Winter Vacations in Scotland

13th December 2020

Snow covers the mountains and leaves a shimmering white dust on the forests. The lochs shine like glass in the pale-yellow sun. The skies take on the most beautiful colours; purple, green and orange hues reflect in the waters, adding to their splendour. Winter is without a doubt my favourite time to visit the Scottish Highlands. 

If you are unsure about taking a tour of Scotland in the winter, I say do it! It will be one of the most magical vacations you have ever been on. Need some convincing? Read on…

Sunset, Winter Vacation Scotland
Sunset in the Scottish Highlands - Katie Mullen

The Temperature
I know what you’re thinking… surely the weather is the reason you shouldn’t visit Scotland in the winter, but it really isn’t that cold. Compared with parts of the US and other European countries, our winters are relatively mild, normally between 32 – 50 °F. Yes, you will need warm layers, hats, gloves and a good rain jacket, but with all that on, you will be warm enough to spend your days wandering through the wintry forests or sipping a hot chocolate while browsing the outdoor Christmas markets. 

Visit the Reindeer
Visiting the reindeer herd in the Cairngorms is something we have mentioned in a previous blog - The Cairngorms… not just for Skiing! The winter is the best time to do this, particularly if you are touring with children anxious to meet Santa’s trusty steeds. Imagine meeting these beautiful animals with the snowy backdrop of the Cairngorm mountains and lochs. I can’t think of anything more festive!

Cairngorms Reindeers, Scottish Holiday
Cairngorms Reindeers

Edinburgh Christmas Market
A visit to the Edinburgh Christmas Market is one of my favourite annual traditions. It covers a large part of the city centre and attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year. A huge variety of craft, gift and food stalls span Princes Street Gardens and nearby St Andrew’s Square. And it is not just about the shopping. There is an outdoor ice-skating rink and fair ground rides. The best of these is of course the giant Ferris wheel - it is situated right in the centre of Edinburgh and as your gondola rises slowly to the top of the ride, a spectacular view of Edinburgh’s old town, Edinburgh Castle and Calton Hill emerges. 

I recommend arriving early in the morning to beat the crowds and spending an hour or so Christmas shopping - I’ve found some lovely gifts over the years. Treat yourself to some great food from the German food market - the Bratwurst and potato dishes are delicious. Finally, head to the pop-up bar in the middle of Princes Street Gardens and order a hot mug of spiced mulled cider. You can wander out to the bar’s balcony and watch the Ferris wheel turn and the world go by. The market runs from late November until early January and it’s a great day out for all ages.

Edinburgh Chrismtas Market
Edinburgh Christmas Market - Shen Xin on Unsplash

The Crowds ……. are gone!
With the exception of the Edinburgh Christmas Market, tourism levels are low in the winter months. Even the famously busy Isle of Skye is quiet in the winter - arguably making this the best time to visit. The large majority of our attractions are still open and you’ll find bars and restaurants are thriving. It is the perfect balance of quiet sights and atmospheric nights. Check out our 5 Day Winter Highlands & Skye Tour and beat the crowds!

Northern Lights
Seeing the northern lights must be on just about every traveler’s bucket list and it is possible to see them in Scotland. Sighting the lights can never be guaranteed but the best chance is on a clear night in one of the remoter parts of Scotland. If you find yourself enjoying a hearty Scottish dinner on a cold, crisp clear night in the Northern Highlands, make sure to take a look outside. You never know! 

Wildlife Spotting
You might assume Spring is the best time to see our wildlife, but during the winter many of our trees have lost their foliage, meaning wildlife such as red squirrels and otters are easier to spot. The deer are grazing on the lower slopes and can often be seen from the roadside. The mountain hares and ptarmigan are of course in their winter colours so may be hiding in plain sight but if you are lucky, you might see a Golden Eagle, one of our most elusive birds and king of the Scottish skies.

A Highland Cow enjoying the snow - Pete Walls on Unsplash

Scottish Celebrations
Two of the most patriotic days of the year in Scotland take place during the winter - St Andrew’s Day on the 30th of November and Burns Night on the 25th of January. If you are looking forward to seeing men in kilts on your holiday in Scotland - these are the best nights for it.

St Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. He was officially given this title in the year 1320 when the Barons of Scotland wrote him into The Declaration of Arbroath. The Declaration was sent to The Pope requesting that Scotland be granted independence and was finally acknowledged by the Pope in 1328. However, St Andrew’s Day has been celebrated in Scotland for over 1000 years and the tradition holds strong today. Ceilidhs (pronounced KAY-lee) - Scottish dancing ‘parties’ - are held all over the country and we eat traditional Scottish foods such as haggis and Cullen skink (a thick fish broth). Mostly the ceilidhs are indoors, but one of the best St Andrew’s ceilidhs I ever attended took place outside in George Square in the centre of Glasgow. I told you earlier the Scottish winters are mild… an energetic ceilidh jig and you’ll feel positively roasting outside or in! It is a very active form of dancing. Do not worry if you don’t know the dances, we Scots love our visitors to join in and are happy to teach you the steps. 

Burns Night is marked with similar enthusiasm, however there is less dancing and a lot more ceremony (enough for a blog on its own!) surrounding the celebration of Robert Burns - our National Bard (poet). As well as Scottish food, whisky and ceilidh dancing, we recite Burns’ poems and sing his songs throughout the night. We even recite a poem to the haggis! Read our blog, 10 foods to try on your Scottish Vacation to find out more about this.

And a Viking celebration - UP HELLY AA!
Up Helly AA is an event only celebrated on the island of Shetland. Every year on the last Tuesday in January, hundreds of men known as ‘guisers’ dress up in a whole range of wonderful costumes and parade through the streets with flaming torches. The parade is led by the Jarl who is dressed as a viking - the ceremony comes from a time before Shetland was part of Scotland, while it was still under Nordic rule. At the end of the processions the Jarl climbs aboard a large replica Viking ship. Once he steps off the guisers throw their torches onto the ship and burn it to the ground. A spectacular sight!

Glencoe in the Snow - Peter Syme on Unsplash

The low winter light and the beautifully snowy landscape makes a winter vacation a photographer’s dream. If you are a fan of sunrise photography… you will not even have to get up too early. More of a nighttime photographer? There are some fantastic stargazing locations in Scotland once you are away from the cities. Here is more information the best places in Scotland to see the stars.

Snow shoeing 
Scotland is not widely known for its skiing. We do have five ski resorts; they don’t rival Colorado or the Alps but it can be a good fun day out if the conditions are right. For those of you who are not so keen on extreme sports - snow shoeing at the Nevis Range Ski Centre is a great way to experience the snowy Scottish mountains. You can hire snow boots for a day and take a gondola ride to the ski centre halfway up the mountain. It is a lovely spot to sit and have a coffee while enjoying the breathtaking sights. If you are kitted out with snowshoes there is the option of taking some easy routes to visit other viewpoints.

Skiing Scottish Vacation
Nevis Skiing Range - Katie Mullen

Celtic Connections
If you want to experience authentic, traditional Scottish culture, then the Celtic Connections music festival is for you. Throughout January, Glasgow (a UNESCO City of Music) welcomes musicians from Scotland and all over the world to one of Europe’s largest winter music festivals. For many Scots it is the musical highlight of the year - and the concerts attract an international audience. It is one way to ensure those chilly winter nights are filled with music, good food and perhaps a warming dram of whisky. It is the perfect way to beat the January blues!

A Scottish Vacation in winter
Glistening snow; beautiful skies day and night; hearty food by warm fires and an abundance of music and celebration. Our winter season runs from late November to early March. I cannot recommend a winter vacation in Scotland enough, it is a truly magical time of year. 

We can't wait to welcome you to Scotland!

Snowy Mountains - Katie Mullen

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