Scotland in January: How To Make A Winter Visit Worth It
A Guide to Scotland Weather, Sights, and Celebrations in January
I always think of Scotland in January. Maybe it’s everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne” for New Year. Or the fact that there’s been a turkey liver chilling in my freezer since Thanksgiving for a batch of Burns Night haggis on January 25. (More on that later!) Mostly, I think these dark winter days remind me of a trip I took to Edinburgh and Inverness in early January 2008.
It’s true, January isn’t exactly high season in Scotland. However, as a recent college grad in between temp jobs in London, I’d grown accustomed to traveling over “winter break.” I thought nothing of hopping on a Megabus at London Victoria Station early one evening and arriving blurry-eyed in Edinburgh the next morning. In the dusky morning light, the famous clock tower of the Balmoral Hotel glowed above us and I regretted nothing about my decision to visit Scotland in deep winter . . . except maybe those 12 hours I’d just spent folded in half on the bus.
If you’re wondering if a visit to Scotland in January is worth it, I say, “yes, absolutely!” To me, the best time to visit Scotland is whenever you have time to make the trip. A drab landscape and nip in the air can’t damped the inherent coziness of a Scottish winter. Read on for my best tips for visiting Scotland in January!
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Visiting Scotland in January Know Before You Go
January days in Scotland are very short
Don’t get too crazy with your January Scotland itinerary . . . you literally might not have enough daylight to see it all. In Inverness, there’s fewer than eight hours of daylight for all but the last five days of January. Because of its relatively temperate climate, we often forget that the entire island of Great Britain sits at a higher latitude than the most northern point of the continental United States.
If you’re visiting Scotland in January, plan a relaxed itinerary. Linger over breakfast at your B&B. When the sun starts setting at 3:30 (seriously!), head to a pub with a roaring fire.
Northern lights in Scotland?
You’re not quite in the Arctic in Scotland, but the northerly Shetland Islands only lie 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Although we associate northern lights with locations like Alaska or Lapland, Aurora Borealis displays aren’t uncommon in Scotland. Take advantage of those long January nights in Scotland to stargaze.
If you’re visiting Scotland around Hogmanay, book early
There’s a reason we all sing a Scottish tune, “Auld Lang Syne,” at New Year. Known as Hogmanay, Scots celebrate New Year with fireworks, bonfires, food, drink, music, and a general air of joviality. Back in the “before times,” some 75,000 people gathered in Edinburgh’s streets for a massive Hogmanay street party on New Year’s Eve.
While “Hogmanay” refers to December 31, celebrations often span several days. The Edinburgh Hogmanay festival runs for four days starting on December 29. When I started looking for lodging in Edinburgh starting on New Year’s Eve, I found it difficult to locate anything within walking distance of Edinburgh’s city centre. (A limited budget didn’t help either.) We ended up staying at a guesthouse well south of the Meadows – walkable to the Hogmanay festivities in New Town, but just barely.
For the best lodging choices, book well in advance or simply plan to visit Scotland a little later in January.
Be prepared for real winter
As a Minnesotan, I often discredit other region’s winters. But winter in Scotland is no joke.
No, Scotland’s not getting buried under piles of snow regularly, but temps hover right above freezing for the entire month of January. You’ll want to make sure you’re mentally prepared and dressed appropriately. We’ll cover what to wear below.
Winter can mean reduced hours at various Scottish attractions
According to the BBC, Scotland’s tourism season officially begins on Easter. While January is definitely low season in Scotland, I easily saw all the sights I wanted to. However, as you plan your Scottish itinerary, double check opening hours.
Some Scottish attractions reduce their hours in the winter, especially around the New Year holiday. In addition, many Scottish attractions reserve the right to close unexpectedly due to inclement weather. So do a quick Google before you visit to save heartache and hassle.
Depend on public transportation if you’re an anxious driver
I’m an anxious driver in the best circumstances. Throw in winding one-lane roads, a stick shift rental car, and driving on the “wrong” side of the road and I’m about at my max emotionally. The last thing I need as I’m white knuckling my way down Scottish roads is a chance of snow and ice. While a rental car can open all sorts of fun Scotland destinations to you, I happily limited myself to areas of Scotland accessible by public transportation. Between buses and trains, you can see more than enough Scotland to fill a first-time visit.
Weather in Scotland in January
Sure, compared with northern Minnesota or Canada, winter in Scotland is pretty tame. You can expect an average temperature of about 38 degrees Fahrenheit pretty much anywhere in this small country. (How small? All of Scotland would fit inside South Carolina.) January temps generally top out in the low 40s, while low temperatures hover right above freezing.
Expect slightly warmer temps in more southern destinations like Edinburgh and colder temperatures as you travel north. However, Scotland’s overall proximity to the ocean keeps the country fairly temperate . . . and humid. Even if Scotland’s winter temperatures don’t strike you as extreme, that damp cold can feel pretty bone chilling.
Yes, it does snow in Scotland. However, if it’s precipitating in Scotland in January, it’s probably raining. Rain falls an average of 12 days each January in Scotland, accumulating to about 4 inches. Meanwhile, the sun only shows its face in Scotland about 1.5 hours each January day.
Snow blankets the mountain tops of Scottish Highlands all winter long. The farther north and west you travel in Scotland, the more likely you’ll encounter snow. However, it only snows 15-20 days a year in Scotland and with average temps above freezing, it usually melts quickly.
What to wear in Scotland in January
You don’t need a full-blown parka and snow pants when visiting Scotland in January. Rather, dress like you would for a winter day in northeastern U.S. cities like New York or Boston. A heavy winter jacket will do. Don’t forget a stocking cap, scarf, and mittens or gloves.
Leave the snow boots at home, but make sure you have waterproof footwear with good traction. January’s no time for sneakers in Scotland. These ankle high waterproof boots from Teva would work perfectly.
With 12 days of rain each January, you definitely need a rain jacket. If you’re hiking or spending a significant amount of time outside during your Scotland trip, bring full rain gear. The difference between having rain pants on a rainy Scottish day can be the difference between spending a whole day on the trail versus sequestering in your B&B.
If you have good outerwear, you don’t need to worry much about your base layers, although January in Scotland is definitely sweater weather. Personally, I can’t imagine visiting Scotland in January without a good supply of wool and/or cashmere sweaters. If you don’t have any sweaters, a beautiful Fair Isle sweater makes a great Scotland souvenir!
Lastly, throw in a packable down vest. Jeans or your preferred heavier pants work fine. Lightweight wool socks will keep your toes cozy and dry.
What To See in Scotland in January
As long as you’re bundled up appropriately, pretty much any mainstream Scottish destination is available to you in the winter. Feel free to prove me wrong, but January doesn’t feel like primetime for exploring the Orkney Islands or Outer Hebrides though . . . . During my time in Scotland, we mainly explored Edinburgh and Inverness.
Here are some of my favorite Scotland destinations on our January itinerary:
Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park
An extinct volcano right in the middle of Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat provides an easy hike and panoramic views.
On the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Arthur’s Seat, you’ll find Edinburgh Castle atop another volcanic rock. The essential Edinburgh must-see, the Castle includes a beautiful great hall, national war museum, and the Stone of Scone.
The Real Mary King’s Close
For someone who says they’re not super into ghost stories, I certainly recommend plenty of “haunted” locales. This underground alley showcases 17th century living conditions in Edinburgh with a special focus on the bubonic plague.
Known for its connection with William Wallace of Braveheart fame, Stirling Castle sits high on its own castle rock overlooking the Battle of Bannockburn battlefield. Bonus for January travelers: this striking castle looks especially dramatic after a snowfall.
The Great Glen Way
I really wished we’d spent more time on the Great Glen Way during our time in Scotland. This long-distance hiking trail runs for nearly 80 miles from Fort William to Inverness along the Great Glen – a valley that basically cuts Scotland in half on a diagonal with four long, narrow glacially formed lochs, including Loch Ness.
Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
I knew I couldn’t go to Scotland and not try to catch a glimpse of “Nessie,” the Loch Ness monster. While I don’t recommend getting in a boat on Loch Ness in January (brrrrr!), we enjoyed a visit the ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness’s north shore.
National Gallery of Scotland
Located in between Old and New Towns in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Scotland doesn’t just showcase Scottish artists. On the gallery’s bright red walls, you’ll find masterpieces from Titian, Gainsborough, Van Gogh, and many others. It’s the perfect destination for a rainy January day in Scotland.
Things to Do in Scotland in January
The variable and often inclement January weather in Scotland means you’ll want some itinerary items that aren’t weather dependent. Consider these things in to do in Scotland during a winter trip:
Definitely the most maligned dish in Scottish cuisine, haggis gets a bad rap. Apparently, people get grossed out that it’s made from offal and cooked inside an animal stomach? I honestly find this dish made of ground meat, onions, oatmeal, and warm spices pretty tasty. Just think of it as meatloaf! You’ll find it on many restaurant menus and can even buy tinned haggis in Scottish grocery stores. You know, just in case you want to take some home . . . .
Shop along the Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile twists through the city’s Old Town from Holyrood Park to the Castle. Along this medieval thoroughfare, you’ll find all manner of shops, cafes, and restaurants. It’s the perfect spot duck out of the rain and pick up some Scottish souvenirs.
Try a deep-fried Mars bar
Back in the 1990s, a Scottish chip shop owner dipped a Mars bar (basically a Milky Way) in batter and fried it. Now you can nip into just about any chip shop in Scotland and order a deep-fried Mars bar. No, it’s not health food, but it might be just the thing you need to take the edge off of a chilly Scottish winter day.
Hit up a coffee shop and start writing an international bestseller
J.K. Rowling famously penned Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in several Edinburgh coffee shops while her daughter napped. But Rowling doesn’t have a monopoly on writing bestsellers in Scottish cafes. Bring your own work-in-progress along and turn a few phrases while sipping a latte in a Scottish café of your choice.
Tour a distillery
It’s hard to think of a product more synonymous with Scotland than whisky. A tour of one of Scotland’s more than 130 distilleries is a perfect “not weather dependent” activity for your January visit. Keep in mind some distilleries, like Lagavulin, ask visitors to book tours in advance, so plan ahead.
Warm up in a pub with a wee dram of whisky
Whether or not you tour a distillery, definitely visit a pub to sample some whisky. Maybe have a pint too while you’re at it? And just so we’re all clear here: if you’re drinking whisky (please, no “e” for whisky made in Scotland, Canada, or Japan) that’s made in Scotland, you’re also drinking Scotch.
How to have a Burns Night Celebration at home
No trip to Scotland for you this January? You can still journey there virtually with an at-home Burns Night celebration!
I don’t know about you, but deep winter can be a tough, dark time. The sparkle of Christmas has long ago dimmed and the days start rolling by on sluggish repeat. Burns Night, a celebration of the 18th century Scottish poet’s birthday on January 25, provides the perfect excuse for a low-key, at-home celebration to break up the winter doldrums.
Traditionally, Burns Nights is celebrated with Burns Supper: a rather humble meal of haggis served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). The celebration usually also includes toasts, readings of Burns’ poetry (especially “Address to the Haggis“), and Scottish music.
The Perfect At-Home Burns Supper Menu
- Oat cakes or shortbread
How I Prepare My Burns Supper
Haggis: I love this unauthentic haggis recipe which provides all the flavor of haggis without faffing about with sheep stomach. Please don’t skip the liver – it’s what gives the dish its unique umami flavor. (Pro tip: I like to freeze the liver from my Thanksgiving turkey to use for Burns Supper)
Mashed turnips or rutabagas (neeps): just peel, chop, and boil your turnips or rutabagas like you would for mashed potatoes. Drain, mash, and season with butter, salt, and pepper.
Mashed potatoes: Ditto with potatoes. I like to use Yukon Gold potatos and don’t bother peeling them. Just chop, boil in lightly salted water until fork tender, and then mash with a little milk and butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Dessert: I usually don’t make dessert for Burns Night, but oat cakes are a great option. Or just pick up a box of Walkers Shortbread.
Drinks: Of course, every Burns Supper calls for a good Scotch! We like Ardbeg, Caol Ila, and Lagavulin. Sláinte!
Have you ever been to Scotland before? What do you think is the best time to visit Scotland?
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