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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 man.
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.
Planning a trip to Scotland?
- Find hotels in Scotland and book your rental car.
- Explore the country with Rabbies small group coach tours and get cheap advance tickets for attractions.
- Learn about Scotland with a range of Amazon books and prepare for hikes with
Ordnance Survey maps.
- Before you explore the great outdoors get your rain gear in place and don’t forget to buy Smidge anti-midge repellent!