When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Scotland? - A Photographers Guide
Scotland is well known for its rapidly changing weather and four season days. Weather that is looking miserable in the morning can end with the perfect sunset. It is always worth going out and exploring whatever the weather.
As the well known comedian and musician Billy Connolly always says.....
"In Scotland, there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes"
Some of my best days in Scotland have been when the weather has been disgusting. But for some reason these days have stuck in my mind. This guide is aimed at photographers but anyone with a love for the Scottish outdoors and stunning landscapes will find it useful.
East Coast or West Coast of Scotland for the Best Weather?
The east coast of Scotland is usually far more settled than the Highlands and west coast. There are regular stretches of clear weather and around Inverness and Forres there seems to be a micro-climate that does its own thing when the rest of Scotland is battling the elements.
In contrast the Highlands and west coast mountains pretty much do their own thing. It can be pouring and overcast in one glen, head over the mountain and drop down into the next glen to find beautiful sunshine. It really is that much of a microclimate.
It is always worth checking the forecast from a reliable source. I am a fan of the meterological office app for general weather and for night skies the clear outside app gives a good guide of where will be cloud free over night (essential for astrophotography and the aurora borealis).
So When is the Best Weather in Scotland?
I don't think there is a clear answer to this! I will try and show how each season can be good. You just need to remember that spring appears later in the north and autumn arrives later in the south. Days are relatively short in the north over the winter, but in the summer there are very few hours of real darkness. In Shetland, the 'simmer dim' is the period around the summer solstice when it never gets really dark.
If you are not a fan of midges then the best time to visit Scotland is between September and April. The summer months are the best time to become a meal for these pesky little characters in the Scottish Highlands.
In the winter months you need to be aware of the weather forecast and the traffic reports. Snow gates will be closed if deep snow is forecast and these roads can remain closed for some time. Safety when driving should be considered as well. Is the photograph really worth the risk to your own safety or those needed to rescue you if you get stuck.
Spring Photography in Scotland (March, April and May)
Spring is a lovely time for photography in Scotland. The harshness of winter has passed although snow lingers on the mountain tops and gullies. The skies change from winter to summer in an instant and rogue storms pass through to keep you on your toes. In April and May the weather settles and the days are longer. There is also the added bonus that the midges have not woken up and started their reign of terror in the Highlands!
Spring provides good colours for photography in Scotland. The dead bracken that has been a golden brown all winter starts to green up again and the gorse coats the mountains in a bright yellow coat. April and May also see bluebells and wild garlic flowering in the woodlands, a visual and fragrant treat for anyone. The trees also start to blossom with pinks and whites everywhere as the vivid green of new leaves come through.
The seabirds also return in the spring after a winter away. Puffins arrive in large numbers in March for their annual visit until August. The best places to see them are: Isle of May, Sumburgh, Lunga and Castle O'Burrain.
Summer Photography in Scotland (June, July and August)
The summer in Scotland can be unsettled but the days are very long. This can make sunset and sunrise hard work. I am an incredibly lazy photographer and in the summer months I very rarely make it for sunrise. In Shetland, the summer dim means that sunset and sunrise almost roll into each other.
In early summer the machair is at its best. This is an expanse of wild flowers seen on low lying grassy plains. This really is beautiful. The easiest places to see these are along the sand dunes adjacent to the beaches. The best places are on the Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris with the most variety in flowers being seen on Barra and North and South Uist.
In late summer the heather comes into its own. The pink, purple and white flowers will come to life across vast swathes of hillside. Beautiful colours emerging just before the browns and golds of autumn arrive.
Summer days in Scotland can be bright and hazy. This can lead to beautiful surprises after sunset. A non-descript hazy sunset can erupt into a pink and purple sky, reflecting off the hills after the sun has disappeared.
Cloudy summer days can be equally beautiful, giving a dappled effect across the hillside as the light changes. Different areas will come into focus as the clouds scuttle across the sky. Even a heavy squal can give the landscape a beauty all of its own. After the rain has passed through, the sunshine and reflected light off the wet landscape can be perfect.
Summer in Scotland is also the time for festivals and the Highland Games. The Highland Games and Edinburgh Fringe Festival provide great opportunities for street photography whilst exploring Scottish culture at its best.
Autumn Photography in Scotland (September, October and November)
Autumn is when my lazy approach to photography makes life easier. Sunrise and sunset are at sensible times as the days become shorter. As the days become shorter so the nights become longer. This allows for astrophotography. The Milky Way and Aurora Borealis can both be seen from Scotland once the dark skies return.
September sees the departure of the midges. A time to start emerging without protection. It is also when the leaves start to change colour. The autumn colours arrive first in the far north and then move slowly south. Some years the leaves hang on well into November and other years they are gone by mid-October. If October is stormy and windy then the leaves will vanish seemingly over night.
The bracken that has been green all summer slowly turns a golden brown. The colour of the bracken is intensified at sunset and sunrise when the hillsides appear to have a golden glow to them.
October is also the red deer rutting season. On the hillsides the stags will collect their females into hareems, seeing off their rivals to ensure they are able to mate with the most does. They will cover their antlers in vegetation as well as calling and fighting with any rivals who consider their females as fair game.
Snow comes early in the Highlands. Sometimes the mountains will be white in early November. It may be just a dusting or may be substantial. Early snow usually goes as quickly as it came although my family theory that 'snow hangs around waiting for more' seems to hold true for November snow.
November also sees Guy Fawkes night. On the 5th November throughout the U.K. fireworks and bonfires are lit. Edinburgh has a fantastic display but many smaller displays can be equally stunning especially if you can find an interesting foreground.
Winter Photography in Scotland (December, January and February)
Winter in Scotland can be harsh. The days are dark and cold and storms come in off the Atlantic sometimes in a never ending stream. The days are short and the sun never really gets high in the sky. This can be an advantage as the beautiful golden light that photography loves can be present all day.
The short days also provides the perfect conditions for star gazing and astrophotography. Dumfries and Galloway forest has been classified as a Dark Sky Observatory. The Highlands are also very dark in the winter and give perfect views of the night sky.
Scotland is also perfectly placed for viewing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Although the displays are not usually as spectacular as those seen in Iceland or Norway, they are still visible. They are usually lower in the sky with less intensity, but when the sun is active, Scotland is a perfect location for viewing.
Scotland is also known for its winter snow and the perfect photography conditions this can present. The 'proper' snow usually arrives in January. Rannoch Moor and Buachaille Etive Mòr are safe to visit for those with limited mountain experience. Snow is also present around Aviemore and CairnGorm Mountain with easy access for those who want to see Scottish snow safely. Cold winter days can be stunningly beautiful. The air is crystal clear and the combination of sun and snow can be stunning.
At the flick of a switch a storm can arrive providing stunning coastal waves. Care should be taken when visiting the coast during a storm but the wild and remote landscape can take on a life of its own. When photographing winter waves your own safety should come first. I have learnt the hard way where to position my car in the wind so I can actually get the door open. It takes time to think about these details when the wind is howling and rocking the car.
Winter wildlife is also a big draw at this time of year. The mountain hares have their beautiful white coats and can be found in various locations on the snow fields above Inverness. The ptarmigan are also found in their white winter coats around CairnGorm Mountain along with the busy snow buntings.
Winter also brings festivals. Hogmanay is the traditional Scottish way to welcome the New Year. There are parties and fireworks in lots of towns across Scotland along with lots of whisky drinking. There are also a number of fire festivals with the Burning of the Clavie taking place in Burghead in January as well as Stonehaven and Nethy Bridge over New Year. The Shetland Viking Festivals take place in January and February. The most famous of these is Up Helly Aa. A galley, dragged by Jarl's Squad is escorted by 900 torch bearers through the town of Lerwick before being set alight. Orkney also has its own unique Boxing Day and New Year celebration with a game of Ba taking place through the centre of Kirkwall. A mad mix of rugby, football and a general skirmish!
Visiting Scotland Through the Year
As you can see from this summary, Scotland is perfect at any time of the year. You just need to ensure that you have suitable clothing, sun protection, midge protection (Avon Skin so Soft is fantastic) and are aware of the weather conditions and the forecast.