The Go Wild Go West blog

3 weeks of adventure on a Scottish road trip with the kids

It’s 4am in rainy Bristol. The van is packed, the kids doze in their car seats, and we’re wired on coffee… time to hit the road.

Our family holiday, road tripping around the Scottish Highlands for 3 weeks, was a heady concoction of adventure, space, views, food, laughter, and childhood memories that would give Enid Blyton a run for her money.

Family road trip in Scotland – FAQs

  • Was it a lot of driving? Yes. But spaced out over 3 weeks, we barely noticed.
  • Were the midges bad? Yes. But their bark is worse than their bite and eventually we stopped noticing them.
  • Was it busy? If you visit the ‘top 10 sights of Scotland’ then, yes. Otherwise, absolutely not.
  • Did we wild camp in Scotland? No. Our van isn’t decked out for it and hell, I fancied a bit of luxury (if bunkhouses and YHAs are counted as luxury).
  • Is Scotland expensive? Yes. But name somewhere that isn’t….
  • What to pack for Scottish road trip with kids? See guide below
  • Did you take a guidebook to Scotland? Yep! See below.
  • Would I recommend a road trip in Scotland with the kids? 100% and more.

Family holiday in the Highlands

The Highlands in Scotland are one of the UK’s few remaining wilderness’. They’re untamed and beautiful; a playground for adventures both big and small. So, where are the best places to find wildness, space, excitement, and some good ol’ family fun?

visit the highlands with kids; scottish road trip
the machair on Harris

Itinerary: 3 week Scottish road trip

This is our 3 week Scottish road trip itinerary. It’s a blend of activities that we each wanted to try, and places we’d hoped to visit. It was enough to keep us completely smitten for an entire 3 weeks without a second of boredom (even the kids)… true story.

Scotland road trip with kids
Stop 1: Glenfinnan

Drive time: 9 hours (from Bristol)
Lunch stop: Coach House Coffee Shop, Luss, Loch Lomond
Playlist: Massive Attack; Jack Johnson; Skandar audio book when the kids woke up

Accommodation: Backtrack Bothies
Highlights: Glenfinnan viaduct; Loch Shiel

I’d initially hoped to stay amidst the wild landscape of Glencoe but sadly couldn’t find any accommodation, so we drove through and gawped at the views as we passed.

Backtrack Bothies was just the cosy, rugged retreat we needed after such a long drive. Words of welcome had been chalked onto the entrance making us feel instantly at home. The kids immediately jumped onto the high wooden bunk bed whilst I reached for the kettle to make a cuppa.

These eco-cabins have been wonderfully designed to offer comfortable, affordable family accommodation with an edge of rustic-glamour. They’re full of personality and we loved our stay.

wild swimming in scotland
diving in – Glenfinnan

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Glenfinnan is best known for its viaduct, a 5-minute walk from the cabin. The arched bridge is instantly recognisable from the Harry Potter films. But where there is fame, there are fame seekers in the form of hundreds of tourists wanting a photo of the bridge. Go at dawn and dusk and you’re likely to have the place to yourselves.

Instead of joining the masses walking up to the lookout point, we continued on the path underneath the bridge and along the meandering river through the deep sided valley. Within 2 minutes, there wasn’t another soul in sight and we walked all day in complete solitude. Much to my children’s embarrassment, I stripped off and dived into a particularly enticing river pool, styling out the cold-water shock with attempted aloofness.

Loch Shiel

Adventures not quite over for the day, we went for an evening dip in Loch Shiel. The path from the cabin leads you to a quiet spot on the shores of the loch where you can swim with nothing but the mountains overlooking you.

The following day, we packed a picnic, inflated our MRS Packraft, and hit the waters to explore the Loch in greater detail.

glenfinnan with kids; scottish road trip
packrafting in Loch Shiel

Scotland road trip with kids
Stop 2: Isle of Skye

Drive time: 3 hours. 30 minute ferry Mallaig to Armadale
Lunch stop: Pizza at The Shed, Armadale
Playlist: Manu Chao; Linkin Park

Accommodation: Flodigarry Pods
Highlights: The Quiraing; Old Man of Storr; Rubha Hunish

Skye is beautiful. I was transfixed by the contrast of craggy mountains and smooth seas. The only downside is the sheer quantity of people, and the enormous campervans they drive. I’m a friendly, ‘good morning’ greeting type of person, but I noticed that nobody spoke to each other here, in the villages or in the wild landscapes. The locals seemed utterly fatigued by the tourism throng; one poor famer despaired as he tried to round up his sheep around tens of bystanders all taking photos.

Isle of Skye with kids; scottish road trip
The Quiraing

The Quiraing & Old Man of Storr

That said, we managed to find our own wilderness retreats. The Quiraing was truly spectacular and, avoiding the main paths, we managed to find space. The famous Old Man of Storr is a staggering formation and best enjoyed in abysmal weather which seems to make it quieter.

Rubha Hunish

Our absolute favourite walk was along to the lookout at Rubha Hunish. En route, we saw our first Golden Eagle (magnificent), watched dolphins jumping in the bay, and stumbled across the lost ruins of a village – abandoned since the clearances.

Our accommodation was simple but served us well; the best feature was the wonderful views out to sea.

fresh seafood on Harris; scottish road trip with kids
fresh seafood

Scotland road trip with kids
Stop 3: Harris

Drive time: 40 minutes. 2-hour ferry from Uig to Tarbert
Lunch stop: Seafood and wine at Lorna’s Larder, Tarbert
Playlist: Imagine Dragons; Tracy Chapman

Accommodation: No. 5 Drinishader
Highlights: beaches, eagles, biking, hiking, food and everything else.

Three words to describe Harris: Take. Me. Back.
To share all the details of our stay would be similar to a family member presenting a slide show of their holiday snaps – yawn inducing. The only way to fully appreciate the whole Harris experience is to go.

But, to summarise…

the beaches of harris; scottish road trip with kids
Harris beaches in the sunshine

We stayed at No. 5 Drinishader. A small bunkhouse with 3 private rooms and a large shared kitchen. It’s one of the only budget accommodation options on the island. Views look out across a miniature archipelago and you’re likely to spot seals and even an otter in the small harbour. There’s a harbour wall to dive, flip and splat from when the tide is in. Bunkhouse owner Alison is friendly, welcoming and goes above and beyond to help with anything you need.

What to do on Harris? So much

Beaches on Harris

Luskentyre is Harris’ most famous beach but all along that coastal stretch are incredible. We liked Nisabost the most. You’ll think you’re in the Caribbean. It’s the type of place where putting your camera down is a challenge.

To the north, walk to find the hidden Tràigh Mheilein beach and search for otter prints leading up to the small freshwater lochs bordering the shore. We took our camping stove and cooked lunch and for the duration, the beach was entirely ours.

explore harris on a road trip with kids
views over to Scarp

Eating on Harris

Talking of food; treat yourselves to fresh langoustine at The Bothy, Leverburgh or AMAZING seafood at Lorna’s Larder in Tarbert before taking a trip around the distillery… I came away with a much-treasured bottle of Harris gin. Temple Cafe cake shop and a walk around the headland also highly recommended.

Wildlife on Harris

For wildlife, look out for those otters as well as dolphins, porpoises, whales and every type of seabird there is (we saw a Great Skua for my fellow birding enthusiasts).
Visit the Eagle Observatory hidden in the mountains. The landscape here is mesmerising; spying the eagles circling high above is just the cherry on the cake.

Walking and biking on Harris

Walk to the Scalpay lighthouse or cycle along the Golden Road on the eastern side of the south island. The quiet rocky bays, heathery banks and small lochs are a complete contrast to the fertile pastures of the west coast.

I want to further wax lyrical, but I’ll leave some for your own imagination and discovery.

visit harris with kids; scottish road trip
abandoned church – Harris

Scotland road trip with kids
Stop 4: Gairloch

Drive time: 2hrs 15. 2.5-hour ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool
Lunch stop: Seafood Shack, Ullapool
Playlist: Fisherman’s Friends Sea Shanties

Accommodation: Gairloch Sands YHA
Highlights: Snorkelling, packrafting on Loch Maree

Dolphins and jellyfish were the name of the game on our ferry crossing to Ullapool. We’d expected to grab a sandwich and keep on moving but couldn’t resist stopping in at the Seafood Shack as well as a quick trip to the lovely local bookshop to update our dwindling reading collection.

En route south to Gairloch we stopped at Corrieshalloch Gorge and nervously wobbled across the high suspension bridge. Driving on, you can see Anthrax Island, so called because after it was contaminated during World War Two by scientists carrying out germ warfare experiments. No 3-headed sheep in sight though, so I think it’s subsequently been cleaned up.

snorkelling in the highlands; scottish road trip

Gairloch Sands and Loch Maree

Gairloch sands is quite dated as far as hostels go, but I warmed to its rustic charm. The larger hostels are great for chatting to travellers from far and wide and sharing experiences over the washing up. A couple of Dutch lads told us the tales of a hidden (yet massive) loch with a network of magical islands. We vowed to explore and so inflated our packrafts once more and headed onto the choppy waters of Loch Maree. It was fantastic.

For our final night we headed to Badachro Inn for some local seafood and seaweed infused gin. There’s a harbour here which is great for crabbing with the kids.

wild swimming with kids; scottish road trip
cooling off in the Lochs

Scotland road trip with kids stop 4:
Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles

Drive time: 2 hours
Lunch stop: Ullapool deli for some picnic goodies
Playlist: Rocking out to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Foo Fighters and ACDC

Accommodation: The Wee Highland House, Polglass
Highlights: Old Dornie Harbour & Fox Point, Stac Pollaidh, Lochinver Larder, The Hermit Castle, Achnahaird beach

 The least touristy stop on our visit and a welcome chance to pause for a full 7 nights. The landscape is spectacular; wrap your hands round a cup of tea, curl up in your chair and get lost in the views.

The Wee Highland House

Our Wee Highland House was just that, wee… But also relaxed, beautifully decorated, and with views that give the swanky hotel down the road a run for its money. Una, our host, welcomed us with traditional Scottish hospitality and we felt at home here after many nights in hostels. This became our base for exploring the northern highlands.

walking in the highlands with kids; scottish road trip
En route to the Falls of Kirkaig

Explore the coast in Achiltibuie

Like Harris, there is so much to do. Enjoying views of the Summer Isles, we walked along the local stretch of coastline with a new mission each time; snorkelling to find urchin shells, litter picking, and crabbing. Talking of crabbing, Old Dornie Harbour was our top spot. This small fishing harbour is still in use and local fisherman come and go across the day, often happy to sell some of their fresh catch. As well as fisherman, you’re likely to see herds of seals lolling about in the water just meters away. The small walk to Fox Point is wonderful, with great opportunities for a swim. For beach days, Achnahaird has golden sands and turquoise seas that match Harris’ beauty.

Lochinver and Northern Highlands

Heading north we walked to the beautiful Falls of Kirkaig, stormed the Hermit’s Castle (the smallest castle in the UK) and claimed it as our own, and stopped by the FANSTATIC Lochinver Larder for an award-winning pie and a pint.

Walking Stac Pollaidh with kids

The absolute highlight of our northernmost adventures was summiting Stac Pollaidh. This enormous, cragged mountain looks like a giant’s tooth but is surprisingly easy to climb. The kids were absolutely thrilled with their achievement and we celebrated with a cooling plunge in Loch Lurgerinn below.

We would have liked to take a boat trip to the Summer Isles but ran out of time!

stac pollidh with kids
the descent from Stac Pollidh

Scotland road trip with kids
Stop 5: The Cairngorms

Drive time: 2.5 hours
Lunch stop: Rothiemurchus cafe
Playlist: Florence and the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Bob Marley

Accommodation: Cairngorms Lodge YHA
Highlights: Glenfeshie, the Cairngorm, RSPB Osprey Centre Loch Garten, Loch Morlich

The Cairngorms with kids; scottish road trip
Loch Garten surrounded by Crested Tits

I’ve visited the Cairngorms a number of times and find myself completely drawn to the barren mountains, thick woodland, and dazzling lochs that make up the landscape. We’ve previously stayed in the Lazy Duck (fantastic), but this time stayed in the Cairngorms Lodge YHA.

From a tourist perspective, the Cairngorms weren’t as busy as I’d feared…. Except that our visit coincided with the annual ‘Thunder in the Glen’; the largest gathering of Harley Davison enthusiasts in Europe. It was hilarious. We shared our hostel with 60 Dutch bikers and enjoyed talking and drinking with them into the small hours.

Biking & hiking the Cairngorms with kids

There’s brilliant biking here (find out more about biking & hiking with kids);
easy trails around Loch an Eilein and the Rothiemurchus estate, slightly more challenging along the Glenfeshie valley – utterly stunning though! Plus, walks with so much to see that even the kids are entertained. We hiked to the top of the Cairngorm on an overcast day and were hit by high winds and icy temperatures so be prepared! At the Cairngorm lift station is a ‘tubing park‘ from which you’re launched from a dizzying height in a rubber ring. We failed to notice that no other adults were taking part, so joined swathes of kids as they had a go – brilliant fun.

Loch Garten & Osprey Centre

A visit to the Osprey Centre is a must for the chance to spy these incredible birds and chat to the friendly RSPB staff. From here, you can meander through the pine trees, spotting red squirrels and crested tits until you reach the shores of Loch Garten and some of the finest views in all of Scotland.

mountain biking with kids; scottish road trip
challenge biking!

Wild swimming in the Cairngorms

There are so many lochs for wild swims across the mountain range. On our final evening, we walked down to the sandy beach of Loch Morlich for a final swim together. The perfect end to this monumental family holiday.

What to pack for a Scottish road trip with the kids;