The Highlands – notorious for changeability making it a photographers dream. You don’t like the weather now? Wait 10 mins!
The ever changing light makes the same hill look like a whole new landscape multiple times in a day. It means that everyone’s experience is incredibly unique and incomparable, and that’s what keeps everyone coming back for more.
There’s another phenomenal thing about the Highlands; micro-climates. You might only need to drive over a hill to find a completely different day taking place so even if the weather is awful it’s not likely to the theme of your tour.
But what if this is your first trip? How do you plan to get what you want in such a fluid environment?
Below is a description of what the NC500 weather year is like here in the Kyle of Sutherland on the East Coast of the NC500.
Make sure you read my TOP TIPS on what to keep in the car for touring emergencies with bad weather in mind.
Awful, really bad, just nasty. Ice definitely, snow maybe – but it will most likely be that it snows and melts three times a day, high winds daily – that means anything from a “put the washing out” 35mph gust to an actual 149mph hurricane that blows the windometer away (true story). Daylight about 9am to 4pm.
Best you can expect? For photography, that ever changing light, and the dusting of snow on hill tops, means January is an awesome month. For sight seeing it really isn’t the best. Temps vary madly, but it’s not likely to even get as high as 6c. Rogart recorded the lowest ever temp one year at -32C, back in the 90’s. The coldest that I have recorded it on the actual coast in the last 10yrs was -18C. The Kyle of Sutherland froze over and looked INCREDIBLE….buuuut…..at that temp so will your diesel start to freeze and you definitely can’t use your skooshers to clean your windscreen and the engine heat may never thaw it. You might be lucky enough to experience something called Snow Thunder – an electric storm whilst it’s snowing.
See January, except there can be about four days of good weather ranging with temps from 2C to 20C around about the 19th. I remember about 5 years ago chatting to a friend whilst it snowed on us in Feb. Both of us had sun burnt noses because the day before it had been 22C; so when I say changeable, I mean extremely so. If you get the good weather it’s an excellent opportunity to see the Northern Lights.
Some improvement, but now you are going to get lambing snows. Again it’s almost 10yrs since we had a 3ft+ dump (that gives you 5ft drifts on the A9) which means it’s overdue or never happening again. It’s most likely going to be 3-6 repeatedly melting snow showers a day on bad days, but towards the end of the month you can get Summer for a week or so. Best part is that you’re about 6 weeks away from any leaves appearing on trees so the views from the car are fab and you don’t need to get out a lot!
Daylight extends to 6.30pm after which it will be Baltic. Sunrises on the East are magnificent. The earliest of the oil seed rape is flowering with intense yellow all over the Black Isle and up the A9. It’s the most uplifting thing to see after long dark nights for the past 6 months. Some patches won’t have seen sun since October so could still be icy on the roads.
See March, but you are more likely to encounter the Highland Summer. It will have more dry and sunny days towards the end of the month, but will still have a nip in the wind, yet the wind is less likely to be over 30mph. Not impossible, but less likely. There is still not a lot of leaves on the trees so views are great, but there’s some obvious signs that the frozen North is thawing back to life. Great month for spotting wildlife as everything goes looking for a mate, and lambs are bouncing round the fields.
This is the only month I would happily guarantee you will see Summer! Day light is stretching incredibly, the leaves are coming out, there’s no midgies yet (well only a couple and they’re not very well practiced, a squirt of smidge should do the trick), and those stormy winds have died down. This is when you can get 28C weather and very sunburnt. It is still possible to get snow and Summer in the same day. I’ve regularly had snow here in late May and you can still expect morning frosts and icy patches. If it is very warm and dry we have huge risks of wild fire. This year May and June saw 4 wild fires in the Highlands that went on for multiple days and would have been devastating to wildlife as this is when everything is having a baby.
Is all about the midnight sun. At 11pm you will have enough daylight to see the place like it’s daytime, sit outside and read a book, or go for a long hike. The sun will really only go low for a few hours and you can’t really consider it pitch dark at any point. It will be warmer at roughly mid to high teens. It will be changeable and very probably wet, but not likely to last all day. The Scottish schools go on holiday for the summer at the end of this month, and this is the month that we start heading back into Winter. Everything is very green and lush and we are finally free of frosty mornings.
Early July is when we have the driest spells this month. It can be so changeable temp wise it’s nuts – I’ve had it snow here in July, I’ve also had it 28C here in July. July is a real pot luck month, but over the past 2 years it’s been the best I’ve known. You may encounter amazing electric storms, small tornado’s (very rare – only one that I have encountered on the NC500 was about 13 years ago near Elphin and it tipped my car on a 45 degree angle and made a water spout as it went over the burn next to me. Terrifyingly amazing. I have encountered worse ones elsewhere in the Highlands), flash floods and diversions which could potentially be hours long, but you still have that night time daylight so going off piste for a bit is just part of the adventure. The barley for the Whisky is starting to ripen, but it’s almost 6 weeks away from being able to be harvested. Bring Smidge.
Early August is very often rubbish. It rains a lot and gets cold and windy– under 10C. I know this because I am a temperature nerd being a musher; I can’t work my sled dogs in harness at temps over 10C and I have had many years here where it was cold enough to run them in Aug, but not November. Fact.
This month you may encounter electric storms, flash floods, and diversions.
Mid Aug the kids will go back to school and you can guarantee as soon as their behinds hit a seat in the classroom the sun comes back out. The barley will begin to dry off, and if the weather holds dry long enough for the fields to drain the combines will get out and harvest everything in about 15mins before it rains again. You’ll see them working 24hrs round the clock, and it can cause the odd hold up on the A9 getting them to fields and the grain to the dryers at the plant and store at Tore. It is our biggest export so just try to enjoy your part in the process and seeing it going on around you. On the East Coast there are very many distilleries to enjoy.
The best bit of August is the evening. It’s getting dark about 10.30 now, but as the sun goes down the colour of the light across the stubble fields and the sea is exquisite. The heather is blooming and the North turns purple.
Normally this is my second month for good weather. We usually have a fab month in September, and again temps up in the late teens to early twenties are not uncommon. Everything is still pretty leafy, but the view is now what those leaves are doing. The colours of September are out of this world – russets, purples, greens, browns, and truly jaw dropping bursting orange sunsets at about 9.30pm. Harvest will still be over now in most places. The first morning frosts will appear and you might get the first of the “put the washing out” winds. The midgies are almost completely gone.
Now we’re approaching tattie harvest and the Tattie Holidays for kids, so named because they were traditionally given 2 weeks off school to help their families harvest this very important staple. It used to be when you could guarantee the first snows when I was a kid, but this is getting rarer. Again it would be flurries that quickly melt if it did, but it would be wise to expect a bit of ice afterwards, especially if it melts late in the day before 6.30pm sunsets. Towards the very end of the month (once the kids are back at school of course) you can get a few great days like Feb. It won’t be very warm with low teen temps, but it will be sunny and dry, and that light is exquisite for sight-seeing. The Hills go red as the sun sets on them.
You’ll start to get the first proper high winds too, but their exact arrival is unpredictable.
Is either a joy or a curse. It can be 17C in November, it can be dry, it can feel like a bonus month to get the hatches battened before midwinter; or it can be wet, cold, windy and generally very like January. It’s usually not quite as bad – if I had to choose between them it would be November every time. If you get good, hard, frost, it can be STUNNINGLY beautiful with too many photo ops to fit into a month. But it has to be consistently below zero for a few days to get that. Ice is likely, snow is possible, and camping or MCing will be pretty miserable. You may be forgiven for thinking the sun isn’t rising at all if it’s the bad kind of November.
see November, although if we are going to get proper snow it is usually just before Christmas. Three times I have gone to bed on Christmas eve with cold, wet, weather and woken to a white winter wonderland – magical stuff!
The snow increases the daylight substantially, and walks on snow rather than mud are far preferable, but please dress properly. It is possible to get hypothermia very quickly even in the centre of town when it’s cold – I found this out to my detriment once when I went out for a “quick run” with my dogs in jeans instead of a snow suit. If you have room for lined waterproof trousers bring them. If you don’t, then make room. If you don’t use them you can ebay them afterwards. Wellies are not footwear for snow – you’ll lose toes and probably slip. Wellie’s are not footwear for hill walking either whilst we’re on the subject.
Shortest day without snow lying will be 9am to about 3.30pm of daylight, and the day after that, Summer begins!
So to recap:
Good weather months = a few days of Feb(if you’re lucky), end of march, end of April, May, beginning of June, beginning of July, end of August, most of September, end of October, a few days of Nov (if you’re lucky), a few days of Dec (if you’re lucky).
Snowable months = Jan, Feb, March, April, May, June, July – yes July, Oct, Nov, Dec.
Flash Flood months = end of July, beginning of Aug.
Icy and Windy months = Oct – April.
Midnight sun = May , June and July.
Northern Lights = September – April, but go for those times when you are most likely to get a clear sky. Ideally you want those 4 amazing days in November and February.
WINTER TOURING KIT:
Firstly get all terrain tyres on your car, and get a spare wheel and tyre because a repair kit isn’t going to be a lot of use up here. Make sure you know how to use your jack and where you can put it on your car. Make sure you know where your towing points are. Replace all your coolant with antifreeze and make sure your skooshers for cleaning the windscreen contain a HEAVY dose of antifreeze too. Take out roadside recovery. The two companies that operate up here on behalf of Green Flag, AA and RAC, are fabulous and if you do have a break down will take exceptional care of you.
5 gallon container with emergency fuel.
Flask of hot drinks/Jet boil and drink making stuff, and lighter.
Thick wool blankets.
If you are worried about getting help after dark in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal check out GPS devices you can text message from.
Fold up snow shovel.
Small bag of rock salt – so if you find yourself spinning on snow you can melt it.
Strong string or twine – a good few meters. (For tying up bumpers and exhausts when you take them off avoiding traffic or skidding).
Small tool kit with sockets and screw drivers is never a bad idea – even if you think you would never know how to fix a problem a passer by very well may.
Things that freeze that you might not expect to;
Locks – both the bit the key goes in and the actual mechanism itself. Always double check the door is closed properly and the grease in the mechanism hasn’t started to solidify making it stick or doors will pop open round corners. Same goes for the boot. Always use defrost spray on keyholes, never hot water.
Skooshers – always run your engine for a while and heat it up if it’s been really cold to help it to thaw. Check it is thawed before you set off. If it is frozen and you use your wipers to get rid of salt and grit from cars in front, you can quickly scratch the windscreen permanently. I’ve had to replace windscreens after driving in conditions that caught me out.
Wiper Blades themselves – often freeze, not just to the bonnet, but the rubber freezes, and spray on anti freeze won’t do much about that. What happens is they don’t make proper contact with the screen and might affect your visibility, and lead to permanent damage of the screen, as above, or even tear off. When frozen to the bonnet don’t use the motor to move them, run your engine and fan and once the ice is off the screen they will usually move. To thaw the blade use warm, not hot, water just before you get on the road.
Radiator coolant – coming to the Highlands in January with a low amount of antifreeze in your radiator will kill your car. I never put water, only antifreeze, in my radiators.
Diesel – OK it’s been a lot of years since this has happened to me, and it’s only happened a few times, but just good to know it CAN happen I think. If you have a diesel vehicle and you are worried about it freezing you can put additive in the fuel tank to stop that. If you get caught out, you can heat the tank for a while with a blow torch, drive a bit until all that fuel is used, and repeat. Tedious in anything other than an emergency – then it’s still tedious (if not actually upsetting) but what else you gonna do?
Wing mirrors – in very cold weather they will keep freezing if not heated. Not difficult to sort and I recommend a heavy spray with defrosting spray.
If the Police start to recommend that you don’t drive – don’t drive. It’s probably because the council are not sending out gritters. On a Sunday only A roads are gritted. Tune into MFR, local radio, 97.5fm for road and weather updates. On the East there are lots of parts of the A9 and bridges that get closed in high winds and floods. Diversions are always in place.
If you hit a massive pothole and damage a wheel or tyre, make sure you can pull over safely and are not at risk in live traffic, get the depth of it measured and get a picture of it. Send it to Highland Regional Council and they may give you the damages. Do not expect that to be a speedy process! At least a 6 month turn around.
I’m sure lots of other locals will have other information, some of it may contradict what I have written here, but remember this is for MY microclimate at the Kyle of Sutherland on the East Coast. I’ve spent many years of outdoor hobbies and businesses being a weather nerd so I am fairly confident in my predictions. If you find otherwise, or likewise comment and let me know, and if you are local and can think of anything else to share then also please add it in the comments.
FAIL to PLAN and you PLAN to FAIL ……and all that jazz 😉