Flowers of Scotland: Taking the family on a Scottish Highland adventure
Holidas in Scotland
From bikes to hikes and historical adventures, the Scottish Highlands make for a stunning family holiday.
With ruddy cheeks and flaxen curls streaming in the wind, she speeds across Baile Gean to the door of the open blackhouse. "Come quickly! My granny's after stopping a rabbit being murdered!" she screeches, tugging at the hem of the woman's plaid.
The woman glances over but goes back to telling a gaggle of tourists about life in the Scottish Highlands in years gone by. But I am running, running back to where the poor beastie lies, twitching its final oration. Granny's intervention has come too late. The rabbit is dead and the pine marten that killed it has escaped with its life, if not its dinner.
In summer, the Scottish Highlands can be an unforgiving place. This drama is unfolding at a reproduction of an 18th- century homestead at the Highland Folk Museum near Kingussie in the north (facebook.com/highlandfolk).
The Baile Gean settlement of Highland dwellings is based on the actual deserted settlement of Easter Raitts, at nearby Badenoch. The houses have been mapped from surviving stone foundations, with the number of cobbles at their doorways denoting the hierarchy of the clan settlement.
Inside the houses my eyes smart with smoke from burning peat as I try - and fail - to adjust my vision to the darkness where animals and humans once dwelled. Outside, my six-year-old has taken up sentry duty over the bunny, replaying the scene to tourists. Over and over she tells of the epic tussle between animal and granny with all of the drama of an episode of Outlander - which is fitting, given that part of the TV series was filmed here.
The museum is an impressive and interactive exposition of Highland life through the centuries. It's all the more impressive because it's free. Here, children can milk a cow, buy sweeties at the old-fashioned shop, poke about inside an actual island croft, take a tractor ride and learn copperplate writing in the local school (up thin, down thick) amongst other things. Also in Kingussie is the Highland Wildlife Park (highlandwildlifepark.org.uk), which is a good rainy-day activity.
Meanwhile, more adventurous members of our party are trekking up Scotland's second-highest mountain, Ben Macdui (1,309m) in the nearby Cairngorms. I've climbed the Ben before and found it a relatively straightforward trek to the broad mountaintop. However, on that occasion I was able to take the sting out of the climb by hopping on the chairlift to the top of nearby Cairngorm and taking a right turn onto the Ben. Now, a new funicular railway has replaced the rickety chairlift and offers no option for climbers to leave the confines of the Cairngorm docking station. So the walk is a little beyond our younger children's abilities.
After the museum, we head back on the A9 to our Highland home for the week, the Hilton Coylumbridge in Aviemore (hiltonaviemore.com). My family has been visiting this place for about 35 years and, now I have a family of my own, the draw of the Highlands has never been stronger.
My journey north is now a little longer, however. It incorporates a swift and super- comfortable ferry ride from Belfast to Cairnryan with Stena Line, followed by a long, diagonal drive north from Ayrshire to Lanarkshire, Stirlingshire and on to Badenoch and Strathspey. But I love all the undulations of Scotland and the stripping- away of stress that the journey represents.
The past dissolves as we notice the Wallace Monument near Stirling Castle, travel through the opulent forests of Birnam and Dunkeld, and head on to the salmon's leap at Pitlochry and the Soldier's Leap at Killiecrankie.
When we emerge in the Highlands, it's like another century, another life; as if the mountains are awaiting the resumption of creation.
But what about the weather, you say? Well, happily, Aviemore exists within a micro-climate - so even in the rainy summer of 2016, we had a dry and moderately warm holiday. Dry, that is, when we weren't river tubing on the Rothiemurchus estate beside the hotel, or squelching home after our evening rambles by the river, where the wellie wearers waded a little bit too far into the shallows.
The Rothiemurchus estate (rothiemurchus.net) has been dubbed "one of the glories of wild Scotland" by Sir David Attenborough and is something of a culinary hotspot, to boot. Its Druie Restaurant Café serves up fine local produce with flair and you can buy local cheeses, purebred Highland beef and forest venison from the farm shop. Our children love to feed the fish at the adjoining trout farm, too - I happily fork out for bags of feed (you can also attempt to catch them on the lake).
We opt to head to Treezone Aerial Adventures for heartstopping overhead leaps through the forest (treezone.co.uk; £80/€94 for a family of four). On subsequent days we hire bikes and cycle through the estate - Aviemore is prime biking territory. We have a rollicking adventure in Landmark Forest Adventure Park (landmarkpark.co.uk) in neighbouring Carrbridge; G2 Outdoor Activities (g2outdoor.co.uk) and Loch Insh Outdoor Centre (lochinsh.com) are nearby too.
The Coylumbridge isn't short of adventurous pursuits either. The hotel has two pools, an outdoor climbing centre and adventure playground, plus indoor crazy golf and soft play areas. Its real draw, however, is that it caters wonderfully for families, with kids' clubs, a quality buffet served at mealtimes (highlights include wood-fired pizzas, candyfloss sticks and a chocolate fountain, along with the healthy options...) and evening entertainment that included a reptile show.
Elsewhere, our nearly three-year-old was perfectly entertained with a visit to Aviemore station every day at 10am to see the steam train depart on the Strathspey Railway - and then watch replays of the event on my iPhone. You can travel on the line with two-hour hop-on, hop-off excursions to Boat of Garten and Broomhill, popular in the summer months (£54/€64 for a Family Rover ticket).
Finally, for those who like to do their touring by car, a trip along the Great Glen to Inverness is worth doing, to take a tramp around the foreboding ruins of Urquhart Castle or just to look in wonder at Scotland's unrivalled scenery... all the while scanning the loch for my namesake: Nessie.
Stena Line (stenaline.ie) sails from Belfast to Cairnryan from c. €165 each way, based on a family of four with a car in May (car & driver fares from €89). Cairnryan to the Highlands is roughly a four-hour drive (not counting stops). The Hilton Coylumbridge (hilton aviemore.com) has family breaks from £149/€175 a night in June. See visitscotland.com for more.
5 family adventures in the Scottish Highlands
Walking in Aviemore
Rothiemurchus Forest on the outskirts of Aviemore and at the base of the Cairngorm Mountains is crisscrossed by a web of well-maintained walking and cycle tracks, most with excellent surfaces well suited to easy cycling. Pick up one of the excellent, free illustrated walking/cycling maps in local hotels, guesthouses, campsites and visitor centres. There's something for everyone here.
Loch an Eilein
Expect to spend about 90 minutes doing this gentle 6km family walk within the Rothiemurchus Estate outside Aviemore. It's a circular walk on very good tracks and paths, suitable for buggies and bikes alike. Bring stout shoes, wellies, boots or good runners, and don't forget to explore the woods, the rocky beach and spot the ruined castle on the loch.
Loch Morlich Walk
Another 90-minute family walk, this begins anywhere near the Watersports Centre or Glenmore Visitor Centre on the ski road. It circles past sandy beaches, through forest tracks and along the estate access roads on surfaces suitable for all ages, buggies and bikes. NB: Avoid having to walk the section along the busy Cairngorm Mountain road by using the excellent cycle/walking track just hidden in the woods on the opposite side of the road to the loch.
Gleann Eanaich Cycle/Walk
Allow six hours (walk) or three hours (bike) for this 25km round trip. The track surfaces become rough in places, but the scenery is magnificent, with startling views of the Cairngorms ahead highlighting the deep 'V' of the Lairig Ghru pass. As you enter the glen proper, you find the 1,296 metres of Braeriach - Britain's third-highest mountain - close on your left.
Cairngorm Plateau Climb
Take the exciting drive up to the Cairngorm Ski Centre (cairngormmountain.org) carpark for this climb - for which one member of the party should be an experienced hillwalker and navigator. Tracks and rock paths cover 8km in total, taking up to three hours (it's suitable for fit families and older children in settled weather). On a clear day, the panoramic views looking back towards Rothiemurchus, Loch Morlich and Aviemore are outstanding.
See walkhighlands.co.uk for more.