Scotland is unpredictable and changeable, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s always desirable, and it’s most definitely sustainable. If you want to work out the best time to go to Scotland, the one thing you want is daylight, and plenty of it. Because there’s just so much to take in, with trails that sometimes take in several landscapes in a day, be it moorland and mountains, lochs and lowlands, coast and canals. And you really want to see it all.
Best time to go to Scotland for weather
Due to its northern latitude, winter days are short, with daylight between 08.45 and 15.30, and average temperatures of 5C between December and February. Which is why most of our tours begin in March, when temperatures are between 7-13C until early May. June, July and August are normally the warmest months in Scotland, with average maximum temperatures ranging from approximately 15-17C.
Also, from May the sun rises from 04.40 and in the height of summer you can hit the trails in daylight as early as 03.30 if you really want, although you may miss a fine Scottish breakfast. The sun doesn’t set over the lochs and all round loveliness until around 21.30 at this time of year, with a glow still hovering until 23.00 in the far north in midsummer. Our Scotland tours close their doors by the end of October, giving hosts time to rest, and for Scottish people to claim back the countryside as their own for a while.
Best time to go to Scotland for wildlife
Another good way to judge the best time to go to Scotland is to follow the wildlife. From badgers to basking sharks, puffins to peregrine falcons, Scotland is special on species. Here are a few of our favourite fauna findings to be had in Scotland.
Scotland boasts the largest red deer population in Europe and, given that it is the UK’s largest land mammal, that’s a lot of deer. And impressively beautiful if you spot one, albeit controversial in terms of its destruction of important habitats. They are fond of the Highlands, (they have good taste), and so you may spot them on both the West Highland Way and the Isle of Skye. The West Highland Way is also home to the smaller roe deer which, at quiet times, you may spot in the woodland around Rowardennan, but for the red chieftains of the hills, you are more likely to spot them around Inverarnan or Kingshouse. The best time for the biggies is usually autumn and winter, as herds come down to lower ground to graze. Also, there are fewer leaves so they are easier to spot sometimes, and there are fewer people to stress them out.
As our West Highland Way holidays run between March and October, you may be in luck when it comes to spotting deer. If there is still snow on the highest peaks in March, they may come down lower during that season too. If you want to see deer on the Isle of Skye, this walking holiday is available between April and September, with a shorter but stupendous window on the Isle of Skye Trail holiday, between June and September. The latter takes you onto the higher ground, where deer are more likely to roam throughout this time.
Deer rutting season in Scotland
One of the most exciting times of the year is deer rutting season, which is a bit like the Highland Games of the natural world in terms of strength and power. Stags surround and choose their mates during the autumn months, from the end of September until the start of November. You could spot them at any time of day, although they are rather partial to dawn or dusk dalliances. You are more likely to hear the bellowing and bashing antlers with their fellow suitors, than actually see them in action. If you are lucky enough to witness a rut, be sure to keep your distance. You don’t want to mess with a steaming stag, and their passionate breath does often look like steam in the air at this time of year.
The endangered red squirrel, with its russet tufts and bushy tails, are lighter and niftier than their grey relations and, if you are lucky, you may see them dancing through Scotland’s woodlands, with autumn being the best time to see them. This is when they emerge to start foraging for winter, before heading back up to their treetop dens. Scotland is home to over 100,000 squirrels at present, and places like the woodlands around Balmaha and Conic Hill on the West Highland Way are favourite spotting points, as are the swathes of woodland that cling to various lochs between Gairlochy and Drumnadrochit on the Great Glen Way. Our Great Glen Way holidays run between April and September, after which our hosts also batten down the hatches a little, and hibernate until the spring.
The grey seal’s home is the North Atlantic and there are thought to be only about 400,000 in the world, with 40% of these in the UK, and the vast majority of those in Scotland. The most popular sites for breeding colonies are Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney Islands, Outer and Inner Hebrides, where we don’t offer tours at present. However, you can also spot them in and around the waters and sandbanks of the Firth of Tay and the Moray Firth. The former features on our Fife Coastal Path holidays and the stretch between Kirkcaldy to Kinghorn is a good lookout point for seals basking on the rocks. As is Hawcraig Point, in Aberdour, a lovely resting spot for any of us, with magnificent views over the Firth of Forth. As our Fife Coastal Path holidays are available between March and October, you have a few seasons for seal spotting. But always keep your spotting from a distance, as you can easily disturb pups and rattle their mothers big time.
Dolphins and whales
If you are lucky, you may also spot bottlenose dolphins or even humpback whales off the Fife Coastal Path, with sightings as early as April sometimes. Do take photos and report any sightings to the Sea Watch Foundation, which monitors cetaceans’ presence around the UK for vital conservation purposes. Heading west, dolphins also enjoy the waters around the Isle of Skye where you can spot super pods if you are lucky, in the summer months. The minke whale is the most common whale species on Skye, and the best time to see them is between May and October, with popular spots being in the far north, around Rubha Hunish, Waternish Point and from Neist Point Lighthouse in Glendale. Our Isle of Skye Trail holiday runs between June and September, with your last day in Rubha Hunish, so you might want to extend your stay to go dolphin or whale watching, with local companies offering trips during these same months. Seek out wildlife tours that are approved by the WiSE scheme, which trains guides in responsible wildlife watching in the UK.
Best time for bird watching in Scotland
Spring, specifically from April to June, is a great time to witness many birds returning from their wintering grounds to Scotland, including the arrival of several species of warblers, wheatears, and swallows. On the West Highland Way, you definitely want to bring your binoculars to spot chiffchaffs and willow warblers, which you will often hear before you see them.
On the Great Glen Way, the forests are bursting with birdsong in spring, including bullfinches, great spotted woodpeckers, great tits and grey wagtails. The waters of all the lochs that line the famous valley attract a variety of birds, especially in spring, including the great cormorant, mute swan and heron. You get many of these along the West Highland Way too, but between April and September its higher elevations are also home to buzzards, osprey and the avian monarchs, the white tailed and golden eagle.
In summer, particularly from June to August, you can observe a range of seabirds along the Scottish coastline, including puffins, razorbills, and guillemots. On our Isle of Skye holidays, for example, keep an eye out for golden eagles or ptarmigans in and around the Cuillin Mountains, but for puffins you have to take a boat trip from Skye to the Isle of Canna, with April and May being the best months to see their colonies.
Scotland Wildlife Trust and Trees for Life
One of the best resources for further reading is Scottish Wildlife Trust which not only lists its species, but also manages 120 wildlife reserves around the country. They strive to protect the precious habitats that you might take for granted on a walking holiday, and donations are always welcome to support their work. Another leading organisation is Trees for Life, based in both Findhorn and their new, rewilding centre in Dundreggan, about 10km from Invermoriston on the Great Glen Way. The rewilding centre is worth a diversion if you can spare some extra time. As leading conservationists and proponents of rewilding, Trees for Life is creating one of the largest areas of montane woodland in Scotland, by producing native seeds such as aspen on site and then scattering them strategically for quick and natural spread.
Deer stalking season in Scotland
Deer are of course also killed for meat, and there is a specific season for this, known as Stalking Season, which takes place between 1 July and 20 October, with a hind season until 15 February. So, walkers do need to heed the signs although on our walking holidays, the trails are well marked and protected. If you want more information on where and when stalking takes place, check out Heading for the Scottish Hills which provides detailed maps and seasonal updates. If you’re a fan of meat, this is also the best time to tuck into some local venison, with the majority of stalking taking place in the first few weeks of October.
Best time to go to Scotland to avoid midges
Sadly, they aren’t like the Loch Ness Monster – midges do exist in Scotland. They aren’t harmful, but they can be forceful. For those who are new to midges, they are small flying insects that thrive in the Scottish Highlands and other damp, marshy areas throughout the country. The west of Scotland is worse for midges than the east. The wind is also on your side there in the battle against midges, as they get blown off course by wind speeds of as little as 8km/h. They are particularly prolific between May and September beside water and when there is little or no wind. Midges like to party at dawn and dusk and rest during the day, thankfully. Read more in our blog on how to deal with midges in Scotland.