WINTER will return with a vengeance today as a fierce storm blows in from the Atlantic bringing gale force winds and icy conditions to much of the country.

A severe weather warning has been issued, with winds of up to 70mph due to strike many areas along with snow, hail and plunging temperatures.

The winter storm comes after several days of mild weather, and marks a return to conditions which saw much of Scotland blanketed with snow.

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The Met Office has warned people to take care when venturing out on the roads and to plan their journeys carefully.

High winds will result in heavy seas on the coast although flooding is not being predicted. However, snow is expected to move inland, with conditions on the mountains described as "atrocious".

A spokesman for the Met Office said: "Gales will affect much of Scotland during Monday, with severe gales towards the north and west.

"Gusts in these areas will exceed 70mph at times, especially along exposed coasts, while mountains will see even higher values. Exposed western coasts are likely to be affected by unusually high sea and swell conditions, although fortunately tides will make only a relatively small contribution."

High winds will be accompanied by heavy, squally wintry showers, probably falling largely as sleet and hail on coasts, but readily turning to snow inland.

Around 3in to 5in of snow may affect higher routes, with severe drifting and temporary blizzard conditions. The storm is due to pass over by Tuesday, although wintry showers will continue into the week.

The first effects were being felt last night, when ferry operator Cal Mac cancelled a number of sailings on the west coast and predicted disruption today. The Oban to Lochboisdale service was cancelled, with delays on routes from Largs, Ardrossan, Ullapool, Uig and Islay.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: "We have robust winter service plans in place and are in regular contact with the Met Office, police, operating companies, the rail industry and other key responders.

"Local authorities and operating companies have more salt in stock or on order than ever before, additional gritters and specialist equipment are available and new weather stations and cameras are helping to improve decision-making and deliver better informed communications.

"The Traffic Scotland control centre continues to monitor the travel situation closely and the website, variable message signs and internet radio will be used to provide up to date information if and when the situation develops."