating rink, a gallery of ice sculptures, and more friendly pubs and bars than you’ll be able to stagger between.

Not only that but there are shows-a-plenty during Edinburgh’s Christmas festival with regular appearances by the circus and cabaret act La Clique, the camp-as-Christmas annual panto at the King’s Theatre, and sing-along musicals at the Edinburgh Playhouse.

You can learn more about this amazing event with my complete guide to Edinburgh’s Christmas.

The National Museum of Scotland

  • Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
national musuem edinburgh

Cold winds and rainy days do not make a fun-filled holiday, but there’s no need to venture outside when you can explore the maze of exhibits at The National Museum of Scotland.

This enormous museum easily rivals any other worldwide, and not only can you get lost in the wonders of history in the modern section but you can also marvel at the stunning restored Victorian Grand Gallery.

One of the things I love about the National Museum of Scotland is that it isn’t just a load of stuffy old information booths and boring skeletons like you’ll see in many other museums.

Instead, you’ll find a collection of varied exhibitions that explore the wonders of nature, art, design, fashion, science and technology, and much more.

There are galleries containing meteorites from the dawn of our planet, galleries exploring the history of Scotland, galleries displaying full-size animals from an extinct T. rex to an endangered Scottish wildcat, galleries focused on world culture, and galleries showing just about anything you can possibly imagine in-between.

National Museum Scotland

Another great feature of the National Museum of Scotland is that it has lots of interactive experiences for kids to get involved with, so not only will a visit there keep them entertained but they’ll come away having learnt a few things too.

If you have some extra time on your hands the museum frequently has premium exhibitions that showcase everything from the history of video games to the history of fashion.

There are also a couple of cafés if you feel the need to take a break, and the gift shop sells lots of quality souvenirs. Best of all, entry to the museum is completely free.

You can find out more about the National Museum of Scotland by checking out my Guide to Free Edinburgh Attractions.

The Scottish National Gallery

  • Address: The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL
scottish national gallery

Freezing-cold winters needn’t stop you from enjoying Scotland’s fine collections of artworks, and the Scottish National Gallery at The Mound in Edinburgh city centre contains more than enough culture to keep you busy for an entire afternoon.

Masterpieces from around the world are housed at this art gallery with artworks from Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Monet and many others displayed across two interlinked buildings – the National Gallery building and the Royal Scottish Academy building.

The Royal Scottish Academy is used as an exhibition space (usually with an entrance fee) and includes an underground garden level that houses a restaurant, shop and visitor facilities, while the National Gallery building next door (free to enter) houses the major artworks of the collection.

Scottish National Gallery

As well as art from international painters, this gallery also contains great examples of Scottish artworks and there are also storytelling sessions for children.

There’s even a free bus that will take you to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art a few miles away so you can spend most of the day lost in the world of art without having to pay a single penny.

You can find out more about the Scottish National Gallery by checking out my Guide to Free Edinburgh Attractions.


Things to do in Glasgow in winter

As the biggest city in Scotland, Glasgow has loads to see and do when it’s cold outside.

This is a city with a rich industrial heritage, and in addition to free attractions like the iconic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Riverside Museum, you can also enjoy the vibrant city centre which has some of the best shopping in Scotland and enough theatres, cinemas, bars and restaurants to make your head spin.

Not only that but there are plenty of museums, galleries, and historic buildings to keep visitors happy no matter their age, and if it’s dry there are even a few country parks to wander around.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

  • Address: Argyle St, Glasgow, G3 8AG

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum houses one of Europe’s greatest art collections across twenty-two themed galleries, and its extensive collection contains an incredible 8,000 objects in total.

The fact the gallery has such a diverse range of artefacts goes some way towards explaining why it’s the most-visited free attraction in Scotland, even beating Edinburgh’s National Museum for annual footfall.

There’s something for everyone at Kelvingrove and the list of displays and exhibitions is too big to include in this article, but some of the most popular exhibitions are; the Arms and Armour Gallery, the Dutch Gallery, the French Gallery, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Gallery, and the West Court with its Spitfire aeroplane hanging from the ceiling.

Highlights of the museum have to be the painting by Salvador Dali, the Kelvingrove organ (daily recitals happen at 1 pm and 3 pm on Sundays), and the Fulton Orrery – one of the most complicated orreries in the world (an orrery is a mechanical 3D model of the solar system).

You can find out more about this attraction with my complete guide to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Glasgow Cathedral

  • Address: Castle St, Glasgow, G4 0QZ
Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow boasts the most complete medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland, with a building that features stunning stained-glass windows and incredibly well-preserved ancient chapels.

The cathedral is thought to have been built on the site of St. Kentigern’s tomb (also known as St. Mungo) and many historians believe the cathedral is the birthplace of modern Glasgow.

There’s a lot to admire about this historic building, especially the ornate stone carvings in the main hall which are remarkably well-preserved considering they were made nearly a thousand years ago.

Other highlights include one of the finest collections of stained-glass windows in Britain, the crypt that was built to house the tomb of St. Kentigern, and the Blacader Aisle with its restored stone gargoyles.

The icing on the cake is that after you’ve wandered around the cathedral it’s only a short walk to two more top free attractions – The Necropolis and the St. Mungo Museum.

You can find out more information about this historic attraction by reading my Guide to Glasgow Cathedral.

The Necropolis

  • Address: Castle St, Glasgow, G4 0UZ
The Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is one of the few outdoors locations included in this article, but I’ve added it here because one of the best times to visit it is in the winter when the light is fading and there’s a chill in the air.

This big – or should I say enormous – burial site is the final resting place for over 50,000 of the city’s residents, and some of the most important people in Scotland’s history have their final resting place in this fascinating city of the dead.

The Necropolis was built when the need for more burial space for Glasgow’s growing population reached a crisis point in the 19th century, and today the entire site covers a remarkable 37 acres.

This is great news for tourists, as the Necropolis offers a fascinating experience walking along the network of paths that run through the graveyard, and it’s big enough to spend several hours exploring the grounds.

A walk through the Necropolis will reveal monuments to Scotland’s most prominent historic figures including architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, preacher John Knox, and writer William Miller who was responsible for the children’s nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie.

It might seem like a bit of a strange place to visit, but Glasgow’s Necropolis is well worth the journey on a crisp winter’s day.

If you want to know more about this historic attraction you can read my Complete Guide to the Glasgow Necropolis.

The Riverside Museum of Transport

  • Address: 100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow, G3 8RS
The Riverside Museum of Transport

If you’re going to spend a day in Glasgow then you have to take a walk along the banks of the River Clyde, the waterway that was once home to the city’s world-leading shipbuilding industry.

Those days, unfortunately, are long gone, but you can at least experience the history of Glasgow’s industrial heritage with a trip to the Museum of Transport.

This museum is free to enter and it’s big enough to easily spend an afternoon in when the temperature drops, especially if you combine it with a visit to the 120-year-old Tall Ship moored outside on Pointhouse Quay.

The Riverside Museum is one of the most popular museums in the city and each year over a million visitors flood through its doors, which is another reason why visiting Glasgow in the winter is such a great idea as there are hardly any queues.

The Riverside Museum of Transport

Inside the museum you’ll find an impressive range of transport memorabilia with full-size steam locomotives exhibited alongside buses, trams, cars and bikes, plus another 3,000 objects on display from Glasgow’s industrial past.

There’s even a recreation of a Victorian cobbled street, complete with shops and a subway station. If you’re any kind of transport buff or if you’ve got kids that love getting interactive with machinery, the Riverside Museum of Transport should be at the top of your list of places to visit in Glasgow.

You can find out more information about this attraction by reading my Guide to The Glasgow Riverside Museum.


Things to do in the Scottish Highlands in winter

The Scottish Highlands offer something for everyone at any time of the year, with tourists visiting the area throughout summer for walks through the mountain ranges that would otherwise be impossible to reach in winter.

But even in the colder months this part of Scotland has a lot of activities to keep visitors entertained, especially if they have a love of snow sports.

Glistening ice and miles of crisp, white snow will make you feel like you’re hiking in a winter wonderland, while adrenaline junkies will be more than happy with the dog-sledging, skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing at sites like Cairngorm Mountain.

Ice Factor, near Glencoe

  • Address: Kinlochleven, PH50 4SF
ice climb

The National Ice Climbing Centre at Kinlochleven offers activities for all age groups and abilities and it can accommodate visitors whether they’re a beginner or an experienced climber.

The centre features some of the world’s biggest indoor ice climbing walls and also has rock climbing walls with over 135 routes. Suffice to say if you’re in the area and you enjoy climbing then it’s going to be impossible to get bored at Ice Factor.

Beginners can take to the indoor climbing walls under the supervision of trained instructors, and equipment is available to rent on-site if you don’t want to pay outright for your harness and safety gear on your first few climbs.

Ice Climb

There are plenty of slabs, corners, and overhangs to practice on and once you’ve got some practice under your belt you’ll eventually be able to tackle the more difficult climbing routes.

The ice climbing wall is the highlight of Ice Factor and it’s second to none against any other indoor climbing centre in the world. Over 500 tonnes of real snow and ice have gone into constructing the wall which is a mightily impressive 12 metres (40 feet) high.

The climbing centre also features an outdoor aerial adventure course if the weather isn’t too cold, after which you can warm up in the on-site café.

See the Ice Factor website for further details.

Culloden Battlefield

  • Address:  Culloden Moor, Inverness, IV2 5EU

The Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre is located on Culloden Moor, the very same location where the Jacobite uprising of 1745 came to its final, bloody end. The battle almost entirely wiped out the Jacobite army and sealed the fate of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart.

If you’ve any interest in Scottish history then you really owe it to yourself to visit the battlefield where more than 1,500 Jacobites were killed in less than one hour.

The site is well set up for tourists thanks to the efforts of the National Trust for Scotland, with gravel paths running around and through the moor so that even on icy days you’ll be able to view the battlefield.

You’ll find plenty of information panels at the sides of the path as you make your way around the site, and it’s interesting to read how the battle unfolded on 16 April 1746 as the two armies faced each other.

Culloden Battlefield

Tourists also have access to a superb indoor visitor centre that explains all the events leading up to the battle, during it, and how it partly shaped Scotland into the nation it is today.

The visitor centre serves to both entertain and inform with interactive exhibitions where characters from the battle retell their stories, and an immersive 360-degree film will help you imagine what being in the centre of the fight would have actually been like.

There’s even an animated battle table to give you a birds-eye view of the sequence of events as they happened, and an excellent café will help you warm up after you’ve been for a walk around the moor.

You can find out more about this attraction with my Complete Guide to Culloden Battlefield.

Cairngorm Mountain Centre

  • Address: CairnGorm Mountain Centre, Aviemore, PH22 1RB
cairngorm centre

The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the most dramatic mountain ranges in the world, and visitors from across the planet flock there in winter to enjoy the activities on offer. One of the favourite starting points for many Highland adventures is the Mountain Centre at Cairngorm.

Heading to the Cairngorms when a fresh dusting of snow has hit the landscape really is like stepping into another world, with the stark brightness of the snow glistening on the mountain tops that stretch away into the distance.

If you’re not sure what to see first, the Mountain Centre will help you get your bearings with lots of information guides, or you can just stay near the resort if you don’t want to head too far into the wilderness.

Cairngorm Funicular

The Cairngorm Mountain Centre caters for skiers and snowboarders with a variety of pistes that are suitable for both beginners and the more experienced, and a network of ski lifts will whisk you up to the mountaintop in double-quick time.

You can even hire your ski gear from the resort so you don’t have to cram it all into your car, but if you’re not feeling too excited about hurtling down the slopes you can take a ride on the funicular railway which is Britain’s highest railway at over 3,500 feet.

The railway starts at the foot of the mountain and rises to a visitor centre near the summit that features a restaurant and a viewing platform.

There’s also a shop and the UK’s highest post box for sending the ultimate postcard to friends and family.

You can find out more about this popular mountain attraction with my Complete Guide to the Cairngorm Funicular Railway.


Wildlife Watching in the Cairngorms

  • Address: Speyside Wildlife, Wester Camerorie, Ballieward, Grantown on Spey, Cairngorms National Park, PH26 3PR
deer stag

Winter in the Cairngorms is one of the highlights of any visit to Scotland thanks to the variety of animals that descend from the mountain tops to the slightly warmer climate at the bottom.

Although many animals hibernate throughout the winter (red squirrels being one) you can still see plenty of other creatures, and the fact they’re on lower ground means they’re much easier to spot and photograph.

Alongside Highland cows and red deer you’ll frequently see mountain hares, ptarmigan, pine martens and badgers all scurrying about as they forage for food.

It’s a genuine pleasure seeing these animals in their natural environments on a clear winter’s day, and the bonus of winter wildlife watching is that, unlike summer, you won’t get eaten alive by the midges that thrive during the warmer months.

red squirrel

Some tour operators like Highland Safaris will take you out into the wilds in fully kitted 4×4 vehicles so you don’t have to worry about getting your boots muddy, while other tour guides like Speyside Wildlife offer hides and huts located in the heart of Scotland’s forests.

Perhaps the best way to experience Scotland’s winter wildlife is to just pack your backpack, pull on your boots and set off on a trek across the rugged landscape.

However, before setting off be sure to check the weather forecast and make sure you take lots of warm hiking gear. After all, as the old Scottish saying goes, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’.


Winter festivals and events

Events Location Date
Edinburgh Christmas Market. One of the biggest Christmas festivals in Britain. See the Complete Guide to Edinburgh’s Christmas for more information.Princes Street Gardens, George Street, St. Andrews Square.Mid-November until early January.
Glasgow Christmas Market. Christmas market that features rides and market stalls.George Square and St Enoch Square in Glasgow.Early November until late December.
St Andrew’s Day. Events are staged throughout Scotland to celebrate the country’s patron saint.St. Andrews in Fife, and East Lothian (birthplace of the Saltire) are recommended.30th November.
Hogmanay. The annual celebration of the end of the year is a bigger event in Scotland than Christmas day.Edinburgh is by far the best location. The Torchlight Festival and the Edinburgh Street Party are highly recommended.31st December.
Up Helly Aa. This is a traditional fire festival with a Viking theme. Groups in fancy dress follow a large Viking ship that is ceremoniously burned.Lerwick, Shetland.Last Tuesday of January.
Burns Night. The annual celebration of the life and works of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. Features meals of haggis, whisky tastings, and poetry recitals.Events are held throughout Scotland.25th January.

Scotland’s weather in winter

winter road scotland

Talking about the weather is a national pastime here in Scotland, mainly because it’s so changeable no one knows what it’s going to do from one day to the next.

Obviously, you’re not going to get blazing sunshine every day, but despite what you might have heard Scotland has quite a temperate climate, even in winter.

It’s true that January and February are the coldest months of the year but even so you’ll find average daytime temperatures frequently sit in the 5 to 7 °C range in the Lowlands.

Generally, you can expect cool and crisp weather in winter with the occasional downpour, although the majority of the days will be overcast.

Something to bear in mind is that you’re much more likely to get freezing conditions in the north of the country and most Highland hilltops will have a blanket of snow at the higher altitudes from November to March.

One thing to be aware of is that on average the west coast gets more rain than the east coast, as you can see in the table below (compare Glasgow’s November rainfall to Edinburgh).

winter clothes

Average winter weather in Scotland

LocationMax temp. °CMin temp. °CSunshine hoursRainfall mmRainy days
Edinburgh Nov104706312
Edinburgh Feb82804210
Glasgow Nov735010618
Glasgow Feb52636416
Aberdeen Nov73609814
Aberdeen Feb62725211
Inverness Nov73609914
Inverness Feb60755311

Does it snow in Scotland in winter?

With regard to snow, it really depends on which part of the country you’re visiting, but if you’re intending to get active on the white stuff you can be reasonably assured you’ll get a good amount of snow wherever you are if you head into the Highlands.

If you’re coming to Scotland for snow sports you’ll definitely want to head to the Highlands as there are, on average, 100 days of snowfall each year and due to the elevation the snow usually lasts until April.

The Lowlands meanwhile, don’t experience anywhere near as much snow and you’ll generally find 2-3 weeks of snowfall each year, with the highest likelihood of it falling in February, and occasionally in January or March.

My personal recommendation is to visit the Nevis range, and Ben Nevis in particular, which is situated close to the town of Fort William.

If you manage to get to this most famous of Scottish mountain regions do yourself a favour and book yourself a ride on the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola as the mountain summit offers near-guaranteed snowfall for winter sports enthusiasts.

Other top skiing destinations are:

  • Cairngorm Mountain: Cairngorm Ski Area, Aviemore, PH22 1RB
  • The Lecht: Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, AB36 8YP
  • Glenshee Snowsports Centre: Cairnwell, Braemar, Aberdeenshire AB35 5XU

Although it’s impossible to always accurately predict the weather, online weather reports are pretty good and you’ll find details of Scotland’s weather in the main tourist hotspots using the Open Weather Map service.


The danger of Scotland’s winter weather

While Scotland’s weather doesn’t differ dramatically from other countries at this latitude, it might come as a bit of a shock to the system if you’re used to a warmer climate.

In general, the weather here is similar to the rest of the UK, although it’s usually a couple of degrees cooler because we’re further north.

Where Scotland differs a great deal is in the Highlands which has weather conditions that can dramatically change in minutes, and many a hiker has set out in blazing sunshine in the morning only to find themselves stuck in driving snow in the evening.

tour scotland in winter

With so many winter sports attracting tourists from far and wide it’s no surprise that the Scottish Mountain Rescue Service (SMR) is one of the busiest in Europe. Just take a look at the statistics:

  • There were a total of 672 call-outs to the Scottish Mountain Rescue service in 2019.
  • Of these incidents 243 involved mountaineers and 259 involved non-mountaineers.
  • Bad weather is a critical factor in winter weather incidents, especially in the western Highlands where around 3,000 mm of rain falls each year.
  • In the Cairngorms, you can expect snowfall for more than 100 days each year and the average winter temperature is 0 °C without taking wind chill into consideration which can drop temperatures considerably.
  • To calculate wind chill, multiply the wind speed by 0.7 and subtract that value from the air temperature, e.g. if the temperature is 5 °C and the wind speed is 10 mph (16.09 km/h) then 5 – (10 x 0.7) gives you a wind chill temperature of -2 °C.

Winter daylight hours in Scotland

winter

Along with our cold weather you need to bear in mind that Scotland’s daylight hours are probably lower than you’re used to due to the fact that we’re so far north of the equator – unless you’re an Eskimo of course.

Then you’ll be amazed at how long our winter days are.

For everyone else, you’ll find that in winter we get an average of just 7 hours of daylight, with the shortest day being 21st December where it’s full light from around 8.30 am to 3.30 pm.

At the beginning and end of our winters you’ll find that daylight lasts from 7 am to 6 pm.

Note that these timings are for the capital city of Edinburgh which lies in the southern region of the country. If you head to the far north of Scotland (the Shetland Islands for example) you’ll find the daylight hours decrease to around 9 am to 3 pm on the shortest day – a mere six hours of light.

The moral here is to start your day early but be prepared to come back early too, unless you’re in a city. You’ll find a huge number of things to do in our cities at all times of the day in winter which is why I wrote a guide about why I think January is one of the best months to visit Scotland.

winter landscape

What to pack and wear for a winter break in Scotland

Scotland’s weather can change at the drop of a hat and there are fatalities every year caused by people venturing into the wilds unprepared. However, it’s easy to keep yourself safe by using a little common sense – as you’ll find in the tips below.

1: If you’re setting out on a hike in the wilderness make sure you take a backpack with you (Amazon link) and pack extra lightweight clothes in the bottom.

Include additional thermal baselayers (Amazon link) and keep an insulated top in your bag as well as a hat and gloves. Make sure you keep your extremities warm because your body will shut those parts down first in an effort to keep your essential organs working.

2: Even if the weather looks ok when setting out on a hike I always throw a pac-a-mac (Amazon link) in my bag. I’ve lost count of the number of times it has protected me from an unforeseen soaking.

3: Keep your head warm. You’d be amazed at the amount of heat you lose through the top of your head and I’ve got a Thinsulate hat (Amazon link) in my pocket at all times. Likewise with gloves. They don’t take up a lot of space and they’re worth their weight in gold when the weather turns bad.

Walking Boots

4: Wear sturdy hiking boots (Amazon link to Berghaus boots, which I swear by) and DO NOT set off up a mountain in a pair of crocs or trainers. This one blows my mind and I can never understand why people wear inappropriate footwear for a hike in winter.

I’ve got two pairs of boots – one heavy-duty pair for winter and a lightweight pair for summer – and I recommend you get a pair too. See my guide to the best waterproof hiking boots to wear in Scotland for more advice.

5: Take a portable power pack (Amazon link) with you. A mobile phone offers more than mountain-top Instagram selfies and it can become a genuine lifesaver if you need to call the rescue services.

Protect your phone in a waterproof bag (Amazon link) and charge your power pack before you depart so you know that whatever happens, you’ll be able to make a call (as long as there’s a signal of course).


Winter travel in Scotland

Car Scotland Mountain

Winter weather in Scotland is often mild in the Lowlands but you can expect extreme conditions in the Highlands which inevitably leads to road closures, train cancellations, and flight delays.

Thankfully though, it’s possible to travel even when an unexpected blizzard hits as Scotland’s infrastructure means roads and rail tracks get cleared quickly and there are enough airports that flights can get diverted easily (see my guide to the main airports in Scotland for a rundown on travelling by air).

That being said, I suggest taking a car if you want to explore the more remote areas of Scotland as you’ll be unaffected by the frequent winter delays associated with public transport, and you’ll also be able to stop and explore the beautiful landscapes at your own pace.

Drive Car Snow

Here’s an important tip for visitors that aren’t used to driving in heavy snow – when you’re in remote, high-ground areas, take a look at either side of the road and you’ll see tall posts embedded in the ground every few metres.

These indicate where the road is, so if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t see the tarmac anymore, these posts will keep you on the right track. They also indicate how deep the snow is which is very useful on roads with hidden dips.

Another top tip is to check the road conditions and weather forecast before you set out on your journey. I always use the Traffic Scotland website as they have the most up-to-date live traffic information and road closure alerts.

If you’d prefer to not take four wheels I’ve written a Guide to Travelling Around Scotland Without a Car.

Advice for winter driving in Scotland

winter city

Scotland really comes alive in winter and I honestly don’t think there’s anything more breathtaking than seeing a vast snow-capped mountain on a crisp, clear day.

It’s a truly spectacular experience, especially if you’re up north in somewhere like Glencoe.

Unfortunately, all this gob-smacking gorgeousness comes at a cost for drivers due to the fact that our roads are potentially quite dangerous after a snowfall, especially if you’ve come from a hot climate and you’re not used to cold conditions.

There are a few points to note about our roads that you must understand before you head off on that long-distance winter road trip you’ve been planning.

Scotland Car Drive Road

First off, our roads are constantly subjected to extremes of weather with heavy downpours soaking the surface and freezing temperatures turning all that water into slippery ice. This has two consequences that can catch out the unwary driver.

1: In winter you’ll frequently find a recent covering of snow hiding a sheet of ice underneath, which is a combination that can become lethal if you don’t take care and slow down.

2: This constant expansion and contraction of ice lead to the British driver’s biggest nightmare (apart from speed cameras of course).

Potholes.

Massive, deep, and dangerous potholes that can throw your car off course without warning. While the roads are repaired fairly regularly in Scotland it’s unavoidable that these potholes can suddenly appear, so please keep an eye open for them.

Scotland Road

Other points to note about driving in Scotland in winter include:

  1. If enough snow falls off your car while driving, you can be liable for driving without due consideration. It is also illegal to drive with a windscreen that is obscured by mist or ice, and if caught by the police, you could land yourself a £60 fine and three points on your licence as a minimum.
  2. Following on from the above, it is UK law that all lights are visible, and the same goes for the front and rear number plate lights.
  3. Do not expect to have a mobile phone signal everywhere in the Highlands. This could be catastrophic if you have a breakdown in winter when there is little passing traffic.
  4. Note that private recovery services e.g. a local garage will charge upwards of £200 for a single call out.
  5. Drivers are expected to prepare for winter driving in Scotland by packing an emergency kit (Amazon link) which includes a spade, warning triangle, torch and a medical kit as a minimum.
  6. Snow tyres and snow chains are not suitable for driving on clear roads where there is no snow, and snow chains can actually damage both your car and the road if not removed when the road is clear. If the police see a vehicle with chains on a clear road, the driver best prepare for a stern talking to.

If you’d rather not drive in Scotland during winter you can still experience many of the best attractions by booking yourself onto a guided tour, and Rabbie’s small group tours of the UK and Ireland has to be one of the best in my opinion.

This company specializes in small group tours so you’ll never find yourself stuck on a big coach with a load of screaming children (and adults), and what better way to experience Scotland in winter than have someone else do all the driving for you?

You might also like:


Frequently asked questions

What are Scotland’s daylight hours in winter?

Scotland has an average of 7 hours of winter daylight, with the shortest day being 21st December when it’s full light from around 8.30 am to 3.30 pm.

At the beginning and end of Scotland’s winter, daylight lasts from 7 am to 6 pm. The hours vary depending on how far north or south you are.

What should I wear in Scotland in winter?

If you’re setting out for a hike in the wilderness, wear thermal baselayers, keep an additional insulated top in your bag, and make sure you keep your extremities covered with a thermal hat and gloves.

A thermal waterproof jacket and waterproof hiking boots with deep grips are essential. In the cities wear normal clothes – jeans, jumper, jacket, woolly hat, gloves etc.

How cold does it get in Scotland in winter?

Between November and February the temperature rarely rises above 6 °C anywhere in Scotland. Elevated areas like the Highlands are frequently covered in snow with temperatures averaging 0 °C without wind chill.
Wind chill reduces the temperature by several degrees.

How much does it rain and snow in Scotland in winter?

While the Lowlands experience an increasingly mild climate year-on-year, the Highlands still get regular rain and snowfalls in winter.
The Western Highlands see around 3,000 mm of rain while the Cairngorms have snowfall for more than 100 days each winter.

  • Does Scotland Have Wolves?
    Wolves have been the subject of human persecution for thousands of years, even though they help to keep populations of grazing animals under control. This intelligent and sociable animal is famous for its ability to thrive in the most difficult habitats, helped no end by the fact that it’s an incredibly successful pack hunter. Find out if wolves live in Scotland – as well as other predators – in this article.
  • Are There Bears in Scotland?
    Bears once thrived in Scotland, and remains have been found everywhere from the Borders to the far north, but are there any still living in the wild today? Discover the story of Scotland’s brown bears in this article, which includes information about where you can see them, as well as other wild animals that still live in the remotest regions of Scotland.
  • Where to See the Northern Lights in Scotland
    The dancing, skipping, multi-coloured lights of the aurora borealis are caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with the earths magnetic field, and they are most visible in northern countries like Scotland. In this article you’ll discover the best places to view the northern lights in Scotland, as well tips to help you see them and information on Scotland’s fabulous dark sky parks.
  • Winter in Scotland – 7 Best Things to Do Outdoors
    Winter is an amazing time to be in Scotland, especially if you love exploring the great outdoors. There’s something magical about the country when winter visits and there are more things to do in this season than you might expect. In this article I’ll show you the top activities to enjoy in Scotland between November and March whether you want to see wildlife, go on an invigorating walk or take part in exciting sports, along with a couple of other winter activities that just might surprise you.