It's the cozy, albeit unpredictable weather season in Scotland, where the days are short (around eight hours of daylight per day) and the temperatures cold, though not quite as bitter as inland European countries, thanks to the Gulf Stream. Also, Scotland's famous westerly winds tend to bring temperate air from the North Atlantic, forming clouds and leading to more rain. The eastern side of Scotland may be less rainy, but it's also a touch colder.
For instance, average temperatures in the nation's capital, Edinburgh, typically reach daily highs of 43°F (6°C) while lows are above freezing at 34°F (1°C). West of here is Scotland's largest city, Glasgow, which has slightly milder temperatures that typically reach highs of 46°F (8°C) and 36°F (2°C).
That said, you should be prepared for all types of weather that can change from day to day. Pack warm, waterproof layers, a hat and gloves, thick socks, and sturdy footwear that can keep your feet dry. You may also want to consider thermal underwear when heading out for long, crisp walks and proper gear for activities in mountainous areas.
Crowds & Costs
Though the weather may deter hordes of visitors, the benefit of traveling to Scotland in winter is that you will tend to find more peaceful environs and better deals on flights and accommodations. This makes January the ideal time for an affordable city break or secluded, romantic escape in the vast wilderness. Book early to get the best prices on flights, hotels, and activities. It's also good to check the sights and attractions you're hoping to visit, as some close for the winter season.
Where to Go
Scotland's geography can be hard to grasp, with hundreds of offshore islands spewing from its jagged west and north coasts. An easy way to think of Scotland is in two sections: the Highlands and the Lowlands. Many visitors begin and end their trip in the Lowlands, particularly one of the two biggest cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh (less than an hour apart by train). You'll want to spend a few days visiting uncrowded landmarks and attractions in either city (or both!). Day trips are aplenty from either city to places like Oban, with access to several islands, St. Andrews, home of the ancient university, and Stirling Castle, pictured above, one of Scotland's best castles.
Though wintry weather could make travel conditions tricky, a trip to the Highlands will offer fresh, crisp air and photogenic landscapes due to the ever-changing light (late sunrises and early sunsets). One option is to make the drive to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Before you arrive, take a walk and hunt for a particular monster along Loch Ness or admire the view from Urquhart Castle, where you can have lunch at an onsite café.
No matter where you go, you'll want to plan your drives and outings carefully due to the shortened daylight hours, leaving you ample time to enjoy the evening ambiance wherever you land. Scotland, after all, has its version of the Danish hygge called còsagach. This Scottish sense of coziness brings to mind roaring log fireplaces, tartan blankets, and warming glasses of whisky.
What to Do
Winter may limit your outdoor activities, but there is still plenty to see and do. If in the capital, start with the key sights along Royal Mile leading to Edinburgh Castle. Take a brisk walk up to Arthur's Seat, the highest point where you'll find a stunning view of the city's iconic churches and medieval buildings. Glasgow, for its part, has some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and museums, like Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which houses one of Europe's great art collections, as well as gentrifying neighborhoods to explore. You can ski or snowboard indoors at Snow Factor near Glasgow or head to one of Scotland's five outdoor ski and snowboard areas.
For simple pursuits, long, scenic walks and drives in the Highlands will let you move at your own pace as you admire picturesque landscapes, ancient buildings, and possible wildlife. Bigger animals, like red deer, are often easier to spot this time of year because there is less foliage. At night, keep an eye out for the Northern Lights, which can be spotted in the country's north.
Winter is also an ideal time to focus on the culinary delights of Scotland. Take a slow drive along the east coast and stop at villages around Scotland's third-largest city, Aberdeen, home to some of the country's freshest fish. You can easily plan a trip touring nearby castles by day and tucking into seafood by night. Let's not forget about the national drink with over 130 malt and grain distilleries, making Scotland the greatest concentration of whisky production in the world. Many distilleries welcome visitors with tours and tastings.
Events in January
New Year's Holiday, nationwide. Expect closures during the first few days of the year to commemorate the new year. Keep an eye out for customs and celebrations that can trickle over, as well, in light of Hogmanay, the Scots word for the last day of the year.
Burns Night, nationwide. Each year on January 25, Scotland celebrates the birth of its most famous bard, Robert Burns. Expect to see locals donning tartan and playing bagpipes, while pubs may host recitals of the writer's songs and poems, best served with traditional food and drink (i.e., haggis and whisky!)
Celtic Connections, Glasgow. Typically starting in late January, this Celtic music festival is the largest annual winter music festival of its kind and spans several musical genres including folk, roots, and world music. Festival-goers can also attend talks, art exhibitions, and workshops.
Traveling to Scotland in January? Check out these great itineraries
Best of Scotland: Edinburgh and the Highlands - 7 Days. Combining Scotland's most memorable tourist destinations with a tour of the countryside in the Scottish highlands, you'll explore Edinburgh's galleries, castles, and pubs before heading to the castles near Inverness. Visit more castles and famous geological sites and hike in Portree before traveling to Glencoe, home to spectacular scenery.
Winter in the Scottish Highlands - 6 Days. Experience frozen lochs and ancient pine forests in the Scottish Highlands. You'll settle into a wonderland of scenic treks, wildlife watching, whisky tasting, and cozy fireside evenings.