What's the attraction?
Scotland's winter season kicks off today, St Andrew's Day, with Christmas markets, boughs of holly and decorative tartan sashes. And when (or if) the snow arrives, ski- and snowboard-laden visitors will be heading for the pistes, including the Cairngorm, Glencoe and Nevis Range areas.
Despite the long nights and chilly days, now is a great time to visit Scotland's mountains, lochs, glens – and cities. Winter is when the country's crisp, frost-dusted landscapes are especially atmospheric. However, to make the most of a break at this time of year, preparation is key – not least finding somewhere cosy to stay.
City and sea
Only half an hour from Edinburgh by train, North Berwick is ideal to combine bracing coastal walks with urban indulgence. This small seaside town is home to the Scottish Seabird Centre (01620 890202; seabird.org). In January, the world's largest single-rock gannet colony returns to neighbouring Bass Rock. In the meantime, hunker down in the sleek glass, stone and wood holiday cottage at 8 Victoria Road (01620 890284; gonetothebeach.co.uk), complete with log burner and just 100 metres from the shore. Winter rental starts at £690 per week for up to seven guests. The website edinburghsparkles.com lists festive events taking place in the capital.
One place in the country's far north that's easy on the wallet is The Schoolhouse, a B&B in Dornie, near the Isle of Skye. Its three bedrooms cost from £70 per night, including provisions for breakfast. To keep costs down you can also cook your own dinner in a communal kitchen (01599 555482; highlands-info.co.uk/dornie).
Glencoe Mountain's new micro-lodges (01855 851226; glencoemountain.co.uk; microlodge.co.uk) have beds, heating and electricity (you take your own sleeping bag and have access to a separate toilet and shower block) and are due to launch in January. Rates start from £40 per night.
If you want to switch off from the world without giving up on life's luxuries, there are few more out-of-the-way – or better-equipped – boltholes than Shore Croft and Hill Croft. The first Scottish properties on sustainable self-catering specialist Under The Thatch's books, this pair of five-star cottages is perched beside Loch Eriboll, way up in the wilds of Sutherland. With solar power, wind turbines, sheep-wool insulation and wood-burning stoves, staying here is impressively low-impact. Luxuries include bespoke beds and solar-heated freestanding baths. Weekly rental starts at £1,280 in December (0844 500 5101; underthethatch.co.uk).
Best of both worlds
A new member of the Relais & Chateaux association is the Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa & Island (01631 720371; www.eriska-hotel.co.uk), 12 miles north of Oban. It's an atmospheric winter hideaway with cosy bedrooms, fireside sofas, and a new self-catering annexe, Arnott's House, which sleeps up to six in three bedrooms. After a walk around the island – or visit to the hotel's spa – warm up in a hot tub overlooking Ben Cruachan, before cooking dinner in a state-of-the-art kitchen. If you're feeling flush you could treat yourself to dinner at the hotel's 3AA-rosette restaurant. Weekly rental from £1,000.
A foodie favourite
Sometimes it's worth travelling a long way for a good meal. Such is the case with Boath House (01667 454896; boath-house.com) in Nairn, Inverness-shire. A lesson in country-house charm, this Georgian manor manages to be both grand and homely. With crackling open fires, restful bedrooms and 20 acres of frost-dusted garden to explore, it could only be more festive if Santa rolled up in a sleigh. For many guests, a stay here is also about the food. Michelin-starred chef Charlie Lockley makes the most of the region's organic, seasonal ingredients with dishes such as local roe deer with chard, potato and shallots. Double rooms start at £345, half board.
Stylishly renovated earlier this year, Ardoch Bothy sleeps just two. From its spectacular setting at Achintraid, on the shore of Loch Kishorn, the cottage looks out over Skye and the Applecross hills. It's just the place if you're hoping for romantic seclusion.
For a memorable meal out, the homely Applecross Inn is a half-hour drive away, or there's the stately Torridon Hotel, just 45 minutes away. Alternatively, stay put and order in a gourmet ready-meal from one of two local chefs. Rates at Ardoch start at £275 for three nights, or £400 per week (01520 733213; oppositeskye.co.uk).
Be king (or queen) of a Scottish castle
If winter has you dreaming of turrets, moats and crenellated rooflines, then Scotland is the place to indulge your fortified fantasies. Not only is it home to some of the grandest castles in the UK, but many accommodate paying guests. At the 13th-century Dalhousie Castle (01875 820153; dalhousiecastle.co.uk) outside Edinburgh, you can unwind in the hotel's spa before checking into one of 29 tartan-swagged bedrooms. Doubles start at £125, B&B. Or 20 miles away on the other side of the capital is Fenton Tower (01620 890089; fentontower.co.uk), a fortified 16th-century tower that has been restored and sleeps up to 12. Doubles start at £360, B&B.
Don't have that kind of cash to splash? Liberton Tower is an atmospheric 15th-century alternative on the outskirts of Edinburgh (0845 090 0194; vivat-trust.org). It sleeps four on a self-catering basis, from £406 for two nights in January.
For a castle holiday further afield, The Laird's Wing at Brodie Castle (0844 493 2108; nts.org.uk) in Moray sleeps 14 and is the next best thing to a personal invitation to Balmoral. Rental starts at £850 for four nights.
Finally, for true castle fantasists, there's the Old Courtroom bedroom at Dornoch Castle Hotel (01862 810216; dornochcastlehotel.com), a 45-minute drive north of Inverness. Rates for this room start at £197.
Who said that?
"Beloved Scotland of the winter and the hills! 'Tis little that thou'lt get from them, but they will make thee hard and brave!" – Neil Munro
"I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give." – Thomas Jefferson
"In winter I get up at night, and dress by yellow candlelight." – Robert Louis Stevenson
"Following the 'luxury villa on your own atoll' trend, a Scottish version has recently appeared.... Blue Reef Cottages (01859 550370; stay-hebrides.com) in South Harris were the first, and perhaps the model for Beach Bay Cottage (0845 2680801; beachbaycottage.co.uk). The Blue Cabin by the Sea (07999755823; bluecabinbythesea.co.uk)... is another special spot."
Pete Irvine is the author of 'Scotland The Best'; the latest edition will be published on 8 December (£15.99, Collins).