A bewitching landscape of frozen lochs, ice-capped mountains, and snow-sprinkled castles awaits intrepid travellers
There is something soul-stirring about Scotland whatever the season, but when snow starts to fall and the skies begin to dance, it feels all the more wild and wonderful. The winter months also herald the hearty celebrations of Hogmanay and Burns Night, while history-filled sites and outdoorsy delights can be enjoyed without the summer crowds. Read on for our winter guide to Scotland and all its craggy charms, plus the perfectly placed boutique hotels to book along your way.
1. Sample Scotch whisky on a distillery tour and tasting
Scotland’s national drink and biggest export can be savoured all year round, but this warming spirit is best appreciated when the cold weather sets in. The ‘water of life’ has been produced in Scotland for generations, and some of the best distilleries can be found in Edinburgh – including Holyrood Distillery, the first single malt whisky distillery in the city centre in almost a century, where visitors can soak up views of Arthur’s Seat as they sip from special casks of the ‘strong stuff’ made from local malts and Edinburgh yeast.
Where to stay: Whisky lovers will feel most at home at The Roseate Edinburgh a pair of sumptuously styled townhouses with an impressively stocked whisky cabinet – where you can tap into a wide-ranging selection of over 80 fine Scottish single malts, ranging from superstars of the whisky world to unusual and hard-to-find bottlings. The hotel’s bar is the only one in Edinburgh to serve Highland Park 40 year old, and you can even join one of the hotel’s resident whisky experts for a cosy tasting and cheese paring session.
2. Go off-piste in Scotland’s epic ski territories
An often overlooked haven for snow sports enthusiasts, Scotland is home to some serious ski country. In the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, Cairngorm Mountain boasts over 30km of pisted runs to suit every ability, 10 surface lifts, freestyle terrain and on-site equipment rental, plus a roaming herd of friendly reindeer. More advanced skiers can hit the highest slopes in Scotland by heading up the Nevis Range – Aonach Mor along with the off-piste backcountry at Nevis Range are considered to be the pinnacle of Scottish skiing, with adventure-filled areas including the Coire Dubh, Coire an Lochan, Summit Coire and the West Face.
Where to stay: Set in the charming East Lothian countryside, Greywalls Hotel and Chez Roux is a classically designed Edwardian country house wrapped within walled gardens. When you’re not getting to grips with the Scottish golfing scene on the world famous Muirfield golf course, you can whizz down Britain’s biggest artificial slope in the Pentland Hills Regional Park at Midlothian Snowsports Centre – just a 40-minute drive from the hotel.
3. Chase the Northern Lights in designated ‘dark sky’ areas
Affectionately known in Scottish Gaelic folklore as ‘the nimble men’ or ‘merrie dancers’, the Northern Lights do occasionally illuminate Scotland’s skies between September and March – and although it does not fall within the Arctic Circle, Scotland is still situated at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska. There are plenty of dark sky discovery sites across the country for some otherworldly stargazing, from the mystical North Ronaldsay – the most northerly isle of the Orkney island archipelago – to Abriachan Forest which skirts the western shores of Loch Ness, and the wildlife-filled Isle of Mull.
Image courtesy of @isleoferiska
Where to stay: An exclusive island retreat on Scotland’s rural west coast, Isle of Eriska Hotel and Spa comes with enchanting views over Loch Creran, and the beautiful island of Lismore. Join one of the hotel’s guides on the short ferry ride across to the Isle of Mull for a chance to spot the Northern Lights, before warming up in a hot tub in one of the Hilltop Reserve rooms and stargazing the night away.
4. Spot winter wildlife while exploring spellbinding scenery
Somewhat surprisingly, winter is one of the best seasons in Scotland to go wildlife watching, when the leaves fall from the hedges and trees, and tracks sink into snow-covered paths. From pink-footed geese and playful red squirrels, to flocks of starlings and herds of roaring red deer, you never know what you might see – or hear – along the rugged coastline, and in the depths of the wild countryside. A sprawling landscape of wild glens, sleepy forests, and sparkling lochs which divides the Highlands from the Lowlands, The Trossachs are one of the most picturesque places to spot Ptarmigan – winter grouse which turn white in the winter – Arctic Hare, and red deer as they move down the Munros to lower grazing.
Where to stay: A clotted cream-coloured castle with 15th century Robert the Bruce roots, Crossbasket Castle is a landmark Scottish retreat just over an hour from The Trossachs. Settle into the wood-panelled library or a window seat with River Calder views after a day spent exploring the National Park – Crossbasket offers guided boat tours of Loch Lomond followed by a locally sourced lunch at Monachyle Mhor, including seasonal produce from the Mhor farm.
5. Shop for artisan gifts in Edinburgh’s festive markets
Recently listed as Europe’s best Christmas market by National Geographic, the annual festive stalls will return to Edinburgh’s Princes Street, Princes Street Gardens, and The Mound, until early January – selling gourmet hot chocolate (a warming shot of whisky is recommended), gingerbread, and an array of handcrafted gifts. On a crisp winter morning, take a stroll through the Dean Gardens and you’ll find yourself in Stockbridge, a local hotspot for organic delis and stylish gastropubs with a friendly, village vibe. If you’re visiting over a weekend, be sure to head over to the Sunday farmers’ market to pick up some Perthshire preserves and a bag of Scotch & Co’s Scotch eggs.
Where to stay: Perfectly placed in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, Nira Caledonia settles guests into two elegant Georgian townhouses which have been beautifully decorated in sophisticated shades and eclectic furnishings. Come for the cosy feel and light-filled rooms, stay for the superb selection of single malt whisky.
6. See in the New Year in style with traditional Caledonian celebrations
Highland pipers serenade the start of the New Year at midnight across the country during Scotland’s legendary Hogmanay celebrations, which are often accompanied by tartan-clad torch-lit processions, dazzling firework displays, and toasting the midnight bells with (yet more) whisky. Later in the month, Burns Night banquets are held on the 25th January each year to celebrate Scotland’s ‘National Bard’, Robert Burns, with haggis-fuelled evenings of feasting and ceilidh dancing.
Where to stay: Named after great Scots from the past and present, the rooms at Cromlix have verdant views over the 34 acres of woodland and gardens surrounding this grey-stone Victorian mansion. Save room for your full Scottish breakfast, Cromlix afternoon tea, and warm mince pies washed down with mulled wine by the renowned Chef Albert Roux OBE.