When to visit the Highlands? Is autumn a good time?
Scotland – “the most beautiful country in the world” as voted by Rough Guide – it’s now on a lot of bucket lists, not that it wasn’t before. In autumn, the whole of Scotland can be particularly beautiful. The trees start to turn the most amazing shades of red, brown, orange and yellow which contrast beautifully with the deep green of the pines. Unfortunately, in general, there are just not as many people around wanting to tour or visit the Highlands. A lot of businesses up here start to close up shop and think about maintenance or their own holiday. So if late autumn is your time to visit to Scotland, you might have to consider some compromises.
Here are some of our top tips:
Public Transport when you visit the Highlands
Timetables start to change after the end of September and you’ll find that some bus services might cease altogether. Ferries are also a lot less frequent.
If you want to hit all the places on your bucket list, particularly if you want, to head out to the islands it would be a bonus to hire a car. If you have to rely on public transport you could end up using a lot of your valuable vacation time waiting around for the next bus or ferry.
Hiring a car when you visit the Highlands
The hire car companies certainly don’t suffer from timetable changes in the autumn. In fact, it will probably be easier to get hold of the car you want as there will be less of a demand. You won’t need to plan so far in advance if you want to hire a car.
Points to remember:
- In Britain, everyone drives on the left.
- In the autumn, sunset is pretty early and by the end of October you’ll need lights on and have little visibility by 5pm
- Roads in Scotland can be very narrow particularly on the islands and the further north you go. Once you’re north of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the widest road you’ll see is a dual carriageway.
Remember your driving licence and check that it is acceptable to the hire company. We have had guests who have had to amend their entire planned itinerary when the hire company didn’t accept the international driving licence they’d arranged.
Alternatives to car hire
If you’re not confident about hiring a car it might be worth your while investigating a tailor-made tour with a small company like Scot Mountain Holidays, it will be more expensive than a DIY tour but you’ll get to hit all the spots on your bucket list and may even have time for some surprises. Travelling with local guides also means that you’ll be able to visit places you haven’t heard about which may give you more of an insight and end up being the highlight of your trip.
You could also try booking with one of the minibus tour operators like the Wee Red Bus or Rabbies – but even they tend to travel less frequently in the autumn and you may not be able to get over to places like Skye unless you time your trip very carefully.
You’ll need to pick and choose your attractions carefully as a lot of places start to close in October including the Highland Folk Museum. But on the plus side, you’ll probably pick up some bargain entries as well. Dalwhinnie distillery, for example, are now offering free tours all “winter”.
The hills are never closed. There are good weather periods throughout the autumn though September is renowned for being the best month for sunshine. It is still possible to strike sunny days in October and November. The only thing to be aware of (which most people come prepared for) is that blue skies in autumn also mean cold days. Finally a chance to wear the woolly jumpers (sweaters) which have been gathering dust at the bottom of your wardrobe.
Clear, cold air also brings excellent photo opportunities
Don’t forget: headtorch
Cycling and mountain biking
The natural tracks are never closed but be aware that some trail centres might close up. This year (2017) Glenlivet mountain bike trails have had to close for the winter due to a fungus in their lodge pole pines. A huge area of the centre will have to be clear felled to protect the remaining trees from the fungus. Autumn is in general an amazing time to go biking in Scotland and particularly in the Highlands. You can just cover that bit more ground when cycling and with the shorter days, it makes sense to go out on the bike and make the most of the day which you might still be able to finish in daylight.
Main disadvantage would be that the temperatures can get quite uncomfortable for biking, especially at the beginning and end of the day but all you need to do to combat this is to dress up warmer than usual, particularly on your hands and feet. (Check next week’s blog for top tips on how to keep warm on your bike with input from our local biking companies.) The views and colours will be a reward in themselves – and you can justify the hot chocolate(s) and cake(s). The cafe stops will help to keep you warm!
Lights, gloves, warm footwear.
Sitmat and thermos flask
More adventures: canoeing, zip wire ….
It might seem mad to go and deliberately get yourself wet at this time of year, but as with all outdoor activities in autumn the light and colours nature provides are a reward in themselves. The water temperatures are also some of their warmest too after a whole summer of above freezing weather. (Cairngorm swimmers are still swimming in Loch Morlich – but perhaps they are hardier than most of us.)
It is of course much easier to book a slot to kayak or go on the zip wire and you can afford to be a bit more spontaneous rather than be tied to a slot no matter the weather.
It will generally be much quieter everywhere you go, than the height of the summer season, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. You will probably find most people, including the staff at any attractions you visit, more prepared to spend time chatting to you.
The days will be shorter, but you’ll really appreciate a log fire at the end of the day.
Traditional Scottish cuisine comes into its own at this time of year as this is the weather hearty food was designed for. You won’t really get to enjoy the wonderful Scottish soft fruits unless you’re here a wee bit earlier, but wild mushrooms, venison and wild cowberries will be in season.