From rugged mountains and bustling cities to dramatic medieval ruins and bucolic whiskey distilleries, Scotland packs in an amazing amount of sights for a country about the size of South Carolina. You could spend months just exploring the Highlands’s craggy peaks and glittering lochs, boating and spotting whales in the Hebrides or losing yourself in the Edinburgh and Glasgow cultural scenes. No matter how much time you have in this magical nation—whether that’s a week, a month or more—here’s everything hikers and haggis lovers alike need to know about timing a Scottish visit!
WEATHER IN SCOTLAND
(All temperatures quoted are in Fahrenheit.)
Spring in Scotland is cool and crisp, with temperatures staying around 40 in March and rising to the upper 50s by May. These are some of the driest months of the year, so it’s an ideal time for hiking and checking out the blooming wildflowers without being bothered by insects or tourists.
In June, July and August, Scotland warms up but doesn’t overheat. (Temperatures rarely stray above 75 degrees.) Yes, the northern latitude means plenty of daylight, but sunshine isn’t always a given.
Temperatures begin to cool in September, dropping into the 40s and 50s. It also gets gray and rainy, and the first snow of the season can fall as early as November. There are some pleasant, sunny days as well, though, and brilliant fall foliage peaks around mid-October.
Scottish winters are cold, wet, dark and generally gloomy, so do as the locals do. Stay warm with pub fireplaces, wool coats and lots of whiskey! Temperatures hover between the 30s and 40s, never dropping too far below freezing. The Highlands get a fair amount of snowfall, which draws skiers and snowboarders up into the mountains but makes many smaller villages inaccessible.
Remember, Scotland is one of the windiest countries in Europe. When you’re out and about, be prepared for strong breezes and weather that can turn on a dime. Always dress in layers, and be sure to throw in a good rain jacket, even if there doesn’t seem to be a cloud in the sky.
Backroads Pro Tip
Scotland’s mild winter temperatures belie just how far north it is. As such, be prepared for few hours of daylight during winter, when sunrise is close to 9:00 a.m., and sunset is just after 3:00 p.m. Summer, on the other hand, means long days, with nearly 18 hours of light around the June solstice. If you’re staying in the northern Highlands, where the sun barely even sets in midsummer, definitely bring a sleeping mask!
The waters around Scotland’s northwestern coast are a prime stopover for minke and orca whales during their annual migration. You’ll have the best chances of seeing them in summer around the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. Simply join one of the many whale-watching excursions that depart from the island daily between May and September.
Spotting this impressive display isn’t as much of a sure thing as it is in Iceland or Norway, but you can see the aurora borealis in Scotland under the right conditions. You’ll have the best visibility on clear winter nights in the northern reaches of the country; however, they’ve been spotted as far south as Edinburgh on rare occasions.
Burns Night (January 25)
Kilts, haggis, bagpipes and unintelligible dialects. It doesn’t get much more Scottish than this annual celebration of poet Robert Burns, who was born on this day in 1759. Across the country, hotels, restaurants, pubs and private parties hold traditional suppers that all culminate in someone reciting “Address to a Haggis” while slicing open the beloved organ meat dish. Whiskey toasts, musical performances and, perhaps, a spot of dancing all follow dinner.
Highland Games (Summer)
Throughout the summer, villages all over the Scottish countryside host these traditional gatherings that feature dancing, sports, bagpipes and plenty of food. You might not get to participate in the hammer throwing, pole tossing or Highlands dancing competitions, but it’s still fun to watch. Some fests even book internationally famous strongmen to strut their stuff. Check online to see this summer’s schedule.
Edinburgh Festival (August)
Each August, hordes of comedians, actors, directors, musicians and street performers converge on Edinburgh for the world’s largest arts festival. It’s overwhelming and often annoying—you can’t walk anywhere without having event flyers thrust into your hands—but it’s also a whole lot of fun. Buy tickets for the big names online, but don’t be afraid to spend a day or two dropping into random shows. Most are free or cheap, and you never know what new favorite performer you might discover. Hotel and Airbnb prices skyrocket during the fest, so book as far in advance as possible.
St. Andrew’s Day (November 30)
Scotland honors its patron saint with feasts, parties and ceilidhs (folk dances, pronounced “kaylee”) everywhere. The actual celebrations vary from town to town, but some of the most noteworthy include Glasgow’s torchlit procession, the fireworks display in St. Andrew’s namesake town in Fife and the medieval-themed Saltire Festival in East Lothian.
Hogmanay (December 31)
What better place to be for New Year’s than the country that birthed “Auld Lang Syne”? Edinburgh has the best-known celebration—a massive block party with famous bands and fireworks over the castle—but you can also head to smaller towns, such as Burghead or Stonehaven, for more esoteric regional traditions, most of which involve fire.
Summer is definitely tourist season, but Scotland never gets quite as crowded as mainland Europe. (With its swarms of festival participants and attendees, Edinburgh during August is one notable exception.) Destinations like Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye can be busy in warmer months, but the rest of the Highlands and islands offer plenty of room. For decent weather and fewer fellow visitors, May to mid-June is your sweet spot, with September and October a close second.
Backroads Pro Tip
Summer doesn’t just bring crowds of people; it brings crowds of flies too. From early June through mid-September, much of Scotland is plagued by midges, which are pesky little bugs that bite and swarm in huge numbers. If you’re in the Highlands during midge season, wear lots of repellent, keep your windows closed, and try to stay indoors around dawn and dusk.
Scotland’s cycling paths wind through purple heather fields and deserted moors and past iconic abbeys and beautiful beaches. The best time to bike here is between late March and early October, when the weather’s drier and more daylight hours are available.
Hiking and Walking
Late spring, with its dry weather and lack of midges, is ideal for traversing the Scottish Highlands, but summer and early fall also offer good hiking conditions. Hiking excursions around Inverness and the Isle of Skye are a great introduction to this romantic and varied landscape.
Scotland’s northwestern coast is perfect for sailing and sea kayaking, either on your own or with a guided tour. June through August is the best time to take advantage of these turquoise lagoons and white-sand beaches, and there’s the added bonus of this being prime wildlife-spotting season.
Want to play a few holes on Scotland’s world-famous greens? Conditions are best in June, when the extra hours of daylight allow for early morning or evening tee times, but courses fill up fast in summer. Book in advance, or take your chances in the March or October shoulder seasons.
Travel to Scotland with Backroads
Backroads offers numerous ways to experience the very best of Scotland on our award-winning active travel adventures. Explore this country in the best and most genuine way possible—away from the crowds, buses and tourist hot spots. We hope you'll join us! Check out our full list of Scotland adventures here.
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