Bonny Scotland, Here We Come! A Canadian Clan Plans a First-Time Visit

Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

Stirling Castle: commanding location, chequered past. Photo credit: Visit Scotland

My husband and I have always dreamed of visiting Scotland. His family came to Canada a long time ago, but with a name like MacKay, a love of single malts (his, not mine) and a mild obsession with Outlander (mine, not his), it makes perfect sense to want to visit the old homeland. We always planned to get there eventually, thought we might hold off until the kids were old enough to stay home on their own. Cost aside, we weren’t sure if Scotland would really be fun for kids. Until we started talking to families who’ve been; the resounding opinion is that Scotland is fun for everyone! So, when the recent uptick in flights between Canada and the UK made for some great introductory prices on direct Westjet flights, we decided to take the leap and booked a family trip for June 2016.

As it turns out, booking the flights was the easy part… while Scotland is a relatively small country compared to Canada, it’s got natural beauty, architectural interest and historically significant sites around every bend in the [country] road. Narrowing down where to spend our two weeks has actually been pretty tough. After many long hours spent poring over travel websites, I think we’re getting close. Here’s how we plan to ‘do’ Scotland with our kids (aged 6 and 9), and why I think we’ll all like these choices!

Starting With Glasgow

I haven’t been to the UK in over twenty years, so I was little surprised to find that it’s cheaper to fly between London and Scotland than it is to take the train! We’ll connect at Gatwick with a short British Airways flight* to Glasgow and start our Scottish adventure there.

Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland, with a colourful history as a centre of shipbuilding and the largest seaport in Britain. We’re putting Glasgow on our must-visit list because it’s home to:

  • Lots of museums and art galleries, including the Riverside Museum (European Museum of the Year 2014) – and they’re all FREE to visit.
  • Disused old spaces/warehouses that have been transformed into exciting centres of urban adventure, from indoor rock climbing to flying trapezes.
  • A restaurant scene that is gaining a fantastic international reputation as it grows. After our visit to the Tall Ship at Riverside, we plan to check out at least one of the new restaurants in the Finnieston district.
Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

The Tall Ship at Riverside, Glasgow. Photo credit: People Make Glasgow

And if we need a change of scenery, it’s just a 30-minute drive from Glasgow to Loch Lomond, which boasts stunning scenery and the Sea Life Loch Lomond aquarium. We’re off to a great start.

Exploring Inverness and Loch Ness

From Glasgow, we’ll venture into the Scottish Highlands, traveling by train to Inverness, which is the unofficial capital of the Highlands and centrally located to loads of interesting places to visit. We’ll pick up a rental car here, and drive ourselves (yes, on the other side of the road!) during the rest of our time in the Highlands. While in the Inverness area, we hope to visit:

  • Culloden Battlefield, infamous site of the British defeat of the Scottish Jacobites (and the beginning of the end of the clans) in 1746. This one’s more for us than the kids, but we’ve got a secret weapon to make it interesting for them: Culloden is one of the sites of Discover Explore, an exploration game set along Scotland’s Great Glen. We’ll download the Culloden Battlefield Explorer Pack and do some fun activities as a family. In fact, we’ll be relying on Discover Explore Explorer Packs all the way from Inverness to Fort William to make the kids’ trip more interesting and educational.
  • Castles, castles, castles!! Inverness is within easy driving distance to Dunrobin Castle, Cawdor Castle and Brodie Castle. Each is imposing, picturesque and stuffed to the rafters with interesting history. We might not make it to all three, but we’re certainly not going home without having seen some great castles.
  • Clava Cairns, with its prehistoric burial cairns that were built about 4,000 years ago.
Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

Dun robin Castle, a real-life fairytale castle. Photo credit: Visit Scotland

By this point in our trip the kids might be getting a little travel-weary, so we plan on putting down roots for a few nights. And have I ever found the place! The Highland Club is a former Benedictine Monastery in Fort Augustus, on the shores of Loch Ness, that has been converted into a number of unique and stylish condo-style apartments.

In addition to vaguely resembling Hogwarts and being within easy walking distance of the locks, shops and restaurants of Fort Augustus, the resort features an indoor pool/sauna/steam room, snooker lounge, restaurant, playground, and lots of outdoor games (giant chess, anyone?). This place looks just perfect for some family rejuvenation. But – lest all that relaxation get a bit dull – we’ll be sure to take a boat trip onto the Loch to look for old Nessie, after learning more about her legend at the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. And there’s no way we’ll miss taking the kids see a full-sized working trebuchet at the famed Urquhart Castle.

The Highland Club, on the shores of Loch Ness. Photo credit: The Highland Club

The Highland Club, on the shores of Loch Ness. Photo credit: The Highland Club

Riding The Hogwarts’ Express

OK, so the Hogwart’s Express is not a real train, but ‘The Jacobite’, operated by West Coast Railways, is – and it’s the steam train that was filmed for the Harry Potter movies! Remember that amazing ‘bridge’ the train went over? It’s the Glenfinnan Viaduct and is just one part of the amazing 84-mile roundtrip between Fort William and Mallaig.

The Jacobite on the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Photo credit: West Coast Railways

The Jacobite on the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Photo credit: West Coast Railways

This day trip takes a little under 6 hours and includes some time to explore coastal Mallaig. Because Mallaig is a jumping-off point for the Isle of Skye, we may even book the train trip as two one-way trips and pop over to the island for a day or two. Skye is renowned for its magical landscapes including the famed Fairy Pools. Enchanting!

Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye. Photo credit: IsleofSkye.com

Drinking Up Oban

Oban was near the top of our list of Scottish towns to visit before I even started planning this trip. Why? Well, for starters because my mother-in-law says we must go. Her reasons? In part, the same as my husband’s reasons… because of the Scotch, of course. The Oban Distillery, one of the oldest (and smallest) producers of single malt in the country, turns out a stellar dram (or so I’ve been told) and apparently gives a great distillery tour too.

Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

Oban, as seen from the water. Where all that seafood lives.

But she’s also given us lots of other reasons to visit Oban:

  • It’s a hilly, picturesque seaside port town on the west coast of the Highlands, topped by the highly visible but unfinished, Coliseum-esque McCaig’s Tower.
  • You can make an easy day trip to the Isle of Mull to see the colourful village of Tobermory, plus my own city’s namesake: Calgary Bay. It’s true: Colonel James Macleod (of the Canadian North West Mounted Police) gave Fort Calgary its name following a visit to Calgary Bay. But I digress…
  • The area around Oban is renowned for its glorious gardens.
  • And last, but not least, I’ve just discovered that Oban is called “The Seafood Capital of Scotland”.

Oban, you had me at seafood.

Feeling Like Royalty in Edinburgh

After scenic drive from Oban that will include stops at Stirling Castle (former home of Mary, Queen of Scots) and the Falkirk Wheel (the world’s only rotating boat lift), we’ll be ready to wrap up our Scottish tour with a few exciting days in Scotland’s capital city: Edinburgh.

Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

It’s all about water at the Falkirk Wheel. Photo credit: Scottish Canals

While in Edinburgh, we’ll need a place to lay our heads and I’m hoping that we’ll lay them at The Balmoral. This glorious old hotel will be a splurge, but with good reason. In fact, here are several good reasons for splurging on a stay at The Balmoral:

  • Reason Number One: membership has it’s privileges. The Balmoral is a member of the Rocco Forte hotel group and, as such, features the Families R Forte program. After nearly two weeks away from home, I think we’ll all be ready to enjoy the extra amenities provided to families, including: kids’ check-in cards, colouring books, comment cards and newspapers, as well as the special Families R Forte passport, kid-sized bathrobes and slippers, discounted hotel meals for kids, and the Owl Teddy Turndown Service.
  • Reason Number Two: location, location, location! The Balmoral sits at the boundary of Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town and is close to everything we want to see.
  • Reason Number Three: it’s gorgeous! It’s rooms and suites look really beautiful. Enough said.
  • Reason Number Four: and this is the clincher, as far as my husband will be concerned… we’ve heard tell from sources we trust (i.e. friends with great taste) that the hotel’s Scotch Whisky Bar is not to be missed.

After a luxurious and restful night at The Balmoral (fingers crossed!)… where do we start exploring this fabulous city? Edinburgh is neither small nor flat, so I think we’ll kick off our visit with a hop-on-hop-off bus tour. It’ll be the kids’ first double-decker bus ride, and you know you always remember your first double-decker bus ride! That will give us the lay of the land and probably add a dozen things to our itinerary. After our bus adventure, we’ll continue on foot. Hopefully starting from the top.

Planning a family visit to Scotland (Family Fun Canada)

The stunning Edinburgh skyline. Photo credit: Marketing Edinburgh

Although it’s likely to be our last castle of our trip, I’m pretty sure Edinburgh Castle, with its commanding position overlooking the city, will not fail to impress. From there, a stroll down the bustling Royal Mile and a visit to the hidden world of The Real Mary King’s Close are on my Edinburgh bucket list, as is the destination at the end of the walk: the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.  I think we’ll run out of time before we run out of ideas, but just in case, I’ll be bookmarking these blog posts on Fun Things to Do in Edinburgh With the Kids and Free Hidden Gems of Edinburgh!

So there you have it… the myriad wonders of Scotland narrowed down for a two-week first-time family visit. If you’ve already visited and know about something that we just must add to our plans, please comment. And be sure to visit us again in early summer to find out how the trip went!

* Money-Saving Tip: Here’s how we’re saving some cash on our London-Scotland flights. When you sign up for an American Express Gold Rewards Card (and charge $500 to the card in the first 3 months), you get a 25,000 point bonus with no annual fee charged for the first year. Until March 31, 2016, those points can be converted to British Airways [Executive Club, free to join] Avios rewards points at a rate of 1.25 Avios per Amex point. Which gives you at least 31,250 Avios to put towards your British Airways flights! Be sure to check with BA before you transfer your points to Avios, because if can’t get the flights your need using Avios, you can still put your Amex points towards any travel charge, at a rate of 1,000 points = $10. I am in no way affiliated with American Express but I do like saving money; this information is current as of February 1, 2016.

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