Winter in Scotland seems to drag on forever. The short days, the blinding winter sun sitting on the horizon, and, of course, the cold. If you’ve opted – by choice or necessity – to stay in Scotland over the winter, you’re probably sick to death of scrolling through Facebook, seeing your friends’ holiday photos while you’re stuck in St Andrews with nothing to do. But don’t despair: even in the depths of January, there’s plenty to do in Scotland.
Half the fun of winter is the snow, which makes St Andrews, unfortunately, not the best place to be on that account. But if you’re feeling adventurous and unafraid of the cold, the snow-covered peaks and glens of the Highlands are calling.
The town of Aviemore in the Cairngorms is the winter sports capital of Scotland. From here you can easily reach the slopes of Cairngorm Mountain, the country’s most popular ski resort, with more than 20 runs of all levels to choose from. There’s nothing to chase away the winter blues like a day skiing or snowboarding on the powder. Sure, it may not be the Alps, but afterwards at the pub, you won’t be paying an extortionate ten euros for a glass of mediocre beer.
If you grow tired of the downhill slopes, you might instead try ski touring over the desolate but beautiful backcountry of nearby Cairngorms national park: the coldest, snowiest, and wildest place in Scotland. Whether you’re in the depths of the ancient Caledonian pine forest or traversing the windswept Cairngorm plateau, it’s easy to forget that civilisation lies just a few kilometres away.
Feeling the call of the wild? Unbeknownst to many, Aviemore is also Scotland’s dog sledding hub. The Cairngorm Sled Dog Centre offers dog sledding tours, during which you can ride a sledge pulled by a team of twelve experienced dogs. There’s also the opportunity to watch or be involved in a training session with the dogs, and even an intensive 2-day course covering all the essentials of the sport including training techniques, kennel care, and all the subtleties of mushing.
Maybe you’re itching to try your hand at one of the truly extreme sports that Scotland has to offer: ice climbing. Ice Factor, the world’s biggest indoor ice climbing facility, is located in Kinlochleven near Glen Coe. With courses for beginners and free-climbing for the more experienced, it’s a great experience for climbers of all levels. For the newcomer to ice climbing, it’s the perfect place to learn the ropes of the sport before taking your skills outside.
For those who want a more relaxed outdoor activity to take part in, the Inverness Ice Centre is the go-to destination for learning the decidedly more relaxed sport of curling. With the Winter Olympics coming up next month, there’s no better time to gain an understanding of this underrated snow sport. The centre is also an excellent place to go ice skating if the mood should strike you.
If you’re not that in to ‘organised fun’, you might choose to go your own way and try your hand at winter walking, or perhaps even snowshoeing, in the Highlands. Winter is the least crowded and therefore one of the best times to see the wilderness areas that Scotland has to offer. Thanks to Scotland’s Right to Roam legislature, you can freely go practically anywhere in the country, and you’ll quickly find that every corner of every glen has its own unique character and sense of place. Beware, though, that you have the proper clothing and gear. White-out conditions and sub-zero temperatures often occur in the Highlands during winter, and it is no fun being caught out in full winter storm conditions unprepared.
While you’re up in the hills, drop by the Highland Wildlife Park just south of Aviemore, a wildlife park that is open year-round. The animals roam freely in large enclosures that more closely resemble their natural habitats than any zoo exhibit. You can observe large mammals such as wolves, bears, and reindeer thriving in the mixed tundra landscape as they would have done in the Scotland of old (and by ‘old’, think several hundred to a few thousand years ago, when the last ice age ended and Scotland was an Arctic landscape much like northern Scandinavia). If you’re going to look at Arctic wildlife you might as well do it in the winter, right?
The great outdoors may not be for everyone. If you’re the kind of person who’d rather spend the day indoors, warm and comfortable, your interest may be more piqued by the extensive museum collections to be found in Edinburgh. The National Museum in Edinburgh, apart from its excellent permanent collections, has several seasonal exhibits open for the winter, including a wildlife photography exhibit, one on the role of silver and its cultural impact on Scotland, and Down to Earth: a presentation on meteorites that have fallen to earth in Scotland. The National Galleries and other museums are also great places to escape the cold and spend a few hours immersed in art and culture. For some of the less well-known but still highly acclaimed attractions, drop by the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Fire, or Dynamic Earth for the more scientifically inclined.
If simply being warm doesn’t cut it for you, pay a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, just down the road, to immerse yourself in a veritable tropical rainforest in one of the garden’s greenhouses. As a global centre of botanical research with many thousands of specimens from around the world, you can find exotic plants from far-flung regions of the world in full bloom – even in the dead of winter.
It’s a well-established fact that one of the great attractions of Scotland is the whisky. Subsequently, a visit to a distillery is sure to brighten even the dreariest of winter days. Conveniently, it’s difficult to find yourself far from a distillery no matter where you are in the country. Distilleries in Fife include those located in the nearby Kingsbarns and in Eden Mill (which also includes a brewery to boot). Further afield, the islands of Islay and Skye, among others, are world-famous for their distilleries, many of which offer fascinating tours and tastings of their best whiskies.
Speaking of whisky, on the 25th of January is Burns Night, the annual holiday honouring the poet and national icon Robert Burns. Dine on haggis, have a dram of single malt, and enjoy a roaring fire in a pub; or perhaps take part in one of the myriad of celebratory events (bonfires, ceilidhs, and more) that will take place across Scotland that night and in the days before and after. Take part in the Hunterian museum’s Night and the Museum event in Edinburgh, celebrating all things traditionally Scottish, or make your way to South Ayrshire, Burns’ birthplace, on the 27th for a tour, bonfire, and other festivities.
So, no matter where you might find yourself in these last few weeks before classes resume, take time to enjoy what Scotland has to offer; in a few weeks, you might find yourself looking back longingly at these slow, stress-free winter days.