The Best Time to Visit Scotland

A scenic autumn view of a coastal landscape in the Scottish Highlands, looking towards Loch Melfort, Highlands, Argyll and Bute

 Peter Watson / Getty Images

The best times to visit Scotland are August to through mid January, the seasons of the top urban festivals, the blooming heather, the winter parties and the rugged great outdoors. July and August are the warmest months but they are also the months most plagued by tiny biting insects. So what is best for you has a lot to do with whether you're a city mouse or a country mouse and if you love indoor or outdoor pursuits.

Scottish Weather

Scottish weather is unpredictable, varying from warm and damp through crisp and sunny to blustery and very cold — sometimes all on the same day. When it comes to daylight hours, it's a land of extremes. Winter days can have as little as seven hours of daylight in mid-December, while in midsummer Scotland experiences the longest days in Britain. In Glasgow, Scotland also has the second rainiest city in the UK.

But you can read a book in daylight after 10 p.m. on the shores of Loch Lomond in June, enjoy color soaked sunsets as the long rays of the Northern sun sink below the clouds in autumn and get sunburned skiing in the Cairngorms in January.

Autumn is Best for the Highlands

Scotland's Western Highlands are covered in heather that blooms in shades of purple, lavender and pink at least twice a year and sometimes three times. The best colors appear in October. In the autumn chill, most of the heather turns mottled shades of rich orange, rust and amber punctuated with patches of green. You are much more likely to enjoy crisp, sunny weather at this time of year. The angle of the sun in Scotland's northern latitudes gives light a special golden quality making for truly beautiful views. Visit The Trossachs and Loch Lomond National Park, within easy reach of Glasgow, for the autumn heather. And anywhere in the counties of Argyll & Bute or the Scottish Borders is worth touring for autumn color. It's also a great time of year for a cruise on a Scottish loch, particularly Loch Lomond or Loch Katrine. Or a climb up Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh's extinct volcano.

Peak Season in Scotland

The summer months, when there is the best chance of good weather, are the busiest. The museums and attractions are full, the campsites are packed and the prettiest routes are clogged with traffic. September and October run a close second with older visitors, not limited to traveling during school vacations, take to the hills and glens. Because Scotland is not a country you'd really visit for the weather, most activities and attractions — except for the most dangerous hikes up Ben Nevis (Britain's tallest mountain) and in the Cairngorms National Park — are available all year round. If you are willing to bundle up, the mid-winter months and early spring can be worth trying as well. Here's what you can expect around the year.

Popular Festivals and Events

  • August is Festival Time in Edinburgh: Nearly the whole month is given over to the Edinburgh Fringe, an unjuried multi-arts celebration of plays, cabaret, comedy, music and children's shows that fills the whole city. It runs alongside the Edinburgh International Festival, a curated selection of world theater, dance, music and opera. A book festival, a film festival, a military festival (the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo) and a food festival also cram into the busy August calendar. That means that Edinburgh is very crowded throughout the month. Go in July to explore the outstanding Scottish museums, eat terrific Scottish seafood (the North Sea stays cold enough to produce it even in the summer months) and cruise the lochs in relative peace. If you are keen to attend the Fringe, stay in Glasgow instead of Edinburgh. It's just a 40 minute train ride away. You can easily dip in and out of the Edinburgh excitement and then relax over good steaks and cocktails or Vietnamese street food in Scotland's second city.
  • Sample the Highland Games: If you fancy watching mammoth-sized men throwing telephone poles (they call it tossing the caber) and other big, heavy objects, or watching kilted young girls in diamond patterned knee socks dance nimbly around swords, you'll love the traditional Highland Games, held around the country from late August through October. The Queen and royal family attend the Braemar Gathering while staying at Balmoral.
  • New Year's Means Hogmanay: The Scots celebrate New Year's with a big three or four day blow-out known as Hogmanay. In Edinburgh it includes a torchlight parade, a variety of concerts, spectacular fireworks around Edinburgh Castle and a dip in the Firth of Forth on New Year's Day known as the Loony Dook. All round the country, local Hogmany celebrations are colorful, noisy and well oiled with plenty of good Scotch. If you're lucky you could join a group of locals for First Footing.
  • The Fire Festivals: From the longest night, in mid December throughout the month of January, the Scots, much like all Northern Europeans, encourage the return of the sun with fantastic fire festivals. Though most are modern revivals, they often have roots in more ancient traditions. There's Up Helly Aa, a Viking festival in the Shetlands that ends with the burning of a Viking longboat; the Stonehaven Fireballs that sees a parade of kilted participants swirling huge, homemade balls of burning stuff around and over their heads on chains and several more equally dramatic events.

January

This is one of the three wettest months of the year and also one of the coldest. Days are short — with about 7.5 hours of daylight through the month and, since January is also one of the rainiest, the stormy darkness can make the days seem even shorter. There's also a good chance of snow in the mountains,where Scotland's ski resorts come into their own.

Events to check out:

  • It's the season of fire festivals as, all over Scotland and the the Scottish islands, traditional fire festivals light up and warm up the long winter nights.
  • Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, is a multi-day affair that bleeds from the end of December into January. The holiday is celebrated around Scotland but the major event to look for is Edinburgh Hogmanay — a three to four day blow-out that is worth checking out and booking in advance.
  • Celtic Connections: The world's biggest winter music festival, in Glasgow.

February

Cold, dark and wet. The temperature rarely rises above about 40 degrees fahrenheit and February is one of the three wettest months of the year. Its a month to enjoy the pleasures of Scotland's cities, to skate on public ice rinks that usually go up in the center of in Edinburgh, Glasgow and other cities.

Events to check out:

March

In March the temperature starts to rise with average temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees fahrenheit. You can still expect snow in the Cairngorms and about 80 centimeters of rain in Glasgow during the month but snowdrops are blooming and by the end of the month the crocuses and daffs will be peaking through in parks and villages. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow are especially gusty this month.

Events to check out:

April

Days are noticeably longer and warmer, trees are starting to bloom and the deciduous trees are beginning to leaf out. You can still expect gusty winds and what the British call sharp showers — short, heavy shocks of rain. But spring is definitely in the air.

Events to check out:

  • Bring your binoculars, this is the month that ospreys return from Africa to their loch side nests around the country. See them at the Loch of the Lowes visitor center near Dunkeld.
  • Beltane: Join the May Queen and the Green Man, both fertility figures, to welcome summer with this ancient Celtic festival. In Edinburgh it can be rather uninhibited and probably not a family event.

May

The temperature hovers in the 50s in May and there is usually less rain. It's a time of year when people begin to get outdoors for kayaking, canoeing and hiking. The countryside will be pretty muddy so bring waterproof walking shoes. And expect to come across swarms of midges — tiny biting insects that appear in clouds so dense they sometimes look like mist. The females emerge in May — they don't bite but they are everywhere and easy to inhale. Pray for windy days — midges are so tiny that strong winds blow them away.

Events to check out:

  • Golfers take note, it is the opening of the season at St. Andrews, the home of golf.
  • It's Whisky Month and the Spirit of Speyside festival is a treat for connoisseurs
  • Pipers gather in Paisley for the British Pipe Band Festival

June

Campers may want to avoid the warmer, pleasant month of June because that's when the male midges hatch. They like warm humid weather and unlike their female counterparts, they bite and can cause rashes and allergic reactions. Slather on insect repellent that's specific for the nasty little beasties (as the Scots are wont to call them) and, if you camp, use mosquito netting. But the flip side is that daylight lasts forever. In Lerwick, Shetland's capital, there are four more hours of daylight than in London and in the far north it never really gets dark.

Events to check out:

July

One of the warmest months, a good chance of sunshine and the highest temperatures. But don't get so excited you leave your jacket and waterproofs home. The average high is only 63 degrees fahrenheit and there's still a moderately good chance of rain. The days are still very long. You can even play a round of golf in the middle of the night in parts of Scotland.

Events to check out:

August

Another month of warm weather and long days. If the early summer has been hot and humid, expect another hatching to biting midges in August. The West Coast of Scotland is the worst for them this month. Luckily, the most exciting things happening in Scotland in August are in the east of the country where they are less of a problem.

Events to check out:

  • Edinburgh Fringe: The world's biggest open access performing arts festival fills almost the entire month. Comedy, drama, music, cabaret, kids shows, musicals. Thousands of performances.
  • The Edinburgh International Festival: The grown-up, curated festival. The world's leading theater companies, orchestras, chamber music, opera and dance ensembles are invited.

September

A good month for exploring. Temperatures stay relatively mild - from about 46 degrees to 67 degrees fahrenheit. Explore the east coast and the islands of the east — Orkney and the Shetland Islands — where it's drier and less buggy.

Events to check out:

October

The best month of the year to visit the Western Highlands. The midges are gone, temperatures are crisp, days are bright. Heather blooms across the hills, gold, lavender, grey, orange and even green. Long sunsets, with the sun riding low in the sky, make for golden light from late afternoon until sunset.

Events to check out:

  • Enchanted Forest A month-long, choreographed sound and light show in Perthshire's big tree country

November

The weather is noticeably colder — hovering between 37 and 41 degrees F — and it's noticeably wetter. It's also darker. By mid-November there are only eight hours and 20 minutes of daylight between dawn and dusk. It's snowing in the Highland peaks and the Cairngorms and the ski season is underway.

Events to check out:

  • Glasgow's Whisky Festival: A celebration of the Scottish spirit lasts only a day but there will be tastings of whiskies from Glasgow and the rest of Scotland. 2019 is the festival's 10th anniversary.
  • NEoN Digital Arts Festival: Dundee (Northeast of North) hosts an annual celebration of digital creativity.

December

Cold weather, bitter damp and extremely short days. If the weather gods have been kind to winter sports fans there will be snow on the peaks in the Central Highlands, the Cairngorms and the winter resort town of Aviemore. Otherwise this is a month to stay indoors, nurse a single malt by a fire, to go to a Panto, or join a Christmas house party at Scottish country hotel.

Events to check out:

  • Edinburgh's Christmas: Christmas markets, a fun fair, ice skating, shows and free events crop up around Edinburgh.
  • The Santa Dashes: in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow, thousands of Santas race, in full Santa kit, for charity.
  • Hogmanay New Year's Celebrations kick off on 30 December and continue through January 1.
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