Family Vacations to Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands
Explore Eilean Donan castle in the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands (Digital Vision/Robert Harding)

Scottish Highlands Highlights

  • Bag a Munro, walk around a loch, or summit Ben Nevis, Britain's highest peak.
  • Mountain-bike challenging singletrack near Fort William or Aviemore.
  • Cruise the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness on a canal boat.
  • Catch your first rainbow trout.
  • Build sandcastles on the pristine, palm-fringed beaches of the remote Outer Hebrides.
  • Stay in a Highland castle for a week or more.

Before you head north with your family into the Scottish Highlands, heed this one piece of advice: a single castle is all you need, whether that's Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness or lonesome Eilean Donan at the head of Loch Long. Your castle-spotting urges sated, you can then focus on the true allure of this most stunning quadrant of the British Isles—exploring the great outdoors.

No doubt, the scenery up here is worthy of the drive, but parents with kids in tow will do well to rent a car and shack up in some lovely self-catering cottage for a week or more in order to truly enjoy the experience. The Scottish Highlands are a mottled and glacial-rubbed band of mountains that barely scrape the sky at 3,000 feet but somehow manage to appear foreboding and enormous. The effect is amplified as they drop suddenly down to the wave-smashed shoreline along Scotland's western coast. Beautiful lochs fill the lowland spaces like puddles of the gods, while windswept offshore islands mix craggy cliff lines and mountainous interiors with remote, white-sand beaches. It's a lovely blend, only complicated by the dilemma that you'll never experience it all in just one trip.

Given this diversity of terrain and abundance of options, travelers should plan to pick one area as their outdoor base camp for the duration, to save hours of driving time. Fort William, at the foot of Britain's highest peak, 4,406-foot Ben Nevis, is probably the best-stocked locale in terms of outdoor activities and accommodation. It is, however, very touristy given its proximity to Loch Ness, Glencoe, and the best Highlands scenery. A little further southwest, the port of Oban mixes seaside charm with access to the Lower Hebridean islands of Mull, Jura, and Islay.

For the wilder Outer Hebrides, head northwest from Fort William to the port of Mallaig, from where you can catch ferries to the Isle of Skye and remote Harris and Uist. An alternative is to drive to Skye across the Skye Bridge from the Kyle of Lochlash on the mainland. Depending on how far off the beaten track you want to get, and how much energy and time you have to expend getting there, any of these islands will hold the attention of even the most hyperactive kids.

Further inland, adventurous families should also consider Aviemore. The main town itself is a bit run down, but the area offers plenty of self-catering choices and activities—from skiing to kayaking to mountain biking—in the surrounding Cairngorm Mountains. With highway access from Glasgow and Edinburgh, Aviemore is an easy alternative if you don't have the time to head all the way into the Highland hinterlands.

Hiking in Scotland, or hill walking, as it is known in these parts, is one of the region's best pastimes. The hikes run the gamut in terms of difficulty and duration, so picks should depend on your family's abilities and ambitions. Whether that's a gentle stroll along the shores of Loch Ness, an overnight hike into the brooding heart of the Glencoe range, or a summit attempt of Ben Nevis, you're sure to find something that suits. Better yet, ask the locals for secret stashes and you'll probably find yourself at some remote swimming hole or scenic overlook that the guidebooks have yet to pinpoint. As always, never underestimate the elements and always set out with the appropriate equipment, supplies, and contingency plan in case the weather turns. Check out the ScottishSport.co.uk walking guide (http://scottishsport.co.uk/walking) for a comprehensive listing of hikes all around Scotland.

Whether it's falling from the sky or lapping at your toes, water is never hard to find in these parts, so it should come as no surprise that the region offers some of Britain's best water-sport opportunities. Snow- and rain-fed rivers like the Tay or Orchy make for some roiling whitewater, although nothing on the measure of Colorado or California's long Class III and IV runs. Aberfeldy, on the banks of Loch Tay, is a good center for all manner of inland water sports, including whitewater rafting, kayaking, sailing, and canyoneering. Just be warned that the water will be cold, even in July!

Naturally, sailing opportunities in and around Oban abound, including numerous certification courses for the newbie and expert alike. Adventurous families might consider chartering a yacht to sail the coastal waterways of western Scotland. Likewise, you could rent a boat to ply legendary Loch Ness from its easternmost point near Inverness to as far south as Fort William, along the coast-to-coast Caledonian Canal. The Visit Scotland website includes useful listings for sailing schools and charter companies (http://sail.visitscotland.com).

With all those lochs and rivers dotting the landscape, good fishing is never far from hand, either. But prospective anglers should know that most waterways are private or require a permit, so enquire ahead of time before letting Junior cast his first fly. Some places, like Aviemore's Rothiemurchus fishery, offer stocked ponds and lakes if you're itching to let the wee ones get their first taste of hooking a rainbow trout.

Fat-tire enthusiasts should be sure to hit the mountain-biking trails around Fort William and Aviemore. Fort William hosts an annual UCI Mountain Bike World Cup event, and is well equipped with everything from parent-friendly doubletrack to more gnarly singletrack and freestyle courses. Likewise, the forested hillsides around Aviemore make for some good half- and full-day rides. Both towns are set up with outfitters offering bike rentals and gear, plus guided tours.

Nobody really travels to Scotland to ski, but if you do go in winter and luck out with weather and conditions, know that there are five smallish ski resorts speckled around the Highlands, the best of which is north-facing Cairngorm Mountain near Aviemore. Even if there is no snow here, a new funicular tram shuttles passengers year-round to the 4,084-foot summit for a fine panorama of the surrounding countryside. The Visit Scotland website offers more information on all five Highland ski resorts, including directions and up-to-date snow conditions. (http://ski.visitscotland.com)

Tip: Take the kids for an unusual Highland vacation by booking a historic property through the National Trust for Scotland, where lodging options include castles, lighthouses, and hunting lodges.


Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 9 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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