You want to go to Scotland.
At least, that’s the premise for this four part series on planning a trip to Scotland. I’ve planned countless trips to Scotland over the past 10 years, and now seems like a good time share my knowledge in the hopes that you will consider planning your own trip to Scotland!
After a destination has been chosen, I see the process of trip planning as four simple questions:
- When should I go?
- Where (within the destination) should I go?
- How much time do I want/need?
- How much will it cost me?
Each Monday this month I’ll tackle one of these questions and share my Scotland trip-planning tips. Each question bears on the others and I’ll point out these areas to help make decisions easier. For example, when you should go might depend on your trip budget and where you want to go might depend on how much time you have.
Are you with me? Good. Here are three areas to consider when thinking about when you should go to Scotland.
Specific events will dictate when you visit Scotland. The country is loaded with world-famous cultural events, from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to Hogmanay to loads of folk music, highland games, and whisky festivals throughout the land. If you want to take in the Fringe Festival then you’re going in August. If it’s Hogmanay and Burns’ Supper you’re interested in, then you’re looking at late December and January.
In addition to Scotland’s major events, related smaller-scale events seem to cluster at certain times of the year. Highland games tend to occur in August/September, whisky festivals occur in the spring and fall, as many distilleries go “silent” during summer months, and folk music festivals span the warmer half of the year.
You’re probably aware if events are driving your visit to Scotland. If that’s the case much of your decision of when to go is complete. I still recommend that you read the following sections as they can help you position your trip on either side of the desired events.
Climate and Weather
Climate and weather played a huge role in my decision to visit Argentina late last year, and it figures into the earliest stages of most trip plans. There are many jokes about Scotland’s weather and misconceptions about the greater United Kingdom’s situation (e.g., it’s always raining), so let’s get the facts straight.
Scotland has a temperate maritime climate, which is typically experienced as highly variable but rarely extreme weather. There’s little reason to pout if it’s drizzling and foggy when you wake up; it could be sunny and breezy by late morning. Scotland is a northerly country at a latitude with Scandinavia, Russia, and Labrador and middle Canada, but it’s not nearly as cold as these comparisons because Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, benefits from the Atlantic gulf stream that brings in warmer winds from the southwest. This weather system also modulates Scotland’s average temperatures, which fall between 32F and 68F throughout the year. This equates to cool summers and wet winters.
Rain falls often in this part of the world, but downpours and extended bouts of rainy days thankfully are not the norm. Low average rainfalls and long days with more sunshine coincide between April and September, so this period is an ideal place to start when planning your trip.
Whether or not you take tourism seasons into account is largely a function of your budget and how well you put up with crowds of tourists. High tourism season in Scotland occurs from June through August, with August being the busiest month due to the incredible number of festivals at this time (especially in Edinburgh) and holidays for many UK residents. It’s also an incredibly beautiful time of year.
Shoulder season represents April, May, September, and October. In these months, the bulk of tourist destinations are ramping up or winding down and the overall feel is a bit slower around the country. Hours of operation can be irregular and need to be double-checked.
Low season starts in October and runs through early April. The weather gets wetter, the days shorter, and the hours for popular destinations like castles, distilleries, and parks change. Some places like B&Bs close up altogether though some open for a short time around Christmas and Hogmanay.
Assuming cultural events and festivals aren’t dictating your travels to Scotland, I’ve found May, June, and September to represent the best time to go to Scotland. In May and June, the weather is generally good and the days are very long – it was light until 11pm in Inverness around the Summer Solstice. September sees the dissipation of August’s crowds and the first touches of Autumn’s gorgeous light. Both times take advantage of Scotland’s shoulder seasons so the crowds are lighter and the prices lower.
If you’re heading to Scotland to attend specific events and want to tack on some additional time, add it in the direction of the shoulder seasons. The weather is often just as good as the heart of summer and the crowds (and prices) will be lower. August is a month I would avoid unless you’re aiming for the festivals as prices will be higher, accommodation harder to book, and many attractions extremely busy with tourists.
Original photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s photostream via Flickr under Creative Commons