Winter is one of the best times to visit Scotland thanks to flights and accommodation that are much cheaper than they are in the summer months, and roads that are blissfully quiet compared to the busy tourist season.
Unfortunately though, there are a few negatives that could quite easily disrupt your winter touring plans, with sub-zero temperatures, short daylight hours and treacherous icy roads causing mayhem for the unwary traveller.
In this article you’ll find a collection of useful travel tips and advice for touring Scotland in winter that will help you make the most of your time here, whether you’re intending on a winter road trip through the Highlands or a weekend break in the cities.
Touring Scotland in winter
It’s fair to say Scotland is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe whatever time of year it is, with long balmy summer days that are perfect for Highland treks and clear, crisp winters that offer snow sports galore and some of the best festivals in the world.
Winter, in particular, is a wonderful time in Scotland and travelling through a snow-capped Highland landscape is one of those experiences you’ll never forget, but perhaps not always for all the right reasons.
When the sun is blazing a tour of Scotland is a terrific experience, but sadly once September comes around you’re more likely to find yourself traipsing through driving rain with a hoolie blowing up your kilt – and that’s without taking into consideration the fact that Scotland’s winter days are short and the temperatures are low.
So what should you do on a winter tour of Scotland?
While it’s easy to visit both the countryside and the cities in Summer, you’ll probably find the climate throws a spanner in the works in winter.
It’s not uncommon for tourists to arrive in Scotland only to discover the next phase of their holiday at the opposite end of the country is cancelled due to bad weather.
The decision you make about touring Scotland’s cities or countryside will ultimately depend on the type of winter break you’re looking for.
Do you want to hit the slopes at the Cairngorm, Nevis, or Glencoe mountain ranges, or would you rather explore Edinburgh and Glasgow? Do you fancy getting out and about in Scotland’s wintry landscapes or would you prefer to cosy up next to a pub fireplace with a good single malt whisky in hand?
Let’s take a closer look at touring Scotland’s cities and countryside in winter before delving into travel options and tips and advice for your winter break.
Touring Scotland’s cities in winter
Both cities have great transport links, and as they’re within an hour of each other by train or car you can easily fit a visit to both into one holiday.
The biggest bonus of taking a winter city break is that the weather doesn’t need to be a consideration as everything will be on your doorstep.
Want world-class restaurants? Try Bilson Eleven in Glasgow or The Kitchin in Edinburgh. Passionate about history? How about Glasgow Cathedral or Edinburgh Castle? Or maybe you have an energetic family, in which case take them to attractions like Edinburgh Zoo or Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum.
All these attractions are within easy access of the city centres and if the weather closes in there are always public transport services to take you somewhere else.
Edinburgh has the excellent Lothian Buses which runs throughout the city and into the surrounding countryside, from West to East Lothian.
There is also a new tram system which offers fast travel across 10 miles from Edinburgh airport to the city centre and Leith. You’ll find updated timetables for trams and buses at the Transport For Edinburgh website or you can download the Lothian Bus app on your phone.
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Payment for either service is via pre-paid books of tickets from the Lothian Bus shops (there’s one on Edinburgh’s Waverley Bridge) or on the bus or tram using a contactless card or cash. Expect to pay around £5 for an all-day ticket which allows unlimited travel throughout the city.
Glasgow benefits from the ultra-efficient SPT subway system which has trains that run every 5 minutes at peak times between an oval of 15 stations in all the city’s main districts. You can either buy a single ticket or a Subway Smartcard which allows you to top up as you go.
If you want to explore both cities on a winter tour you can either drive, take a bus or use the train. Personally, I suggest using the train as it’s the fastest and easiest option with half-hourly trains between Edinburgh Waverley station and Glasgow Central station that take around 90 minutes.
You could also drive which takes around an hour via the M8 (depending on traffic) but be aware parking charges in both cities are expensive, especially the inner city NCP car parks. As an example, the NCP Castle Hill car park near Edinburgh Castle charges £25 to leave your car for just six hours.
Another good option for touring between Scotland’s main cities is to take a bus, and Megabus is one of the best operators in my opinion.
There are up to 72 daily services between Glasgow and Edinburgh with Megabus and the journey takes just over an hour with stations in both city centres. Fares are usually around £5 but the price can double if you book a last-minute ticket.
Touring Scotland’s countryside in winter
One of the highlights of visiting Scotland in winter is carving up a mountain on a snowboard or pair of ski’s, and there are so many slopes in the Highlands you’ll be able to have a great time whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned expert.
If you fancy a challenge why not head to Glencoe Mountain for the hair-raising Flypaper which is officially Scotland’s steepest ski slope? On the other hand, if you’re a novice you can learn the basics at the Glencoe Snow sports School before hitting the white stuff for real.
Either way, the experience will stay in your memory for a lifetime and it’s often the deciding factor for choosing the countryside over the city in winter, but what else is there to tempt you away from Scotland’s urban areas?
After snow sports the most popular winter outdoor activity in Scotland is hiking and there are so many trails to choose from you might feel a little overwhelmed, but an OS Map will put you on the right path (no pun intended. Or was it?…).
One of the nicest walks in the Scottish Highlands is the Loch Morlich circuit which loops around one of the most picturesque lochs in the country, framed by the stunning Cairngorm mountain range and the Glenmore Forest. A winter walk there is the perfect way to relax after an exhausting run on the slopes and the loch’s golden sand beach makes a nice change from mile after mile of snow.
You could also follow the John Muir Way which is a 134-mile adventure across the lower-middle region of Scotland from Helensburgh on the west coast to Dunbar on the east, or The West Highland Way which stretches 96 miles from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William near Ben Nevis.
One option for a winter hike that’s a wee bit different to any other in Scotland is The Arran Coastal Way which runs in an oval around the coastline of the Isle of Arran. I’m mentioning it as unlike most of Scotland’s walking trails, the majority of The Arran Coastal Way is on tarmacked roads so it’s pretty much impervious to the weather, plus the island is spectacularly pretty.
If you’d like a few suggestions for forest winter walks take a look at my Guide to the Best Forests in Scotland and if you’d like a few ideas for places to visit in the Highlands, browse through my Best Places to Visit in The Scottish Highlands article.
This ethereal landscape was formed by a series of ancient landslides thousands of years ago and it offers views that are nothing short of breathtaking. I go into much more detail in my Guide to The Quiraing.
Other western islands that might be worth visiting on a winter tour of Scotland are Mull and Islay, each of which offers a different experience.
Mull is almost as attractive as Skye but has far fewer tourists and there are superb walks to enjoy in winter depending on the weather. If the conditions are clear I thoroughly recommend a walk up Ben More mountain but if not you’ll find Mull’s single-track roads offer a nice alternative around much of the coastline and through the centre of the island.
Islay is one of the most picturesque islands on the west coast, and while it’s best known for its whisky there are lots of walks to be had, with The Oa and Loch Gruinart being two highlights along with the coastal road that follows the shore of Loch Indaal.
If you’d like to explore the Scottish Highlands on a guided tour take a look at my recommended Get Your Guide Highland tours.
Touring Scotland in winter using public transport
Whether you use Scotland’s public transport really depends on what you want to do and where you want to go.
If you’re up for exploring the wilderness then your best bet is a car as Scotland’s public transport network doesn’t reach many of the remotest areas, and where it does you’ll find connections are few and far between.
That’s not so bad in summer, but hanging around for a once-an-hour bus when it’s cold and wet isn’t exactly what I’d call an enjoyable holiday.
It’s a different story if you’re visiting Scotland’s cities in winter though, and you’ll want to ditch the car and use trains, trams and buses instead.
On the whole, our public transport networks are well maintained, (usually) punctual and reasonably priced, and Edinburgh and Glasgow have public transport systems that are as good as you’ll find anywhere else in Britain.
As I mentioned earlier, If you visit Glasgow in winter you can quickly find the major tourist hotspots with the excellent Glasgow SPT subway (detailed in my Glasgow travel information page) along with the frequent First Bus buses.
Aside from taxis – which are expensive and not necessary IMHO – your other transport option is the train which is probably the best way to travel if you’re not used to driving in Scotland, or perhaps if you’ve had a wee dram or three (remember we have a near-zero drink-drive policy in Scotland).
There are loads of different routes for taking the train, each of which offers wildly different views out the window, but I personally recommend the Borders Railway, the Kyle Line and the West Highland Line.
If pushed, I’d say the West Highland Line is the nicest of the bunch as it cuts through some very pretty countryside between Glasgow and Fort William before continuing to its final destination at Mallaig, and you can swap trains at Fort William to the wonderful ‘Harry Potter’ Jacobite steam train which is famous for its scenes in the movies where it puffs its way across the Glenfinnan viaduct.
Train prices are considerably more expensive than other transport options but you can save money by booking single tickets in advance through The Trainline website or getting a Scotrail Spirit of Scotland pass which gives you unlimited travel for four or eight days.
I’ve created a Complete Guide to Touring Scotland by Train so take a look and bookmark it for lots of tips and advice about this always-popular form of transport.
Travel to the west coast islands is a little more difficult as you’ll have to take a ferry which is at the mercy of the Inner Hebridean seas and the Atlantic Ocean, although stretches of water like the Sound of Mull are relatively well protected by the surrounding islands.
The only exception is the Isle of Skye which has a road bridge that joins the southeast corner of the island to Kyle of Lochalsh meaning you don’t need to take a ferry at all.
While you could sail from Mallaig on the mainland to Armadale on Skye, I recommend crossing the bridge as a road trip in that region of Scotland is a fantastic experience, especially if you stop at attractions like Eilean Donan Castle which is located 9 miles from the bridge on the A87.
The main ferry operator in Scotland is Caledonian MacBrayne and their main transport hub is in Oban (known as ‘the gateway to the isles’). You’ll find more information about the travel options in my Oban Travel Information Page.
When is winter in Scotland?
Winter in Scotland officially lasts from December 21st to March 20th, although the ‘off-season’ encompasses October to April.
I make this point because if you’re intending to visit Scotland outside the peak season to save money you might consider the end of Autumn and the start of Spring for your holiday instead of the depths of winter, as the weather will be a few degrees warmer and the daylight hours will be an hour or more longer.
Aside from the weather, the one thing that defines winter in Scotland is the short days and depending on where you travel you could find yourself in darkness for up to 17 hours.
The amount of daylight hours varies between the far north and the southern borders and you will find there’s at least an hours difference between the two regions – which is something to think about if you want to go sightseeing or set out on an epic hike.
Below is a table of the sunrise and sunset times for Orkney in the far north and the Borders in the far south so you’ll have an idea of what to expect in winter.
|Location (15th of the month)||Sunrise||Sunset||Daylight Hours:Mins|
|Scottish Borders October||07:42||18:10||10:28|
|Scottish Borders December||08:33||15:39||7:05|
|Scottish Borders February||07:35||17:16||9:40|
Scotland’s winter weather
We love jabbering on about the weather here in Scotland and truth be told it’s a bit of a national obsession. I think that’s down to the fact the weather is so changeable and you really don’t know what it’s going to do from one moment to the next, especially once you get out into the Highlands where the old saying ‘four seasons in one day’ really comes into play.
There’s a significant difference in temperature between the north and the south of the country but you can expect extremes once you hit the elevated Highlands, an example of which is Braemar which regularly has the coldest annual temperatures in Britain and currently holds the record at -27.2 °C.
So what can you expect from Scotland’s winter weather? Well, it’s impossible to predict as it obviously varies with the month and location but the following table will give you an overview of annual averages.
|Location||Max temp. °C||Min temp. °C||Sunshine hours||Rainfall mm||Rainy days|
Bear in mind the temperatures in the table don’t tell the full story as the wind chill can be considerable and even a light breeze in winter can drop temperatures significantly.
If you’re not already aware, wind chill is the difference in the temperature on exposed skin that’s disturbed by moving air compared to the same temperature on exposed skin without moving air.
To calculate it, 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 10mph then 5 -(10 x 0.7) gives you a wind chill temperature of -2 °C.
That’s quite a difference and it’s the reason why wind chill must be taken seriously, as many hikers get so obsessed with checking the ambient temperature they get caught out when the wind starts howling (which it does in Scotland. A lot).
Aside from the wind chill, January and February are generally the coldest months in Scotland with average temperatures that hover around 5 °C which is lovely when it’s clear but not so nice when it’s grey and overcast.
From November to February you can expect half of the days to be overcast and wet each month with the rest of the days equally split between cloud-free and partly cloudy although again, this depends on which part of the country you’re travelling to as the west coast is wetter on average than the east coast due to the weather brought in from the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re coming to Scotland for snow sports you’ll definitely want to head to the Highlands as there is, on average, 100 days of snowfall each year and due to the elevation the snow usually lasts until April (Scotland’s snowsports season is widely acknowledged as running from November to 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.
Winter driving in Scotland
If you’re driving a hire car in winter you can pretty much just set off as long as you’ve booked through a reputable company, but if you’re driving your own car and you’re not familiar with Scotland’s roads there are a few essential pieces of advice that you must take notice of before setting out on your journey.
I’m making this point from first-hand experience as the first time I visited Scotland I was living in sunny Cornwall and decided on an impromptu mega road trip, only to find my car nose-deep in a ditch shortly after entering the Cairngorms.
That wee error was completely my fault as I’d set off without checking my tyre pressures and I’d like you to avoid the same mistake, so please take note of the following list of tips for driving in Scotland in winter.
Preparing your car for winter driving
- Plan your route by checking a road map and then checking the weather forecast in the area you’re driving to. If you live in the far south of England for example, and you’re not used to driving through a foot of snow, you don’t want to end up waiting in the middle of nowhere for the AA to rescue you from a ditch (ahem). The Traffic Scotland website is a great resource for the latest winter driving conditions.
- In the UK it is not illegal to drive with snow on the roof of your car but if enough falls off while driving to cause injury to anyone you could be liable for driving without due consideration. Even more importantly, it is illegal to drive with a windscreen that is obscured by mist or ice, and you could land yourself a £60 fine and three points on your licence as a minimum. Long story short – take the time to clear your vehicle of snow and ice before setting off.
- Following on from the above, it is UK law that all lights are visible and the same goes for the front and rear numberplates.
- If you’re planning on a road trip through Scotland’s remote areas make sure your fuel tank is topped up so you can leave the engine running if you break down, and pack a bag with food and water as a precaution. Do not expect to have a mobile phone signal everywhere you go in the Highlands.
- If you don’t have breakdown cover just bite the bullet and get some already. The RAC and AA have roadside assistance plans starting from less than a tenner a month which will be money well spent if you need recovery. Private services e.g. a local garage will charge upwards of £200 for a single call out.
- Before setting off check a few basic – but necessary – parts are working; wipers, fan heater, screenwash, lights (including indicators and fog lights) and make sure you haven’t got any warning lights on the dashboard.
- Pack an emergency kit for every eventuality which includes; a mobile phone and a USB battery pack (phone batteries die quickly when they’re cold), a hi-vis vest, de-icer, a warning triangle, jump leads and a spade. You can get most of that in a single emergency kit from Amazon. Also, pack a thermal blanket and keep it near the driver so it’s easily retrieved.
- If the road conditions are really bad you should consider investing in snow tyres or snow chains. Snow tyres have studs embedded in them that give extra grip and snow chains wrap around normal tyres to achieve the same effect. Neither are suitable for driving on clear roads where there is no snow, and snow chains can actually damage both your car and the road if you don’t take them off when you get back on the tarmac.
How to drive in snow
Driving in snow is very tricky if you’re not used to it, especially if you find yourself in a skid. The advice of most driving experts from the AA and RAC is to not get yourself in that position in the first place and the following tips will help you drive safely in winter. Please note that driving in snow and ice is your responsibility alone so if you don’t feel comfortable, do not attempt the journey.
- To avoid wheel slip when setting off, start in second gear and move slowly. This isn’t so important if you have a 4x4 or your car has a winter mode as the vehicle will do most of the work for you.
- Once on the move try to accelerate gently and get to as high a gear as possible as quickly as possible.
- Leave a much bigger gap between you and the car in front than you would if the road surface was clear. The RAC recommends leaving a gap ten times bigger than normal.
- If you find yourself on a steep hill keep your momentum going without changing gear. The appropriate speed will depend on the gradient of the hill.
- When heading back downhill use a low gear and avoid braking quickly.
- If you find yourself in a skid, steer gently into it but do not panic and slam the brakes on. Take your foot off the accelerator and keep both hands on the steering wheel.
- If you end up driving in heavy snow you can experience a white-out where your headlights are reflected back at you. Make sure you use dipped headlights and if the visibility drops below 100 metres put your fog lights on.
- Be aware that some sections of road that are shaded from the sun (tight corners and humpback bridges for example) will be the first to freeze and the last to thaw. If the rest of the road looks fairly clear but you’re near one of these hazard areas, slow down.
- In the Highlands, there are snow markers on either side of the road that indicates how deep the snow is and the direction of the road. Keep an eye on them as they’re invaluable for spotting hidden dips.
Scotland winter walking advice
The months of January and February are two of my favourite times to go walking in Scotland as that’s the time of year when almost all mountains and hills have a fresh white layer of snow on top of them.
I wouldn’t recommend heading to the summits in winter unless you’re a seasoned climber but wandering through secluded glens and forests on a crisp winter day is an unforgettable experience.
If you do decide to head out into the wilds you need to be aware that while Scotland’s landscapes are beautiful they can also be deadly if you don’t take the right precautions, so take note of the following list of need-to-knows before you head out.
Note that the Amazon affiliate links below are for items I recommend.
- Wrap up warm with several layers of clothing, and wear a sweat absorbing base layer along with a rain and windproof jacket. You’ll lose a lot of heat from your head so always make sure you’re wearing a woolly hat, and wear gloves and thick socks to keep your extremities toasty.
- I can’t overstate how important good quality boots are in Scotland. Get a pair that has good grips and are waterproof, and make sure they have supportive ankle protection. I personally swear by Berghaus boots, as although they’re a wee bit more expensive they last much longer than cheaper brands, plus they’re supremely comfy. See my guide to the best hiking boots to wear in Scotland for more information.
- Pack high-energy food and drink to replenish the energy you’ll be burning off in the cold. With regard to water, bear in mind that you should take 2 litres per person, per day, and each litre weighs 1 kg. I take two bottles on my winter walks, one insulated Thermos for a cup of hot tea down the road, and a tough metal water bottle to stay hydrated.
- Take walking poles. Not only will they help you balance on slippery surfaces but they’ll allow you to poke the ground in front of you so you don’t end up falling into a snow-covered hole.
- Take a map and compass – and learn how to use them. After a snowfall the landscape can change dramatically and it’s easy to lose your bearings. The best maps by far are made by Ordnance Survey who have a range of ultra-durable waterproof maps (I guarantee you’ll get lost just as it starts raining. Always happens to me). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
- Become familiar with your route before you leave and stick to it. One of the main reasons why winter hikers get lost is because they suddenly decide to take a different path and then find themselves unable to get back onto their pre-planned track. The Walk Highlands website is a fantastic resource for walking routes in Scotland, and Google Maps is very handy as a GPS – but make sure you’ve got a spare battery or a power pack in your bag.
- If you happen to find yourself lost in the middle of nowhere in winter there’s something that could mean the difference between life and death. That something is Scotland’s network of ‘bothies’, which are weatherproofed huts located in the remotest regions of the country. They are always unlocked and they are free to use with the only requirement that you leave them clean and tidy afterwards. You’ll find a complete guide to them in The Scottish Bothy Bible.
- Walk Highlands: Detailed hiking maps and route information with photos to help you get your bearings.
- Traffic Scotland: Provides updated road and rail information that includes disruptions to services due to bad weather.
- Google Maps. Where would we be without Google Maps? The world’s biggest mapping provider and fast-becoming the best. Google Maps includes directions for travellers on foot, using a car and public transport.
- Scotrail is the official website of Scotland’s railways. You’ll need to visit this site to buy tourist rail passes like the Spirit of Scotland pass, but if you’re buying standard tickets you’ll often get them cheaper from The Trainline.
- The Met Office is the official body of UK meteorology and in my experience, their forecasts are the most accurate. A great alternative is Open Weather who has an easy-to-read layout on their website. Check my Weather Forecast page for links to Open Weather forecasts of various regions in Scotland.
- Ordnance Survey has a great service where for around £25 a year you can download an unlimited number of OS maps to your mobile device. I use the app myself and I’ve lost count of the number of times it saved me when I’ve been out walking but forgot to pack a paper map.
- Outaboutscotland.com has lots of articles that include tips and advice on the best places to visit in Scotland, what to do in each region and suggestions for tourist attractions to add to your sightseeing itinerary.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Scotland worth visiting in winter?
Winter is a great time to visit Scotland for anyone that loves wintry landscapes and fresh snow-capped mountain peaks. Popular snow sports locations are the Cairngorm, Nevis and Glencoe mountain ranges which offer ski slopes of various grades. Scotland’s cities have lots of festivals in winter with highlights including Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals, and Glasgow’s festive lights display.
What is Scotland’s weather like in winter?
It is impossible to predict in advance what Scotland’s weather will do in winter but generally, you can expect 0 to 5 °C from November to March and 7-9 hours of daylight (less the further north you go). Around half the days each month will be overcast and rainy, and between November to March you can expect 2-3 weeks of snowfall in the Lowlands and 100 days of snow in the Highlands.
What is the rainiest month in Scotland?
Scotland receives the highest amount of rainfall in the United Kingdom, and statistically the rainiest month is December with an average 200 mm of rainwater. This changes from north to south and east to west with the west coast traditionally being wetter than the east coast and the North Highlands being wetter than the Lowlands.
Can you see the northern lights in Scotland in winter?
It is not usual to see the northern lights in Scotland in winter although the months between September and March offer the best chance as the nights are much longer than the rest of the year. One of the best places to see the northern lights is Galloway Forest Park which is a dark sky park, meaning it is minimally affected by light pollution. Note that northern lights can only be seen when there is strong solar activity.
More travel tips and advice articles
- Tips to Save Money on a Trip to ScotlandScotland can be an expensive place to visit and unfortunately the price of everything from admission tickets to petrol seems to be reaching new wallet-destroying levels with each passing year. In this article you’ll discover tips and tricks to save money on a trip to Scotland whether you’re travelling by car or train, staying in a top-notch hotel or a budget hostel, and eating in a posh restaurant or snacking on a takeaway burger.
- Tips for a Cheap Weekend Break in ScotlandIn this article you’ll find a collection of recommended places to visit on a weekend break in Scotland that are perfect for families, couples and solo explorers alike. They all have free admission and are guaranteed not to break the bank. You’ll also find tips on how to save money on accommodation as well as suggestions for saving money on transport.
- How To Tour Scotland in Winter: Travel Tips & AdviceThere are many things that can disrupt a winter tour of Scotland, with sub-zero temperatures, short daylight hours and treacherous icy roads causing mayhem for the unwary traveller. In this article you’ll find a collection of useful travel tips and advice that will help you tour Scotland in winter whether you’re going on a Highland road trip or a weekend city break.
- Tips & Advice For Visiting IslayThe Isle of Islay on Scotland’s west coast is one of the country’s premier tourist attractions. The island offers visitors a wonderful experience whether it’s wildlife watching, relaxing on a beach, hiking through the countryside or sampling whisky.
Don’t forget to bookmark Outaboutscotland.com to discover the best places to visit in Scotland, learn what to do in each region and get suggestions for top tourist attractions to add to your sightseeing itinerary.