Where do you begin with a place like Scotland?
Robert Louise Stevenson said, “There are no foreign lands. It is only the traveler who is foreign.” Ironically, I think the Scottish poet forgot to mention that in Scotland, no visitor is foreign. It’s a place where words fall short in describing such unfettered, yet familiar beauty and untamed, yet welcoming people.
To be able to write about this country I’ve called a home since I was 18 years old is truly a pleasure. From getting that classic kiss under Edinburgh’s fireworks on Hogmanay (New Years), to fishing weekends in the Outer Hebrides with friends, hiking the Fife Coastal Path with my brother, and speaking with a native Gallic speaker for hours on the ‘Harry Potter’ train through the Highlands, this country has provided endless and invaluable experiences that will last a lifetime.
For anyone though who is planning to travel to Scotland in the future, beware that the country quietly snickers at you when you expect everything to go according to plan. Ultimately, whether it’s the weather, poor cell reception, bridge closures, or just those unsuspecting breathless moments, like a Scottish sunset, this country demands not just your patience, but also that you remain in the moment.
Clearly my bias is already showing. So, to help me keep things real, I’ve asked my friend Katie MacLeod-English, who is a native from the Outer Hebrides and who runs her own travel blog Stories My Suitcase Could Tell, to help me hand out some local knowledge on what to do and a few tips on packing for Scotland, especially depending on the season.
Where to Go & What to See in Scotland
Katie, a native Scot, has grown up in and traveled the country extensively. I asked her a few questions to tease out which touristy things are worth doing and which off the beaten path adventures can’t be missed.
What is the best piece of advice you could give visitors to Scotland?
“Honestly, it would be to look past the stereotyped version of Scotland. While we all know Highland cows are cute and kilts are unique, but there’s so much more to see in Scotland than the shortbread-tin pictures sugges. There’s really so much more to do here than you might expect at first.”
What would you recommend as the best activity in Edinburgh?
“It’s touristy, but the one thing I always do in Edinburgh is climb up to Calton Hill; the views across the city and out to Firth of Forth are gorgeous, and I never get tired of them.
Another good spot to get a view of the city is from the rooftop of the National Museum of Scotland. I’d also add that you absolutely have to get chip shop chips with “salt and sauce.” Just trust me on this one – it’s an Edinburgh specialty!”
“Checking out Glasgow’s architecture is a must. There’s a real mix of styles here, like Victorian, Gothic, and Art Nouveau, and more recently there’s the Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum. I love the contrast between shops and cafes on the ground level (Glasgow is the UK’s biggest shopping mecca after London, by the way), and the proud columns and elaborate carvings above.”
What one thing would you recommend people to do in the Highlands?
“Drive all the way to the north along the eastern stretch of the North Coast 500 route and visit Caithness. There are ancient castles, puffins nesting in the cliffs, beautiful scenery, and the mainland UK’s most northerly distillery at Dunnet Bay. (Their Rock Rose Gin is made from local botanicals, and I can personally recommend it for a G&T!)”
What is your favorite thing to do, or to visit, in Scotland
“I’m from the Outer Hebrides, so the islands will always be my favorite place to visit. I could go on and on about all the brilliant things to do there (and I usually do!), but one highlight is definitely sailing out to St. Kilda. It’s a remote archipelago about 40 miles west of the Hebrides – the last residents left there in the 1930s – and the islands are a double World Heritage Site for their cultural and environmental significance. I’ve honestly never been anywhere else like it.”
How to Dress for Scotland
Scotland is a great country for the snappy dresser, but ultimately Scots don’t care what you wear. No matter where you’re going, the golden rule is to layer. If you want to feel like a newb, just wear a t-shirt and shorts for a summer day, or wear only a heavy winter jacket for protection in the winter. As Katie says,
“The most important thing about packing for travelling to Scotland is to take layers, because we’re not joking when we say we can experience four seasons in one day. “
“I’d also say pack some long sleeve t-shirts, and then a cardigan or a sweater to put on over them if it gets chilly, and most importantly, take a light waterproof raincoat to put on over the lot. I can’t travel without a waterproof jacket.
I know, it’s a stereotype that it always rains in Scotland, but I’ve learned from (a lot) of experience that the one time you don’t take a jacket with you, it’s going to rain.”
I couldn’t agree more. Rain is your companion in Scotland year around. It’s with you through sickness and in health. So no matter how well you dress, you better expect for clothes to get at least a mist, if not fully drenched, if you don’t bring a rain jacket.
Oh, and a note on kilt etiquette: While they are comfortable to wear on the appropriate occasion, if you aren’t in a wedding or on a Stag Do (Bachelor’s party), expect to get a few weird looks. Scots do not wear kilts outside of ceremony and sports events. If you’re not Scottish, expect to interrogated about why you’re wearing a kilt, as many are not fans of the kilt, as a national cultural symbol, becoming a kitschy costume.
City vs. Country (& the Highlands) Packing Tips
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the difference between city life and everywhere else in Scotland, which is a lot of ground to cover. Edinburgh and Glasgow tend to be a bit dressier than the country villages. Whether you’re in the Highlands, the Shetland or Orkney Islands, or the Isle of Skye you’ll notice that you’re more exposed to the elements, as these places are bit on the more remote and wilder side of country.
On top of this, depending on what time of the year you head to ‘Highlands and the Islands’, you need to prepare a little bit more for Mother Nature’s hospitality, or lack thereof. Cell phone service is harder to come by, the roads get a wee bit more dangerous, and wildlife is afoot (mostly deer and smaller herbivores, as Scotland hunted a lot of its carnivore population to near extinction). In short, expect everything outside of the urban centers to be a little wilder.
If you’re headed out of the cities, pack:
- A map of Scotland – it’s better to have a map of the roads than rely on the shoddy cell signal of the Highlands.
- A battery pack – I always carry a battery pack with me since I never know how much I’ll need to use my phone when exploring or walking around for the day, or when I’ll be in a place to charge it.
- Favorite snacks – if you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or have certain allergies, you’re entering remote regions of the country that might not cater to your specific dietary requirements. Better to be safe than sorry.
- Sturdy shoes – expect to walk and do some light hiking.
The Basic Scotland Packing List
Let’s start simply, before getting into the nuances of Scottish seasons.
First off, pack in either the Outbreaker or Setout backpack for a Scottish trip. Any trip to Scotland will likely involve lots of walking, trains, and busses. You will want to be as comfortable as possible, so a travel backpack with a waist strap is essential. And especially if it’s raining (likely), you’ll be glad of a water resistant bag.
Not to mention, Scotland and the UK at large are notorious for awkward urban planning. Imagine rolling a suitcase on cobble stones and thin sidewalks while trying to find your hotel or Airbnb.
Spoiler alert: It’s hell.
Basic Scotland Packing List:
- 1-2 long-sleeve t-shirts
- 2 short sleeve t-shirts or tank tops
- 1-2 sweaters, sweatshirts, hoodies, or cardigans
- 4 pair of wool socks (one for nighttime)
- 2 pairs of jeans, pants, or leggings
- 1 pair of sweatpants or long underwear
- Waterproof windbreaker*
- 1 dressier outfit
*this can be paired up nicely with a sweater, instead of a winter jacket, to save space
Here’s what else you should pack:
- An umbrella
- UK converter
- Reusable water bottle – Scots are pretty environmentally conscious and tap water is very good to drink)
- Unlocked phone and UK sim card
- A couple good books, or ebooks (for public transportation and those rainy days inside)
- A camera
Keep reading for how to tweak this list for each season.
Shoes to Pack for Scotland
Did I mention that shoes will make or break a Scottish trip? It is inevitable that you will be walking up and down hills, on and off trains, on cobblestoned and even dirt roads. It is crucial that you pack a pair of very good, and preferably waterproof, walking shoes with solid tread, regardless of the season. Leave the sandals and flip flops at home.
Also, per Katie, “Unless you’re literally climbing mountains in the Highlands, leave your hiking boots at home – your regular trainers or boots will be fine for most activities,”
If it comes down to a space issue, pack:
- Good walking shoes
- Pair of rain boots, wellies, or something waterproof
Check out the best shoes for urban adventures.
What to Wear in Scotland for Autumn
A Scottish autumn is comfortably cold, rainy, short, and usually remains confined to the months of October and November. This is a perfect time to visit as daylight hours are normalizing and the days are healthy mix of sunny and cold – perfect for enjoying cozy evenings in front of a fire, or a day in a café with a cup of tea and good book.
To the basic packing list for Scotland, add:
- 1 hat, a warm one
- 1 pair of light gloves
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 1 light scarf
What to Wear in Scotland for Winter
Scottish winter is where things can get bleak and the population retreats inside their homes and the local pub to spend time with friends and family. Daylight can be as little as six hours long, with the sun setting around 3pm. Short days mean less warmth, and you’ll want to bundle up, especially for the nights. Beware that Scottish winters are not very snowy. Instead, at the worst, you should prepare for windy days complemented with very cold rain. December and January tend to bear the worst weather.
Essential items to add to your packing list for Scotland in winter inlcude:
- Add an extra long-sleeve t-shirt
- Remove one short sleeved t-shirt
- Add at least one extra pair of wool socks
- 1-2 pairs of long underwear
- 1 winter scarf
- 1 waterproof winter jacket
- 1 waterproof hat
- 1 pair of waterproof gloves
- Sunglasses (when the sun is out, it is bright!)
What to Wear in Scotland for Spring
Spring arrives usually on time in March and lasts until the end of May. Unfortunately, the season, like its siblings, is quite rainy, chilly, and windy. However, increasing temperatures and more daylight hours begin to have their impact on everyone, and the general mood is more positive. You’ll even notice on days that are clearly still chilly, that Scots will shed whatever layers they can at the first sign of warming temperatures.
Essential items to add to your basic Scotland packing list for spring include:
- 1 lighter hat
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 1 light scarf
- 1 lighter dress/shirt in case of a warmer than usual day
What to Wear in Scotland for Summer
A Scottish summer sometimes is an oxymoron. Many Scottish friends of mine complain that spring just extends into fall through the summer months of June, July, and August. With warming global temperatures, this is becoming less the case. However, summer is still a rainy time, just less so compared to the other seasons. My favorite thing though about Scottish summers is the long daylight hours, where the sun won’t set until 11 p.m. and will rise around 4:30 a.m! It’s the perfect opportunity to milk a trip in Scotland, as the long hours tend to trick your body into staying up later.
Essential items to add to the basic Scotland packing list for summer include:
- Add a short sleeved t-shirt or two
- 1-2 pair of shorts
- 1 swimsuit (if you dare to swim in any of the chilly freshwaters or seas)
- 1 summer hat
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 1 lighter dress/shirt
There are tons of things to do in Scotland, like enjoying the views of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, taking in the architecture of Glasgow, exploring the North Coast 500, or ferrying out to the Outer Hebrides.
No matter the time of year, always wear layers and remember to pack a waterproof jacket, as it rains all year.
Good and sensible walking shoes are one of the most important things to consider when packing for a trip to Scotland.
Autumn and spring are good times to visit as the country is experiencing milder weather, is obviously less touristy, and has more normal daylight hours. Pack for rainy and chilly temperatures.
Winter can be quite cold and miserable, especially with short daylight hours. Pack for cold temperatures, accompanied with cold rain and the possibility of snow.
Summer can be an extension of spring but is becoming a warmer season. Pack for incredibly long daylight hours, slightly warmer temperatures and, of course, rain.