Visiting the NC500 in winter - 10 helpful hints
Updated: Feb 13
It is safe to say, that most folk probably do not think about visiting the far north of Scotland in the middle of winter. It’s a long way to travel to even get there, the days are short and the weather…well, the weather.... more of that later.
However, people have started to think about it more and we certainly saw a few extra campervans about over the festive period recently than we have previously. Added to that we had some of our own friends who decided to drive all the way up from Fleet, Hampshire to rent a cottage right on the north coast near The Castle of Mey for 5 nights over New Year.
Travelling to and around the North Highlands and North Coast 500 in winter is not impossible, or even ill-advised, as long as you are prepared.
So what should you think about?
The Weather (1)
This is the big question and it will absolutely impact on your trip – but it could be positive or negative, and when planning a trip you need to be prepared to be flexible and take the good with the bad.
Most of the 10 years since we have lived up here, we would say the weather has not been too bad, although of course there has been the inevitable snowfall, usually worse on the west coast than the east. This may prohibit some of your travel on the smaller roads such as the Drumbeg Peninsula (the ‘wee mad road’) or Bealach na Ba. However, it is often further south before you even reach the North Highlands that you may face a problem, especially as you travel north over the Cairngorms. If you are travelling up by road, the A9 can sometimes be closed altogether. The weather actually on the coast rarely sees snow, although this winter we’ve had snow lay 3 times on the north east coast with difficult icy roads as well, so be prepared and watch the weather forecasts closely!
Short days (2)
Shorter daylight hours are something which can be relied upon in winter - although the weather will also impact how this feels in practice. On the shortest day of the year, the 21st December 2022 (which also happens to be our Wedding Anniversary), the sunrise at John O’ Groats was at 09.02 and sunset at 15.19 giving just 6 hours & 17 minutes of ‘day’ light. This extended to just under 8 hours on 1st Nov and a little over 8 hours on 1st Feb. This means we recommend bringing books, games or other forms of entertainment to occupy those longer evenings. It didn’t stop us enjoying a mini break however for our 10th wedding anniversary a few years ago, staying at the Bothy on Balnakiel Beach – a cosy, wild (due to the weather) and wonderful experience!
Night Skies (3)
The benefit of shorter days, however, is longer nights – and with it some spectacular sights. Being generally remote and relatively unpopulated, there is little light pollution in the sky in the whole of the North Highlands.
This leads to the most wonderful opportunity to view the night sky in all its glory – the Milky Way, the Harvest Moon and the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) – clear skies or partially cloudy skies are of course required. And just be aware that even when the Northern Lights are visible, the view through a camera may be better than that achieved with the naked eye!
Photography Light (4)
One of our favourite things about the winter months is the light – it provides fantastic opportunities for photography and magic moments to fill the soul.
With both sunrises and sunsets, the light projects the most beautiful orange hue and can fill the landscape with the most beautiful shades of pink to orange. Only this winter we saw the most amazing site as it looked like the Pentland Firth (sea to the north of Scotland) was on fire! Alternatively you may experience a really stormy day when the mix of blues and greys provide the chance to witness atmospheric waves, unique shafts of light reaching down like the hand of God or the most stunning rainbows, often gracing the whole horizon.
Availability & opening hours of accommodation, attractions, etc. (5)
On a practical note, you should be aware that things are much quieter in the North Highlands during the winter months. Although that is not to say that the locals are not still living their lives! However, lots of accommodation especially family run B&Bs and smaller hotels will be closed, as will most of the ‘visitor attractions’ or least they will be operating on much reduced opening hours. So if there is something you are very keen to see, do check-up what is open in advance.
Christmas and New Year (6)
We often see people planning their trips on social media who ask about places to eat or party on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Firstly the North Highlands is lacking in major towns and so you will not find major festivities around every corner and even in the recognised towns celebrations may well be muted, without major events or lots of restaurants to choose from. There will always be a handful of hotels providing Christmas dinner or a Hogmanay party in the major towns and the more expensive hotels may have a festive package over the period. But all these need to be planned well in advance to guarantee your seat.
Wildlife does not follow the same seasonal pattern as us humans and the sights you may see in the winter are likely to differ from those at other times of year. For a start the red deer, which are usually elusive in the warmer months, are often to be found by the road side during winter. Meanwhile the pupping season for grey seals is mid-winter and you may well see them dotted about the beaches or sand dunes either with the initial fluffy white fur or as this turns to their new grey fur ready for taking to the seas. We even had an orca sighted off John O’ Groats this Christmas! As with all wildlife sightings , you should always keep your distance and respect that they are all wild animals, which may bite or kick if you invade their territory.
What to take – vehicle (8)
We cannot use the words ‘be prepared’ enough here! Of course what you require will relate to the weather and that is unpredictable. But be prepared for snow, for ice and for breaking down in the middle of nowhere! This means ensuring that your vehicle is ‘winter-ready’:
Does everything function correctly? e.g. battery, lights, brakes
Keep topped up with fuel, oil, antifreeze, washer fluid
Do you have traction aids? e.g. shovel, winter tyres, snow chains perhaps?
Take an ‘Emergency Gear’ pack – warm clothes / boots / blankets / practical footwear like wellies / torch and batteries / phone and charger / warning triangle / de-icer
What to take – clothing (9)
Whatever the time of year we would always recommend bringing layers of clothing for touring the North Highlands. From thermals and base layers to mid layers and fleeces and of course, a good outdoor waterproof jacket and sensible footwear, preferably walking boots or rubber wellington boots. And of course, a hat, scarf and gloves can come in handy too – at any time of year!
Do not underestimate the climate here in the North Highlands, it is always likely to be a few degrees cooler than further south and due to the vast landscapes you will encounter, you will feel, and be part of, the weather more than you may be used too. An extra layer is always worthwhile!
Our final ‘Be prepared’ thoughts! (10)
Before we moved up to the North Highlands, we decided to journey north and spend Christmas in a self-catering lodge on the side of Loch Eriboll in the far north west corner. We knew we couldn’t rely on the weather - or that anywhere would be open to buy things ad-hoc, so full planning mode took effect. We took the overnight sleeper train from London to Inverness, and hired a vehicle which we collected at the railway station. We were keen not to encounter any problems on the roads and rented a Land Rover Defender. When booking the vehicle and asking if they thought this would be OK for us, the response was “if you can’t travel safely in this vehicle, you shouldn’t be travelling at all"!
For food we had made a complete list of everything we would need to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary, Christmas lunch and the surrounding days. We ordered what was necessary in advance from local Highland suppliers and stopped off at a local supermarket on the way up to buy the rest. It meant that when we arrived we were sorted and ready to go. Just as well, as the weather came in, the loch looked like a cauldron for a few days and we lost contact with the outside world due to wind and wild, wild weather. It was glorious! But only because we were prepared!
We hope this has given you a wee sense of travelling the North Highlands in winter but if you have any other questions which you think we can help with, do drop us a line.
Written by Sally-Ann James January 2023