Last updated on May 8th, 2020
Scotland’s winter weather can be dire, with temperatures rarely rising above 6°c and daylight at just 6-7 hours per day. Luckily then, Scotland also has some of the best tourist attractions in the world with outdoor destinations like the Highlands offering first-class winter sports and cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow offering lots of warm indoor activities. Discover exactly where to go and what to do on a Scottish winter break in this ultimate guide.
What can I do in Scotland in winter?
If you’re stuck for ideas for things to do in Scotland in winter then you’ve come to the right place. Read on for some top tips and ideas that will help you have fun even if it’s freezing outside.
Scotland is popular with tourists for lots of reasons thanks to the beautiful scenery, the amazing cities and the fascinating history, but what isn’t so popular is the miserable weather in winter.
It’s often said that a holiday to Scotland will let you experience all four seasons in one day, and to be honest there’s a certain amount of truth in that statement.
While Scotland enjoys some truly glorious weather in the summer months, with an average of 17 hours of daylight at an average 19°c, the winter months are a completely different beast.
Between November and February the temperature rarely rises above 6°c and the hours of daylight drop to a slightly 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.
We’ll explore some awesome things to do in Scotland in winter in a moment, but first, let’s take a more in-depth look at the reality of our winter weather so that you know exactly what to expect when you arrive.
Facts about Scotland’s winter weather
While Scottish weather doesn’t differ dramatically from other countries sitting 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 of course it’s usually a couple of degrees cooler thanks to the fact that we’re further north.
But where we do differ is the sad reality that our mountainous regions have weather fronts that can 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.
With so many winter sports drawing in 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 683 call-outs to the mountain rescue service in 2018 which resulted in 851 people being assisted.
- Of these incidents 239 involved mountaineers and 349 involved non-mountaineers.
- Bad weather is a critical factor in winter weather incidents, especially in the western Highlands where around 3,000mm of rain falls each year.
- In the Cairngorms, you can expect snowfall for more than 100 days each year, while the average winter temperature on the Ben Nevis mountain range is as low as -0.3°c. Chilly!
Daylight hours in Scotland
Along with our cold weather you’ll need to bear in mind that Scotland’s daylight hours are likely 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 probably be amazed at how long our winter days are.
But for everyone else you’ll find that in winter we get an average of only 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 leave early but be prepared to come back early too, unless you’re in a city of course. 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.
What to pack and wear in Scotland in winter
Scotland’s weather can change at the drop of the hat and there’s been more than one occasion where a hillwalker has set out in blazing sunshine wearing shorts and a T-shirt and found themselves lost in freezing fog just a few hours later. But it’s easy to keep yourself safe and out of danger by using a little old-fashioned common sense.
- If you’re setting out for a hike in the wilderness make sure you take a rucksack with you and pack some additional lightweight clothes in the bottom. Include additional thermal baselayers and keep an insulated top in your bag too. 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.
- Even if the weather looks ok when setting out on a hike I always throw a pac-a-mac (yes, they’re still a thing) in my bag. I’ve lost count of the number of times this fashion no-no has protected me from an unforeseen soaking.
- 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 in my pocket at all times. Likewise with gloves. They don’t take up a lot of space and are worth their weight in gold when the weather inevitably turns bad.
- Wear sturdy winter boots 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 some too.
- Take a portable power pack with you. A mobile phone isn’t just essential for mountain-top Instagram selfies because it can become a genuine life-saver for calling the rescue services too. Protect your phone in a waterproof bag 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).
Advice for driving in Scotland in winter
Scotland really comes alive in winter and I honestly don’t think there’s anything more breathtaking than looking at a vast snow-capped mountain on a bright winters day.
It’s a truly spectacular experience especially if you’re way up north in somewhere like Glencoe. Unfortunately, all this gob-smacking gorgeousness comes at a cost for drivers and that’s 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 it.
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.
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 easily catch out the unwary driver.
- In winter you’ll frequently find a recent covering of snow hides a sheet of ice underneath it, a combination that can become lethal if you don’t take care and slow down.
- This constant expansion and contraction of ice lead to the British drivers 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. And I’d never recommend anyone takes a motorbike tour in Scotland in winter for this exact reason – save the two-wheeler for summer.
If you’d rather not drive you can still experience loads of Scotland’s 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 personal 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?
So we know by now that winter in Scotland certainly has it’s pros, but unfortunately, it has its cons too.
All this is of no consequence if you’re a hardened mountaineer or a hill walker where a little bit of dreich (dreary) and jeelit (freezing) weather isn’t going to put you off, even if it is blowing a hoolie (it’s really windy).
But what if you’re a mum or dad with a couple of kids in tow? Or maybe you’re a bit older and don’t fancy braving the cold?
Well luckily for you there are more indoor activities in Scotland than you can shake a woolly glove at, especially in the cities where tourist attractions have entertained weather-weary locals for decades.
The following list aims to offer you a few suggestions for making the most of your time in Scotland without having to wipe any icicles from your nose, although you might feel the need to warm up inside one of our pubs with a wee dram of Scotch whisky, purely for medicinal reasons of course…
Map of Scottish winter activities
Things to do in Edinburgh in winter
As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is home to a dizzying amount of attractions that will keep you entertained when it’s cold and damp outside, and this is a city that seems to have been designed with tourists in mind.
From the cosy pubs along Rose Street to the sprawling maze of rooms in Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find enough to keep an entire family occupied 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. Let’s check out a few of the best attractions with the list below.
(1) Edinburgh Castle
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 rated 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 places to explore and although the entry cost is on the pricey side at £18.50 (as of 2018), there’s more than enough activities to keep families occupied for an entire day.
On-site attractions include the Scottish National War Memorial, the National War Museum, several regimental museums, the Royal Palace and Saint Margaret’s Chapel, and all will keep visitors entertained for hours, while weary feet can take a rest at the excellent castle cafe and restaurant in the main courtyard.
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.
And as an extra tip, make sure you’re in the courtyard near the cafe to hear the ear-popping one o’clock gun being fired, a tradition that has been reenacted every day since 1861.
- Address: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, UK
You can find out more about this attraction with my complete guide to Edinburgh Castle.
(2) Edinburgh’s Christmas Festival
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 find more Santa-themed shows and activities than you can poke a candy cane at.
Princes Street gardens play host to more than 130 chalets selling everything from haggis to German sausages, hand-carved wooden nutcrackers to personalized Christmas ornaments, and clothes ranging from cashmere sweaters to tartan woolly scarves. If you want to enjoy some family shopping while sipping on a hot glass of mulled wine, the Edinburgh Christmas market is where you can do it.
Nearby you’ll find a fun fair with a big wheel, the (slightly terrifying) star flyer, a Christmas theme park for the younger kids, an ice skating rink, a gallery of ice sculptures and more friendly pubs and bars than you could imagine.
Not only that but there are shows-a-plenty during Edinburgh’s Christmas with regular appearances by the circus and cabaret act La Clique, the camp-as-Christmas annual panto at the Kings Theatre and sing-along musicals at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
- Address: Princes Street, Edinburgh
You can learn more about this amazing event with my complete guide to Edinburgh’s Christmas.
(3) The National Museum of Scotland
Cold winds and rainy days do not make a fun-filled holiday, but who needs to be outside when you can explore the maze of exhibits at The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
This enormous museum easily rivals any other worldwide and not only can you get lost in the wonders of history in the modern part of the buildings, but you can marvel at the restored architecture of the Victorian Grand Gallery too.
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 might find in some other museums, but instead you’ll find a collection of really interesting exhibitions that will take you through the wonders of nature, art, design, fashion and science and technology.
There are galleries containing meteorites from the dawn of our planet, galleries explaining the slightly later history of Scotland, galleries displaying incredibly lifelike animals from an extinct T-rex to an endangered Scottish wildcat, galleries focussed on world culture and galleries showing just about anything you can possibly imagine in-between.
Another great feature of the National Museum 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.
And 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 cafes on site if you feel the need to take a break, and the gift shop sells lots of quality gifts. Best of all entry to the museum is completely free!
- Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
You can find out more about the National Museum of Scotland by checking out my Guide to Free Edinburgh Attractions.
(4) The Scottish National Gallery
Freezing-cold Scottish winters needn’t stop you 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 or longer.
Masterpieces from all 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 gardens level which houses a restaurant, shop and visitor facilities, while the National Gallery building next door (free to enter) houses the major artworks in the collection.
As well as the collections of art from across the planet this gallery also contains some great examples of Scottish art through the ages, and kids can be entertained by the regular storytelling sessions that take place.
There’s even a free bus that will take you to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art a short distance away, so you can spend most of the day lost in the world of art without having to pay a penny.
- Address: The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL
You can find out more about the Scottish National Gallery by checking out my Guide to Free Edinburgh Attractions.
Infographic about Edinburgh
Things to do in Glasgow in winter
As the biggest city in Scotland, Glasgow has loads to see and do when it’s a bit dreary outside.
This is a city with a rich industrial heritage and as well as loads of free attractions like the iconic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Riverside Museum, you can enjoy a vibrant city centre with 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, landmarks and historic buildings to keep visitors happy no matter their age or activity level, and if it’s dry there are even some country parks in the city to wander around. Let’s check out a few top ideas for your next visit to Glasgow with the list below.
(5) Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum houses one of Europe’s greatest art collections across twenty-two themed galleries, and its extensive collections contain a rather unbelievable 8000 objects in total.
The fact that the gallery offers 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 a little bit of something for everyone at Kelvingrove and the list of displays and exhibitions is too big to completely include in this article, but some of the most popular exhibition areas are; the Arms and Armour Gallery, the Dutch Gallery, the French Gallery, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Gallery and the West Court with its Spitfire plane 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).
- Address: Argyle St, Glasgow, G3 8AG
You can find out more about this attraction with my complete guide to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
(6) 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, also called St Kentigern’s or St Mungo’s Cathedral, is today a gathering place of the Church of Scotland.
The cathedral is thought to have been built on the site of St. Kentigern’s tomb, and many Scots believe that this location is the birthplace of the Glasgow city that we know today. There’s a lot to admire about this building, especially the ornate stone carvings on the inside which are remarkably well-preserved considering they were made nearly a thousand years ago.
And even if you’re not a religious type you can’t help but feel a little bit awe-struck by one of the finest collections of stained glass windows in Britain. Just wait for a cloudy day when the sun suddenly breaks through the windows, it’s seriously impressive (but don’t forget your camera).
You can also explore the spooky crypt that was built to house the tomb of St. Kentigern, the Blackadder aisle ceiling with its brightly painted carved stone bosses and some seriously ugly gargoyles. Even better is that after you’ve wandered around the cathedral it’s only a short walk to one of Glasgow’s best-kept secrets – The Necropolis.
- Address: Castle St, Glasgow, G4 0QZ
You can find out more information about this historic attraction by reading my Guide to Glasgow Cathedral.
(7) 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 Scottish history have their final resting place in this fascinating city of the dead.
As the need for extra burial grounds for the city’s dead began to reach crisis point Glasgow’s city councillors added several extensions in the late 19th-century, and today the entire site covers a remarkable 37 acres.
This is great news for tourists as it’s easy to walk through the network of paths that meander all the way through the graveyard, and it has to be one of the few places in Glasgow where you can forget that you’re in the middle of Scotland’s biggest city.
A walk through the Necropolis will reveal many monuments to Scotland’s most prominent historical figures, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh (actually buried in London), and William Miller, the man 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 winters day.
- Address: Castle St, Glasgow, G4 0UZ
If you want to know more about this historic attaction you can read my Complete Guide to the Glasgow Necropolis.
(8) The Riverside Museum of Transport
If you’re going to be spending a day in Glasgow then you have to take a walk along the banks of the River Clyde, the famous heart of the city that was once home to the city’s world-leading shipbuilding industry.
Those days, of course, are long gone, but you can at least experience some of the history of Glasgow’s industrial heritage with a trip to the Museum of Transport.
This museum is free to enter and is 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 up on the Clyde nearby.
The Riverside Museum is one of the most popular 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 – there are hardly any queues!
Inside the building, you’ll find an impressive range of transport memorabilia with full-size steam locomotives exhibited alongside buses, trams, cars and bikes, and over 3000 objects on display from Glasgow’s industrial past.
There’s even a complete recreation of a Victorian Glasgow cobbled street, complete with shops and carts. If you’re any kind of transport buff or if you’ve got kids that love getting interactive with machinery then the Riverside Museum should definitely be at the top of your list of places to visit.
- Address: 100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow, G3 8RS
You can find out more information about this attraction by reading my Guide to The Glasgow Riverside Museum.
Infographic about Glasgow
Things to do in the Highlands in winter
The Scottish Highlands offer something for everyone at any time of the year, with tourists visiting the area throughout summer for the 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 plenty to keep visitors entertained, especially if they have a love of winter 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-sledding, skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing at sites like Cairngorm Mountain.
Check out the activities below for ideas on your next Highlands winter adventure.
(9) Ice Factor, near Glencoe
So you’re in Scotland in winter and you want to do some sport but it’s too miserable outside. What can you do?
Well, how about taking a trip to the National Ice Climbing Centre at Kinlochleven? This climbing centre in the Scottish Highlands has activities for all ages groups and abilities and they can accommodate you whether you’re a beginner or an experienced climber.
The centre features some of the worlds biggest indoor ice climbing walls and also has rock climbing walls with over 135 possible 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.
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 take advantage of the experienced climber’s facilities.
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 stands at a mightily impressive 12m high, and there are enough routes to keep both beginners and experienced climbers entertained for hours.
- Address: Kinlochleven, PH50 4SF
(10) The Visitor Centre at Culloden Battlefield
The Culloden Visitor Centre is located on the site of Culloden Moor, the very same location where the Jacobite uprising of 1745 came to its final, bloody end, in a battle that 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 1500 Jacobites were killed in less than one hour.
The site is well-managed thanks to the National Trust for Scotland and paths lead right around and through the moor, so even on cold days you’ll be able to explore the moorland.
There are plenty of information tablets at the sides of the path as you make your way around and it’s interesting to imagine how the scene would have looked on 16 April 1746 as the two armies faced each other.
Luckily for modern-day tourists there’s an absolutely fantastic indoor visitor centre on the moor that will tell you all about the events leading up the battle, during it, and how the events afterwards 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 cafe will warm you up after you’ve been for a walk around the moor.
- Address: Culloden Moor, Inverness, IV2 5EU
You can find out more about this attraction with my Complete Guide to Culloden Battlefield.
(11) Cairngorm Mountain 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 they have to 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, and your senses will initially struggle to take in the stark brightness of the snow glistening on the mountain tops stretching away into the distance.
Luckily, the Mountain Centre will help you get your bearings with lots of information guides, or you can just stay at the resort if you don’t want to wander too far.
The Cairngorm Mountain Centre caters for skiers and snowboarders with a variety of pistes that are suitable for both beginners and the more experienced alike, 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 a mountainside you can take a ride on the funicular railway instead, Britain’s highest railway which runs over 3500 feet up to the restaurant and viewing platform on the mountain plateau.
- Address: CairnGorm Mountain Centre, Aviemore, PH22 1RB
You can find out more about this popular mountain attraction with my Complete Guide to the Cairngorm Funicular Railway.
(12) Wildlife Watching in the Cairngorms
Winter in the Cairngorms is one of the highlights for any visit to Scotland thanks to the diverse range of animal species that descend from the mountain tops for 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 about, and the fact that they’re on lower ground means they’re much easier to spot and photograph.
Alongside red deer (Britain’s largest land mammal) you’ll frequently find mountain hares, ptarmigan, pine martens and badgers all scurrying about as they forage for food in the cold winter climate. And unlike summertime, winter on the east coast means you won’t get eaten alive by the midges that thrive there during the warmer months.
You don’t even have to go traipsing through muddy woods to see Scotland’s wildlife either as there’s plenty of marine life right along the coastline to keep an eye open for, and otters and dolphins can be regularly seen along much of the Highlands coastline.
Some tour operators like Highland Safaris will take you out into the wilds in fully kitted out 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 right in the heart of Scotland’s forests.
But perhaps the best way to experience Scotland’s winter wildlife is to just pack your rucksack, pull on your boots and set off on a trek across the rugged landscape. But as we discussed earlier, be sure to check the weather before you set off, and make sure you pack plenty of warm hiking gear. After all, as the old Scottish saying goes, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.
- Address: Speyside Wildlife, Wester Camerorie, Ballieward, Grantown on Spey, Cairngorms National Park, PH26 3PR
Speyside Wildlife is recommended on several Scottish wildlife websites. Take a look at their own website here.
Bonus ideas for winter activities in Scotland
There are so many activities to get involved with in Scotland at winter that it can make your head spin, especially if you’ve never been here before and you’re not really sure what to expect.
From snowsports to festivals to self-drive winter road trips, Scotland is (in my opinion) the best country in Europe when the temperatures plummet, something that’s helped no end by our spectacularly pretty winter landscapes and our brilliant city attractions that come alive in the winter months just as much as summertime.
I’ll list a few of my favourite winter activities below and I hope they’ll give you some inspiration for things to do while you’re here.
(13) Enjoy Scotland’s winter sports
There are six outdoor ski resorts in Scotland which makes this country one of the best places to go to get your fix of winter sports, but it’s the skiing (and snowboarding) that attracts most visitors here from November to February.
You’ll find these resorts in the Highland Nevis Range, Cairngorms and Glencoe regions as well as a few Lowland ski areas like Edinburgh’s Midlothian Snowsports Centre and Glasgow’s Ski and Snowboard Centre.
While the dry slopes are pretty good, to my mind the best places to strap your skis on are in the wilds of Scotland, with my personal favourite location being Glencoe.
While Scotland’s mountain peaks aren’t quite at the same level as Everest (can you even ski there?) you’ll find some excellent slopes, and peaks like Cairngorm Mountain rise an impressive 462 metres above sea level. You needn’t worry about having to make your own way up there either as railways like Cairngorm’s funicular will whisk you to the top in record time (though it’s currently out of service as of 2019).
The ski resorts are generally open from December through to April but I recommend visiting from the end of January to the end of February for your best chance of enjoying a thick covering of snow. You’re more or less guaranteed a good snowfall at that time of year but I’d advise checking the Snow Forecast website before making an impromptu trip.
(14) Visit Scotland’s winter festivals
No-where does winter festivals quite like Scotland, which I guess is down to the fact that our winters are long so we have to make the most of them. New year (called Hogmanay here) is an especially good time to be in Scotland and you’ll find celebrations and festivals happening right across the country.
Perhaps the best is the Hogmanay Festival in Edinburgh which draws more than 100,000 visitors from across the globe to take part in one of the worlds greatest new year celebrations.
The party held in Princes Street is nothing short of spectacular and is one of the biggest street parties in the world, where live music is played with a fireworks spectacular set against the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.
But if you want something a bit different, I seriously recommend you get a ticket for the Hogmanay Torchlight Procession which sees the city High Street come alive in the glow of 20,000 torches as their bearers carry them from the top of the Royal Mile to a party in Holyrood Park.
Another really good festival that’s held throughout Scotland is Burn’s Night, staged annually on the anniversary of his birth on the 25th of January.
This event sees the Scottish populace celebrate the life and works of Scotland’s greatest national poet with a night of merriment involving singing, dancing, eating, drinking and recitals of Robert Burn’s celebrated poetry.
It’s not just a random series of events though as there’s a formal order that has to be adhered to, with a piper solemnly ushering in a haggis (yes, that actually happens), a speech, poetry recitals and several toasts, all accompanied by copious amounts of whisky.
The end of the formal proceedings is the start of a night of dancing to traditional Scottish folk music and I can assure you it’s a night you’ll remember for a long time afterwards. My advice for choosing which event to visit is to simply fire up Google and see what’s advertised near you. You’ll have a good time, regardless.
(15) See the Northern Lights
Who needs to pack a suitcase and travel to Iceland when you can see the spectacular light show of the Aurora Borealis right from the comfort of our very own Scotland?
The Aurora, if you don’t already know, is a celestial dance of lights played out in the night sky by a very common phenomenon, but one that can only be seen when there’s hardly any light pollution.
It’s caused by electrically charged particles released from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with natural gases like oxygen and nitrogen.
Picture one of those 1970s lava lamps in the sky but with the molten wax swapped out for the gentle hues of multicoloured moonlight and you’ve more or less got it.
It’s like, totally trippy dude.
The colours are predominantly green but you’ll also see them in red, yellow, blue and violet with arcs, shooting rays and rippling curtains appearing as the earth’s gases are lit up.
It’s practically impossible to see the Northern Lights in a city so don’t bother sticking your head out the window if you’re in Glasgow or Edinburgh, but instead drive to the Northern Highlands where it’s mostly rural and the towns are few and far between.
The best places to go to are those that have been designated as dark sky parks.
These are regions that have virtually no human populations for fifty miles or more in any direction so you can see the Aurora in all its glory. To give you an idea of what a difference a dark sky park makes, in the city you’ll be lucky to see anywhere near a hundred stars even on the clearest night.
In a dark sky park you’ll be able to make out over a thousand. Suffice to say you’ve never really seen the stars till you’ve been to the Northern Highlands.
I suggest checking out the official International Dark-Sky Association website before you leave so you can find the best places to go (the Isle of Coll and the Cairngorm National Park are two of the best in the UK) and then wait for a clear sky before heading off into the wilds – yes we do have clear skies in Scotland. Occasionally.
Well that’s about it for this list of awesome things to do in Scotland in winter, but rest assured there’s plenty more where that came from. In fact, there are so many amazing winter Scottish attractions that I’ll be adding new articles about them on a regular basis, so please make sure you check the site often for the latest updates.
Oh, and if you’d like to get some inspiration for things to do in Scotland in the warmer months, check out my Ultimate Guide to Visiting Scotland in Summer.
As always have a happy, and safe, time exploring Scotland.
Frequently asked questions about winter in Scotland
Scotland has an average of 7 hours of winter 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. The hours change slightly depending on how far north or south you are.
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. In the cities wear normal clothes – jeans, jumper, jacket, woolly hat, gloves.
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 around 0°c. Wind chill reduces the temperature by several degrees.
While the Lowlands experience an increasingly mild climate the Highlands still get regular rain and snowfalls in winter. The Western Highlands see around 3,000mm of rain while the Cairngorms have snowfall for more than 100 days each winter.