Like many people, I love to get away for a Christmas holiday. The thought of breaking with routine by going off on holiday to end the old year and ring in the new in a different place, is an uplifting antidote to the winter blues. But while a sunny climate is appealing, the high season air fares give me a bit of a chill. Fortunately, there’s one place here, at home in the UK, that ticks all the boxes for a winter holiday: Scotland.
The days may be shorter, but to make up for it, there are long, cosy nights of curling up by a log fire with your partner, a glass of whisky or wine, and that great book you got last Christmas but never found time to read during the busy year.
Winter in Scotland is a mix of delightful discoveries and sublime relaxation. Whether you want to spend the whole of Christmas itself away, or just escape for a pre- or post-Christmas break, these are my tips for a perfect seasonal holiday.
Christmas shopping? Sorted!
No need to pack the presents if you’re heading north for the holidays. Scotland puts the fun back into Christmas shopping with a wonderful range of gifts. Topping the list are beautiful woollen wraps, scarves, hats, pullovers, cardigans, blankets and more. Look for fine, whisper-soft fabrics woven in Scottish mills, in the muted browns, pale purples or blue-grey tones of its hillside heather.
Alternatively, handbags, wallets and brollies in bright red or blue plaids give traditional tartans a new twist. Or indulge in hours of bookshop browsing for Scottish authors to keep you company during those long winter nights. From the novels of Alexander McCall Smith to thrillers by Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, to the kiddie classics, such as Peter Rabbit and Treasure Island, there is a good read waiting for everyone.
For the foodies on your list, head for Scotland’s Christmas Markets. From mid-November until early January, Edinburgh’s Christmas Market in East Princes Street Gardens is packed with gastronomic goodies, from local cheeses and cured meats to traditional Scottish foods, such as tablet, a sugary fudge-like sweet, clootie which is a spiced dumpling pudding, and haggis.
There are stalls selling artworks and all sorts of handcrafted gifts and seasonal decorations. A Big Wheel, carnival rides and ice sculptures add to the festive atmosphere. Just around the corner, in George Street, you will find yet another Christmas Market, so you will be spoiled for Christmas shopping choice in Edinburgh.
The highlight of Glasgow’s Christmas Market in George Square is Glasgow on Ice, Scotland’s largest outdoor skating rink. If you don’t take to the ice yourself, you can always sit and warm up with a hot drink in the rink-side cabin while watching the skaters glide by under the sparkling lights.
You’ll find more Christmas Markets and fairs in Perth, Aberdeen, Inverness, Stirling and Oban, often in conjunction with their winter festivals. Enjoy Christmas choirs, caroling and parades, along with lashings of mulled wine. At Perth’s Chocolate & Gin Street Fest in November you will be able to snap up enough goodies to stuff your stockings for a year.
The festive spirit
Winter is indeed a time of celebration in Scotland. The big festivals kick off around St Andrew’s Day (30 November), which is Scotland’s national day to honour its patron saint. While many towns and cities offer a range of events, an ideal spot to be is St Andrew’s namesake town in Fife, which celebrates with a lantern procession and an outdoor ceilidh featuring traditional music and dance, all lit up by a dazzling fireworks display over the harbour.
Hogmanay is Scotland’s great New Year’s Eve bash. Its origins stretch back to the wild winter solstice feasts of Viking times, and it makes Scotland one of the best places in the world to welcome in the New Year.
In Edinburgh, pipers, drummers and thousands of torch bearers march through the city from the Royal Mile to Calton Hill, where a large bonfire is set alight. There’s also the famous Hogmanay Street Party on Princes Street featuring music, dancing, and fireworks at midnight on the castle ramparts. The Red Hot Highland Fling, on the banks of the river in Inverness, is Scotland’s biggest free Hogmanay festival, where you will see top bands and fireworks.
Whether you join the crowds, or opt for a quieter celebration, what better place is there to sing Auld Lang Syne? Based on an 18th-century poem by Robert Burns, set to an ancient Scottish folk tune, it has become a New Year’s tradition the world over.
Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, of course, is Scotland’s national poet, beloved to this day. Burns Night, on 25 January, his birthday, is when the Scots pay tribute to him with traditional Burns' Night Suppers. The poet wrote odes to his favourite food and drink, haggis and whisky, and these, heaped with portions of his poetry, are the centrepieces of these lively meals. Don a flash of tartan and join a Burns' Night near you. Dumfries, the poet’s final home, turns Burns Night into an 11-day festival of music and entertainment with its Big Burns Supper.
Scotland also has some of the most spectacular winter fire festivals in the UK. South of Glasgow, in the Borders town of Biggar, gather round the Biggar Bonfire, a huge inferno in the town centre. Or watch kilted strongmen swinging massive fireballs overhead at the Stonehaven Fireball Festival, south of Aberdeen. Or head to Perthshire’s Comrie Flambeaux, where residents rid the village of evil spirits by parading through the streets with three-metre torches of burning birch trees.
These events all take place on New Year’s Eve. There’s more on 11 January, when Burghead on the Moray Firth celebrates the old Hogmanay with the Burning of the Clavie - a wooden tar barrel - in a reenactment of an ancient ritual.
A winter wonderland
While these exciting celebrations are great fun, the other advantage of visiting Scotland in the winter is escaping the crowds. You’ll often have some of the most beautiful places all to yourself.
Most roads in Scotland are scenic roads, but when the sun peeks out after a winter snowfall, the dusting of white frost on the fields and hills is simply magical. It’s always wise to check the forecast, then grab your camera and make the most of the soft, winter light. Though it’s tempting to head for those gorgeous, snow-capped peaks, remember that you may only have around six hours of daylight in some areas. Choose shorter drives on good roads that you can easily navigate if the weather turns.
Winter walking can be an absolute joy. Hill trekking can be risky if fog or storms set in, so it’s best to have an experienced guide for this sort of adventure. But there are plenty of gentler paths you can take through idyllic glens and silent forests, where the only sound is the wind in the trees and the crunch of your boots on the crusty snow.
Keep an eye out for wildlife. Many species, such as red squirrels, are more easily spotted at this time of year. In November, listen for the roars of red deer echoing from the hills. When the snow falls, they move down from the mountains in search of food, and the sight of a large stag with a full rack of antlers is truly magnificent. Other creatures, such as ptarmigan and Arctic hare, become harder to see as their feathers or fur changes to snowy white to blend in with the landscape.
Look for golden eagles and, by the coast, sea eagles soaring overhead. Scotland’s lochs and wetlands provide winter homes for dozens of species of local and migrating birds from northern Europe and beyond.
And then there’s the beach. A bracing winter walk along a deserted shore is a great way to clear the mental cobwebs or burn some calories off from those Christmas Market treats. It may well be that the only footprints you see are your own. Try the Fife Coastal Path, a charming route between East Neuk villages such as Pittenweem and St Monans.
Another great spot for seaside walks is the Moray coast, with its historic fishing harbours, swathes of sandy beach, and playful dolphins that can often be spotted offshore. When conditions are right, this area is also one of the best places in the UK to see the Northern Lights. Lossiemouth East Beach and Portknockie are said to be good viewing spots.
Winter warm ups
The Moray Coast is just down the road from Speyside, Scotland’s premier whisky region. And what could be more warming than a wee dram to take the edge off winter’s chill? Many distilleries are open for tours year-round. It’s a great way to learn about whisky and try a range of single malts before choosing a bottle for yourself or a friend.
For a more vigorous warm-up, Scotland has five ski centres - Cairngorm Mountain, The Lecht, Glencoe Mountain, Glenshee and the Nevis Range - where you can enjoy Alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and other snow sports. They offer equipment hire and other facilities that make it easy to have fun skiing without planning or booking way in advance.
The Cairngorms, surrounded by a national park, is one of Scotland’s most dramatic mountain ranges. Along with the ski area, the Cairngorm Mountains hold two special attractions for winter visitors. In Aviemore, you can visit the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre, the UK’s only daily working centre of its kind. Tour the kennels, join in a training session, or go on a sled dog safari.
These mountains are also home to Britain’s only free-roaming reindeer herd. From the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre at Glenmore, there are daily hill trips (except January - mid-February) to visit the herd. After a 20 to 40 minute trek over rough terrain, you’ll be able to mingle with the reindeer, and even hand-feed and pet them.
There are paddock visits which give those unable to make the hill trip a close-up view. The centre also puts on Christmas Fun days in December. But don’t expect to see Rudolph. The red-nosed reindeer will be otherwise engaged at the North Pole.
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