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The Out About Scotland ultimate guide to visiting Scotland in summer – the best places to visit
If you want to get straight to my list of recommended Scottish summer attractions scroll to the bottom of this article and click the buttons to take you to pages 2, 3 and 4.
Ah, Scotland in summer. Swathes of purple heather on serene grassy hills. Sun glinting off mirror-faced lochs. Golden beaches on secluded islands, and Highland glens bathed in the gentle hues of the evening sun.
It’s enough to make you skip to the nearest travel agents in a wide-eyed frenzy, travel brochures clutched underarm and credit card held proudly aloft.
But hang on there! Before you prod your pin number into that machine you should know there’s another side to visiting Scotland in summer that you don’t hear so much about…
Swarms of blood-sucking midges biting every strip of exposed skin into a blotchy, itchy red mess. Enormous queues of people waiting grumpily in line for attractions that were blissfully empty just a couple of months earlier. Congested cities filled with lost and confused tourists causing chaos on the roads and bringing high streets to a standstill.
You never hear about that in the adverts do you?
I think it’s fair to say there are two sides to Scotland in summer and if you don’t plan ahead what should be one of the best holidays of your life can easily turn into a complete nightmare. So what do you do? How do you know where to go and where to avoid?
Those are the questions I’m going to answer in this article and I think I’ve got a few suggestions that’ll absolutely blow your socks off, but I’m also going to give you plenty of tips on the best ways to travel about, what you can expect from the weather, and how you can avoid those pesky, bitey midges.
I really hope the article gives you some inspiration for planning your next Scottish break. Now let’s make this a summer to remember!
Scotland’s summer weather – what you need to know
Have you ever heard the saying ‘four seasons in one day’? Well, that more or less sums up what you can expect from a Scottish summer thanks to the unpredictable climate that seems to go out of its way to mess with the sightseeing plans of our tourists.
While Mediterranean countries enjoy weeks and weeks of uninterrupted sunshine in summer, us folks living a bit further north have to put up with constantly changing weather where you can bathe in glorious clear blue skies in the morning, and then desperately try to hide from torrential downpours in the afternoon.
And it doesn’t even matter which part of Scotland you visit because you’ll frequently find the weather can be just as miserable in the south as it is in the north.
Take last year (2018) as an example. According to World Weather Online the Scottish Borders town of Kelso had a bleak 27 rainy days in August compared to the far-northern town of Kelso which had an even worse 30 days of wet weather.
That’s almost the entire month of Scotland’s supposedly hottest time of year when it tipped it down. That’s good news for ducks, bad news for the rest of us.
As far as the amount of rainfall goes it varies day-by-day, so don’t be surprised to see a mixture of light showers and heavy downpours within a few hours of each other on some days, especially in the Western Highlands which is officially one of the wettest places in Europe.
Due to the mountainous coastline, humid air is pushed north to produce an average 4,577mm of rainfall annually, compared to just 870mm in Eastern Scotland.
But before you go and cancel your Scottish holiday let me jump in and tell you it’s not always like that, and as a rule you can expect fairly decent weather between the start of June and the end of August where average maximum temperatures sit in the 15°C (59°F) to 17°C (63 °F) region, especially the east coast which is protected from the frequent storms brought in by the Atlantic Ocean.
That’s why I always suggest spending as much time in Edinburgh and the southeast as possible if you’re travelling here for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, and it’s why I wrote a Guide to the Best Places to Visit in East Lothian, as it’s one of the driest regions in the country.
In fact, as I write this in July 2019 we’ve been enjoying a bit of a heatwave here in Edinburgh where temperatures shot up to 30°C before cooling back down with a few impressive thunderstorms, which goes some way to explaining why I started off by mentioning the ‘four seasons in one day’.
One thing I’ll tell you that most tourism websites don’t tell you is while some of our days are beautifully sunny and some are dismally wet, the majority are just depressingly grey, and unless you’re really lucky there’s a good chance most days of your visit will be completely overcast with a thick blanket of dreary, impenetrable cloud – weather the Scots call ‘dreich’.
I’m afraid that’s the reality of visiting Scotland and it’s something you’ll need to prepare yourself for, even if you come here in summer.
To be honest though, it doesn’t really matter what the weather’s doing if you’re in one of our cities because you can always dash indoors for cover when the inevitable downpours start, which is why I’ve also included a couple of indoor attractions in the following list of places to visit.
Summer daylight hours in Scotland
Scotland’s high latitude means we get extremes of daylight hours in winter and summer, with January not seeing full light until around 9am before it disappears again at 4pm, and July seeing sunrise and sunset at 5am and 10pm – a good 10 hours difference.
If you head to the far north of Scotland to somewhere like the Shetland Island’s you’ll find yourself enjoying a full 4 hours more daylight than someone who’s chosen to spend their holiday in London, which makes a big difference if you’re intent on enjoying the great outdoors.
In fact, once you get that far north there isn’t any actual complete darkness in summer, so be prepared for sleepless nights unless you’ve purchased a sleep mask. The bonus though, is that you’ll be able to enjoy being outside until really late into the evening. Midnight BBQ anyone?
You’ll find these tables of average daylight hours in Central Scotland will help you plan your itineraries while you’re here, but I recommend checking the Time and Date website for more accurate times for your location.
|June 1st||June 15th||June 30th|
17 hrs, 26 min
17 hrs, 8 min
17 hrs, 30 min
|July 1st||July 15th||July 31st|
17 hrs, 25 min
16 hrs, 57 min
16 hrs, 4 min
|August 1st||August 15th||August 31st|
16 hrs, 0 min
15 hrs, 4 min
13 hrs, 54 min
What to pack and what to wear for a Scottish summer
It’s basically impossible to plan for the weather in Scotland which is why we’ve got another phrase you need to remember – ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.
No matter where you travel to in Scotland in summer there are a few essentials you need to pack before you leave home, whether you’re heading to the bustling metropolis of Edinburgh or you’ve got a 2-week break arranged in the desolate wilderness of the Orkney Islands.
Obviously, a city break to a cosmopolitan city like Edinburgh or Glasgow doesn’t mean you need to pull your muddy hiking boots on each day (which is great news if you’re a naturally snappy dresser), but if you’re a visiting tourist I recommend taking a few essentials with you no matter your final destination.
For starters, take a small rucksack and pack it with a few essentials (see the list below) that includes additional waterproof and warm clothing. Remember to charge your mobile phone and chuck a portable power pack in your bag for emergencies, and always have a bottle of water with you.
Clothes-wise, start off with shorts or thin trousers and wear a base-layer top, ideally something lightweight that wicks away moisture. Stick a pair of lightweight walking shoes on your feet – yes even in the city (I’ll explain why later) – but make sure they’ve got ankle support if you’re exploring anywhere with rough paths.
I’ll list a few options below for what I think are packing essentials for a summer break in Scotland, all of which I’ve either used myself or know someone who’s recommended them. Click the name of each item to go to the Amazon product page.
Disclaimer – these are affiliate links but the price you pay remains the same.
Packing for the city
- Pacamac. These things are unbelievably useful and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve grabbed mine from my backpack when the heavens suddenly opened. They keep the wind out too, which is useful for when you head to the coast.
- Lightweight walking shoes. I’ve always found that walking in the city is just as tiring as walking in the great outdoors, mainly because you’ll clock up miles and miles as you go around all those attractions spread across the city. Get a pair of shoes that are comfy, lightweight, keep your feet cool but don’t look out of place for the city centre – like the ones I’ve suggested in the link.
- Rucksack. An utterly invaluable piece of tourist kit. If you’re day-tripping you need something sturdy but light and cheap enough to replace after a getting dumped on the ground a thousand times over.
- Sunglasses. Yes, I know I said it’s often cloudy but we do get the occasional day here where it’s sunny too. Your choice of frame is a personal preference but I like the ones in the link as they’re decent quality and cheap (I always lose my sunnies so hate paying too much for them).
- Water bottle. Not much to say – it carries water – but the one I’ve linked is strong and leakproof with an easy to remove screw-top lid.
Packing for the outdoors
If you’re heading into the wilderness for your Scottish summer holiday I recommend getting the items listed above for the city, but also add these must-haves for the great outdoors.
- Insect repellant. Pack this in your bag and you’ll practically want to hug me once you get caught in a swarm of Scotland’s infamous midges. This spray does a great job of keeping the little blighters at bay and saves you having to wear one of those ridiculous-looking net hats (which to be fair do a really good job too).
- Suntan lotion. This is a necessity as even on cloudy days you can still get burnt. I like this one by Ambre Solaire as it isn’t too greasy.
- Powerpack. Another essential when you’re in the wilderness as it’ll enable you to recharge your phone when there’s no power socket nearby, which could be a lifesaver if you need to make an emergency call. I like the one linked as it has a built-in solar-power charger.
- Sleep mask. This is a necessity for when you get further north, especially if you’re sleeping in a tent when sunlight comes streaming through the fabric in the early hours of the morning.
How to deal with Scotland’s infamous midges
The Highland midge is the evil nemesis of Scotland’s hikers, and they’ve caused countless miserable trips into the west coast during the warmer months.
These unpleasant little blighters (or should that be biters?…) are a species of small flying insect mainly found in Scotland’s north-west regions from late spring to late summer.
They’re not very big at just a few mm in length but they pack a punch when it comes to their bite, and you can feel the tell-tale pin-prick of their presence whenever you venture anywhere that’s humid and wet, especially on a cloudy day.
While their bite is mildly painful it’s the resulting bumps that drive most people to distraction as they’re impossibly itchy, and if you get just a few of them on your body they’ll make you feel instantly miserable.
These bites will last for a couple of days for most people and they can break open quite easily if they’re scratched too hard (with a very real risk of infection), so unless you’ve got a tube of after-bite ointment you’re going to have to put up with that itch for quite some time.
It’s actually only the female midges that bite and you’ll frequently see them forming in huge clouds that are pretty much impossible to escape from, though there are a couple of tips I can give you that will help reduce the impact these little sh*#s can have on your holiday.
First off, try to avoid going anywhere where there’s still water at dawn and dusk as that’s the time and environment where midges are most prevalent (early morning loch-side strolls are asking for trouble).
They can bite at any time of the day but you’re less likely to see them from late morning till early afternoon so you might consider exploring the wilds during those hours.
Of course, you’re not going to be able to escape them if you’re camping as they’ll quite happily invade your tent, but if you’ve decided to book into a hotel you should be pretty much midge-free as they don’t like going indoors or anywhere where there’s air conditioning.
Because they form in mass clouds they can get really quite unbearable if your head is exposed and they seem to especially like getting embedded in your hair and ears, which is why some people like to wear those hats with the nets that I mentioned earlier.
That’s certainly one option, but I prefer to cover up my body with convertible lightweight hiking trousers for my legs and a thin base layer shirt for my top half and then use plenty of anti-midge spray around my head.
The trousers have zip-off bottoms that turn into shorts when it gets warmer later in the day and the base layer sleeves can be rolled up so it’s almost like wearing a T-shirt. You can then revert back to anti-midge level Defcon 1 once the sun starts to go back down. Works for me anyway.
Travelling around Scotland in summer
One massive bonus with travelling around Scotland in summer is that failing an impromptu earthquake or a meteorite dropping out of the sky, mother nature hasn’t really got much of a chance to put a stop to your progress.
While winter journies can be plagued by flash floods, snowstorms, and hazardous sheets of ice on the roads, conditions in summer are usually pretty good whether you’re intending to travel by train, car, bus or on foot.
I’ll list a few useful bits of information that might help you decide on your preferred form of transport below.
Travelling by bus
Using the bus is spectacularly easy in our cities as despite what you might have heard elsewhere our public transport systems are pretty damn good.
These services are low-cost and frequent – especially so for Lothian Buses as their vehicles are all in fantastic condition and you can get a day ticket that’ll give you unlimited hop-on/hop-off transport for just £4 (as of 2019).
Glasgow’s First Buses aren’t quite as nice and can be …interesting… at night, but if you stick to travelling during the day you’ll find the service is ultra-efficient and day tickets can be had for just £4.50.
One little travel hack I have for you is to consider using a tour bus for the entire day if you’re already thinking about booking one for a wee sightseeing trip. Instead of doing your tour, getting off, and then spending the rest of the day using local buses, keep your ticket and hop on and off whenever you see a tour bus at the main attractions.
They usually just drive between the main attractions all day long and the driver will let you off if you ask, saving you the cost of getting an additional local bus company ticket in the process.
Follow this link to book your tour bus tickets in advance: Edinburgh Bus Tour from £15
If you want to get between cities on the cheap then travelling by coach is by far the cheapest option and you can frequently get special offers for inter-city travel for just a few pounds, so regularly check the Megabus website to see if they’ve got any deals going.
An alternative to Megabus is Citylink Gold who have a fleet of luxury coaches that are just a few pounds more expensive than Megabus, but they include on-board WiFi, complimentary snacks and drinks, and much comfier seats.
The service has daily express links between Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.
Travelling by car
If you’re staying in the city don’t even bother with a car as you simply won’t need it, but travelling into the Highlands or anywhere else in Scotland’s countryside is a different matter entirely.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say a car is a necessity if you’re planning on going off the beaten path and this country is practically begging you to get a hire car and go driving.
We’ve got loads of beautiful scenic routes to enjoy like the famous North Coast 500, but you’ll need to remember a few key points if you’re going to drive yourself around.
- Britain’s fuel prices are some of the highest in Europe at approximately £1.30 for a litre of petrol and £1.35 for a litre of diesel (average as of summer 2019). A bog-standard car like a Ford Fiesta will cost £60-£70 to fill up and give you 400 to 500 mikes of driving – worth keeping in mind if you’re planning a 2-week road trip.
- British hire car companies love to hard-sell additional insurance add-ons like collision waiver damage. Do your research before talking to the salesman and don’t be afraid to walk away.
- If you’re driving in the remote parts of the Highlands you’ll find garages can be few and far between. Make sure you top up regularly. I always try to find a petrol station before my levels get to 1/4 of a tank.
- It’s illegal to hold a phone while driving so get yourself one of these air-vent mounted phone holders.
- We’ve also got a near-as-damn-it zero level of alcohol consumption to drive legally. Don’t even risk it. If you’ve had a drink, get someone else to take the wheel – unless they’ve had a drink too of course.
Travelling by train
I have to admit, even with all the delays and rip-off ticket prices I really love travelling in Scotland by train. There’s something incredibly romantic about watching mountains, lochs and forests woosh past while you’re sat looking out the window of a carriage.
They’re convenient too, with stations right in the middle of most towns and cities and regular services that run several times per day between the main tourist hotspots.
While the ticket costs can be on the pricey side (a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Edinburgh to Aberdeen costs £90 first class) you’ll frequently find cheaper prices by booking in advance on sites like The Trainline which feature booking prices up to 43% cheaper than buying the same ticket at the station.
You can also get rail travel passes that’ll last for a week or more if you’re intending to use the train as your main form of transport and they offer a reasonably priced way of exploring Scotland.
My recommendations are the Central Scotland Rover travel pass which gives you 3 days unlimited travel between Glasgow, Edinburgh and the surrounding area for just £49, and the Spirit of Scotland travel pass which gives you 4 days unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland to be used over 8 days.
So that’s travel across Scotland covered, but one other rail system that’s hardly ever mentioned is Glasgow’s SPT subway system which is the only underground rail network in Scotland.
If you’re visiting Glasgow then taking the subway makes perfect sense as it’ll circle the main districts in a route that takes a mere 24 minutes to complete with all-day tickets costing from just £3.00 – which is a bit of a bargain in my book.