Going away in winter in Scotland is one of my favourite times to travel. Everywhere is quieter, the weather is mixed, which means more chance of those fleeting weather windows, or dramatic storms, days are shorter, which means forced downtime and more time to relax in the evenings, and often you’ll get places to yourself, which is perfect, if like me, you need a bit of time to recharge.
My trip started with a drive north to Portsoy in Aberdeenshire. Sail Loft, Portsoy, is tucked into a hidden little bay with the water pretty much on its doorstep. What an absolutely stunning location.
I was given a quick tour of the accommodation by the manager Ian, and explained how the restoration worked. At £25 a night, it’s an absolute bargain, and the perfect destination to explore the coast. The rooms range from 6, 3 and 2 berth, or there is a self contained flat, called the Ledingham, which is where I was staying. It has its own bathroom, single room, kitchen, dining and living area. It’s absolutely perfect if you prefer your own space, but want the hostel experience.
The communal areas are large with plenty of space. The hostel itself is incredible and the rooms are lovely and clean, but the Sail Lofts real selling point is its location. I love being able to hear the sea from my room.
I met Alison from Coast Aberdeenshire for a walk after lunch. We decided on the coastal walk between Portsoy and Sandend, pronounced ‘Sanine’ if you’re local. It’s about a 6km walk, with very easy walking and coloured arrow signposts marking the route.
We started our walk straight from the hostel door, which leads you through the town itself and along the harbour. The sun was low in the sky and the light was absolutely beautiful. The path meanders up onto the banks overlooking the sea and the views just go on for miles.
The sun set about 3.30pm, and it was incredible to see the moon rise into the pink sky. Shalders and curlews were wandering along the beach and I genuinely felt the most content I have felt in a very long time. The beach at Sandend was deserted apart from a couple walking their dog, and the moon was reflecting perfectly on the beach as the tide went out. I was in heaven.
Refreshed and on a total high from my lovely walk and chat with Alison I headed back to the accommodation to get changed, before popping to The Station Hotel for a delicious dinner of Cullen Skink and Smoked Haddock risotto. The food was incredible and if you are up in this area then you have to try the Cullen Skink, as this is the region where it originates from.
Another great thing about travelling at this time of year is the ability to catch a sunrise, without having to get up ridiculously early. With sunrise being about 9am, meant I had plenty of time to get breakfast and get packed up and squeeze in a sunrise wander before heading south to Grantown on Spey.
The next part of my trip was a Wildlife Watching Experience with Kate from Speyside Wildlife. We set off towards the local Anagach Woods, a community owned woodland in Grantown. Anagach Woods is huge and is full of bird and squirrel feeders which keep the local wildlife going over the winter months. After only a short distance into the woods Kate pointed out some Red Squirrels feeding and chasing each other through the trees. I never get bored seeing these amazing animals, and watching through the telescope made it an even better experience.
After a tasty lunch it was onto our final stop of the day, Loch Garten, but en route we couldn’t resist stopping at Loch Morlich as the sun was just setting below the mountains and the water was flat calm. A highlight for me was when Kate appeared with some bird feed for the ducks. It’s the simple things, but I never get bored seeing their colourful little heads.
We pushed on to Loch Garten to get the last of the light, and we took a short walk into the woods where I was lucky enough to feed some Coal Tits from my hand. I felt like a child as I stood with my palm outstretched waiting to see if any would be bold enough to come and snatch a seed. After the first one landed, it was a free for all and a wee curious Robin even turned up, although wasn’t quite brave enough to come and grab a seed.
My final stop of the trip was Fraoch Lodge as part of my Winter Skills Course with Scot Mountain Holidays. I was welcomed by Andy who would be leading the skills course over the next 2 days, and his wife Rebecca who does the cooking in the ‘all inclusive’ stay.
I was shortly joined by a lovely couple who were also taking part in the Winter Skills Course and we all chatted about our experience and expectations over dinner before being given an extensive safety briefing and demonstration about crampon fitting and what kit to pack for the day ahead.
The following day after a lovely bowl of porridge and some gluten free toast, with bags packed and kit checked, we set off to Cairngorm mountain in search of snow. Sadly the majority of snow from the previous weeks had disappeared, however there was still plenty to be had in the corries. We covered kicking in steps and self arrest and discussed at length avalanche awareness.
Practising ice axe arrest and self arrest was great fun and we all thoroughly enjoyed tumbling down the slopes again and again to perfect our skills. The sun was starting to set as we called it a day and made our way to the summit of Cairngorm, my 3rd time here! The views were spectacular! The moon was rising, and the sun was just starting to dip below the Braeriach massif. I couldn’t believe my luck to be up the hills in such glorious conditions.
With the sun gone, we started making our way down, due to the clear skies we didn’t need our head torches until the final few hundred metres, where we managed to find some more snow, and took the opportunity to strap on our crampons again for some more practice and to aid our descent.
Then it was back to the lodge for homemade cake and tea. The lodge has a great drying room, and the rooms are nice and cosy, so there are no issues in getting kit dried for another day in the hills.
Dinner was phenomenal, Rebecca had made Cottage Pie with Polenta topping and it was delicious, finished off with home made sticky toffee pudding. Proper winter comfort food, just what you need after a day in the cold Scottish mountains.
Day two consisted of heading back up to Cairngorm Mountain and heading into Coire an t-sneachda. We found a steep piece of snow and practised kicking in steps and using our crampons on ice. It’s really great to see what your crampons are capable of and to gain some confidence in varying conditions.
Calling it a day about 3pm meant we got to catch the last bit of light as it swept across the cloud inversion. It’s possibly one of the best inversions I’ve seen in the Cairngorms.
My final morning involved a visit with Craggan Outdoors doing mountain biking, lunch and then archery in the afternoon.
The day started off meeting the owner of Craggan Outdoors Keith and his son Ashley who was going to be my guide for the day. It was lovely to learn this was a family owned and run business and I got such a sense of how important community and working with other providers was to them.
After a brief tour, Ashley took me to get fitted for a bike and helmet, before talking me through how to quickly check my bike for any issues before we set off. We headed back to Anagach Woods, which I had visited a few days prior with Speyside Wildlife, so I was able to stop and point out the squirrel feeders and we were lucky enough to spot a few feeding while we cycled past.
The weather was freezing and there was a low lying fog, which made everything seem so much more dramatic and atmospheric. We even spotted a wee deer creeping through the mist. Ashley was a great guide and company and shared lots of knowledge about the woods with me.
We cycled just over 10km, with nothing being overly difficult or testing. Just a lovely meander through some trails, with a couple of steep hills chucked in, but I survived.
After putting the bikes back, we headed for lunch at the Speyside Centre. The cafe was amazing, I had soup and a toastie and enjoyed more chat with Keith and Ashley.
All warmed up it was time to head back to Craggan Outdoors, which also has the Glenelg bunkhouse and Bothy accommodation, for a shot at some archery. If I’m honest I thought it would be a bit boring and not really my thing, but it was honestly one of my favourite parts of the whole trip. Ashley was a great teacher and made it so much fun, by creating challenges and games and making it a bit competitive. It was all great fun until I inadvertently won with absolutely no skill, but Ashley took it well.
Then before I knew it, it was the end of my trip and time to say goodbye. I was on such a high from my time with Craggan Outdoors. I really cannot recommend my experience with Craggan Outdoors enough. Active, informative, interesting and most importantly great, great fun. Get yourself booked on one of their experiences.
I always knew Scotland has a lot to offer all year round, but I probably didn’t realise there was quite as much or quite as much variety. So try something different, pack your warm kit (and waterproofs) and explore Scotland out of season. You won’t be disappointed.