50 free activities and attractions in Scotland

Lack of outdoors activity affecting children's relationship with nature. Picture: Esme Allen
Lack of outdoors activity affecting children's relationship with nature. Picture: Esme Allen
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Looking for a day out in Scotland that doesn’t empty your pockets? Try one of our suggestions for things to do that won’t cost you a penny

ABERDEEN MARITIME MUSEUM

With a great view over the bustling harbour, the museum is an excellent way to learn about the link between Aberdeen and the sea. Look out for the huge model of an oil rig. Also there is the Leading Lights Café – one of the best in the city, it’s a great place to recuperate after life on the ocean waves. (01224 337700, www.aagm.co.uk)

ARTHUR’S SEAT, EDINBURGH

This is a miniature mountain right in the heart of Scotland’s capital. Make your own way to the top, take a picnic to enjoy in Holyrood Park or go on one of Historic Scotland’s guided walks. At the bottom of the south side, away from the city centre, you’ll find the Sheep Heid Inn at Duddingston – a fantastic old pub in which to enjoy a breather. (0131-652 8150, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk)

BADBEA, CAITHNESS

On a sunny day this is a picturesque spot, but more than 200 years ago the windswept clifftop was home to families evicted during the Clearances, with children and cattle having to be tethered to stop them being blown into the sea. Information boards give loads of details on their lives and a well-trodden path leads to the ruined houses. Look out for seals in the waters below. Park by the A9 nine miles south of Dunbeath. (01593 731421, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk)

THE BEACHES OF SCOTLAND

Scotland’s beaches are among the best on the planet. They attract windsurfers from across the world but are also great places for a stroll, a picnic and, on a sunny day, maybe a quick dip (sandcastles can be made year-round). Two favourites are the isolated Seacliff, in East Lothian, with its tiny rock harbour and spectacular views to the nearby Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock, and Achmelvich, in Assynt, with its white sands, turquoise waters and a bag of fish and chips from the campsite over the dunes. (01989 566017, www.goodbeachguide.co.uk)

BIRKS OF ABERFELDY

Burns loved the Birks of Aberfeldy and wrote a poem named in honour of them. More than 200 years on, they are still beautiful – especially after rain, when the Falls of Moness are at their most spectacular. Linger on the bridge at the top and let the fine spray fall over you, and look out for the signs bearing quotes from the bard as you make your way along. (01887 820276, www.perthshirebigtreecountry.co.uk)

BURRELL COLLECTION, GLASGOW

Left to the nation by Sir William Burrell and his wife Constance in 1944, the 9,000 exhibits range from the artwork of ancient civilisations to Degas and Rodin – a personal highlight is the intricate works in the Islamic art section. The purpose-built gallery is set in woodland where you can stretch your legs and enjoy a picnic if the high-brow exhibits become too much. (0141-287 2550, www.glasgowmuseums.com)

CHANONRY POINT, BLACK ISLE

Dolphins live all around Scotland and there are a number of places where boats will take you out to see them. The best place to watch them from dry land is Chanonry Point, in the Moray Firth. Take a picnic, sit on the beach and watch the entertainment. It is best to go when there is a rising tide. (01463 731505, www.wdcs.org.uk)

CULROSS, FIFE

This is a chance to step back in time to the 17th century. Walk the cobbled streets, which are lined with well-preserved buildings, all on the shores of the Firth of Forth. You have to pay to get into some buildings but it is free to wander the streets and look around the ruins of the abbey. The homely Bessie Bar tearoom is a great place for tea and cake. (0844 4932189, www.nts.org.uk)

DAVID MARSHALL LODGE, ABERFOYLE

Here you’ll find waymarked trails of varying degrees of difficulty, a playpark and the chance to see ospreys. Set in the woodlands above Aberfoyle, the lodge has great views. Look for frogs in the ponds next to the car park or join in some ranger-led activities on offer during the summer holidays – from spotting wildlife to map-reading. There’s the Go Ape! high-wire adventure course as well, but you have to pay for that. (01877 382383, www.forestry.gov.uk)

DCA, DUNDEE

This is a treasure trove of contemporary art and culture, with a variety of exhibitions being held throughout the year. Starting on Saturday, exhibitions by Susanne Nielsen, Ganghut and Rob Hunter and John Louden promise pyrotechnics and 100 heads depicting myths. There’s also a trendy caf from which to contemplate it all. (01382 909 900, www.dca.org.uk)

DEVIL’S BEEF TUB, DUMFRIESSHIRE

A deep-sided gouge in the Dumfriesshire hills, the Devil’s Beef Tub is a landmark by the side of A701, a few miles north of Moffat. Get out of the car to have a look and walk along its top. A footpath starts at the north end, but take care as a fall here would prove fatal. The place is so-named because Border reivers used to hide their stolen cattle here. (01835 830750, www.bordersforesttrust.org)

DUNBAR’S CLOSE, EDINBURGH

Cobbled stones off the Royal Mile lead to an unusual spot for a picnic lunch, or a place to get some peace and quiet in the centre of the city. About 50 yards down the hill from Canongate Kirk (where the Queen goes to church) is Dunbar’s Close – on the same side, immediately after Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe. Looked after by the City of Edinburgh Council, at the end of the close is a garden laid out in the style of the 17th century. (0845 2255 121, www.edinburgh-royalmile.com/closes/close-dunbars.html)

DUNNET HEAD, CAITHNESS

Everyone thinks it’s John o’Groats, but Dunnet Head and its RSPB reserve, a few miles east of Thurso, is actually the most northerly bit of mainland Britain. Enjoy the views to the Orkneys from the lighthouse and then head for Dunnet Bay, a fantastic stretch of sand. Clam shells can be found when the tide is going out. (01463 715000, www.rspb.org.uk)

EDINBURGH’S FESTIVALS

It’s the biggest carnival in the world and you can enjoy it for free. A good option is to take a walk along the Royal Mile to see jugglers, acrobats, comics and musicians. On 6 September, enjoy the massive fireworks display from Edinburgh Castle by heading to Arthur’s Seat or North Bridge to avoid the crush on Princes Street. For shows, try the Laughing Horse’s Free Festival, which has a range of children’s events as qwell as more risqu late-night performances. From 15-31 August, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has free storytelling, aimed at children aged between three and ten, every day at noon and 3pm. (www.edinburgh-festivals.com)

ELECTRIC BRAE, AYRSHIRE

Overlooking Ailsa Craig, Arran and the Mull of Kintyre is a place where you can defy gravity, nearly. Electric Brae – known locally as Croy Brae, nine miles south of Ayr on the A719 coast road – has an upward gradient of 1:86 but because of the way the land lies on either side of the road, it feels like you are facing downhill. Show respect for other traffic – or use a layby – then put your car in neutral, let off the handbrake and feel what it would be like to roll uphill. Afterwards, head for the beach below the impressive Culzean Castle – turn right at a T-junction about two miles south on the A719, then a third of a mile further on, take a partly concealed right turn on the outside of a bend to follow a narrow, twisting road all the way to Goats Green car park. (01292 290300, www.ayrshire-arran.com)

ELGIN BIBLICAL GARDEN

The link between plants and the Bible is explained in this unusual attraction, which grows all 110 plants mentioned in the Good Book. Just around the corner from the entrance to the cathedral, it’s a lovely place to relax. For a cornucopia of posh nosh, visit Gordon & MacPhail’s, in the town’s South Street. (01343 557053, www.moray.gov.uk)

ELGOL, SKYE

Looking from Elgol across Loch Scavaig to the Cuillin mountains must be one of the best views in the world. I once met some visitors from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal who were amazed at the sight – and they should know something about the majestic mountains. Elgol lies 14 miles down the single-track B8083 road from Broadford. Stop off for some great seafood at the Coruisk House restaurant, which you pass on the way, on the edge of the village. (01471 822361, www.skye.co.uk)

FALKIRK WHEEL

Completed in 2002, the Falkirk Wheel connects the Union Canal with the Forth & Clyde Canal via a fantastic piece of engineering. Boat trips are run from the visitor centre and there is a caf, but you can take your own picnic and marvel as the boat lift scoops up barges from one level to another. (0870 050 0208, www.thefalkirkwheel.co.uk)

FALLS OF DOCHART, KILLIN

This spectacular roadside set of waterfalls is beloved of coach parties and bikers touring the Highlands. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when it’s quiet, or just wait five minutes until the hordes rush off again. The falls look best after rain but that can mean finding a rock to perch on is both difficult and dangerous. Across the road is a great country pub, the Falls of Dochart Inn. (0870 720 0627, www.visitscottishheartlands.com)

FORT AUGUSTUS AND LOCH NESS

Sitting in the Great Glen watching the boats make their way up and down the set of locks designed by Thomas Telford is a great way to spend an afternoon in Fort Augustus. There is also a visitor centre. If you fancy a stroll, walk a few hundred yards down to Loch Ness and see if you can spot Nessie the Monster. Or enjoy a whisky at the convivial Lock Inn, next to the locks – the clue is in the name. (01320 366493, www.waterscape.com)

FORTH ROAD BRIDGE

It is 1.5 miles long, towers 512ft high and was built with 39,000 tons of steel. The Forth Road Bridge is an iconic landmark of Scotland, and walking across it is a wonderful way to enjoy views to the Forth Bridge and out to sea, and inland towards the Ochil Hills and the Trossachs. Park in South Queensferry, at a car park down Ferry Muir Gate, behind the petrol station at the end of the bridge. (0131-319 1699, www.feta.gov.uk)

FORTINGALL YEW

The Fortingall Yew is said to be the oldest living thing in Europe, dating back between 3,000 and 9,000 years, depending on whose evidence you are taking. Growing at the start of beautiful Glen Lyon, it is in a great spot to enjoy a long life. Afterwards, head for Kenmore and enjoy an ice-cream at the end of Loch Tay. (01887 820276, tourist information, www.perthshirebigtreecountry.co.uk)

GLENCOE

Glencoe is simply one of the most stunning places in Scotland. Soaring mountains rise on either side as you drive through it. Get out of the car and enjoy a short walk up to the Lost Valley, towards the top end of the glen, or Signal Rock, near Clachaig Inn. There is a visitor centre but you must pay to get in. (0845 225 5121, www.glencoescotland.com)

GLENFINNAN VIADUCT, WEST HIGHLANDS

Glenfinnan saw the raising of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s standard in August 1745, but many younger members of the family will be more interested in the viaduct featured in the Harry Potter movies. It is only a short stroll from here to the National Trust for Scotland visitor centre, by the side of the A830, 17 miles from Fort William. You can also buy an unusual lunch in a dining car at the restored Glenfinnan station. (0844 493 2221, www.nts.org.uk)

GLEN NEVIS

Nestling below the highest mountain in Britain, Glen Nevis is an achingly picturesque valley that has often been compared to the Alps. There is a whole range of places to walk here other than “the Ben”, the highlight being the Glen Nevis gorge – watch your feet and keep a close eye on children. If you’re feeling brave, test your balance on a wire-rope bridge over quieter waters beyond the gorge and near the wonderful Steall Falls. (01397 705922, www.bennevisweather.co.uk/glen_nevis.asp)

GLENOCHAR BASTLE HOUSE AND FERMTOUN TRAIL, SOUTH LANARKSHIRE

In Upper Clydesdale, the Fermtoun trail takes you to the ruins of Glenochar Bastle House – a fortified farmhouse with cottages for workers, typical of those built in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the shadow of the Lowther Hills, with lapwings and birds of prey swooping above, the trail is easy to follow. It’s a great place for a picnic and has loads of room for children to run around. It is by the A702, about two miles south of Elvanfoot, near junction 14 of the M74. (01864 502436, www.biggararchaeology.org.uk/ht_glenochar.shtml)

GLEN TROOL, GALLOWAY

With only a small force, Robert the Bruce defeated 2,000 English soldiers at the Battle of Glentrool, in 1307, seven years before Bannockburn. Things are a lot quieter now, and a stroll around Loch Trool or a picnic by Bruce’s Stone, a memorial to the battle, is a great way to spend a summer’s day, surrounded by high hills. The visitor centre you pass on the way does great soup. (01671 402420, www.forestry.gov.uk)

GREY MARE’S TAIL, DUMFRIESSHIRE

Grey Mare’s Tail is a 200ft waterfall named after the horse in Robert Burns’s ‘Tam O’Shanter’. A path leads past it to the remote Loch Skeen, but you can admire it from close to the car park while enjoying a picnic. Access is free but it costs 2 to park. (0844 493 2249, www.nts.org.uk)

THE HERMITAGE, DUNKELD

When the River Braan is in full spate, its waterfalls at the Hermitage are almost deafening. Whatever the weather, there is a magical air to this place, helped by the 18th-century folly of Ossian’s Hall – which is easy to find. Head to the Taybank pub, in Dunkeld, for a riverside plate of its much-heralded stovies. (01350 727688, www.perthshirebigtreecountry.co.uk)

HIGHLAND GAMES

As Scottish as any tin of shortbread, Highland Games will be taking place in various spots throughout the country this summer. The best known are Braemar and Cowal but scores of others allow you to see cabers being tossed, tug-of-wars being fought, pipes being played and traditional dances being performed. You might even be able to get involved in some events. (0845 225 5121, www.shga.co.uk)

JOHN MUIR’S BIRTHPLACE, DUNBAR

John Muir was one of Scotland’s greatest sons. Born in Dunbar, he moved with his family to America and was instrumental in setting up the world’s first national parks – think Yosemite. The house where he lived in his early years, in Dunbar’s High Street, is now home to a fascinating museum containing much of his writings as well as interactive displays and videos. Afterwards, you can enjoy an ice-cream on the beach. (01368 865899, www.jmbt.org.uk)

KELVINGROVE ART GALLERY AND MUSEUM, GLASGOW

A Glasgow landmark and the largest civic museum and art gallery in the UK, Kelvingrove has been welcoming visitors for generations. To do it justice, you will need to set aside half of the school holidays. Salvador Dali’s iconic Christ of St John of the Cross is a highlight. (0141-276 9599, www.glasgowmuseums.com)

KNOCKAN CRAG, WESTER ROSS

Geology is accessible to all when studied in this extremely user-friendly visitor centre, set amid stunning scenery. Knockan Crag is run by Scottish Natural Heritage, and tells the story of how some of the main principles of geology were discovered in the area. It is great for children, with a hands-on exhibition and a number of walking trails leading from the centre. Head down the road to Ullapool afterwards for a chip supper or an ice-cream by the harbour. (0185 461 3418, www.knockan-crag.co.uk)

LOCH MORLICH, CAIRNGORMS

At Loch Morlich you can walk up mountains, enjoy lower-level trails or even go sailing – though you have to pay for that – while all around are superb views. During a visit there last year, I spent hours playing football on the loch’s sandy beach – which, at 1,000ft above sea level, is one of the highest in the country. Look for rare red squirrels behind the Glenmore mountain shop, where you’ll also find a lovely caf. (01463 791575, www.forestry.gov.uk)

McCAIG’S TOWER, OBAN

Designed to look like Rome’s Colosseum, McCaig’s Tower is a first-class Victorian folly that stands proud above Oban. The views from it are great – across to Mull and Morvern. Head to the shacks on the pier below to enjoy an array of freshly caught and freshly cooked seafood as a takeaway. (01631 563122, www.follytowers.com/argyll.html)

MEIKLEOUR BEECH HEDGE, PERTHSHIRE

Perthshire sells itself as Big Tree Country, but it is also home to the world’s highest hedge. The Meikleour Beech Hedge makes a 580yd wall with an average height of 100ft next to the A93, 11 miles north of Perth. This is one that should be revisited in autumn, when the leaves turn a magnificent copper colour. Look out for fresh strawberries being sold by the roadside, sure to satisfy rumbling tums until teatime. (01738 450600, www.perthshirebigtreecountry.co.uk)

MUIRAVONSIDE COUNTRY PARK, NEAR FALKIRK

Children love the small farm at Muiravonside, with Highland cattle, ponies and chicks among the animals kept there. Not to mention the loudly snoring pigs, which are a favourite with my offspring. Older members of the family can walk by the River Avon to an aqueduct carrying the Union Canal, and everyone can enjoy a cuppa and some baking in the caf. (01506 845311, www.falkirk.gov.uk)

MUSEUM OF CHILDHOOD, EDINBURGH

Adults will get as much out of this place as their offspring. Objects old and new are crammed into the Royal Mile attraction. Hands-on is very much the theme, with everything from a dressing-up box to Lego to keep young ones occupied. It’s not all toys, though. You can also see how school days used to be – cue lots of comments from older generations along the lines of “you don’t know how lucky you are”. (0131-529 4142, www.edinburgh.gov.uk)

MUSEUM OF TRANSPORT, GLASGOW

Half a million visitors a year can’t be wrong. With everything from horse-drawn vehicles to fire engines, motorcycles to caravans, toy cars to prams, the museum houses all you could ever want to know about transport. Head for Kelvin Street – a reconstructed 1930s street complete with its own subway station. (0141-287 2720, www.glasgowmuseums.com)

NATIONAL GALLERIES, EDINBURGH

The Scottish collection, held in five galleries across Edinburgh, is world-class. Comprising the National Gallery of Scotland, the Royal Scottish Academy Building, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery, there is something to interest everyone. At the National Museum in Chambers Street, the Garden Detectives exhibition has just opened for children. A specially created garden includes attractions such as a garden shed housing its own wormery and insect collection. (0131-624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org)

THE PINEAPPLE, AIRTH, NEAR FALKIRK

Of all the follies in Scotland, this must be the strangest. This stone building, shaped like a pineapple, was built in 1761 as a garden retreat for John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore. It dominates the gardens, which were once ornate but are still very pleasant today, if a little unkempt. The ponds are home to the rare great-crested newt. It’s a good place for a stroll and a look at the spectacular rhododendrons. (0844 493 2132, www.nts.org.uk)

PITTENWEEM ARTS FESTIVAL, FIFE

The whole of the East Neuk town is turned into a collection of galleries for this event. Don’t have too much white wine with your lunch or you might end up with more works of art than you can fit on your walls. This year the festival runs from 1-9 August. Try the Gingerbread Horse caf, on the High Street, where you can get a key for St Fillan’s cave, a small cavern used as a chapel from the seventh century onwards. (01333 313903, www.pittenweemartsfestival.co.uk)

ROB ROY’S GRAVE, BALQUHIDDER, PERTHSHIRE

Though he died in 1764, the oulaw Rob Roy has continued to inspire the nation – not to mention authors and filmmakers. You can visit the grave of this Scottish Robin Hood in the pretty little Trossachs village of Balquhidder, nestled below the mountains where he lived for many of his years. Take a walk behind the church up Kirkton Glen – an information board next to the car park tells you where to go. (01877 330342, www.trossachs.co.uk)

ROYAL BOTANIC GARDEN EDINBURGH

Young children can chase squirrels, adults can learn about plants and everyone can enjoy a stroll around superb gardens. You have to pay to enter the glasshouses but if the weather is good, you can eat a picnic amid the beautiful surroundings for free. The Talking Trees Storytellers are around every month, relating tales of trees and travellers, magic and marvels – the next visit is on 19 July. (0131-552 7171, www.rbge.org.uk)

ST ANDREWS

It’s amazing what is free in this well-to-do town. Any golf fan would love to see the 18th hole of the Old Course and pause for a moment on the Swilken Bridge. Watch out for the players, though. Otherwise, head for the West Sands, a six-iron away, where parts of Chariots of Fire was filmed. After a quick run, you might need to pay for an ice-cream to cool down. (01334 472021, www.saint-andrews.co.uk)

ST ABB’S HEAD, THE BORDERS

Masses of seabirds swoop over towering cliffs before perching on precarious nests with crashing waves below. This is a dramatic spot for a picnic and a stroll to a lighthouse. It must be good, as it’s a designated a site of special scientific interest, a national nature reserve and a special protection area. The cliffs beyond the lighthouse are a great vantage point, but watch your footing. (01890 771443, www.ntsseabirds.org.uk)

ST NINIAN’S CAVE, GALLOWAY

Fans of The Wicker Man will love this place – the cave and beach both featured in the original film – but others can enjoy a walk on the pebbled beach and consider the cave’s religious significance. It lies three miles south-west of Whithorn, so you can park at Kidsdale and walk down to it. (01988 500508, www.whithorn.com)

SANDWOOD BAY, SUTHERLAND

Just south of Cape Wrath, Sandwood Bay is the ultimate in windswept, unspoilt beaches. You can’t drive to it, so it’s a two-mile walk from Blairmore – that’s four miles there and back. Outdoor types can try some wild camping there, but watch out for midges. (01971 511259, tourist information, www.jmt.org/sandwood-estate.asp)

SHINTY

The Camanachd Association, shinty’s governing body, says the game is “one of the fastest, most physically demanding and skilful sports in the world”, so why wouldn’t you want to take in this traditional Scottish pursuit? Fort William are topping the league at the moment but watch out for the strong teams from Kingussie and Newtonmore. (01463 715931, www.shinty.com)

STRATHALLAN AIRFIELD, PERTHSHIRE

Take a picnic and watch the parachutists gracefully falling from the sky. Unless it is really busy, the owners don’t mind and children will love it, but remember this is a working airfield. (07774 686161, 0176 466 2572, www.skydivestrathallan.co.uk)