Travel Tips for Touring Scotland in Winter
Touring Scotland in Winter requires extra planning and there are several things you need to factor into your itinerary so we’ve compiled this list of travel tips to try to help.
- The Weather - Despite what you may think, snow is by no means guaranteed although there will almost certainly be some on the higher hills in the central and eastern parts of the Highlands come January time. Scotland is not the place to come if you are dreaming of a “White Christmas” and the west coast areas can often go an entire winter with no snow, or just a dusting of the white stuff. Having said that, our weather patterns are unpredictable and everything can change at very short notice. What you can be more sure of is that you will experience a damp cold. We don’t tend to get many days of serious sub-zero temperatures, but the dampness in the air can make 3 – 5 degrees centigrade feel quite bone chilling.
- Hours of Daylight – Something that many overseas visitors forget to allow for in their winter holiday plans is the fact that it will be getting dark around 4pm for most of December and January. So if you are worried about driving on the left, you need to calculate your journey times so that you are reaching your destinations by around 3:30pm, otherwise you’ll be searching for your accommodation in the fading evening light.
Driving – As mentioned above, the hours of daylight are limited in winter and on cloudy days it can get pretty dark and miserable. Generally speaking, you aren’t likely to have too many issues with roads being blocked unless there are exceptionally heavy snow, or rain falls. The mains roads that are most likely to be affected by snow drifts are the A939 from Ballater to Tomintoul, the A9 around the Drumochter Summit area between Pitlochry and Aviemore, and the section of the A82 that crosses Rannoch Moor between Tyndrum and Glencoe. There are 2 Highland roads that frequently suffer landslides and those are the A83 from Arrochar to Inveraray, and the A890 between Stromeferry and Strathcarron. These are the notorious black spots which can cause big travel delays as they are arterial roads.
By the way, if you are driving through a Highland Glen at night and the car in front is erratically indicating left and right, the chances are that it is a local who is kindly alerting you to the fact that deer are just off to the side of the road. In places like Glen Shiel, the deer will descend down to road level during winter and their road sense is poor. It isn't very likely to happen to you, but you really don't want to hit a red deer at speed as they can leave a big dent in your bonnet.
- Attractions – Outside of the cities, most tourist attractions will be closed or on reduced opening times from the end of October through to Easter. If you are interested in visiting castles, you will find that most of the castle properties run by the National Trust for Scotland are closed over the winter period except for special festive season events. The castles cared for by Historic Scotland (these include Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart) are open all year round, but with shorter opening times in winter. Distilleries are often open throughout the winter, but don’t expect anything to be open on the 25th / 26th December and 1st / 2nd January. There are some exceptions to this rule and Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart Castle are some of the few places that do open on the 1st & 2nd January (the opening time for these places on the 1st January is 11am).
- Accommodation / Restaurants – If you are looking at staying in B&B accommodation, you have to remember that these places are small businesses often run by husband & wife teams who will want to have a Christmas holiday just as much as you, and December is one of the few times when they will be quiet enough to take the time off. So, as a general rule, if you are travelling over the festive period, you will really need to look at staying in hotels as most B&Bs will be closed. Similarily, restaurants and cafes in remote places are likely to be closed too. There will always be somewhere open (except perhaps on January 1st and 2nd), but your choice of places to dine in the more remote parts of the Highlands will be more limited in Winter.
- Hogmanay – Scotland is famous for its New Year celebrations and there will be street parties going on in all the cities and many of the larger towns. Oban for example now has an organised street party. What you might not expect, is that pubs won’t always stay open until “the bells” as there is a tradition in Scotland of letting pub staff home early enough to celebrate the arrival of the New Year with their families. SO if you plan to celebrate the arrival of the New Year with the locals in a Scottish pub, you would be wise to first check that the pub will be open until midnight.