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Scotland in December

Hello,
I am considering traveling to Scotland for a 10 -12 day trip in middle/late December ( including Christmas ) to meet up with a daughter studying abroad. I will most likely be with her for 2-3 days in Edinburgh but then hope to continue north, solo, to explore more remote highland areas. I would love to visit the isle of Skye. While I am terrified of driving in the UK, and have never tried it, I think I have accepted the fact that I might just need to bite the bullet if I want to go to these places. Has anyone traveled to this area or to Oban or the islands of Mull and Iona in December?
Or would it make more sense to explore northern England ( something I have wanted to do as well ) from Edinburgh, at that time of year?
Thank you!

TB

Posted by
5461 posts

TB, where do you drive now? Is it just the fact that you drive on the other side? You realize that you will sit on the other side for the driver's seat. The peddles are the same, so you're not using your left foot for the accelerator or anything crazy like that. In December there will not be many tourists. The weather, can get bad, and while my sense is that Scotland deals better with winter snows and ice than England, they still don't know snow like we do in in places like Wisconsin, upstate NY, Minnesota, let alone Canada. I don't know if they are as bad as places like Georgia, maybe more like Indiana. :)

I think that your plan to go to the west is a good one. Remember that the last remnants of the Gulf Stream end up on the west coast of Scotland, so you don't get the snows--you do get rain! And, on the west, you can likely avoid the passes that might cause trouble in the center. But remember the A9 is the main road to the North of Scotland and lots of people live up there and lots of people drive there in winter. You should plan on checking the weather when you are there and checking website for road conditions, just as you would for a road trip in the US.

I would suggest that you post on the Mull forum on TripAdvisor. See what the locals say about what is open and they can tell you if there are any driving issues. Oban too has a forum. You might also do some searches on VisitScotland's Accommodation tab to see what is available. Drop in the dates of your trip. You could also contact the tourist office. It looks like it's open year round.

BTW you should think about staying for New Years. It's the big holiday.

Posted by
17 posts

Thank you so much for responding, Pamela. I am a good driver here in the states and comfortable and experienced with massive road trips solo, but somehow the whole concept of orientation to the right and particularly negotiating those roundabouts just jaggles my nerves. (I am cursed with an active imagination lol) I've read a few posts on the matter...one gal suggested hiring a cabbie on the first day to drive you around, just to get the feel. Another watched some YouTube videos from the right side perspective. So we will see.
I need now to decide on my itinerary. The choices at this point seem to be....Edinburgh to Oban to explore Mull and Iona, then back to Edinburgh and home. Or...Edinburgh, then train to York. Pick up a car in York to explore kirkybymoorside and spofforth ( I have ancestral roots there ) and then maybe train back to Scotland via the west side visiting Glasgow before flying back. Or maybe a third option....continue south from York to London and return home from Heathrow? I realize that this decision is a matter of personal preference, as these would be vastly different trips. But if you care to comment, it's great fun to hear others' opinions.
Best,
TB

Posted by
3287 posts

Hi TB- we're heading for Scotland in 1 week, and will be driving for the first time in the U.K. Alas, Mull, Iona, and Yorkshire won't fit into our trip this time, but for what it's worth, all accounts indicate the most courteous drivers in the world are in the U.K. (they sure aren't in Colorado), so hopefully you'll get cut some slack. Smile & wave, and it sounds like they'll do the same.

Rick Steves' suggestion of purchasing a green "L" placard over there (but not the red "L") to display on the back, indicating you're a learning driver with access to all roads, including Motorways, might also provide a little more safety margin. You could, of course, start practicing by driving on the left here at home, but that might not be appreciated by everyone else :-)

Posted by
17 posts

Thanks Cyn, great suggestion!
Best of luck to you with your upcoming driving adventure and have a wonderful time in Scotland!
TB

Posted by
1239 posts

The green L is useful. For most drivers here if you see a green L it is someone who has just passed their test and may not be confident behind the wheel. It is not compulsory. As Cyn notes the red L has a specific legal meaning, i.e a learner driver who has not passed their test, and needs to be accompanied by a qualified driver and is restricted in other ways. You can get fined for displaying the red L if you've passed your test.

Weatherwise, the west coast is the tail of the Gulf stream as Pamela rightly says. Generally winters in most of the country are wet, but the most predictable bit about British weather is that it is unpredictable. If you are travelling in December take the weather forecasts and the travel advisories seriously, December and January is when our weather tends to be at its worst.

Posted by
17 posts

Thank you MC for your response! I think a green L is absolutely in my future. My young adult children will most certainly find this amusing.

Best,
TB

Posted by
1239 posts

Just to add a bit extra, the most common form of the green L is a green P. If you go for these, I'd say go for the P if there is a choice. It is much less likely to be confused with an L.

Posted by
5461 posts

Are you going to be traveling solo in the car? If you have a navigator this is less of an issue, but if you are traveling solo, I advise planning your route out and having a list of intermediate destinations. It really helps. I would right them out in order so that when the signs came I had greater confidence of where I was going. Scottish (actually British in general) tend not to have directional signs like we do in the US--A9 north. Rather they have A9 Perth. So you need to know that Perth is to the North. : ) Granted GPS will help, but nothing beats a good map and some advance planning.

Pam

Posted by
16771 posts

If that's the time that you have for travel, then I'd certainly go for it. I survived driving on more than one visit. Outside the bigger cities, you'll mostly enjoy outdoor activities or very low-key, local pub evenings. Many smaller museums are not open in winter, (such as Glencoe Folk Musuem or Skye Museum of Island Life); and some (like Dunvegan castle) are open only by appointment, or on weekends.

Posted by
17 posts

Thanks everyone! I may or may not drive on this trip but feel much better prepared to, if I choose.

One other issue is cropping up and I'd like to tap into your valuable collective knowledge. I may need to fly back to the states on jan 1 from either London or Edinburgh. Is London tube in operation on New Year's Day? Couldn't figure it out on website. What about public transport to airport in Edinburgh? I know many folks will be nursing pretty serious hangovers after the massive partying from the night before. Will I have trouble getting to the airport? And if all else fails...are cabbies working? I don't think that Hogmanay is my thing but I may need to leave from Edinburgh. Thoughts? I feel a little silly asking these questions....but nothing ever closes in large cities here in the states. I get the sense that it is quite different in Europe. Kind of wish it were still that way here!

Many thanks,
TB

Posted by
1239 posts

1st and 2nd January the public transport will be on a limited schedule, it will be running, but not necessarily where you want or when you want. By and large in Scotland on 1st January, after the parties have ended the towns and cities are relatively quiet. That said, you will still be able to get a taxi and some shops and restaurants will be open.

Posted by
2963 posts

Not trying to throw a monkey wrench into the mix , there is one major issue for your consideration : Do you know how to drive a manual transmission ? I agree that driving in the UK is not nearly as horrific as many people assume ( I put over 2,000 miles on the car on my first trip there ) , you would be well advised to rent an automatic transmission ( not hard to do in London or Edinburgh ) .Getting used to roundabouts and left hand driving isn't bad and in Scotland , outside of the cities , traffic will be fairly light , You are right about the necessity of a car to see the places in the west ,so biting the bullet is a must . My main point , however , is that if you are inexperienced with the operation of a stick shift , this is not the time or place to learn .

Posted by
4474 posts

From a quick search the bus service was running from Edinburgh to the airport during the day on 1/1/14 (the overnight service was not however).

Posted by
17 posts

Thanks so much for checking Marco! I think it should be 1/1/15 though....
And Steven, I do drive manual transmission. It's those darned roundabouts that get me! We'll see.

What a great forum. Thanks everyone!

Posted by
3287 posts

@MC-I knew that green peas went with fish & chips, but thanks to you I now know about green P's for learning drivers.

@TB-thanks for your original question, and we'll see how the left-shifting-arm and left-clutch -leg coordination works out. Hope your December trip is good & Happy New Year, in advance!

Posted by
1239 posts

@Cyn somewhere half way up England a little delicacy stops and they give you blank looks. To my regret it does not exist in Scotland. It is the batter left overs from the fish and chip shop, which you stir into the mushy peas. In the south west of England they are called 'grindles' in Yorkshire I think they are called 'bits'. And they are great.

The bus Marco points out should be running on 1st Jan 15, with a better service on 2nd Jan. Driving at that time of year is generally not difficult but... I have sat on the motorway in a blizzard for 8 hours in central Scotland, and temperatures below -10c are not uncommon. The shovel, the bottles of red label coke and the chocolate move into the boot at the beginning of November.

Posted by
1 posts

Thank you TB for posting your plans. I will do kind of the same touring / driving this December. I will arrive to London on Dec 20th and leaving on January 3rd. The plan is driving and visiting as much as possible. The idea is to spend some time in London and the go up to Scotland, then touring a bit around the major cities in Scotland and then going to do the same at the major cities in Northern Ireland, then driving back to London and returning home. I have no fear of driving, actually this is my main motivation. However, my fear is the weather, and possible road blocks because of snow, but I think people still live there and do things on snowy time, am I wrong? Should I be worry about weather? What do you people think? My wife is almost freaking out and almost she has cancelled the plans, please give me some input that can easy her.
Thank you so much for your comments.

Posted by
17 posts

Hi,
You are braver than I am. I have decided that driving in UK and navigating at the same time (I will be solo) are too much. So I am using the train and visiting fewer places. I have read a fair amount and believe that just like everywhere, you can't really predict the weather. I think that heavy snow is rare but does occur occasionally. I think that WET can be predicted. So go for it! The worst thing that happens is that you can't get to where you planned and will have to go or stay somewhere unexpected. How exciting! You will have such freedom with a car...freedom to explore or hunker down if necessary. No trains schedules to tie you down. So I hope that your wife will relax and enjoy. Have a wonderful trip!

TB

Posted by
5461 posts

Hi TB, I don't know where you are from, but if you've driven in winter before and pay attention to the road reports and the weather you should be fine. Lots of people live in Scotland--5 million plus!--and while the majority live in the area around Glasgow and Edinburgh, the others continue to travel year round.

You need to be aware of the passes. Sometimes the roads over the passes can close due to snow at elevation. Scotland has a lot of traffic cameras that can show you the current conditions. This same site has other resources that you could reference as you plan each day's trip.

Would you go to Colorado in the winter and drive? Of course you would, or at least many people do. They all don't ride the bus to Aspen. :) Scotland's roads are smaller. There is no interstate between Edinburgh and Inverness, only the A9. But the A9 is the main road north and it's needed for commerce, so unless you run into a storm, you should be fine.

Pam

Posted by
1239 posts

I've driven all across the UK in winter and generally it is ok, although I have been stuck in the snow on the motorway. The A9 does close in certain conditions as does the A90 and the roads in the west. My suggestion is rather than travelling around, base your self somewhere and take your cues from the weather forecasts. Typically the weather here is not bad, windy, rainy but not bad, but every now and again it can be horrible. Last winter the south west of England and west Wales had a nightmare winter , ours was quite mild. A few years before that the central belt of Scotland ground to a halt because of the snow and temperatures below minus 10 celcius. The folk consensus is a bad winter follows a good summer, make of that what you would, but this year we have had a pretty good summer ;-) And winter is coming, and we are north of the wall.

Posted by
3287 posts

As someone who drives Berthoud Pass in Colorado on a regular basis (except when it's closed due to avalanches or avalanche control work, which happened a lot last winter), and who also managed to drive in some of Scotland this summer with nary a mishap, I'll throw out my two pence worth.

Following MC's advice above, I went to Ali's Cave in Edinburgh and got a green P for 2 pounds. It turns out there were 2 sheets of thin plastic with green P's in the package, and each had 2 thin magnetic strips to hold it to the boot (trunk) lid of the car. Good thing for having the second P -- the first one blew off during a storm one night on Skye, while the car was sitting still. It never came off while driving! It did give a little more peace of mind, letting the other drivers know I wasn't skilled driving from the right side of the car and on the left side of the road, though we still got 2 or 3 honks that week ;-) The main thing seems to be not staying TOO far to the left, as you don't want to drop off the pavement or hit a curb. The signage was good, and in English (plus Gaelic, too, some places), so navigating wasn't difficult in the hinterlands. Getting out of Stirling required asking directions. Driving in Glasgow or downtown Edinburgh could be a bigger challenge, though.

Compared to US roads (heck, even compared to US bike lanes) the roads were narrow. If the lane's wide enough for a car, you could argue they don't need to be any wider than that, but many drivers, including some in vehicles bearing license plates of countries where they drive on the right, had a hard time staying on their side of the center line. As we say, they were taking their half of the road out of the middle. We didn't have snow in August, but had a couple of really rainy days, and as with anywhere, just slow down, drive smoothly, and leave a greater distance between vehicles. I'd imagine there will be a lot less of the tourist traffic in December than we encountered (and contributed to) in August, so there's an advantage for you.

Regarding what Pam said, although I've taken the bus to Aspen many times, and it's not a bad way to go, Highway 82 has been widened in the past few years, making for a nicer drive. If you're going skiing at Sunlight or one of the four Aspen mountains, take the necessary precautions and get on the road and drive. It's snowed the past 2 days in the Colorado mountains so it's pretty right now and would make a nice visit, but Scotland in December would be great.