What a year it has been for WOW Scotland and the media – at the start of the summer we were featured in the Independent Newspaper (UK), then we had a starring role on a travel piece by German TV channel Deutsche Welle. Our latest claim to fame is a fantastic peice in the Vancouver Herald by Kim Horton Levesque who took her family on a WOW Scotland tour in July.
Exploring the Highlands
Touring Scotland with three young girls brings movie fantasies and history alive
I didn’t want to travel like a local, I wanted to travel with one. Enter Gordon Pearson, a Highlander who owns WOW Scotland, a boutique tour company that specializes in tours around his native region. Mr. Pearson responded to my query with a killer plan, an itinerary I couldn’t refuse. Beguiled by bigscreen images, my kids would now have a chance to discover where modern Scotland intersects with and where it diverges from those depictions.
We spent six days in Inverness and in the Isle of Skye’s main town, Portree, bookended by overnights in Edinburgh. Our train slid through magical scenery on the three-and-a-half hour ride from Edinburgh to Inverness; we watched through our window as sulking, saturated skies met silvery waters. Pearson, dressed in a positively modern, denim kilt, picked us up at the Inverness rail station. Our first stop was the prehistoric burial site known as Clava Cairns, 20 minutes outside of the city. Comprised of passage graves, ring cairns and large standing stones, the site is mystical. It’s easily accessed – a small back road runs through the perimeter and parking is convenient. The stones have stood as they are for more than 4,000 years in this small wood – there’s a preternatural stillness. The scene is a bit spooky in fact, but my girls were enchanted. They’d never seen anything like it before in person. They ran through the patches of grass and climbed some of the scalable rocks. Pearson explained that the stacked stone circles had been ancient graves, but my daughters were still curious enough to walk through the passages that led inside and explore.
Scotland offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting and hands-on interaction with farm animals. We followed the A82 road around Loch Ness towards the Redburn Cafe, in nearby Glenmoriston. The café sells feed for its resident Highland cows, an adorable breed with long, wavy coats and permanently tousled bangs. Because of their generally easygoing, docile temperament, locals keep them as pets. Visitors are, of course, advised to feed and pet them at their own risk. My girls giggled with glee when they saw the fuzzy little calf that had been born earlier this year. If you’re looking for more animals, Redburn has sheep, horses, a wild boar walk and a viewing area with rabbits, pheasants and quail.
The following day, we set out for Chanonry Point. Located about 30 minutes from Inverness, it’s one of the UK’s premier spots for dolphin spotting. This narrow spit of land that extends into the Moray Firth is part of a broader geographic area, a scenic peninsula known as the Black Isle. Be sure to stop by the WDC Scottish Dolphin and Seal Centre in North Kessock to verify tide times and wildlife sightings before heading to the water. Twenty Bottlenose dolphins including Kesslet and Charlie, the resident dolphins of Moray Firth, a minke whale, porpoises, and grey and common seals had been sighted the day we visited. Dolphins come close to shore to feed during the rising tide – but if you can’t make it then, bring a pair of binoculars and you’ll have no trouble seeing them. We spent two tranquil hours on the beach and saw a half-dozen playing and twirling in the firth’s sparkling waters.
One thing we hadn’t anticipated was the incredible food we encountered in Scotland. There’s an intense emphasis on fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. We discovered “Home Baking,” which at its best means delicious, thoughtfully baked desserts. The Dairy at Daviot is home baking at its finest. Their Millionaire’s shortbread was one of those life-altering tastes, a melt-in-your-mouth shortbread crust topped with a creamy caramel layer, covered in a fine blanket of chocolate. I couldn’t find a better dessert during our Highland stay – and I did try– probably too hard.
If you’re in the mood for something cold, there’s a small space at Daviot that features handmade highland ice creams from the Black Isle Dairy– new flavours such as Bourbon vanilla, Chocolate orange, Coconut Rocher and Toffee fudge are always in the works.
There are also self-catering cottages, an outdoor playground and a spacious, family-friendly, cafeteriastyle restaurant on-site. On the menu, plenty of hearty food perfect for chilly weather: soup and oatcakes, fish and chips, or macaroni and cheese; vegetarian, gluten free and vegan options are always offered. Ingredients are sourced locally and the menu changes daily. On Sundays, the café becomes a carvery featuring Scottish meats such as venison, roasted ham and highland beef.
With two days left, we began the 100-kilometre drive from Inverness to the Isle of Skye. Fifteen minutes before we crossed the Skye Bridge, we paused at Eilean Donan, the castle that inspired the fortification in Brave. It’s an impressive site, a small tidal island where three sea lochs meet, and ideal on a rainy day. The island’s first castle was built in the 13th century to protect against raiding Vikings. What stands now is an early 20th-century structure completed by John Mac-Rae-Gilstrap. Inside the rebuilt stone walls are tartan carpets, weaponry, grand portraits and family heirlooms. Fir timber beams that line the banquet hall’s ceiling were shipped from British Columbia during the renovation, a gift from the MacRaes of Canada. Knowledgeable guides keep tours fun for children with treasure hunts and captivating stories. Be sure to arrive early in high tourist season, as large bus groups can make the interior feel confined.
Skye is known for its natural beauty – graceful mountains, dramatic waterfalls and mesmerizing views of the Atlantic. Kilt Rock, Lealt Falls and the spectacular landscape of the Quiraing are worth a visit if weather co-operates. Footpaths are well marked, most vistas have child-friendly access, and parking is convenient to trails. One thing we’d come to appreciate by Day 5 of our trip was the volatility of the weather.
We’d heard it from our guide and Skye locals that it wasn’t a Scottish summer unless we’d experienced “all four seasons in a day.”
The weather was prohibitively poor our final day, so we headed to Skyeworks Gallery, a broad, bright space that gathers together products from local artists and artisans: woven purses, scarves, pillows and clothing; paintings, prints, woodwork and a vast selection of yarns and sewing embellishments. The gallery sits above the Isle of Skye Baking Co., billed as “a foodshop with seats.” It’s absolutely worth a stop for its Scottish charcuterie and cheese platters, soups and freshly baked breads and desserts.
In the end, weather inspired a few detours in our Scotland itinerary – archery and haggis will have to wait for another trip. And while we did manage to take the train across the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a route made famous in the Harry Potter films, we were effectively blinded by the dense fog. My family was taken with Scotland’s natural beauty and by the warmth of the people we met. We know we’ll be back – for more stories, more scenery and definitely more shortbread.
Kim Horton Levesque is the author of two travel guides; her most recent is The Little Bookroom Guide to Paris with Children. She can be reached at kimlevesque.com.
If you go …
Where to stay
Highland Apartments, Inverness highlandapartments.co.uk
Moyness House B&B, Inverness moyness.co.uk
Tarven Self-Catering Cottage and B&B Portree, Isle of Skye, tarvencottage.com
Where to eat and drink
The Mustard Seed Restaurant, Inverness mustardseedrestaurant.co.uk
The Dairy at Daviot dairyatdaviot.co.uk
Isle of Skye Baking Company, Portree, Isle of Skye isleofskyebakingco.co.uk
What to do
Redburn Cafe, Glenmoriston facebook.com/Redburncafe
WDC Scottish Dolphin and Seal Centre North Kessock, Inverness wdcs.org/wildlifecentre
Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of Lochalsh eileandonancastle.com
Skyeworks Gallery, Portree, Isle of Skye skyeworksgallery.co.uk
WOWScotland Tours, Inverness wowscotlandtours.com