The Highlands of Scotland have something to do for everyone and that includes adults as well as children! Since I don’t have children myself, I asked a true expert to share with us her best advice for visiting the Scottish Highlands with kids.
Guest blogger Mags Nixon from outdoor family adventure travel blog The Family Freestylers inspires families to get off screens, into nature and out of their comfort zone. With her two girls, follow their adventures bothying in Scotland, trekking around Mont Blanc or re-planting the rainforest in deepest Borneo.
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The Highlands of Scotland are truly one of the last bastions of wilderness in Northern Europe. The rugged, dramatic coastline is nothing short of spectacular, with sweeping golden beaches, mountainous peaks, crumbling castles and peaceful lochs guaranteed to take your breath away.
If you’re an outdoor family looking for adventure, the Scottish Highlands are the perfect destination. Be prepared to fall in love with this land of myth and legend.
Here are our top 24 tips for families planning to visit the Highlands of Scotland.
Getting to Scotland
Tip 1 – Start your adventure early: Catch the Caledonian Express
Book the Caledonian Express sleeper train for a journey to the Highlands you’ll never forget. Departing from London Kings Cross, the Caledonian Express will whisk you up to Inverness, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, just in time for breakfast.
Perfect for international travellers arriving in London or UK families based in the South, the Caledonian Express eliminates the excruciating long two-day drive to the Highlands. Plus, there’s something extraordinarily special about bedding down for the night on a sleeper train, and this one is no exception. Brand new cabins now even boast double beds and ensuite bathrooms!
When to go to the Scottish Highlands?
Tip 2 – Which month is best to visit the Scottish Highlands?
Scotland midges are legendary. In a bad way. We NEVER visit Scotland during the Summer (unless we’re visiting the islands where the wind keeps them away). During the peak summer months of June through to August, biting midges can truly ruin your trip.
If you can try to organise your visit during the shoulder months of May, September or October – the weather is still fine and it’s not midge season.
Tip 3 – Midge repellent
If you can’t avoid visiting the Scottish Highlands in peak summer, stock up on Avon So Soft cream – it’s affordable, DEET free and my Mother (who lives in the Highlands) swears by it. Smidge is also highly recommended.
Tip 4 – Be prepared for all weathers in one day
Scotland can experience every single season in one day (or even in one hour). Be prepared by packing good quality wet weather and windproof gear to keep spirits high. The saying, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear applies here.
Driving in the Scottish Highlands
Tip 5 – Drive the NC500
The NC500 (North Coast 500 mile) route along the North Coast of Scotland is being hailed as the new Route 66. It’s an epic trip & something perfect to do with kids in a campervan. Be prepared for busy traffic in the peak summer months. Our advice – go in June or September.
Tip 6 – Single track roads
Much of road along the NC500 and the Highlands are single track. Wide enough only for one vehicle, overtaking is only possible in passing places dotted every 50-100 metres. Expect to have to reverse multiple times a day (if you’re the nearest to a passing place) for oncoming traffic to pass.
Don’t annoy the locals who can drive these roads much faster than you. Use passing places to let local traffic overtake. It’s actually illegal to drive past three passing places and not pull over to let faster traffic pass.
Tip 7 – Wild camp
Responsible wild camping is still allowed in Scotland and there are some incredible spots to free camp in the Scottish Highlands.
Be sure to follow the Scottish Outdoors Access Code to minimise environmental impact and abide by the Leave No Trace policy.
Be mindful of spending only one night in each location & avoid overcrowding by moving onto another location if a spot is already busy. Arrive late and leave early. Wherever possible, using a stove rather than an open fire, and never lighting an open fire during dry periods or in sensitive places like forests or peaty ground.
Tip 8 – Hire a campervan
Enjoy the luxury of a flexible schedule and being able to hunker down for the night in situ, by hiring a campervan. There are many beachside campsites along the NC500 to spend the night or find a quiet corner to yourself to wild camp. Campervans can easily be hired in Inverness. Pre-book early online.
Campervan over motorhome
Don’t think big when choosing your camper. Rent a huge RV motorhome at your peril. Single track roads are rife in the Highlands with passing places only every 100 metres or so. Marry that with soft, boggy verges and if you’re behind the wheel of a long motorhome, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The spacious RV that seemed like a good idea will turn into hell when you’re confronted with reversing into tiny passing places more than 50 times a day.
Opt for the easier to drive compact VW Transporter campers that drive exactly like a car. It will mean that you’ll be able to access some of the narrower trails on the NC500 that motorhomes can’t and the kids will love sleeping in a VW pop top.
Tip 9 – Take your time
Slow travel is the most rewarding when travelling with kids and the Scottish Highlands are no exception. It might be exciting planning to drive the NC500 in 3 days but in reality, your adventure will be rushed, stressed and chaotic.
Packing too much into your schedule is never enjoyable. Do your homework, choose your itinerary carefully and add in extra chill days for the kids to relax and play.
What to do in the Scottish Highlands?
Tip 10 – Fall in love with the beaches
If you hit a Scottish Highlands beach on a sunny day, you’d think you were in the Caribbean. Turquoise water, vast stretches of golden sands and hidden secret bays will make your heart leap. And the best thing? They are gloriously empty, save for the odd dog walker.
Be sure to check out our favourites – Ceannabeine (Nr Durness), Coldbackie, Gairloch, Clachtoll, Achmelvich and Kearvaig Bay.
Tip 11 – Test your nerve on the most northerly zip line in the UK
A total must for any adventure-loving family is a stop at Ceannabeine Beach, near Durness – the location of the epic Golden Eagle Zip Line.
At 230 metres long and 37 metres high, this exhilarating zip soars over the northeastern corner of the beach, with jaw-dropping Atlantic views. Guaranteed to get your heart pumping – this is £12 well spent.
The NC500 route drives right past the Golden Eagle Zip Line so make sure you schedule in a stop to ride the line. Get daily updates on the weather conditions and if the zip will open via the Golden Eagle Zipline Facebook page.
Cost: £12 per flight
Hiking in the Scottish Highlands
The Highlands has some of the best hiking in the world, so be sure to get out your hiking boots and venture onto some of the trails during your stay.
Tip 12 – Hike the West Highland Way
The most famous hike in the Highlands is the iconic multi-day trek, the West Highland Way. If you’re a big hiking family, then this 96-mile route from Milngavie to Fort William will be top of your bucket list. Expect to spend a week on the route, longer if you have younger children. Daily hike distances vary from 9-16 miles through magnificent, jaw-dropping scenery.
Consider using one of the many baggage transfers companies to ferry your bags each day to your accommodation or campsite. Carrying a light day pack will leave your family able to enjoy the hike and its spectacular views without burden.
Tip 13 – Experience the real wilderness & sleep in a bothy
Want to get away from the crowds for a real adventure? Experience the true Highlands by hiking out to a bothy for an overnight stay.
A bothy is an off-grid ‘shelter’ in the wilderness where you can stay for free. Bothies are generally croft houses or estate cottages, previously ruined, that have been simply renovated to provide basic accommodation. Expect sleeping platforms & no electricity or running water.
Set in remote locations, often languishing in the most truly magnificent landscapes, bothies allow you to truly get away from it all and get close to nature. It’s necessary to carry in all sleeping & cooking equipment, as well as food.
Bothies cannot be booked so plan to get there early. For families with young children, choose a bothy with a short walk in – there are some relatively close to the road. For a real adventure (summer only) hike out to the remote Kearvig Bothy.
Tip 14 – Visit The Isle of Skye & hike the Old Man of Storr
The Isle of Skye can be reached via a bridge from the mainland or via ferry. The Old Man of Storr is an iconic landmark of Scotland and the most popular attraction in Skye.
This famous pinnacle is an easy 3.8km hike for families taking just over an hour in total. Be prepared to be blown away by the Lord of the Rings-esque scenery.
Tip 15 – Brave a swim in the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye
The fairy pools are a magical series of pools and small waterfalls at the base of the Cuillin mountain range. It’s a lovely hike from the road and some brave, even brace the chilly waters for an invigorating dip! Aim to arrive very early or late in the day to avoid the crowds.
Visit Ancient Castles
Get your fill of history by making sure a few of the many castles, ruined or not, are on your itinerary. Our favourites are Eilean Donan and Ardvreck (see below).
Tip 16 – Visit Eilean Donan Castle
Five minutes from the Skye Bridge, a visit to Eilean Donan, a 13th-century castle, is a must. Set on a tiny tidal island, Eilean Donan (Island of Donan) where three sea lochs meet, the castle was built with 14ft thick walls to fend off marauding Vikings.
Cost: £10 adults, £6 children; £29 families (up to 3 kids)
Tip 17 – Visit the ruined 16th-century Ardvreck Castle at Loch Assynt
Ardvreck Castle’s ruined remains on the side of Loch Assynt is a picturesque spot and a good place to break a long drive. The ruin overlooks the serene Loch Assynt and dates back to the 16th century. It’s possible to sleep overnight in your campervan in the viewpoint parking spots on the edge of the loch (if you don’t mind the main road next to you).
Tip 18 – Visit Smoo Cave
Smoo Cave, near Durness, is a cavernous sea cave with several inner caves and is well worth a visit with kids. It’s a short 5-minute walk down to the main cave carved by the sea (free to visit) but the real adventure lays further underground. Take an inner cave tour by boat to cross the large softly lit underground pool and then scramble out on foot to discover a series of tunnels & caves.
Cost: £6 adults, £3 children
Tip 19 – Paddle Loch Ness
No trip to the Highlands would be complete without a visit to Loch Ness. Try your hand at finding the beast of the deep, by taking a 4-hour family kayak adventure on Loch Ness with the local company, Explore Highland. Kids will love seeking out Nessie and having fun on the water.
It’s prohibited to wild camp around Loch Ness and actually quite difficult to park a campervan near to any view of the loch – there are few laybys or passing places as the road is busy traffic with two-way traffic.
Tip 20 – Ride the Harry Potter train
Did you know you can actually ride the Hogwarts Express? The Jacobite steam train crosses the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct used in the Harry Potter films. The 2-hour journey from Fort William to Mallaig is now world-famous, so book your tickets early and try to sit on the left side of the train to bag ‘that shot’.
Cost: £60 adults (return), £33 children (return)
Tip 21 – Heading to the Isle of Skye?
Know that a ferry connects Mallaig to Skye so it’s a real option to get the Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William, get a single on the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig and then hop over to Skye on the ferry. Several Skye car rental firms can arrange to have a car waiting for you at Armadale where the ferry arrives.
Places to Stay
Tip 22 – Book well in advance
Our top tip is to book accommodation well in advance, particularly in high tourist areas such as the Isle of Skye and along the NC500 route.
We still love Airbnb for finding off the beaten path Highland accommodation.
Tip 23 – If you’re on a budget with the family ….
Ask if you can book a double room & if they would add another bed in the same room for the kids. This is something we do all the time and can really reduce costs.
There are numerous excellent campsites dotted along the North coast of Scotland.
Tip 24 – Go Camping!
There’s nothing better than camping to feel at one with nature. Whether you want to wild camp to really get away from it or prefer to have some facilities at your fingertips, the Highlands are really a camper’s paradise.
Three of our favourites campsites for families are:
Clachtoll Beach Campsite slap bang on the edge of a gorgeous white sand beach. It’s a family-run campsite with large grassy areas for kids to run wild.
Sango Sands Campsite, near Durness. Perfectly located above a magnificent sandy beach & a stone’s throw from the Golden Eagle Zip Line & Smoo Cave, is super family-friendly.
Glenbrittle Campsite on the west coast of Skye is an award-winning campsite with fabulous facilities. At the bottom of the Cuillin mountain range and right on the beach, it’s an excellent base for climbing or walking holidays.
I hope our roundup of tips has given you some inspiration and practical advice on how to plan your trip to the Scottish Highlands.
Do you have any more tips for travelling the Scottish Highlands with kids?
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