Breathtaking landscapes that stretch endlessly across the land, sea and islands. Sparkling lochs that reflect the unexpected and ever-changing colours of the sky. Unspoilt forests, amazing wildlife, but above all, dazzling greenery, absolutely everywhere.
All this, together with warm hospitality, excellent sea food and an absurd number of castles that suddenly appear in the most extraordinary settings, make a trip to Scotland with children a truly unforgettable experience.
In spite of its small size, Scotland has a great deal to offer and is a popular destination, particular during the summer, when the weather is milder.
This is why a trip to Scotland with children isn’t something you can organise last minute, but requires some prior organization to plan the stages of your journey, depending on the length of your stay.
To enjoy your visit at a leisurely pace (which is essential when travelling with children), you ideally need a couple of weeks. Our itinerary lasted 18 days, but if truth be told by the end of the trip I would have skipped a few stops, to be able stay a little bit longer in some of the places that had captured our hearts.
The main reason is the weather: in Scotland the weather conditions are completely unpredictable, and even in summer it often rains. If you plan to stay in a place for only a couple of days, you risk not being able to see it properly, because you obviously won’t be able to walk very far in the rain with your children (even if it mostly drizzles).
The other reason is the road network: in the most remote, yet really beautiful areas of Scotland, most roads, while in excellent condition, are very narrow and one way only, allowing only one vehicle to pass at a time. Meaning that several times on route, when you meet another car, you need to pull into a so-called “passing place”, created for this very purpose on the side of the road. Therefore, when you calculate travelling time between one stop and another, keep in mind that in some areas it might take you longer than 3 hours to cover 100 km!
In order to see as much of Scotland as possible, we flew into Edinburgh and left from Glasgow. If you don’t have much time available, I would suggest not staying long in either of these two cities, because to experience the real Scotland you should aim straight for the heart of the country, and head for the Highlands and the islands.
If you plan on visiting Edinburgh Castle, to avoid the long queues and to be certain of being able to visit at your preferred time, the best thing to do is buy your tickets online. Be prepared to run into hundreds of tourists during your visit: this fortress, unlike the many other wonderful castles scattered across Scotland, is always under siege!
The visit lasts about an hour and a half, and once it’s over, I suggest a trip to the Camera Obscura and World of Illusion Museum, 5 floors dedicated to magic and illusions of every kind: your kids will have a whale of a time!
Once leaving the capital city, we headed north towards Stonehaven, a delightful fishing village with a charming harbour, from which, after a 45 minute walk, we reached the stunning Dunnottar Castle.
Our next stop was Inverness, our first encounter with the Highlands. Here an itinerary by car around the notorious Loch Ness, the home of the legendary monster known affectionately as Nessie, is unmissable.
To drive right around the loch at a relaxed pace you need a whole day, taking into account that you will certainly want to stop at Urquhart Castle, which stands on its shores and is well worth a visit. At the end of the tour, before heading back to Inverness, I suggest a pit stop at the Dores Inn, a wonderful country pub with a gorgeous view of the lake. It is the ideal spot to sip an aperitif as the sun goes down, and enjoy the colours changing over the loch.
On leaving this area we headed even further north, and deeper into the heart of Scotland, in the Northwest Highlands, towards Gairloch, a group of charming villages along the shores of the loch of the same name.
We stayed in a guest house just a short hop from the harbour, not only a strategic base for whale and dolphin watching excursions by boat, but also for visiting Inverewe Garden, a magnificent botanical garden full of plants and flowers of myriad colours.
This area is also an excellent starting point for embarking on the so-called “scenic route”, the coastal road that runs as far as Applecross, which offers utterly spectacular views to anyone who travels along it.
Before reaching our next port of call, the wonderful Isle of Skye, from Applecross we ventured along the famous Bealach na Ba, an extremely narrow mountain road, forbidden for camper vans (and all vehicles in windy conditions) which boasts the steepest ascent in the whole of Scotland and possibly its most spectacular views. After driving around a couple of hairpin bends overlooking incredible cliffs, we quickly headed downhill towards the Kyle of Lochalsh, where the Skye Bridge took us over to the enchanting Isle of Skye.
If you only have a handful of days to visit Scotland, I think you should head straight for this island, so you can take your time and really appreciate it, slowly discovering its extraordinary landscape.
We decided to stay in the northern Trotternish Peninsula, the most fascinating and peaceful area in the entire island, situated a short distance from the port of Uig.
Once you get here it feels like you have stepped into another world, it is so incredibly peaceful. The sky, land and sea stretch uninterrupted, as far as the eye can see, blurring into one in a blend of incredible colours, the silence broken only by the sound of birdsong or the bleating of distant sheep.
Here you will find many mountain walks suitable for children, either carried or walking by themselves. This year Ascanio embarked on his very first family trek, an hour long walk to Rubha Hunish the northernmost point of the entire island, where the coastguard lookout station has been transformed into a kind of panoramic viewing hut. I will never forget how happy he was when he looked through the binoculars, when we reached the top, he wouldn’t let go of them!
Other unmissable walks are those that take you to the bottom of the Old Man of Storr and to the Quiraing rock formation, both of which are in the Trotternish Peninsula.
After we had left our beloved Isle of Skye behind us we headed once again to the heart of the Highlands, towards Glen Coe, the most famous “glen” in Scotland (a glen is a very deep, “U-shaped” valley). It boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, and for this reason has been used as the setting of films such as Braveheart, the Harry Potter series, Skyfall, Rob Roy, to name but a few.
Thanks to the abundant rainfall that never ceases in this area, in summer the valley becomes a dazzling green, interspersed with a seemingly infinite number of streams and waterfalls everywhere.
Be warned however: if you want to visit the Highlands (with or without children) above all during the summer, be ready for some close encounters with midges, typical of this area. The only really effective and non-toxic deterrent (completely natural) is called Smidges and is a locally made product, although it can be purchased online before you leave.
Numerous sporting activities are organized in this area that is a trekking and hiking paradise, with routes for all ability levels and with many, here too, suitable for families with children.
To help you rest after a long day of walking, treat yourself to a holistic massage from Claire McArthur at North Ballachulish: she quite literally got us back on our feet! (contact her at: [email protected])
Our accommodation here was fantastic to say the least: a chalet overlooking Loch Leven, with an amazing view across the valley and of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles.
If you are travelling with kids you absolutely must visit Fort William, where the famous Jacobite Express departs, better known as the Hogwarts Express, the steam train in Harry Potter, which takes you on a round trip to Mallaig, through some of the most historic and evocative places in Scotland. To be sure of travelling on the day you want you will need to pre-book tickets online, as seats sell out fast!
On leaving the Highlands we travelled southwards, in the direction of the Isle of Mull, the final stop on our journey before returning home to Italy.
After a quick stroll around the quiet town of Oban, we caught the ferry for Craignure (a word of warning: don’t expect to be able to buy a last minute ticket because you might get stuck on the mainland, especially in summer, so buy them online).
Once we landed on Mull, we went straight to Fionnphort, where ferries depart for the Isle of Iona. We stayed here in a wonderful guest house in the middle of nowhere, run by a young couple who overwhelmed us with suggestions for visiting this beautiful island.
I think this was the best part of our entire trip: the Isle of Mull is simply stunning, with its incredible contrast of colours between land and water, white sandy beaches, pink granite rocks and bright green hills rising from the sea.
The Isle of Iona is an unmissable gem, with hidden beaches reminiscent of the Caribbean. We didn’t have much time so we went for the day, but the next time we are back in the area (and we are definitely coming back!) we will stay longer so we can properly enjoy the place, without having to rush away.
Our return flight to Italy was from Glasgow, but we decided not to visit the city, to stay as long as we could immersed in the green and tranquil countryside.
We spent the night at a fantastic guest house in Balmaha, in the heart of Loch Lomond, the biggest loch in the whole of Great Britain, and much loved by Glaswegians as it is situated only 30 minutes away. Our last Scottish supper was at the Oak Tree Inn run by the guest house, and it was one of the best meals of our trip.
It was the perfect way to say goodbye to this wonderful country. See you soon!