Could climate change make Scotland the perfect summer destination?

There were large numbers everywhere last week – many of them so large as to be the source of deep discomfort. But in amidst the headline-making figures of 40-plus degrees Celsius – and the plumes of smoke that went with them came another striking statistic. At just after 5pm on Tuesday, Scotland witnessed its highest ever temperature – a heady 34.8C, notched at Charterhall in the Borders.

At a stroke, it eclipsed the previous record – 32.9C which was felt 17 miles down the road, in Greycrook, on August 9 2003. Meteorologists will say that this has been in the post. Last year, Scotland was responsible for the UK’s highest summer temperature – the 27.2C noted at Tyndrum, on the fringes of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, on August 25.

This was the first time in 20 years that the country’s thermometer peak had occurred not in England but north of the border. Met Office figures also show that Scotland has just experienced its sixth warmest spring since records began, with an average daily maximum air temperature of 11.46C. Of the five hotter springs above it, four were this century – the sweltering 2003 topping the list with a corresponding 11.77C.

The mercury is only going in one direction.

Met Office and Scottish Midge Forecast

Some might look at such numbers and wonder whether they are entirely bad news. After all, Scotland does have a reputation for being wet and miserable, even in July and August. And 34.8C is the sort of giddy heat you might chase all the way to a villa and a beach on the Greek Aegean; 27.2C sounds like August perfection.

With the Scottish Midge Forecast (a body which monitors the swarms of Scotland’s most notorious and relentless insect) reporting that said beasties’ prevalence could be diminished by up to a quarter this year, because “midges don’t operate in warm, dry conditions”, some might even be asking the question – could climate change make Scotland the ideal summer destination?

Stonehaven HarbourStonehaven on Aberdeenshire’s east coast is gaining popularity as temperatures rise

Some might reply that it already is. In non-pandemic times, the country receives around 150 million visitors per year – a head-count which does not suggest the international travelling public has any great qualms about the Scottish weather. Many might argue that the country is hot enough already.

According to the Met Office, in the summer of 2021, the average daily maximum air temperature in the east of Scotland – where Aberdeenshire juts out into the North Sea – was 18.31C. In Cornwall and the south-west of England – where warmer days are not just anticipated but expected – the relevant figure was 19.96C. Aberdeenshire is a case in point.

True, it has only 165 miles of seafront to Cornwall’s 422, but much of it is as unfailingly photogenic as the cliffs and crags around Land’s End – not least the northern section where the shoreline turns in west towards the Moray Firth. Of course, Stonehaven – which sits on Aberdeenshire’s east coast – is not Land’s End. Nor is it St Mawes, which it might be said to resemble – small fishing boats asleep in the crescent of its harbour, the water so still and clear that their hulls appear to graze the sand on the bottom.

As for needing a heatwave to make it appealing, it depends who you ask…

Scottish appeal

Down at the harbourside, Maria Lewis laughs at any mention of quasi-Mediterranean summers. “The weather here is what it is,” she says. “You’re not visiting for 30-degree sunbathing. You come here for the wider attractions. My customers include Scandinavians, Australians, Americans.

They come here for history. Dunnottar Castle” – she points over her own shoulder, south along the shore, in the direction of Stonehaven’s spectacular ruined medieval fortress, which glowers unseen around the headland – “is so beautiful. Or they come here for the Cairngorms, for whisky, for Balmoral.

Not for sun.”

Maria Lewis and Dunnottar CastleLocal business owner Maria Lewis (left) and leading tourist attraction Dunnottar Castle (right)

A few of the customers she refers to are queuing in front of her business. If the Seafood Bothy – a food truck parked at the end of the town pier (seafoodbothy.com) – looks like a small-scale concern, it has also been a huge success since Lewis uprooted her life around it. She first came to Stonehaven as a tourist, some 25 years ago, and loved it so much that she bought a holiday cottage.

Five years ago, she moved in properly, swapping her waterfront cafe at Fareham in Hampshire for busy days selling lobster burritos, crab wraps and mackerel pate. The process is a family affair – her husband, a fisherman, catches much of what they sell. As yet, she isn’t worried that climate change could affect the marine life they rely on. “There’s no drop in the quantity of the catch here,” she says. “We fish all year round.

Good lobster, good crab. We all have quotas, so we can only catch a certain amount. But there’s no lack of fish here.

The water is of fantastic quality.” Such anecdotal evidence of consistency beneath the surface will, for now, echo happily 15 miles up the seafront, where the solidity of the marine food chain is key to the success of Greyhope Bay (greyhopebay.com). On first impressions, what is, for now, a cafe with a view, seems to occupy an odd location for an eco-project – trapped on a bluff between the main entrance to Aberdeen Harbour, and the heavy construction work for a new port zone on Nigg Bay, immediately to the south.

On second impressions, it resembles an exercise in historical conservation – this shipping-container coffee shop is slotted into the ruins of Torry Battery, a 19th-century fortification which had lain largely abandoned since 1956. But its purpose quickly becomes apparent – in the fins that peep through the waves below. “This is the most reliable dolphin-watching spot anywhere in the UK,” says Dr Fiona McIntyre, the marine scientist who has spent the last 10 years working to establish the site.

What began as bemused frustration that the city didn’t appreciate what it had on its doorstep – one of the North Sea’s most populous feeding grounds for bottlenose dolphins – finally came to fruition at the start of April. “You have an 80 per cent chance of spotting dolphins on any given day,” she explains. “We’ve seen them every day since we opened.”

Greyhope BayGreyhope Bay is a dolphin-watching hotspot

The cafe – which runs on solar power and tanks of purified rainwater – is a founding footprint which, McIntyre hopes, will grow into a larger institution in the next five years. But its viability depends on its raisons d’etre sticking around. “Climate change could make a big difference [to how the dolphin population behaves],” she suggests. “These are cold water dolphins; the largest species of bottlenose dolphin on the planet. They are here because of the water temperature and the food supply.

And because this is a good feeding spot, it has become a social spot. For a dolphin, it’s literally a cool place to be. But if the sea becomes warmer here, there is a possibility they could move on.

That could happen.”

Delicate ecosystem

One of the reasons for the area’s popularity with dolphins is that the River Dee – rich in nutrients, salmon and other fish – empties its 81 miles of water into the sea directly below the cafe. Midway up that flow in the village of Aboyne, Debbie Cooper is more forthright about the impact of climate change on a delicate ecosystem. As the development and promotions officer for the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board (riverdee.org.uk), she keeps two watchful eyes on an incomparable location for rod-and-reel encounters with Scotland’s foremost river resident.

She sees nothing but trouble with rising temperatures. “Yes, Scotland is a warmer place to visit now,” she acknowledges. “I moved here 25 years ago [from Yorkshire], and it’s definitely a warmer climate than it was then. But hotter summers mean warmer waters – and that can mean mortality issues for the fish.” 

This is, she concedes, a land-management issue as much as a consequence of climate change. The stripping away of trees over many decades – not just on the Dee, but across Scotland – has left rivers lacking the shade necessary to protect salmon from airborne predators, as well as the heat. In her additional work with the River Dee Trust, she is part of the ongoing One Million Trees campaign, which will attempt to re-forest the banks in full by 2035.

There is, she says, no time to waste. While it runs as a strictly regulated system of catch and release, salmon fishing is worth GBP15million a year to the Deeside economy – and supports 500 jobs across the 47 fishing “beats” dotted along its currents. “We need to keep the tributaries – where salmon spawn – healthy,” she continues. “Young fish need places to shelter.

Unfortunately, because of land-management policies over the years, we don’t have a lot of trees left in some areas of Scotland. The Dee is no different. If we don’t have trees, there’s no shade over the river.

Moreover, insects feed under trees, on leaves that have fallen into the water. Insects are food for salmon. At present, the system isn’t quite right.” She pauses. “If salmon were to become extinct in Scotland, that would be terrible.

But if rivers do not act, that could be the case for the next generations.”

The whisky effect

Follow the Dee a further 15 miles upstream, and you reach what could – if not geographically, then certainly spiritually – be termed the heart of Scotland. This is where Aberdeenshire rises west into the peaks of Cairngorms National Park – and Balmoral, the queen’s favoured summer residence, holds court just outside Crathie. But then, “summer” is a relative concept here, the elevation (935ft/285m) ensuring that the temperature rarely surpasses even the qualified warmth on the seafront.

And for some, this is as it should be.

Cairngorms National ParkCairngorms National Park is a popular destination for hikers

A mile from the castle, Royal Lochnagar Distillery has been making hay – or, at least, whisky – while the sun tries to shine since 1845. Here is a realm of stone, wood and steam – the smell of fermentation in the air, oak barrels cogitating in gloomy storehouses. It is Scotland’s prime tipple personified, in an area that encapsulates the country’s beauty.

Little has changed here in 177 years – but there is worry as to what the future might bring. “One of the most obvious but most important steps in the process is growing the raw material, the barley,” says Sean Phillips, the distillery manager. He grimaces as he recalls the unusually hot summer of 2018. “The weather really impacted the crop,” he frowns. “We had the barley, but we didn’t get the expected yield from the malt.

It was a lot less, because the moisture wasn’t there. You need the sun but you really need the rain as well.” Later, he pours out four examples of the company’s artistry – each of a subtly different age and a widely different price; each performing the same honeyed dance across the tongue and the back of the throat.

Some might say that a Scotland basking under a significantly brighter firmament would be a summer dream. Plenty would counter that a warmer Scotland that cannot make whisky to its satisfaction would not be Scotland at all.

How to do it

Double rooms at the four-star Maryculter House Hotel (01224 732 124; maryculterhouse.com) in Maryculter cost from GBP130 per night (including breakfast). For more information go to visitabdn.com; for more amazing places to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in Scotland.


Have you explored Scotland in the summer?

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