25 things to do on the Scottish islands for families

Alongside providing solace for adults, Scotland’s islands are also ideal for taking the kids on an action-packed holiday. Here we look at some ideas for those taking a family trip to Scotland’s west coast islands this summer. All activities listed can be reached by CalMac ferry although some may require further onward travel.

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The Jetty at Coll with a CalMac Ferry approaching. Picture: TSPLThe Jetty at Coll with a CalMac Ferry approaching. Picture: TSPL
The Jetty at Coll with a CalMac Ferry approaching. Picture: TSPL

1. Follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Staffin on Skye – the island that is Scotland’s very own Jurassic Park. The dino footprints in the sandstone on the beach at An Corran, discovered by a local, are 165 million years old, and still the youngest in Scotland. Covered by the sea during high tide and often by sand in the summer, the giant tracks are easiest to spot in winter after a storm, so if you don’t have any luck looking head to the Staffin Museum at Ellishadder, which has Scotland’s best collection of dinosaur remains.

2. Air travel is not usually all that much fun with children, but the plane ride from Barra to Benbecula and back lasts only 25 minutes each way and involves a round-trip from the only airport in the world at which scheduled flights take off and land on the beach – at Barra the flight times are governed by the tides. The aircraft fly at a low altitude on this flight to allow sightseers to take in the views and one captain even turns tour guide and provides commentary.

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3. Visit the real-life Balamory – otherwise known as Tobermory on Mull. The hit BBC show, aimed at pre-schoolers, is the story of a fictional island community but the rainbow-hued houses the characters live in are real and can be seen lined up around the harbour of the island’s capital. See if you can spot Miss Hoolie’s green house, Josie Jump’s yellow one and Spencer’s orange abode.

Fairy GlenFairy Glen
Fairy Glen

4. Go wildlife spotting on Raasay. The unpolluted waters warmed by the Gulf Stream are a favourite spot with Minke whales, porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks and seals – the small tidal island of Holoman, accessible via a causeway at low tide, is a regular haunt. The island is also a great place to see elusive rarities like red deer, otters, mountain hares, golden eagles and sea eagles.

5. Watch a herd of cows swimming between grazings on Skye and the tiny island of Stenscholl in October. Crofter Iain MacDonald, 82, is thought to be the last person in Scotland to move his cattle this way, and until the age of 70 swam alongside them, but now accompanies them from the relative warmth of a rowing boat. The cows swim at low tide and take about 15 minutes to swim the 150 metres – and Mr MacDonald has never lost an animal in the swim.

6. If you’ve exhausted all other options, or the weather has put paid to today’s plans (the crystal waters and white sands can be misleading – you are still in Scotland), swing by the Islay and Jura Toy Library which does pretty much what it says on the tin. There are toys, games and books suitable for all ages and baby equipment such as travel cots and high chairs that can be borrowed for anything from a weekend to a month, even by visitors, as well as play and activity sessions.

7. As a supernatural dwelling place, Fairy Glen on the Isle of Skye is, of course, not to be found on any human map. But on the outskirts of Uig take the left-hand turn to Siadair on to a single rack road and you may just stumble across this magical miniature landscape of tiny grassy conical hills, twisting trees and a little lochan. Geologists say this distinctive landscape was created by landslips but your kids and the fairies know better. Step into the fairy ring (a circle of small stones), close your eyes, make a wish and the residents will repay your belief in them by granting it.

Picture: TSPLPicture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL

8. Explore the coastline of Islay from the unique perspective of a kayak. Kayak Wild Islay has half-day or full-day guided expeditions suitable for families – under-16s are welcome as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. The guides know all the best wildlife-spotting sites and sea kayaking allows you to discover hidden lagoons and islands that wouldn’t be quite so easily accessible on foot.

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9. Step back in time and sample the crofting life with a stay at Gearrannan Blackhouse Village on the Atlantic coast of Lewis. The traditional thatched stonework crofts were occupied until the 1970s, after which the village was made a conservation area, and there are four-star, self-catering family cottages with real fires available, with each blackhouse named after the family who once lived there, or the hostel has a family room for three. In the village you can visit the preserved 1955 blackhouse and see Harris Tweed being woven on a loom, and there’s a souvenir shop and a cafeteria, while nearby attractions include beaches – pretty Dalbeg and surfers’ paradise Dalmore – plus coastal walks, the Callanish standing stones and Carloway Angling Club.

10. Set off on “The Quest” on Mull – a mysterious mission to track down a magical stone and become one of its keepers (otherwise known as a children’s treasure hunt and adventure trail set up jointly by various local businesses). The trail is aimed at 7-12-year-olds and tasks all involve learning about the wildlife, geology and history of the island. Start off at the tourism office in Craignure, by the ferry terminal, where upon asking if you can “sign the Quest book” you will be issued with your first challenge...

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11. Spar Cave on Skye is a 50m-long cathedral of cascading clouds of a marble-like texture, formed by centuries-worth of water dripping through limestone. Sir Walter Scott visited in 1814 and referred to the cave in his poem The Lord of the Isles thus: “The mermaid’s alabaster grot, who bathes her limbs in sunken well, deep in Strathaird’s enchanted cell,’ after which it became a must-see for Victorian tourists, who helped themselves to stalagmites and stalactites as souvenirs. The path to the cave is not an easy one; it’s steep and over slippery rocks, and care must also be taken not to be stranded by the tide, so this is probably one for older children and teenagers, and intrepid ones at that.

12. Nickelodeon’s new show Lily’s Driftwood Bay was inspired by Arran, based on characters created by artist Joanne Carmichael, who lives on the island. Lily, whose “pockets are full of shells, her hair full of sand and her boots covered in seaweed,” lives an idyllic existence in a beach hut with her dad and spends her days dreaming up stories about what might be going on across the bay, based on what she finds washed up on the shore. The show, aimed at pre-schoolers, features a seriously impressive cast of voices, including those of Stephen Fry, Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, Annette Crosbie and Ardal O’Hanlon. Follow Lily’s lead and use the island’s beach salvage as inspiration for some make-believe with the little ones.

13. The Natural History Centre at Port Charlotte on Islay is the place to learn all about the island’s wildlife and has touch tanks where kids can get up close with local sea creatures. There’s also a laboratory where they can learn to use microscopes and make pictures out of seaweed, plus fresh water and marine aquariums.

14. Cycling around Millport is a rite of passage for many families reared on the west coast of Scotland. The 10.25 mile route is relatively flat and dotted with stunning views over the Firth. Fintry Bay Tearoom lies mid-way through your cycle while there also a number of scenic stop off points along the way. You can take your own bike with you on a CalMac ferry or hire from a number of rental shops on the islands. The more in sync families can test their endurance, and harmony, by hiring an eight seater bicycle while bikes with trailers for the kids are also available.

15. For a bit of peace and quiet, head to Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula – the 101-year-old Picture House - by the harbour. Opened in 1913, the A-listed building is community-owned and run and boasts features you’re unlikely to encounter at your local multiplex – like balcony seating and the two “wee houses” either side of the screen, one being the manager’s office and the other a storeroom. On the bill this summer are Maleficent, Godzilla,Postman Pat: The Movie and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

16. Immerse yourselves in magic in the Fairy Pools on Skye. At the foot of the Black Cuillin mountains, near Glenbrittle, this series of falls feeding into pools of jade water is an enchanting setting for some wild river swimming. The basins are surrounded by rocks for dives and jumps of up to 10 metres, plus flat ones on which to dry off in the sun – although however warm the day and limpid the waters, don’t be fooled into thinking they won’t be breath-snatchingly cold. A wetsuit might be a good idea.

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17. Set up camp and catch your supper at Calgary Bay on Mull. The wide, sweeping white beach is tucked between two headlands and is secluded and quiet, with a wild camping site at its edge and toilet facilities (with disabled access). The shallow turquoise waters are safe for splashing about and from a perch on the rocks you can angle for sea trout, mackerel and rock cod – and might spot dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks and seals too.

18. The Bute Museum tells the story of the Isle of Bute, from Mesolithic times to the modern day, exploring the local way of life – and through it the relationship between islands and the mainland – through the ages. Displays encompass everything from Iron Age tools and prehistoric weapons to Victorian toys, artefacts tracing the history of Early Christianity, models of the steamers that brought 19th-century tourists to the isle and souvenirs from its heyday as a traditional seaside resort.

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19. Pay a visit to Katie Morag’s home on the island of Coll. The series of books following the feisty flame-haired heroine have been beloved since their first instalment – Katie Morag Delivers the Mail – in 1984 and she can now be seen, in trademark kilt and wellies, on CBeebies . Tomboy Katie lives on the fictional island of Struay, the topography and daily life of which was inspired by Coll, where author Mairi Hedderwick lived for several years, and traces of Struay can be seen in the whitewashed cottages, the beaches and the old jetty.

20. Jump on a Segway for a tour of the grounds of Lews Castle in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. While it can be hard to keep the kids interested while wandering round historical sites, you’re unlikely to have that problem here. The tour lasts an hour and includes a safety briefing, a lesson and a practice session (although if George W Bush can handle one, your kids should do fine – so long as they are over 12 years old and weigh at least 45kg).

21. Perfect for crafty kids and rainy days alike, Beachcomber is a paint your own pottery studio and café in Crossapol on Tiree, where other activities on offer include making your own Tiree charm bracelet or postcard, and eating delicious cakes. Kids can make and paint mugs and bowls and then have them professionally glazed and fired in the centre’s kiln, ready for collection the next day.

22. Get on your bikes on Colonsay. Laid-back and unspoilt, and at only eight miles long and three miles wide and being reasonably flat with very little traffic (there are fewer than 150 inhabitants), this is the most cycling-friendly of the islands for children. There’s even a local bike hire shop that will deliver bikes to your door and offers free small children’s bikes with adult hires – Archie’s business has been running for more than 35 years and offers bikes of all sizes, plus tandems, and tag-alongs, buggies and helmets come free too.

23. If the kids are desperate for a dip and, despite its tropical appearance, it’s too cold at the beach – which is a very real possibility depending on what time of year you visit the islands and what the weather decides to do – you’ll be glad to know the Isle of Harris Sports Centre at Tarbert has an indoor children’s pool with fountains and a waterfall. There’s also a 16.5m pool plus sauna and spa for the grown-ups.

24. Armadale Activities at the Clan Donald Estate on the Sleat peninsula at the southern tip of Skye is the place to unleash your children’s inner action hero, with axe throwing and air rifle shooting for those aged eight and above, clay pigeon shooting for the older kids (16 and over) and archery, for those budding Katniss Everdeens aged five and over. Sessions last an hour and all are aimed at absolute beginners, and take place in the walled garden of Armadale Castle.

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25. Hit up HebCelt 2014 – the festival of Celtic music and culture, which runs from 16 to 19 July, has plenty to offer families. The cheerfully striped big tops in the grounds of Lews Castle on Lewis will play host to bands playing Celtic-tinged rock, folk, and indie tunes, while the green at the centre of it all will see performers from Let’s Circus set up camp. Here you’ll find balloon shows, trapeze artists, magicians, pirates, parrots and mermaids, acrobats, workshops where you can make musical instruments, story and song sessions, face painters and a bouncy castle.

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