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Scotland in winter: Northern Lights to fireside drams
From the Northern Lights to festive traditions and fireside drams, here are five reasons to visit Scotland in winter
Words by Sally Coffey
To see the Northern Lights
The Aurora Borealis, or the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ as Shetlanders call them due to the shimmering effect of their light, are best seen during the long, dark nights of Scotland in winter.
At Kinloch Lodge on Skye, a special winter offer of three nights for the price of two until 28 February 2024, provides you with an extra chance of catching sight of the Northern Lights from the grounds of this splendid Hebridean lodge when the island is at its quietest.
Elsewhere, Newton Lodge at Unapool, one of the Highland Coast Hotels, is offering private hire for up to 14 guests from November 2023 until 31 March 2024 and has everything you need for a cosy getaway with friends and family with great backdrops for luminous displays.
Located near to the famous Kylesku Bridge, this winter retreat has world-class natural scenery on its doorstep and comes with all sorts of lovely extras, such as a private chef, plus guided stalking tours and whisky tastings.
To meet the reindeer
The Cairngorms, the vast national park in the eastern Highlands, is not only home to four out of the highest five mountains in the UK, but it’s also home to the UK’s only free-range reindeer herd. And what more festive way to celebrate Scotland in winter than to meet some reindeer?
Introduced to the mountainous region in the 1950s by Swedish Sami Mikel Utsi, brought up in Swedish Lapland, who recognised a similar tundra to that of his homeland, and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, the reindeer have thrived ever since. You can book onto a tour to walk the hillsides with the reindeer all around you, and even let them nuzzle their noses into your hand as you feed them.
But while the herd in the Cairngorms may be the only wild herd, there is a herd even farther north, in Caithness. Here at Lichen Caithness you can join a ‘reindeer reception’, where you will be welcomed into a Nordic-style kota to learn about these beautiful cold-weather animals, before heading out to meet the reindeer (pictured) in one of the paddocks.
To celebrate, Scottish style
From Christmas to Hogmanay to January’s Burns Night, and the innumerable fire festivals throughout Scotland in winter, the Scots sure know how to throw a party.
Some of Scotland’s finest hotels, such as Gleneagles, offer special Christmas experiences. At the five-star Perthshire estate, the Christmas package includes expert-led country pursuits, a slap-up dinner with all the trimmings – even fireworks and a full-size ice rink.
For new year, you could book a ticket for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations; head to Comfrie in Perthshire, where as the clock strikes midnight on 31 December, long ‘flambeaux’ are lit – long poles topped with rags – and paraded through the village accompanied by pipers; or go to one of the many Viking-inspired Up Helly Aa celebrations in the Shetland Islands.
And don’t forget Burns Night, an excellently timed celebration that brightens up winter by encouraging haggis-eating, toasting, and gathering friends (new and old).
For solitude and space
While snow-capped hills can be seen in some parts of the Highlands year-round, in winter they are at their most picturesque and visiting in the colder months allows you to enjoy the scenery in silence, walk empty sweeping beaches, appreciating the majesty of it all with no interruptions. Afterwards you can retire to a Highlands hideaway or cosy cabin to warm your cold toes by the fire and wrap up in a cashmere or tweed blanket. At the ski-lodge style cabin of Usonia in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders, from Unique Homestays, you can do just this. There’s even an outdoor hot tub and sauna for the truly brave.
If you’re looking for somewhere a little more old-school, then try the stately home of Alltshellach in North Ballachulish near Fort William, where HF Holidays will put you up for three nights when you book onto one of its Scottish Highland Festive self-guided walking holidays. Here you are surrounded by excellent snow-crunching walks, from Glen Coe to Ben Nevis, though winter hikes rather than strolls are only recommended for the experienced.
Because Scottish food is winter food
Scottish food is designed to warm and comfort and there are many excellent places to try Scottish cooking but one of our favourites is the four AA Rosette restaurant of Edinbane Lodge on the Isle of Skye.
Not only is chef patron Calum Montgomery’s menu inventive and daring but it’s also incredibly homely, thanks in no small part to the fact that he calls upon a community of crofters, which ensures only the best produce from the seas and farms of Skye make it onto the table.
Housed in a 16th-century former hunting lodge, Edinbane is also suitably atmospheric – and yes, there are open fires to settle in by with a drink in hand after dinner – and earthy fabrics and Scottish textiles make you feel very at ease, so in keeping are they with this wild and rustic environment. There are also four gorgeous bedrooms, so you needn’t rush off, and the next morning after a full Scottish breakfast, you’ll virtually have the Isle of Skye to yourself. Now that really is something special.
This is an extract. Read the full version in our November/December 2023 issue. Available to buy from Friday 13 October here.
Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
Scotland magazine captures the spirit of this wild and wonderful nation, explores its history and heritage and recommends great places to visit, so you feel at home here, wherever you are in the world.