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Issue 66 - 10 Best Festive Activities

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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10 Best Festive Activities

Keith Fergus looks at things to do during the festive period

1 Go Wildlife Watching

Spring and summer may be the customary period for wildlife watching but the winter months also present a visual feast, even during the festive period. Caerlaverock Nature Reserve, a few miles south of Dumfries, is home to an incredible assortment of wildfowl including the entire population (more than 30,000) of Svalbard Barnacle Geese, who fly in every year from the Arctic Circle, to spend their winter months here.

Combine this with thousands of pink-footed geese and several other species of wildfowl and waders, including dunlin, knot, oystercatcher and goldeneye, then you have a wonderfully colourful, noisy and vibrant place. It is thought that around 140,000 birds spend their winters here, dining on the worms, cockles, crabs and shrimp that inhabit the mudflats – the magnificent Caerlavarock Castle is also well worth a visit when here.

There are more than 100 wildlife reserves in Scotland, so plenty of choice, including Knapdale Forest in Argyll, the beautiful Loch of the Lowes near Dunkeld, and Montrose Basin, which plays host to 60,000 migrating birds each year.

2 Go For a Swim

Swimming in winter? Apparently not as mad or unusual as might first be thought.

A quick dook during the winter months, particularly traditional New Year’s Day swims, are becoming increasingly popular. For instance, Helensburgh on the Clyde Coast, and North Berwick in East Lothian, both provide opportunities for some hardy souls to take the plunge into the freezing cold sea. However, perhaps the most famous New Year’s Day swim takes place at Broughty Ferry Harbour near Dundee. The tradition of open water swimming has survived here for more than 120 years and is organised by Ye Amphibious Ancients Bathing Association, where upwards of 300 individuals swim around the harbour. Such is its popularity that, on the day, more than 3000 visitors have been known to visit the Tayside town as The Phibbies contend with temperatures barely above freezing although this, no doubt, eradicates any lingering overindulgence among them from the previous evening, particularly since wetsuits are not allowed during the swim – swimsuit, swim cap and goggles are all that is worn.

3 Climb a Hill

The festive season is usually a chance to spend time with family and friends and the consumption of food and drink is a big part of the festivities. But there comes a point where fresh air and a little exercise is a must and so what better way to do this by climbing a hill and hopefully enjoying some magical and far reaching wintry vistas. Scotland is obviously blessed with some magnificent hills, both big and small, which are within reach of most people. The limited daylight hours may prevent any big long walks but there is still a vast choice of hill walks to select – bigger mountains such as Cairn Gorm, Ben Lomond, or The Cobbler are all attainable during daylight hours (although some experience of walking in winter conditions would be recommended), each bestowing some superb panoramas across the surrounding countryside. Away from the big mountains the likes of Tinto Hill, Stac Pollaidh or the Pap of Glencoe grant easier walks with great paths leading to their respective summits whilst even wee hills such as Arthur’s Seat, Dumgoyne or Bennachie offer superb little walks.

4 Walk along a Beach

If the mountains are not for you then there is maybe no better way to blow away the holiday cobwebs than to take a stroll along one of Scotland’s fantastic beaches. With many thousands of miles of coastline the choice of walking is almost unparalleled. Some of the finest beach walking can be found along the necklace of pure white sands that exist along the coastline at Arisaig and the famed Morar Sands, where the views towards Rum, Eigg and Skye, and wildlife, that include the iconic white tailed sea eagle, are incredible. Heading east and the beaches at St Andrews, St Cyrus Bay near Montrose or Ravensheugh Sands near Dunbar all have gorgeous stretches of golden sand, and are perfect for a holiday stroll where time essentially means nothing, allowing the hours to be whiled away. Wrap up warm and take a thermos or a hipflask.

5 Reindeer Watching

Is there any better way to get into the festive spirit by participating in another kind of wildlife watching – reindeer. The Scottish Deer Centre in Cupar, Fife, have more than 10 species of deer, including reindeer, while the Ayrshire Reindeer Centre near Beith also has its own herd. However Scotland’s most famous reindeer herd reside at Glenmore Lodge, deep in the heart of the Cairngorm National Park and is the only place in Britain where you can see reindeer roaming free within a natural mountain environment. They were re-introduced into Scotland in 1952 by a Swedish reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi and from the initial starting point of only a few reindeer, the herd has grown in numbers over the years and, through controlled breeding, it is currently held at between 130 and 150. The magnificent Cairngorm Mountains grant a superb opportunity to encounter the animals living freely.

6 Visit a Castle

Much of Scotland’s turbulent and fascinating history can be enjoyed by visiting any of the many castles that are open to the public throughout the holidays. Perpetually popular examples include Edinburgh, Stirling, Dunnottar, Culzean, Inveraray, Eilean Donan and Urquhart castles but lesser known, and equally appealing, castles can be found. On the mainland the likes of Drum, Crathes and Braemar castles provide a wonderful insight into the history of Aberdeenshire and Royal Deeside. Similarly much can be learnt about East Lothian, Argyll, Ayrshire, and Perthshire by visiting the likes of Tantallon, Dunure, Skipness or Drummond castles. Many of Scotland’s islands are also home to a variety of fantastic castles including Brodick Castle on Arran, Duart Castle on Mull, Dunvegan Castle on Skye and the small but historically intriguing Gylen Castle on the tiny island of Kerrera, just off the coast near Oban.

7 Visit a Museum

The Scottish weather, particularly over winter (and especially during the holidays) can never be guaranteed and so a back up plan is sometimes required for those wet and windy days when kids are needing entertainment. As with the castles, Scotland has a plethora of amazing museums, illustrating the history, people, inventions, art, architecture, and the idiosyncratic, which have made Scotland great - and the bulk of them are free to enter. All of Scotland’s cities have some terrific museums, each displaying a wonderful variety of things to see and learn.

Glasgow, for instance, has the outstanding Kelvingrove Art Galleries, and the Museum of Country Life, Edinburgh the National Museum of Scotland and the Writer’s Museum, while in Dundee Discovery Point and the McManus Galleries are ever popular with visitors. The Tolbooth Museum and Fisheries Museum in Aberdeen explore the Granite City’s history of crime and punishment and its legacy with the sea.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum in Stirling and the Black Watch Museum in Perth offer fascinating insights into two of Scotland’s celebrated regiments, while many towns and villages across the whole country have wonderful little museums that detail the minutiae of Scotland’s local history.

8 Have a Relaxing Spa

The festive period can be a stressful time with events sending stress levels through the roof. Therefore a perfect gift or an ideal way of bringing the blood pressure down to an acceptable level is to take the opportunity of a relaxing spa. Many of Scotland’s hotels provide this service, either as part of a planned stay or simply if you only have an hour or so to spare.

Hotels such as Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast, Stobo Castle in the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand and the Gleneagles Hotel all provide a wonderful array of relaxing spas and therapies in superb surroundings.

9 Visit a Whisky Distillery

Scotland’s reputation as a producer and purveyor of malt and blended whisky is renowned worldwide. A visit to a whisky distillery where its wonderful history (as well as the process of brewing, fermentation, distilling and bottling) can be discovered by taking part in a whisky distillery tour. Over the past few years many of Scotland’s distilleries have realised the economic potential in running these tours and they are becoming increasingly popular – you may even get the chance to blend your own bespoke whisky as part of a tour. And where can you find these tours? Well it is a matter of taking your pick; perhaps a tour around the distillery producing your own favourite whisky would be a good place to start. Or you could take the ferry across to Islay to revel in a four-day whisky tour, which takes in the eight distilleries on the island, each producing some of the most distinctive flavours to be found.

Or you may head north to Inverurie to pay a visit to the Glen Garioch distillery, thought by many to be the oldest distillery in the world, or to Lochnagar, on Royal Deeside, where Prince Albert visited in 1848.

10 Go to a Festival

Once Christmas is over for another year it is all systems go for the Hogmanay parties that will take place in millions of households across the world. But there are also a number of wonderful outdoor organised events, which are a great way to bring in the New Year.

Scotland’s cities all have their own organised street parties with Edinburgh in particular drawing visitors from all corners of the globe who come to enjoy music, a few drinks and a spectacular fireworks display. Stonehaven plays host to the spectacular Fire Festival where devils parade through the town swinging 16-pound balls of fire around themselves and over their heads. The traditional Burning of the Clavie takes place every Hogmanay in Burghead, on the Moray coast, while many towns and villages across Scotland will have their own smaller, but equally lively, parties bringing communities, if only for one night, closer together.