The main tourist season in Scotland is the summer (roughly May to September), but winter is becoming more and more popular with visitors.
Winter is a time of warmth and welcome in Scotland, but its also a time of fierce storms and unforgiving landscapes. Outdoors on a crisp, bright winter's day, the scenery and cities are simply stunning. On a stormy day, the contrasts couldn't be greater - but there is still great beauty.
When you get back at the end of the day, traditional Scottish hospitality with a roaring log fire and a dram of whisky or a craft gin will make you feel more at home than anywhere in the world.
We live in the Highlands of Scotland all year round, and winter is our favourite season. The beautiful landscapes, the dramatic weather, and getting away from the crowds are what Scotland is all about.
When is winter in Scotland?
Winter in Scotland runs from December until March, although some people include November and April as well. Because the climate is temperate, there isn't really a hard divide when winter starts and stops and it can vary from year to year.
Scottish winter is characterised by fewer visitors, changeable weather and shorter daylight hours.
Most of Scotland's big national holidays happen in winter: Hogmanay, St Andrew's Day and Burn's Night are the highlights.
Scotland's winter climate
Despite its reputation, much of Scotland actually has relatively mild winters. Daytime temperatures in winter are mostly between 0 and 10C - much warmer than other places at the same latitude like Hudson Bay in Canada, Stavanger in Norway or Nunivak Island in Alaska.
The weather is much more changeable at this time of year, and it's these dramatic changes make it a photographers dream. Scotland is usually on the receiving end of a series of Atlantic storms - which sound scary but normally blow through in a few hours. The storms bring rain and wind, but in between you get bright sunshine and clear air.
It only snows a couple of times a year in the cities and coastal towns (normally towards the end of winter), but the mountain-tops are usually snow-capped for a few months.
Locals joke that if you don't like the weather in Scotland in the winter, just wait a few hours!
Winter packing list
- A wind- and rain-proof coat (and if you're out and about a lot, think about some waterproof trousers as well)
- Sturdy winter shoes (or boots) with good grip
- Plenty of layers
- A cosy hat, scarf and gloves
- Don't forget your sun lotion - we're not joking: especially if there is snow, the sun can burn you in Scotland, even in the winter
If you're going walking or mountain-climbing in the winter, check out this excellent guide from WalkHighlands - and if you're at all unsure about your winter mountaineering skills, please ask us to arrange a guide to accompany you.
Where to go and what to see
Lots of attractions are open all year, including the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle and Dunnottar Castle.
Hogmanay is the Scottish new year celebration. Traditions vary a bit in different parts of Scotland, but it usually includes gift-giving and visiting friends and neighbours. First-footing is a big part of Hogmanay - the first visitor to a house in the new year brings gifts of salt, coal, shortbread, whisky and fruit cake to bring luck to the house. The first-foot sets the luck for the rest of the year.
Hogmanay is also an excuse for a huge party, often continuing on for a couple of days. Edinburgh's Hogmanay is the biggest of these with organised street parties and fireworks.
There are Christmas Markets in towns and cities across the country. Edinburgh has the biggest, but the others are definitely worth visiting. Winter festivals also take place across Scotland, including some incredible winter fire festivals.
Scotland has five ski resorts, but it's not the Alps and the snow is sometimes unreliable. The best snow is usually in February and when the conditions are good, it the skiing and snowboarding can be incredible.
In Edinburgh, you can take a walk up Arthur's seat. If you're lucky, there will be a dusting of snow on the crags and the frost on the rooftops can make the whole city sparkle. Most of the museums are free if you want to get indoors - or you can cosy up with a dram of whisky and enjoy true Scottish hospitality and one of the city's many excellent cafes, bars and pubs.
Visit the south west of Scotland
Winter is the perfect time to visit the south west of Scotland. And if you're travelling up from England, it's only an hour's drive beyond the Lake District.
The south west generally has milder weather than the rest of the country, and there are some road trip routes - like the South West Coastal 300 - that are particularly good this time of year.
Why not embrace the darkness and go stargazing in the Dark Sky park in winter - The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is a publicly accessible observatory which has some of the darkest skies in the UK and boasts two large telescopes to observe the night sky.
Winter is also the perfect time for a foodie tour. After a crisp winter's day exploring the outdoors, there is nothing better than coming back to a gourmet dinner, sitting by the fire and enjoying the best food and drink that Scotland has to offer.
We can organise self-drive tours with a hire car, or you can bring your own and explore in comfort.
Take a Highland road trip
A winter road-trip in the Highlands takes careful planning but is always rewarding. Depending on the snow conditions, some roads may be closed - but it's usually only the high passes and its very rare to be snowed in completely.
Check out our guide to driving in winter for more information on how to prepare and what to bear in mind.
Scotland winter travel tips
Book early for Hogmanay - especially in and around Edinburgh.
Be flexible - make sure you allow enough time to get to your destination in daylight and check road conditions.
Prepare for changeable weather - expect everything from sunshine to rain to snow. Dress appropriately and bring layers that you can put on and take off.
Enjoy Scotland at its most dramatic!