Scotland is a land that many people only dream of exploring, and there are so many adventure options that it can be overwhelming to narrow down the list. Despite all of our busy days during our two week family trip around Scotland, our favorite days were those that embraced some of our favorite things: local animals, mountain trails, and ancient history. If you do nothing other than these five unique experiences, everything else will just be extra.
Trip 1: The Puffins of North Berwick
Who doesn’t think puffins are adorable with their big orange beak? Did you know you can see them on the wild in Scotland? Plan your trip to coincide with puffin season from March to August. Usually, these birds are found in the northernmost areas of the country – where we weren’t going on this trip – but I found an option that worked on our trip!
The Scottish Seabird Center is only a quick one hour train ride east from Edinburgh and makes an excellent day trip. After learning about puffins, gannets, and other seabirds at the nature center, we loaded onto the catamaran for an hour-long ride out to Bass Rock.
Bass Rock is rocky island with a lovely lighthouse and the worlds largest colony of Northern gannets. While thousands of these birds soar around the island and dive into the ocean, puffins will be seen floating in the water near your boat. Make sure you bring your zoom lenses as you won’t be getting off the boat – there is no place for landing! Prepare the family for the amazingness of this nature experience by watching the gannets online ahead of time.
If you have more time, other excursions from the Seabird Center can last longer. After the boat ride, our family enjoyed exploring the tide pools at the landing and collecting some unique Scottish shells. Leave time after your water trip to walk around the lovely little coastal town of North Berwick. As this is a small town, trains don’t leave but several times a day, so make sure you check the schedule.
Trip 2: The Seals of Plockton
While there are many places to see seals, our boat ride out of Plockton brought more than we had seen elsewhere. We had seen seals at Dunvegan Castle on and on our Scottish Seabird trip, but this boat trip took us to the colony off the coast. After walking around the adorable little village of Plockton on the way to Inverness, we loaded the small boat with a few other people for a trip out into the harbor.
Calum’s Seal Trips was unplanned and a happy, last-minute addition to our itinerary as we left the Isle of Skye. The captain of the boat let each of the kids have a go at steering the boat, and the small group on-board allowed for some personal attention. I do so love showing the kids adults who love what they do. The guide took us directly to the seals, and we were able to see several colonies of seals before heading back to the dock.
The trips only go out from April to October, so this may be one more reason to choose this time of the year for your Scotland trip. Did I mention how relatively cheap this day trip was?! Check the calendar online and let the experts take you to the wildlife.
Trip 3: The Reindeer of Aviemore
The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is Britain’s only free-range herd of reindeer, and you can meet hike up the mountains to meet them. While we drove to the Glenmore village near Aviemore in our rental car from Inverness, you could take a train to Aviemore. Check with the Reindeer Centre for the best plan depending on the time of year accessibility. Although we only had this one day in the area in Cairngorms National Park, I would love to go back and explore the Cairngorm mountains. It’s an amazingly beautiful area.
Arrive early to explore the reindeer center base and get acquainted with a few members of the herd at the Reindeer Center in Glenmore. Learn about these animals beforehand at the exhibits. If you aren’t up for the hike, visiting the Center is a great way to see them, but you won’t be able to interact or feed them unless you go up the mountain trail.
As the herd is grazing up in the mountains, plan for a thirty-minute guided group hike which also allows for a better view across the mountain range. Well-loved by the staff, the reindeer come when they see you and your offering of a snack. Everyone will be given some feed, and the gentle creatures will come eat out of your hand. Make sure you bring your hiking boots (or waterproof “Wellies”) and a warm coat for the higher elevation of the herd.
Tickets should be purchased ahead of time, so make sure you plan ahead for this one. This was definitely a family excursion that left an impact on us. It’s so good. Leave time to explore the little town if you can and explore more of Cairngorms National Park.
Trip 4: The Fairy Pools of Skye
The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye was definitely one of my favorite parts of our Scottish trip. However, I didn’t know my oldest see me writing this post, and tell me specifically to make sure I the Fairy Pools on my “top five” blog post. She even remembered the specific name.
The time we spent savoring the hike up to the Fairy Pools further proved to me that the kids don’t need an intense itinerary. They would rather just be allowed to be kids and make their own memories. It’s these moments they will remember most anyway. Take a time out to mix in some slow travel instead of just rushing between destinations.
When you’re in Skye, you realize you have to drive everywhere. It’s a good thing you rented that car like I warned you. Plan to stop frequently for amazing views; each bend of the road brings another opportunity. You’ll end up driving in circles around Skye trying to hit them all. One of these days, we ended up at the Fairy Pools along with everyone else on the island. This was a crowded place up in the Cuillen Mountains!
Thankfully, there is so much area here, that apart from everyone trekking the same path, the crowd spreads out. People take off to head to different water sources or linger at different waterfalls. My kids hiked down to a couple of waterfalls with Dad until they ended up practically naked playing in the water. The boys stripped to their boxers while I sat by basking in the sun. They built a dam in the crystal clear water, floated, played… and acted like kids. After all, several other grown up groups had started having their own water fun. Don’t let this fact convince you it was warm because they were freezing!
We stayed and played for hours before Mom ruined all the fun. Driving in the dark on tiny Skye roads was not on my itinerary. We didn’t even made it to the end of the trail to see all the pools. No matter where you choose to stop, it will be an adventure to remember.
Bring good shoes because the trail is slightly sloped. Bring a relaxed attitude. Bring a towel for you to sit on while watching your kids have the time of their life. They’ll need it when they’re done anyway.
Trip 5: The Ancient Ruins of… Everywhere!
Standing Stones. Ancient ruins. Castles. Stonehenge is only one of many stone circles in the United Kingdom. We just don’t ever talk about the other places!
I’ve been to Stonehenge – it’s crowded with tourists and right next to a highway. While these ancient mysterious stones are huge, the ones we explored in Scotland were solitary and even more fabulous because of their surroundings.
- In Skye, we hiked up the hill to explore the Broch at Dun Beag and were the only ones around as the kids clambered over the ruins while the sheep watched from the nearby pasture.
- Near Inverness, check out the standing stones Clava Cairns. While this isn’t where they filmed the fictional Craigh Na Dun in Outlander, it’s location right down the road from the Culloden Battlefield definitely means you’re in the right place for the original story line.
- Castles! Go find some amazing ones. Whether in ruins or open for tour, all castles are amazing and unique. We managed to see castles in Dunvegan, Stirling, and Edinburgh. You should see as many as fit into your itinerary.
Where else can you see this kind of ancient history? In the UK, ruins aren’t guarded with cautionary signs telling you to stay away or stay off. In Scotland, they are a kid’s fairy tale waiting to be explored.
Now, while it is possible that the historical sites held more interest for Mom and Dad than the four kids, once you start aiming for ancient ruins on your Scotland trip, you will realize that there are way more than you have time for. At least plan to hit several just so you can say you did. They’re mysterious and magical and definitely unique.
I hope these inspired you to go to Scotland! Make sure you check out “How to Plan a Family Trip to Scotland” for more planning tips and learn the five thing you need to know before staying in the UK. I’m here if you have any questions!