Weather in Scotland – not as challenging as you’ve heard

Weather in Scotland is varied yet usually not extreme. Pack flexibly and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.  When the sun shines, it’s glorious.  The ever changing light, the rain that clears unexpectedly and the sheer variety of it all is an essential Scottish experience!

The best thing about the weather in Scotland is that whatever you write about it will probably be true at some point in the year. And it’s all because of where Scotland is – sticking out into the North Atlantic.

You could think of the skies above Scotland as a battlefield, where the prevailing south-westerlies with their mild airs off the Atlantic Ocean meet the more stable air of the continental European land mass.

The resultant mix means the weather in Scotland never gets very warm or very cold. It’s just a cool temperate climate. Ho-hum.

Best pack a light waterproof, just in case. Especially if you are heading to the West Highlands. Oh, unless the forecast is for an east wind, in spring. In this case, the west will be dry.

You see what I mean? Even explaining the weather in Scotland can be very complicated.

Sunshine on Eriskay
Sunshine on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides

Glorious Scotland – when it’s sunny

Anyway, let’s start with a reassuring picture of what sunshine does to the colours of the Outer Hebrides – in this case, Eriskay ponies on Eriskay, towards the south end of the Outer Hebrides. They look as though they are enjoying the Scottish weather.

When it’s fine here, the colours are matchless, as we say in a variety of other pages. 

…but it isn’t always sunny

But how my heart used to sink when I had to write those earnest descriptions of Scotland weather for promotional area guidebooks.

I used to catch myself writing the word ‘moisture’ instead of ‘rain’ because it somehow sounded, well, drier.

But you can’t blame Scotland’s tourism industry for not wanting to dwell on the weather in Scotland because – and there’s no way I can say this gently – it definitely rains a lot in some parts of Scotland, especially in the west.

Weather in Scotland: Look west – an Atlantic front!

Time it wrong and an Atlantic weather front will slice the tops off those soaring mountains, and a grey wet curtain and a wind off the sea may make you seek recreation indoors.

The upbeat part is that if you expect the worst, then, when the weather in Scotland shows signs of improving, you can relax and enjoy the glorious interplay of cloud and light, and the mist rising on the crags, and all that stuff.

Oops. I knew I would break out in brochure-speak at some point.

One of our Isle of Skye pages illustrates the fast changes which can occur, on a day when Portree, the island ‘capital’, looked especially miserable in the rain.

But only a couple of hours later, an easy drive to the north, and the mountainscape of the Quiraing was bathed in sunshine.

Weather in Scotland. Today it's spring showers on the Moray Firth coast
Early May showers on the Moray Firth coast. This is one of the very driest areas of Scotland. Nevertheless, on that spring day the south wind still managed to push these fierce-looking clouds down towards the sea. Short sharp downpours, clearing in between. visibility good, cloud effects even better and not too cold. yes, honestly.
Summarizing the Scottish climate

You can’t. The oft-quoted description of ‘four seasons in one day’ is an exaggeration – though a favourite saying of couthy tour guides, landladies and lazy tourism brochure writers.

But there are certainly plenty of statistical differences in rainfall, sunshine hours and so on, to be noted even within comparatively short distances, because of the varied landscape of hill and glen.

Be optimistic – the Scots usually are about their weather.

This is the only explanation for why Fort William, the West Highland route centre and bustling town in the shadow of rain-catching Ben Nevis, successfully brands itself as ‘Scotland’s Outdoor Capital’ – in spite of being one of the wettest places in Scotland.

Ooh, there, I’ve gone and said it now. (Actually, it’s a really cool place for mountain biking and all kinds of muddy stuff. And, of course, skiing at Nevis Range in winter.)

Anyway, ‘Scotland’s Indoor Capital’ as a title would be an admission of defeat, wouldn’t it?

OK, so beware the media stereotyping that goes on – but bear in mind that, for sure, our weather is a bit unpredictable. That makes packing for the trip a little tricky. When deciding what clothes to bring on holiday, pack for maximum flexibility.

Caution: Scottish weather rant imminent!

Basically, Scotland has what geographers probably call a cool temperate maritime climate. However, there are exceptions to this cool-ish temperate flavour, if you believe what you read in guidebooks.

One climatic freak in Scotland’s weather (apparently) happens specifically at Inverewe Gardens in the north-west Highlands. Many guidebooks describe the beautiful gardens there as ‘semi-tropical’.

It’s all to do with the Gulf Stream – strictly speaking, the North Atlantic Drift – bathing the coast with its beneficial warmth.

OK, so it’s on the same latitude as Labrador, but just because it doesn’t freeze up in winter does not make it semi-tropical.

Get it right, you guys: technically, it’s still cool temperate. Obvious, if you’ve stomped about in it during a west coast downpour.

And all of Scotland, but especially the western seaboard, benefits from the North Atlantic Drift, not just Inverewe. Grrr. 

However, the real issue with Scotland’s weather is the tendency of the ‘down-south’ media to over-generalize and lump a single weather forecast for the whole of Scotland – or to assume that specific or fairly localised weather events are much more widespread than they are.

Extreme, but localised, weather events

Hence, for example, way back in the winter of 2015, the terrible flooding in the north of England, centred on Carlisle and Lancaster and England’s Lake District but spreading out further and certainly into parts of the Scottish Borders, was widely reported in the media as a disaster for ‘the North of England and Scotland’.

Hardly a drop of rain fell on us Scots in the coastal fringes of the Moray Firth and we watched the tv news in horror.

However, having said that, later in the same winter, some northern rivers, such as the River Dee, did cause serious flooding events (for instance, in Ballater).

All of this is a reminder that Scotland often gets highly localised weather – because of its varied terrain and of where it lies off the main land masses of Europe as outlined above.

And this brings us back to our starting point: that it’s difficult to generalise.

It’s dumping in Doncaster (England) but burning on Barra

Barra is part of the Outer Hebrides, down at the south end. (We have a page on Barra if you want to find out more.) Now, in March of 2018, the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ arrived, dumping snow on swathes of England down there, as well as on bits on us as well. The papers were full of it, as we generally aren’t very good with snow.

But hear this: while the easterlies brought the serious weather, Barra, way out west was, of all things, dealing with moorland fires because it had been so dry – and it wasn’t the only place in the west.

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, autumn colour
It’s a lovely calm autumn day in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. Even in November you can chance upon weather that’s ideal for exploring the city.

Scotland weather – vacation tip

OK, so beware the media stereotyping that goes on – but bear in mind that, for sure, our weather is a bit unpredictable.

That makes packing for the trip a little tricky. When deciding what clothes to bring on holiday, pack for maximum flexibility.

Remember that Charles Macintosh, a Scottish chemist (1766-1843), gave his name to the original waterproof overcoat. (He did not, however, design the now destroyed Glasgow School of Art. That was another Mackintosh entirely.)

But as well as that waterproof, think about layers rather than just one thick garment. Heck, I’m editing this page and adding this sentence three days before the shortest day in December – and it got to 14.5 degrees centigrade today, just ahead of midwinter.

(What’s that…about 55 degrees Fahrenheit? Sheesh…glad I wasn’t wearing my duvet jacket on the dog walk. I thought we are supposed to live in the ‘frozen north’ etc etc.)

And that brings me to some thoughts on the weather in the north, in the Highlands, in particular.

Scottish Highlands Weather

Thinking about Scottish Highlands weather – as opposed to general observations on Scotland’s climate – then, yes, I’ve had my share of promoting the ‘four seasons in one day’ copywriter’s cop-out cliche.

Truth to tell, I used to hate having to write that ‘pack flexibly and prepare for anything’ stuff – though it was probably sound enough advice when it came to describing the ever-changing Highland climate.

In any case, when you get north of Ullapool, Scottish Highlands weather forecasting often doesn’t seem to apply so rigidly – that’s the impression I’ve got over the years, anyway.

In any event, it’s never easy to make a generalisation about Scotland’s weather, but this is taken to extremes the further you go north and west into the Scottish Highlands.

Beach near Laide of Reiff with the weather in Scotland coming off the Atlantic.
On the beach near Laide of Reiff at Achiltibuie, north of Ullapool – best enjoy the sparkle, as the south-westerlies are bringing in some showers. But they’ll soon pass through…

The hilltops really do catch the weather in Scotland – sometimes you just have to do a coastal walk and hope the weather passes over quickly. This doesn’t always work!

These pics were all taken north of Ullapool, the main town for the North-West Highlands and which is only an hour’s drive north of Inverness. We like this large village – there are plenty of nice places to stay – as it is also the gateway to the Outer Hebrides.

With a westerly airflow, Scottish Highlands weather comes in from the Atlantic and you’re going to get wet from time to time but, in between the showers, the seascapes and the skies are just pure theatre. You didn’t come here for a sun-tan, did you?

Atlantic weather in the North-West Highlands
The south-westerlies piled in the clouds on top of the peaks of Inverpolly, North-West Highlands.

That’s the secret of our fast changing weather. It’ll change eventually – or sooner. It’s great for dramatic lighting effects – you’ll get some great pictures. Think about it as a little adventure.

So, now you know about the weather in Scotland, you will find some more weather pictures in a kind of almanac on our best time to visit page.

Time to update your light summer waterproof?

Anyone who gardens in Scotland keeps an close eye on the weather.