Scotland used to be all about the scenery. Yes, it was awesome, world-beating and breathtaking, but if you weren’t interested in the great outdoors, there really wasn’t much to get excited about. These days, whether it’s dog-sledding in the Cairngorms, following castle ghost-trails in Aberdeenshire, climbing through a giant ear canal in a science centre in Dundee or having entrails slung at you at the Edinburgh Dungeons, there’s an incredible array of attractions for those heading here for family breaks or holidays. There’s also history in spades, and genning up on what happened when and where really does enrich your visit.
The whole country, from the southern uplands to the remotest Highlands, has raised its tourism game hugely since those 1970s summer camping holidays when we parents were bitten senseless by midges. And it’s on your doorstep, which means there’s no need to set foot in a plane, with all the toe-curling moments that presents.
See the six cities, foremost amongst them Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has loads of kids’ events, including theatre, storytelling and magic shows, plus hundreds of jugglers, stiltwalkers and buskers that we challenge your kids not to be intrigued by (and they’re free). The run-up to Christmas in the capital is fun too – the switching on of the lights is followed by a fantastic ice-show and fireworks display.
But it’s not just about the capital. Glasgow is renowned for its terrifically friendly attitude towards kids, and there’s more for them to do than you could possibly fit in one visit. Try the amazing Glasgow Science Centre on Clydeside; the miles-more-fun-than-it-sounds Transport Museum in Kelvin Hall; the mini-museum for kids in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum; the fascinating Victorian Tenement House in Buccleuch Street; and the sweeping historical display that is the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens on Glasgow Green.
Aberdeen, with its stark granite face, yields up such wonders as the cool Satrosphere Science Centre and neighbouring Codonas amusement park. Dundee teaches biology in a uniquely kid-friendly way at Sensation. And Inverness provides a buzzing base from which to go Nessie hunting.
Stirling has a castle and town-gaol experience that are fabulously child-orientated. Nearby, and less than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow, Blair Drummond Safari & Adventure Park is the place to take a boat-trip around an island of chimps, drive through a big-cat enclosure and get a bit closer to the friendlier inhabitants of the park, such as pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs, in the petting zoo.
Aberdeenshire, Peebleshire and Stirling each have Go Ape! treetop adventure courses, in Banchary, Glentress Forest and Aberfoyle.
As for the many beaches that Scotland has to offer, highlights include the white sandy beaches of Nairn in Invernesshire, with gorgeous views across the Moray Firth to the Black Isle – a wonderful local secret. On a sunny day (and yes, there are many), it’s bliss to chill out on its unspoilt and uncrowded central beach and let the kids splash in the superb outdoor pool while you relax with a drink and watch a game of village cricket on the green beside the old Victorian bandstand.
For children of an inquisitive nature, the rock-pools on the beaches at St Andrews provide endless afternoons of poking about. Film buffs might like to note that the sandy stretch next to the pools was where Chariots of Fire was filmed.
Immerse yourself in history with a stroll around Scone Palace just north of Perth in Perthshire. It’s got stacks of facts for grown-ups to wallow in (it was capital of the Pictish kingdom, centre of the Celtic church, the seat of parliaments, and the crowning place of kings), is ideal for buggy-pushers (it’s all on one floor), and has plenty of space in its grounds for kids to run about chasing the peacocks, as well as a great play-park, the great Murray Star Maze in which to lose the children, grazing Highland cattle, plus a smattering of rare breeds.
Get back to nature in Galloway Forest Park, Britain’s biggest forest park – see our feature on the book-town of Wigtown and other Galloway attractions.
Pleasingly, most good restaurants in Scotland still offer the likes of haggis, tatties and neeps, usually with a modern, very palatable twist. Restaurants around the country – historically rather unwelcoming to children, at least in the larger cities – now positively court your little darlings, with colouring pens and paper, balloons, kids’ menus and puzzlebooks proffered by engaging, switched-on staff who get the kids’ orders out double-quick so embarrassing ‘I’m Hungry’ tantrums are kept to a minimum. The only real exception is certain high-end Edinburgh eateries, which retain a slightly frosty reception to smaller children.
See Dea Birkett’s feature on eating with kids in Edinburgh.
Weather will be your over-riding concern on family holidays in Scotland, but it should by no means deter you, even when it’s adverse – it all depends on what sort of a break you’re after. Spring is the classic time to see Scotland because it’s not too crowded, the weather is warming up and hotel prices haven’t reached their peak. It’s also a great time for anglers as the salmon are in abundance, making their journeys upstream.
In summer expect crowds, but there’s a reason for this – Scotland is at its most gorgeous in July, August and September, especially when the purple heather swathes the country in late August and early September. Prices are at their highest and the rainfall at its lowest, and the famous Edinburgh Festival (see above) kicks in as autumn approaches.
Autumn is great for a short cosy cottage break if you don’t mind some drizzle, and winter is the time to come if you are a keen snow sports enthusiast – Aviemore is superb at this time of year.
If you're driving up to Scotland – a good option for family holidays since you'll be able to use your own car – then you will most likely be using the M6 for most of your journey, as it is motorway or motorway-standard all the way from London to Edinburgh (650km).
Flying is a quick option, especially if you live near one of the many main and regional airports that fly to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness.
Scotland is a great-value destination for budget family holidays, although several luxury hotels and resorts offer you the opportunity to splurge too.By Dinah Hatch
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