Winter in the Scottish Highlands, But Don’t be Hasty

The big coats are on. Its dark by 4pm. The kettle’s working overtime.

The mountains are snow-topped. Roads are empty. Sunsets are spectacular.

Whether you love or loathe winter, these are the days when all of the above shape routines and influence Scotland travel planning. The Scottish Highlands in winter seem oddly off-limits to many of us, with an all-too-hasty sense of dismissive trepidation taking over. Aside from the obvious need to tinker with practicalities and expectations, I’m not entirely sure why that is. Presumably we’re smart enough to realise that we’re very unlikely to get caught in a blizzard or taken out by an avalanche. And yet are we really prepared to let this magnificent location go unappreciated for almost half the calendar year? So let’s address the issue of winter travel and assess the options and realities of off-season trips up north.

winter scottish highlands glen etive
A typical Scottish Highland view in winter.

What’s Open?

This is the big question in any conversation that comes up on the subject of winter in the Scottish Highlands. Frustratingly, many attractions, hotels and restaurants close their doors in October as they take the season off. The obvious reasoning they’ll put forward here is that they won’t make as much money because fewer people travel here in winter. The equally obvious riposte to that is that of course they don’t, they think everything will be closed. Everyone involved stares around blankly and points the odd exasperated finger….and so the lost opportunities roll on for another year with no-one benefitting.

This does my head in somewhat. The point where the preaching and the practice are shown to be totally at odds with each other. All in the industry are by now aware of the issues brought on by over-tourism and the excessive strain put on some of our remote areas in summer. It has been widely agreed and accepted that the most obvious solutions are to gently encourage traffic away from the over-promoted spots and to encourage visitors to come outwith July and August. We’re all going on about the need to make tourism (a pillar of the Scottish economy) a year-round gig and yet most don’t want to operate in the quieter months when takings will be, for now at least, significantly smaller.

Now, obviously there are all sorts of reasons why businesses may very legitimately have to close in winter – practical, logistical, personal – but there must surely be recognition that limited industry-wide progress can be made unless some take the bold step of throwing their weight into the chilly seasons and changing perceptions of the Highlands as a grim and desolate graveyard in winter. As soon as we see some of the big players taking a stand, opening year-round (extreme weather excepted obviously), word will get about. It stands to reason that winter traveller numbers will then shoot up. Visitors will have a better time, perception will spread that July and August are actually maybe not the best time to be visiting Scotland (for those that are in a position to choose) and we’ll see the true maximising of our tourism potential.

 

 

Where to Eat and Stay in winter in the Scottish Highlands

Which brings me to the nitty gritty. If the problem is that most things are closed off-season and the solution is for some businesses to bravely take a short-term hit in the hope of a long-term gain, how can I, and my kind, assist?

As a marketer, over winter I will shine some light on those businesses that do keep their doors open in the quieter months. They deserve promotion. It’s easy after all to opportunistically rake it in (charging increasingly eye-watering sums for food, bed, entry fees et al, Scotland ain’t cheap) when demand is through the roof, much more challenging to do so when you’re battling against perceptions and norms and there’s little industry support going around. These are the places I will prioritise in the work I do because, ultimately, these are the folk that are doing more to keep this industry sustainable.

whispering pine lodge spean bridge
Whispering Pine Lodge, Spean Bridge.
places to eat Scottish Highlands in winter
The bar at the Whispering Pine Lodge.

Which brings me to Black Sheep Hotels. Freshly launched, they’ve injected new life into three very impressive properties in Lochaber. I was invited to stay at their Whispering Pine Lodge north of Spean Bridge and also to dine at The Cluanie Inn at Glenmoriston and Rokeby Manor at Invergarry. Cosy, comfortable and conveniently located on the roadside of the A82 and A87 (the road to Skye from Fort William), these guys are certain to do well. With views over Loch Lochy at Whispering Pine, on-site spa and a well-ranged whisky collection at the bar, it’s everything I’d want from a serene Scottish Highland winter adventure.

The food was excellent throughout. Lots of Scottish seafood yes, but a very welcome injection of Asian influences as well. I’m a curry fan and live in what I consider to be one of the top curry cities in the world so to see things like Black Dhal (which was made for winter Scottish Highland days by the way), Butter Chicken and Mango Lassis had me scratching the beard approvingly. Needless to say the standard of Asian food in the Highlands is typically dire so I endorse all three locations with long-awaited relief. Familiar menus consisting of chips with everything, sad, overcooked macaroni and £15 for a greasy fish supper will not be accepted for much longer if this upping of the game continues.

black sheep hotels winter scottish highlands

rokeby manor invergarry
Rokeby Manor.
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Lobster and Langoustine Risotto, Whispering Pine Lodge.

Perfect for breaking up the long drives north or as a base for several days, these guys will be a major year-round employer and service provider for the area. Shaking the winter dusting off many other businesses and hopefully raising the bar in the food department, I’ll be watching their progress with great interest.

 

Scottish Highland Winter Activities

With accommodation and food sorted, this leaves things to get up to. Roaring fires and too much whisky aside, there’s plenty of walking to be had. The drive from Glasgow to Fort William does of course pass directly through Glen Coe, which is always rubbish. While assuming that your average person isn’t crazy about the idea of a 9-hour hike in the partial dark up a Buachaille Etive Mor, half day beauties such as Buachaille Etive Beag or the Pap of Glencoe are ideal for winter hiking. Relatively straightforward and do-able even in the limited daylight we’ve got just now, a sunset up top smashes the summer equivalent out of the park.

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Ballachulish looking towards the Pap of Glencoe.
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The Pap of Glencoe.

Low level walks are plentiful too and, under the shadow of the ever-popular Ben Nevis, Glen Nevis delivers. The rugged walk to the Steall Waterfall – about 20 minutes of a very scenic drive south east of Fort William followed by a 45-minute walk each way – is at its best in winter when the 105-metre waterfall revels in drama. A bit more of the white stuff and this scene is picture-perfect.

glen nevis winter scottish highlands
Glen Nevis Walking.
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Steall Falls.

Forested walks are something special in winter too. When life is hiding, frost and silence reign. There are numerous options in the Invergarry area (north of Spean Bridge) with the Allt na Calliche trail one of the best. Following the winding River Garry on a well-maintained yet lonely path this is ideal for all abilities. A low-lying mist descended upon me on this one, consuming the tree tops and turning the scene into a fairy tale gone wrong. I was delighted. Bizarre mushrooms, more relentless waterfalls and the omnipresent sense of being warily watched by a safari of hidden forest residents is almost as stirring as those big summit visuals.

invergarry walks scottish highlands winter
Winter walking in the Scottish Highlands at Invergarry
waterfall invergarry scotland
Allt na Calliche.

A mountain, a glen and a forest. Don’t say Lochaber winter walking is not diverse.

 

Notes

While I was invited as a guest to stay and dine at Black Sheep Hotels, my purpose for going and subsequent endorsement stem from a personal desire to unearth the options for travellers to the Scottish Highlands in winter. Any reviews I provide are based solely on genuine, recent experience.

Winter is a fascinating time to visit Scotland and will deliver a very different side to her personality. Hopefully I’ve broken down some of the barriers but do let me know your thoughts, frustrations, anxieties and experiences of travel at this time of year in the comments below.

 

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14 Comments

    1. Don’t doubt it but fair play to you for pushing in the off-season too Anna. Hopefully its just a matter of time before the rest of the industry catches up!

  1. Thanks for the tips on accommodation and the new restaurant. That’ll come in handy! We went north for a couple of days last December and found a very nice Airbnb near Spean Bridge. The short days are really the only drawback. Always enjoy your blog

    1. Thanks Angela and agree, it’s tough when it’s dark at 4pm. But still far too much to see and do to just abandon travel completely. Hope you make it back up that way soon!

  2. My biggest obstacle to traveling at any time of the year is overcrowding. I’d prefer to travel when there are fewest tourists but I get that that may not be economically viable for businesses dependent on a greater numbers of tourists to survive. I’ve lived in Canada most of my life and it seems we’ve learned how to make winter as viable a tourist season as summer. In some parts anyway. Skiing is the main draw, but generally any golf resort can be transformed into a winter wonderland. The courses themselves become a seemingly endless landscape for snow shoeing, x-country skiing, sleigh-riding, even dog sledding. Nearly every pond creek or river becomes an outdoor skating rink. Crackling bonfires and bottomless hot chocolate (or a wee dram) await your return. I don’t know how cold it gets in Scotland so I’m not sure how much of our winter tourism game is transferable, but I can honestly say I’d take a quiet, frosty winter adventure over a sweaty, crowded, noisy, summer one any day.

    1. Some very interesting ideas Kristen. We don’t get huge amounts of snow anymore here typically but there’s definitely an argument for us being much more creative and Scottish tourism isn’t doing enough to look past the low hanging fruit. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Hello Neil,
    Again, another great article! 🙂
    I travel to Scotland in all seasons and I noticed that some of the accommodations now also open their doors in winter. Besides the warmer months, I have visited in October, November, February and March and I really enjoyed the peace and quiet… (visiting Dunnottar Castle on a sunny day in November with only about 5 other people around was spectacular!) 🙂 I always hear that people do not want to travel to Scotland in winter due to bad weather… when we went to the Isle of Lewis in September, our friends kept complaining about the rain… 🙁
    Our next trip will be in March 2020 and I am already looking forward to that one.
    Best wishes, Tanja

    1. Thanks Tanja. No doubt it’s a risk on the weather front but when it’s good it’s superb. This week has been grey misery but sunny skies all weekend so some good fortune is required! March generally a good time as the days lengthen and you get the odd freak week of amazing weather in spring so fingers crossed for you 🙂

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