Holidays in Scotland needn’t be confined to the summer months. In fact there’s a major benefit to taking an autumn, spring or winter break: there are no midges! And Scotland is alive with winter festivals, while the hills and mountains look even more majestic and beautiful under a blanket of snow.
A winter motorhome holiday does need a little more planning than a summer one. Some campsites close for the winter, so check before deciding on your route that the ones you fancy using will be open. Travel may also be slower if there’s snow and some hill roads can be shut for several days if heavy snow-falls have to be cleared, so keep an eye on the weather and listen to radio traffic reports. If you have internet access, the Traffic Scotland website has live traffic information including information on road closures.
A Scottish winter festival itinerary
OK, that’s the health and safety warnings out of the way! Now for the fun bit. There’s just so much to do in Scotland from October to February. The long dark nights bring out the storytellers and dancers, while the short but often bright days offer plenty for those who love outdoor life – or shopping.
Starting on the west coast: between November 18th-27th, the Oban Winter Festival offers something for most tastes. There’s a good old-fashioned fun-fair, whisky tasting, charity fashion show, ballet and traditional music performances, ceilidhs and a Reindeer Parade. Most events happen within the compact, friendly town, so they’re within easy walking distance of each other.
Glenbranter Forest in Argyll has a winter festival that runs for most of December, with fun for all ages and all levels of fitness. Check their webpage nearer the time for full details: Christmas at Glenbranter (it’s not just about buying Christmas trees!).
If you don’t want to drive so far from Edinburgh, or you prefer seeing the challenging outdoors from the comfort of an armchair, Dundee has a Mountain Film Festival from November 24th-26th. As well as films there’s a range of awe-inspiring speakers such as Jamie Andrew and Felicity Aston MBE plus exhibitions of mountain paintings and photos.
November 30th is St Andrew’s Day, the feast of Scotland’s patron saint. St Andrews in Fife, about half an hour’s drive south-east of Dundee, is a lovely little city and worth a visit any time – but specially so during November. It celebrates its patronal festival for most of the month with the “Savour St Andrews” festival, a celebration of the best Scottish food, drink and chefs.
South-east of Edinburgh, East Lothian celebrates its heritage as the home of the Saltire flag with the Saltire Festival around St Andrew’s Day. It’s a multi-centre event, covering everything from food and drink, through books to comedy and music. There’s far too much to cover in one blog, but you can find more details on their website, http://www.visiteastlothian.org/the-saltire. You could spend your whole holiday in the area and not run out of events!
In Edinburgh itself St Andrew is celebrated in style, as you’d expect, with storytelling sessions, street food markets, craft fairs, music and dance. It’s really all part of the Edinburgh Christmas festival, which runs from November 18th through to January 7th. With outdoor ice rinks, shows, carol concerts, Christmas fun-fairs and markets and theatre shows, Edinburgh is buzzing at Christmas time. The piece de resistance is the dazzling Street of Light illumination-performance with an eclectic range of music from Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Blazin’ Fiddles and Tigerstyle; best of all, the show is free.
Across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh lies Dunfermline, Scotland’s ancient capital. Like St Andrews, the city is worth visiting for its history at any time. Dunfermline celebrates Christmas a little more quietly than the modern capital does but still has a full programme of parades, dramatically-lit buildings, craft fairs, famers’ market, storytelling events and live bands. There’s also a Christmas Fair in nearby Blairadam Forest. The fun starts in late November.
Keep on touring: winter festivities in Scotland
A good, easy drive north from Dunfermline up the M90 lies Perth, which starts its festivities with a great firework display on Bonfire Night (November 5th). The city has a unique trick up its sleeve for the Christmas festivities: the Perth Festival of Chocolate, when you can see chocolate being made, let the kids play with cocoa, and buy ready-made chocs and chocolate-themed gifts. Perth continues its winter celebrations with a St Andrew’s Day Festival, a Winter Festival farmers’ market and the Community Christmas and Craft Market.
From Perth the main roads take you south-west, towards Glasgow, or north (or, indeed, west towards Oban). If you’re on your way to Glasgow, stop off at Stirling for their Christmas festival. If you’re there on November 15th for the switching-on of the lights, you can see Santa Claus with his reindeer parading through the city from 2 pm. You can watch the reindeer being fed, too, right in the city centre.
As you’d expect from Scotland’s most vibrant city, Glasgow has a ball at Christmas. Or, to be more precise, a carnival, which makes its way along the “Style Mile”, Glasgow’s heart of shopping. They also have Christmas markets if you prefer to do your shopping out of doors, and a 5 km Santa Dash charity fun-run for all ages (there’s a 2 km one in Perth, too). The Irn Bru Carnival at Glasgow’s SECC is Europe’s largest indoor fun-fair; it runs right through the Christmas holidays, from December 21st-January 15th.
If you drive north from Perth instead of west, the Highland capital of Inverness will give you a very warm welcome. You can meet Santa and his reindeer here too, at the Winter Wonderland in Whin Park, where the trees are illuminated and there’s a fun-fair, as well. There’s great shopping in Inverness, without the crowds you battle against in other cities. You’ll also find a Victorian market, and Christmas fairs at both the Eden Court Theatre and Brodie Castle, along the road near Nairn.
Continuing your tour around the coast from Nairn, in Aberdeen you’ll find a winter festival that runs from Bonfire Night to Hogmanay (there’ll be more about Hogmanay, Scotland’s real winter celebration, in a future post). Shopping opportunities in Aberdeen are plentiful, you’ll also find the Christmas Village, parade, concerts indoors and out, a world-class pantomime at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the Aberdeen Country Fair farmers’ and crafters’ market. Oh yes, and Santa and his reindeer make an appearance here too, if you’re around on the right day (well he can’t be everywhere at once, can he?)
Winter motorhome holidays: only for the hardy? No! Not in Scotland, anyway. There’s plenty to do, indoors and out – if you fancy a break from winter festivals, you can just go for a walk and admire the scenery. You may even meet a deer in the wild, though it probably won’t be a reindeer – they’re rather busy at this time of year! There’s plenty of wildlife to watch, and it’s easy to track their prints if there’s snow.
So don’t think Scotland’s just for summer. It’s a great place for a winter holiday, too. The roads are emptier, the weather’s no worse (sometimes it’s even better) and you’ve every excuse to wrap up warm or find a cosy pub. You might even see Santa and his reindeer.