The area around Loch Ness in Scotland is a land of rowan trees, conifers, and tall, stately oaks. Of extreme beauty, as well as tragedy and mystery. The deepest lochs run through the Scottish Highlands, and, judging by the stories we heard there this summer, so do the fiercest hearts. Inverness and Loch Ness are some of the best places to visit in Scotland with kids. Here’s a round-up of the Scottish attractions we saw on our trip with Loch Ness by Jacobite and Visit Scotland. Hopefully it’ll give you an idea of some things to do in Loch Ness and the nearby area.
What to do in Inverness with kids
A visit to this part of Scotland might begin at Inverness, the ‘capital of the Highlands’. It’s an ancient city, dating back to the twelfth Century, but much of the original town was destroyed in fierce battles that raged down through the centuries. Nowadays, it’s a pretty city with abundant hanging baskets and floral displays. Crimson and cerise geraniums were in full bloom when we visited. Heritage-lovers will see some fine granite houses, and the quirky shops are easy to navigate in the city’s compact centre. A boutique full of kilt accessories, anyone?
Inverness Castle Viewpoint
We had a couple of hours to spend in Inverness on our trip, so we used them wisely, by climbing up to Inverness Castle viewpoint. The castle is a nineteenth century building on the site of the city’s old medieval fortress. A new 360-degree viewing tower lets you see around the city and beyond, so if you’re looking for ideas for things to do in Loch Ness, the viewpoint’s a good place to get some inspiration.
It’s intimate – only ten people at a time are allowed up the tower. On a clear day you can see all the way across to Ben Wyvis, which is a munro – a mountain over 3,000 ft tall – known as the Hill of Terror. A map of the view from the castle picks out Tomnahurich, the Hill of the Fairies, which was formed by glaciers and supposedly plays host to a guardian angel and a lion tamer; and Chanonry Point, with its colony of dolphins, where the unfortunate Brahan Seer was boiled in oil by Lady Seaforth for revealing that her husband was having an affair with a Frenchwoman.
On the way down the tower, there’s a short film about the sights around Inverness, and a couple of rooms showing eerie, cute little cartoons about the ill-fated Brahan Seer, and how Saint Columba chased the Loch Ness monster down the river Ness, away from the city.
If we’d have had more time in Inverness, we’d have gone to the city’s Museum and Art Gallery, to learn more about the people and history of this part of the Highlands.
Child-friendly places to eat in Inverness
Inverness’s restaurants and cafes are excellent, with many suitable for children. We ate dinner at the friendly Heathmount Hotel, on Kingsmill Road above the castle. In the early evening, we shared the dining space with a small group of revellers out for someone’s 30th, a handful of couples and solitary local diners. The tailored kids’ menu included tasty mini-burgers and good-quality chicken strips. I ate haggis croquettes in whisky sauce followed by the most tender venison in redcurrant jus. It was divine.
Visiting Loch Ness with kids
A cruise is a good way to see the Loch with children. It’s long (22 miles) but narrow, so there’s plenty of ineresting scenery to look at, even if you don’t end up spotting the famed Loch Ness Monster. Look out for otters and ospreys – it’s a good idea to take a pair of binoculars.
We did a four-hour Rebellion tour with Loch Ness by Jacobite (who sponsored this trip). You can read more about it in this blog post I wrote a few days ago. The tour was ideal for the kids. They sat in comfort, completing the games and puzzles in their Nessie-themed activity pack, and listened to Ranald’s commentary on sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, as well as the history of the area. Jacobite Rebels and Government forces fought several battles nearby. Our tour included a stop at the beautiful Urquhart Castle, the scene of some fierce clashes.
Urquhart Castle is in a romantic setting, with unparalleled views of the Loch. It’s no wonder that it’s one of the locations for the hit drama, Highlander.
Urquhart Castle dates back to the sixth Century, when St Columba came to its site to try and convert the Picts to Christianity. The castle as we know it stood proud from the thirteenth Century onwards, but since then, a series of brutal battles and sieges have laid waste to a lot of the buildings.
Still, it’s a wonderful place to explore with the family. We easily filled our two hours there, in scrambling up the Grant Tower to look out over the Loch, climbing down to the small beach, to skim stones over the water, and popping into the visitor centre, to watch the film that explained more about Urquhart Castle’s history.
Historic Environment Scotland manage Urquhart Castle, with tickets available on the door. Alternatively, you can include a visit as part of a Rebellion tour, like we did. You can read more about our visit to Urquhart Castle here.
Drumnadrochit, on the edge of Loch Ness
There are lots of nice places to stay in Inverness, but we opted for Drumnadrochit, a small town on the edge of Loch Ness, very close to Urquhart Castle. It’s a pretty place, centred around a village green.
We stayed in comfortable rooms at the traditional Fiddler’s Restaurant, which served tasty Highland fare as well as family crowd-pleasers like fish and chips. On the night that we dined at the restaurant, while the children ate ice cream from Nessie-shaped scoops D and I shared a whisky tasting selection. The staff at Fiddler’s gave us a flavour guide to help us navigate our way round the 600+ whiskies in the restaurant’s library. We opted for three, ranging from a lighter whisky, to a densely smoke-flavoured, peaty tipple. They were delicious, and I could easily see us losing a few evenings in the library (without the kids, of course).
Culloden visitor centre
The battle of Culloden, in 1746, marked a turning point in Scottish history. It came at the end of the Jacobite Uprising, when supporters of the Stuart family, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the British throne, gained ground against the Government forces. But Culloden was a bloody massacre, with the majority of the casualties laying on the Jacobite side.
Today, you’d be forgiven for thinking twice about taking children to Culloden Visitor Centre. But don’t. It’s certainly an atmospheric place, with a dull quiet that’s only broken by the cawing of crows. But the National Trust of Scotland have done a good job of turning the battleground site into a family-friendly living history museum.
For anyone wanting to properly gen up on the story of Culloden and the Jacobite Uprising, there’s an incredible amount of detail in the interactive displays. These show the story from both the Jacobite and Government perspective, and include ‘talking heads’ from people involved in the Uprising, its suppression, and the aftermath. The Government forces stripped the Highland clans of their land and means of income. Many died of starvation in the years following the battle.
Although the sombre atmosphere wasn’t lost on our eight- and six-year-old, they were old enough to enjoy the visit. The handheld children’s audio commentary was pitched well, and held both their attention as we walked through the displays. There were some other very child-friendly touches, like regular interactive performances. Our two tried their hand at artillery firing, just as the soldiers would have done. And I dressed up as a Jacobite Rebel, so that the crowd could pass sentence on me (my own children sentenced me to a life of hard labour. How ironic).
While toddlers might not appreciate everything that the Culloden Visitor Centre had to offer, it was a family-friendly place visit, and a good way to immerse ourselves in the history of the Highlands. Culloden was a short drive from Inverness – just 20 minutes or so.
Highland Wildlife Park
The Highland Wildlife Park was around an hour’s drive from Inverness, in the scenic Cairngorms. The wide, sprawling park was quiet when we visited. As it was International Day of the Tiger, a small crowd clustered near the Amur tiger enclosure, where face-painting sessions and quizzes ran all day. The tigers weren’t the only exotic creature there. We spotted wolverines, musk oxen and red pandas. The snow leopards evaded us, as did Hamish, the polar bear cub, who was sheltering from the July heat. We did see some a couple of his older male cousins, though.
Despite all the exotic creatures on show, my favourites were the animals indigenous to Scotland. These included creatures that live in Scotland now, like wildcats, red deer, Eurasian beavers and red squirrels, and those that are extinct in the country, like wolves, lynxes, and the Eurasian elk. The park placed a lot of emphasis on conservation, and the children enjoyed following the Highland Wildlife Warrior trail to see all the Scottish animals, and learn more about how to live in a way that causes them less harm.
How to get to Inverness
Inverness airport runs regular connecting flights to the rest of the UK, including Heathrow and Gatwick, and a train line carries passengers from the north and south, including a direct sleeper train from London.
Here’s a video I made of our trip to the Highlands. Look out for the wildcat at the end:
Do you have any suggestions for things to do in Loch Ness and the surrounding areas? I’ve only scratched the surface with mine.
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