When to go
Any time is a good time to visit Scotland, but your choice of when to go will depend on what you want to do.
The main tourist period is April to September, and the height of the season is during the school holidays in July and August when accommodation, be it camping grounds, B&Bs or luxury hotels, is at a premium. Edinburgh in particular becomes impossibly crowded during the festival period in August, so book well ahead if you plan to visit then (a year ahead is not too early!).
In winter public transport is less frequent and travel to the islands can be a problem if high winds disrupt the ferries. Outside the main cities, some tourist attractions are closed from November to March.
Considering how far north it lies – Edinburgh is on the same latitude as Labrador in Canada – you might expect Scotland to have a colder climate, but the breezes from the Atlantic are warmed by the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that flows from the southeast coast of the USA and bathes the western shores of the British Isles.
The east coast tends to be drier than the west – rainfall averages around 650mm – and it is often warmer in summer and colder in winter. Temperatures rarely drop below 0°C on the coast, although a wind blowing off the North Sea will make you shiver any time of year. The west coast is milder and wetter, with more than 1500mm of rain and average summer highs of 19°C. The western Highlands around Fort William are the wettest place in Britain, with annual rainfall as high as 3000mm.
Statistically, your best chances of fine weather are in May, June and September; July and August are usually warm, but may be wet too. In summer, daylight hours are long; the midsummer sun sets around 11pm in the Shetland Islands and even Edinburgh evenings seem to last forever in June and July. Conversely, in December the sun doesn’t show its face until after 9am, and it’s dark again by 4pm.
In April and May Scotland’s glorious scenery is set off by snow lingering on the mountains and colourful displays of wildflowers in the bluebell woods of southern Scotland and the machair (grass- and wildflower-covered dunes) of the Western Isles. June brings a pink haze of rhododendron blossoms to the Highland glens, but it’s not until August that the hill sides put on their famous show of purple heather.
October sees the forests of Perthshire and the Trossachs alight with a blaze of glorious autumn colours. Midwinter can be dreich (a wonderfully descriptive Scots word meaning ‘dull and miserable’), but if you get a clear spell of hard frost and sunshine the scenery can be every bit as stunning as in summer.
The many seabird colonies around the Scottish coast are at their most spectacular during the nesting season (April to July), while coastal nature reserves see huge flocks of migrating ducks, geese and waders in spring and autumn. You can see seals, dolphins and porpoises almost all year round, but the whale-watching season peaks in July and August. One seasonal species you should definitely be aware of is the dreaded midge. They are usually around from June to September, but are at their worst in July and August.