Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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My family adores Scotland to bits and we regularly visit, always hopping on the night train at Euston Station in London, to discover new places in the morning. Here are 10 unique outdoor family adventures that we loved in Scotland on the mainland, on the Isle of Skye and in the inner and outer Hebrides. Dramatic, spectacular and unique, Scotland’s landscapes are like nowhere else. There, we hiked glacial valleys sliding into the sea, proud mountains hiding clan secrets and never-ending moors that would fit just right in The Lord of the Rings.
If a place doesn’t conceal some iconic period of history, it’s home to local fairies or crystal-clear rivers with underwater arches. From the highlands to the coast, from the moors to the lochs, these trails and walks will delight children of all ages.
A family favorite in the Cuillin Hills of the Isle of Skye, the Fairy Pools are a succession of crystal-clear blue pools and musical waterfalls with the majestic Cuillin Hills as backdrop. No wonder some people pitch their tent above the gorges, ready for a swim when the sun shines on the clear waters.
If you look close enough through the surface, you’ll notice some submerged rock arches that people swim under for thrills. Even in the winter or when the weather is menacing, this area is magical. Since the path is easy, you’ll see many families with small children. Our girls loved skipping rocks on a drier area of the river and climbing up and over big rocks. You can retrace your steps to the car park but I suggest you keep going, turn left to loop around the hills and say hi to herds of sheep.
Glen Coe is a beast of a munro – the name for Scottish mountains rising above 3,000 ft – that rises steeply and steadily above the dark waters of Loch Leven. Seen from many miles around, it’s massive when you stand at the bottom of its valleys. In the winter, Glen Coe offers a ski and snowboard resort but we had our sights set on hiking the mountain and finding Coire Gabhail, otherwise known as Glen Coe’s hidden valley. Clan chiefs used to hide their cattle when foreign invaders raided the land, we were told. Mystery, hiding, legend – that sounded exciting.
To get there, we followed a 4-mile trail along a rocky stream to a grassy ledge and down a perfectly oval valley. This trail was perfect for our girls as it included a few stream crossings, big rocks to climb on, and a nice valley floor the size of a football field to run on. That’s where we had our picnic lunch. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, we let our eyes adjust to the tones and textures of the valley walls. Slowly, we discovered silent spectators up the slopes – majestic red deer with full-size antlers, masters at camouflage. We were treated to a sprinkling of snow before coming down.
Fairies or hobbits? The lunar hills of Fairy Glen near Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Skye are such a natural oddity that we stayed a whole afternoon exploring these miniature cone-shaped hills, stone mazes and chimneys.
There is no real trail, just a dirt parking area from where we walked up and down and up and down a lot of hills. Supremely playful for children, the Fairy Glen is a great place to crawl up a steep hill and go down running, chase each other in circles or follow imaginary trails leading to rock fortresses.
Rob Roy MacGregor, the Scottish Robin Hood may have led an eventful life of swashbuckling feats but he died peacefully of old age at Balquhidder in the Trossachs. After paying our respects at the grave of Rob Roy MacGregor by the Old Kirk, we followed the trail up the mountain to Clan MacLaren’s Creag an Tuirc (Boar’s Rock). The path up by Balquhidder starts behind the church with the MacGregor grave.
Walking through dense woodland, we reached a wonderfully located bench overlooking Loch Voil near the MacLaren’s clan’s meeting place. Held at the end of year at the Lochearnhead Highland Games, Clan MacLaren’s meetings still take place here. We had to use our imagination and picture all these tartan-clad men and women reuniting on top of this hill above the forest.
If you yearn for remote wilderness, the Great Moor of Rannoch is your type of Scottish adventure. This 50-square mile boggy moorland stretches from Loch Rannoch far into Perthshire and features a desolate train station as well as munros and a long-distance hiking trail. Literally “the end of the road,” Rannoch Moor stretches for miles beyond the last road. To explore it, we parked the car by a cattle gate and followed a winding path into the moor.
It was muddy, wet and boggy, and we enjoyed an overcast day over one of the last wildernesses of Europe. Under a slight drizzle, we walked as far as daylight allowed to catch a glimpse of the imposing and flat-top munros Sron Leachd a Chaorainn and Beimn Pharlagain, both towering over the course of the river Allt Eigheach. Fading daylight forced us back and that day, we didn’t cross a single human soul.
Rannoch Moor had a definite atmospheric wasteland feel to it and our girls splashed in the path’s numerous puddles in complete impunity. That night, we slept at a local hunting lodge where the owner told us the story of Aunt Annie’s ghost over a glass of whiskey. Atmospheric, very atmospheric.
On the way to Pitlochry in the Perthshire, the beautiful river Garry should be seen in the fall when the leaves turn colors and the river is framed in yellows, reds and oranges. In this wooded river gorge, one of the goriest battles in Jacobite history took place. For this walk, which we’ve done several times throughout the years, there are two starting points. The first time, we parked right after the bridge on the way to Pitlochry and descended a few steps to the river path that follows a high line along the gorge. Wide and gently-graded, the path provided glimpses of the river’s beauty.
For a different perspective and local history, we parked at the National Trust visitor center for Killiecrankie, walking down a steep trail with steps to Soldier’s Leap, the spot where a Redcoat soldier leapt 18ft across the raging River Garry, fleeing the Jacobites. It’s a great spot to watch the river and given how wide it is at that point, it’s hard to imagine that anybody could have lept across. Once back up by the visitor center, there’s a really nice walk along the river all the way to the footbridge, before you come back to visit the exhibits inside (where it’s dry and warm).
Immortalized on the silver screen by Ridley Scott in Prometheus, the Old Man of Storr is of the most visited sights of the Trotternish Peninsula on the Isle of Skye. A lunar landscape of weirdly-shaped pinnacles seemingly balancing on steep slopes, the Old Man of Storr is one of the most popular sights on Skye.
Starting from the parking lot, we walked over a couple ridges before getting to the start of the hike proper. At the foot of the Storr, a heavily-used dirt path cuts through the landscapes and snakes up the slopes to the pinnacles. Without signage or pointers other than the previous walker’s footprints, you can pretty much do the (steep) ascent any way you want. Once under the Old Man of Storr, you’ll be surprised at how big it is. Rising at 165 feet/50 meters above your head, it is a miracle of rock balancing with wondrous sea views. Feel free to walk around the Storr on fainter paths, paying attention to trails closed for safety reasons.
More incredible geology. Like an interrupted wave rushing into the sea, the Quiraing is an iconic mountain on the Isle of Skye and a supernatural one at that. Such outstanding beauty only comes from traumatic changes in a landscape and even prepared as we were, we were left breathless in front of the Quiraing.
The trail was so gorgeous that we had to refrain our photographic impulses so we could make any progress on the trail. Starting on top of a pass, the trail goes under the Quiraing, reaches the far end of the massif and then climbs up its rounded spine to come down sharply back to the pass. From the main path, you have several small offshoot options to explore oddities of the massif, such as the Needle or the Table (featured in the movie Highlander). Both are accessible through very steep slopes and I wouldn’t recommend these side-trips if you don’t have a head for heights. On our second visit, a young woman got injured by a rockfall in one of these gullies and had to be helicoptered out to a hospital.
When you reach the far end of the Quiraing, wide views open up on a back valley. Walking up the spine will seem like an endless endeavor but trust me, it will end. And at the top, our girls loved hopping around the cairn that marks the summit.
Off the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Great Bernera is the name of a peninsula on the west coast and you can walk from the village to a white sandy beach with an Iron Age house facing the Atlantic Ocean.
We did this walk in June and enjoyed a particularly gorgeous day, water in the tiny lagoons and lochans sparkling under the sun. Arriving on foot at the beach and finding the recently discovered Bostadh Iron Age house was quite magical. It was hard to believe that this house has been around for over 1,000 years and yet. In 1993, a great winter storm reconfigured the beach at Bostadh, revealing substantial stonework within the sand dunes where gradually eroding middens had long been observed. Eventually this threatened site was excavated in 1996, and a series of well preserved houses, some virtually intact, were brought to light. This is what you will find at the beach, before you retrace your steps to the village.
At the western tip of the Ardmeanach Peninsula, we discovered that the Isle of Mull features hexagonal basalt formations as impressive as the Giant Causeway in northern Ireland or the Devil’s Postpile near Tahoe, except without the crowds. This remote walk is challenging and includes a very steep ladder down to a beach, not for those afraid of heights, but offers great views all along.
We started the walk at the parking lot and followed the coastal trail all the way. Pas the remnants of the old settlement of Burg and the Burg Bothy, the landscapes became truly amazing and from the grassy shore (and a really narrow and exposed dirt path), we had superb views on hexagonal basalt formations, including a complete wheel, by the sea. My youngest daughter loved seeing wild goats grazing on the hill.
As I am afraid of heights, I stayed at the top of the steep rusty ladder while my husband and daughter descended to the beach. From their accounts, the walk on the beach was very slippery because of seaweeds on boulders but they found the Fossil Tree. The tree, which is huge, is thought to be 50 million years old; it was engulfed by the lava flows from the Ben More volcano and the cooling effect of the trunk has caused the basalt columns around it to curve. The fossil is mostly an imprint, but in the bottom few feet the fossil of the tree itself survives. They returned the same way, knackered, and we enjoyed a fine dinner at a local restaurant before heading out.
Go Outside and Explore!
I hope that the variety of sights you can enjoy in Scotland and the surrounding isles will inspire you to hop on the night train, like we do, and explore this beautiful part of the world.