As the nights close in, thoughts drift to staying home and keeping cosy. However, there are still many opportunities to extend the holiday season with a unique trip to Scotland in 2021.
From winter festivals to experiencing the world’s first Dark Sky Park (and perhaps even seeing the Northern Lights); to outdoor theatre, brand-new restaurants, as well as campfires under the stars, there is certainly something unique to a trip to Scotland.
Scotland has some of the largest expanses of dark sky in Europe and while the country is famous for its beauty during day, the twilight hours create a new air of mystery not to be missed. The autumn and winter months in Scotland offer the perfect conditions to watch the night sky so there is no better time to enjoy a stargazing holiday.
Read on to feel inspired by the season and make those darker nights memorable.
Dark skies and Northern Lights
From Dark Sky Parks to purpose-built public observatories, visitors will find plenty of perfect stargazing spots. And with over 7,000 stars and planets visible each night, every visit is a different experience:
Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries and Galloway
Not only Britain’s largest park, Galloway Forest Park was also the UK’s first Dark Sky Park. Stretching across the southwest of Scotland, it is home to glens, lochs, hills and only a few buildings which means it has very little light pollution. On clear nights it is possible to observe thousands of stars, making it one of the best places to stargaze in Europe. Located on a hilltop within the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is home to high-powered telescopes which allow you to enjoy views of constellations and planets. In addition, Moffat – the historic spa town in the Annandale Valley – is Europe’s very first Dark Sky Town, having adopted special street lighting to keep light pollution to a minimum in order to preserve the wonders of the night sky. The town is also well-known for its excellent walking routes.
Where to stay: Knockinaam Lodge in Portpatrick – book an explorer break for 5 or 7 nights, prices from £865 for two people. Alternatively, the Selkirk Arms Hotel in Kirkcudbright offers stargazing breaks in the autumn and winter priced at £289pp for dinner, bed and breakfast.
With little light pollution, the Outer Hebrides are one of the best places to catch the Northern Lights. Visitors can take their pick from Lewis, Harris, Uist or Barra. With the right weather conditions, each island can provide a mesmerising dancing display of the Aurora Borealis at the right time. Many astronomical sights can be seen through the naked eye including the Orion Nebula, the Milky Way and the Great Andromeda galaxy. The winter here gets dark late afternoon, giving visitors a great opportunity to not only watch out for the Northern Lights but just look up and stargaze. Each year in February, there is a Dark Skies Festival which features theatre, live music, film, visual art, food, astronomy talks, and stargazing.
Where to stay: The Temple View Hotel on North Uist, which is perfectly located for stunning scenery, priced at £135 for a double or twin room.
Isle of Coll, Inner Hebrides
With no streetlights and its geographic isolation, Coll is one of the best places in the UK for stargazing. In fact, Coll is the first official Dark Sky island in Scotland, and one of only two in the UK. Budding astronomers will love the collaboration between the Coll Bunkhouse and the Cosmo Planetarium which aims to help even the newest of stargazers learn more about our solar system. Using state of the art technology visitors will be able to enjoy the wonders of the universe on Scotland’s Dark Sky Island. There are three ‘official’ night sky viewing sites on Coll: one at Totronald RSPB Reserve, one at Cliad football pitch, which offers a large open space with few obstacles for a complete 360° view of the sky, and one overlooking Ariangour village. However, pretty much all of Coll is great for stargazing.
Where to stay: Coll Hotel, the Isle of Coll’s only hotel and pub, has rooms from £90 for two, bed and breakfast. Alternatively, the Coll Bunkhouse offers 5-star hostel accommodation, prices starting from £24 per person per night (currently offered as studio-style accommodation offered to one household due to Covid-19 regulations).
Winter Chefs’ Residencies, Glen Dye Cabins & Lodges, Aberdeenshire
November & December 2021
Guests and friends of Glen Dye can enjoy supper clubs and food demos this season from four top chefs, including Whyte Rushen and Pippa Middlehurst. They will be challenged to cook over fire, forage for seasonal ingredients and find new perspectives on their food as they cook in new surroundings at the heart of this beautiful 15,000 acre private estate. There will be hiking, campfires, wild swimming, dog-walking, stargazing, laughter, friendship and endless fresh air. It’s all free for guests staying at Glen Dye Cabins & Cottages. A limited number of tickets for the supper clubs and demos will also be available. For more information please go to: www.glendyecabinsandcottages.com/winter-chef-residencies
New restaurants: The Dipping Luggar in Ullapool and Killiecrankie House, Perthshire
Scotland is upping its gastronomic game with the opening of two new restaurants. The Dipping Lugger in Ullapool is a coastal restaurant, in the historical former parish manse, overlooking Loch Broom and out to the Western Isles; whilst Killiecrankie House, which opened its doors in October, is nestled in woodlands in the Cairngorm National Park – both offering their own unique gastronomic slice of luxury in the Highlands of Scotland. For more information, see www.killiecrankiehouse.com and https://thedippinglugger.co.uk/
Vegan Trail, Argyll & Bute
Scotland is home to the UK’s first vegan trail, launched in 2021. Cafes, hotels, restaurants and B&Bs across Argyll and the Isles are constantly growing their vegan options to give visitors a well-considered and exciting choice. With a great abundance of fresh ingredients and produce grown locally, plenty is foraged from the land to make its way to the plate. From the Argyll Hotel in Kintyre, to the Lodge on Loch Lomond in Luss, vegan choices are in abundance. Check out the interactive map here.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre to premiere three new outdoor Ghost Stories
20 October – 7 November 2021
Things are set to get darker at the gardens of renowned Pitlochry Festival Theatre when the Perthshire venue premieres Ghost Stories, three brand new haunting promenade monologues.
Written by Scottish based playwrights Maryam Hamidi, Martin McCormick and Jen McGregor, Ghost Stories will thrill audiences with an evening of mysteries, apparitions, and lost souls, all found under the spectacular autumn canopy of the woodland of the theatre. Ticket prices: £18-20. For more information visit https://pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com/
Combine a theatre experience with a stay at Fonab Castle & Spa, Pitlochry, a unique five-star hotel. www.fonabcastlehotel.com, priced from £219 per night.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Edinburgh Playhouse
26 October – 27 November 2021
Anyone missing a trip to the theatre and looking to combine a visit with a top city break should head to Scotland’s capital where the Edinburgh Playhouse will be showing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Edinburgh is the only Scottish city Beauty and the Beast will be playing at). Disney first debuted Beauty and the Beast on Broadway 26 years ago. Members of the original creative team have reunited on this new production that features all of the spellbinding music and lyrics of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
Tickets available from £20. To find out more and book online visit: www.atgtickets.com/shows/disneys-beauty-and-the-beast/edinburgh-playhouse/
Eshaness Lighthouse, Shetland
Looking to get away from it all somewhere special? A stay in a lighthouse in the northernmost region of the British Isles might be the perfect treat. Situated an hour’s drive from Shetland’s capital town Lerwick and perched atop some of the most dramatic cliffs, Eshaness Lighthouse is on the North West coast of mainland Shetland. There are no visible neighbours and the warm cosy feel inside the lighthouse on a wild and stormy night is an experience never to be forgotten. Priced at £438 for 6 nights, sleeps 6 people. www.shetlandlighthouse.com/eshaness-lighthouse
Christmas & Hogmanay Escape at Dunalastair Hotel Suites, Perthshire
Anyone hoping for a storybook ‘white Christmas’ or a hearty Highlands Hogmanay, Dunalastair Hotel Suites is offering a range of packages that promise an unforgettable winter break for couples and families. Dunalastair’s offering includes crisp country hikes and sumptuous feasting. Other highlights and experiences to look forward to this festive season include a private landscape photography tour or perhaps heading to nearby Rannoch Moor, one of Scotland’s prime spots for viewing the magical Northern Lights in the night skies from October to March. Festive packages include all the magic of Christmas, including mince pies, carols, and a spectacular four-course Christmas lunch. Christmas package: 2-night package in a Superior Room starts from £385 per person (based on 2 adults sharing a room), additional nights can be added. Highland Hogmanay package: 3-night package in a Superior Room starts from £580.50 per person (based on 2 adults sharing a room), additional nights can be added. Visit www.dunalastairhotel.com for more information and to book.
Oban Winter Festival
19 November – 28 November 2021
Located within the historic town of Oban, highlights of the festival include the Reindeer Parade, ice rink, comedy nights, music workshops for children, cocktails for the grown-ups, a ceilidh or two – all of which has made the festival a great success for 10 years and counting.
For more information visit: https://obanwinterfestival.com/
Helensburgh Winter Festival
27 & 28 November 2021
Since its inception in 2012, the volunteer-run Helensburgh Winter Festival has become a key element in the annual calendar of the town of Helensburgh and its surrounding villages and rural community. It has also become one of the largest winter festivals in the West of Scotland. Events running as part of the festival include a Santa Dash, live Reindeer, fairground attractions, Santa’s Grotto, numerous street entertainers, and much more. For more information visit: www.helensburghwinterfestival.co.uk
19 November – 2 January
Edinburgh’s Christmas organisers are busy making plans for 2021 dates. Plans are for Edinburgh’s Christmas to be at East Princes Street Gardens and The Mound. The updated 2021 application also incorporates West Princes Street Gardens and George Street into the festive mix. This year, 62 trading stalls and four attractions will pop up in East Princes Street Gardens. The Big Wheel, which has become a firm favourite in Edinburgh’s festive skyline, will also make an appearance in the east end of the city. Additionally, at the west end, revellers can expect to see a further 15 stall concessions and 11 attractions including the Christmas Tree Maze and Santa’s Grotto. For the first time since 2018, Underbelly is seeking permission to reinstate a firm favourite to the Christmas programme, an ice rink. The magical ice rink will have a brand-new location at the westerly end of George Street between Charlotte Square and Castle Street.
Stay tuned for more details and information to be revealed on www.edinburghschristmas.com and via social media.
The Elfin Trail and Ice Experience, Glasgow
2 December – 24 December
Glasgow sees the arrival of the Elfin Trail and Ice Experience, an incredible immersive 60 minute-journey of sound, lighting, as well as food and drink and ice skating. The Elfin Trail will take guests on a walk of wonder down by the River Elfin through Kelvingrove park to see seven incredible creatures brought to life by a world-class team of sound, lighting and set designers before reaching the Kingdom of Elfingrove and street food village. The Ice Experience will see the creation of Scotland’s largest ice track, custom built for skaters to enjoy an experience to rival the great cities of the world as they enjoy ice skating with a covered see-through roof set against the stunning backdrop of a beautifully lit Kelvingrove Museum. Tickets are priced at £12 for adults, £8 for children (age 5-12), under 5s (non-skater) attend for free. For more information, visit https://www.itison.com/elfingrove.
26 November – 2 January
An ice rink on Slessor Gardens, Big Wheel with views of the Tay and brand-new light displays featuring much-loved characters from DC Thomson will help transform Dundee city centre into a winter wonderland this Christmas. The Winter Fest will open in Slessor Gardens on 26 November, giving people the chance to shop for crafts or enjoy food and drink from the mini village of traditional wooden hut stalls. For more information, visit www.visitdundee.com/things-to-do/attractions/ice-skating-dundee/