Travel: A family guide to summer Britain: Scotland

IT'S NOT hard to conjure up the image of a perfect family holiday in Scotland: messing about in boats, scrambling up hills, spotting eagles, pony-trekking in the glens, and long days rounded off by spectacular sunsets. But it's easy to go wrong in practice. There is scope for a horror movie based on being rained-in on a midge-infested island for two weeks with a houseful of children - who then decide that Scrabble isn't the most exciting game on earth.

The answer is to choose a destination that offers something for every eventuality. One of the great undiscovered regions is the Borders - with varied countryside and lots of places to visit. For those who are set on lochs and mountains, the west coast around Ullapool or Oban provides a big choice of water- and land-based entertainment and access to both easy and challenging ascents. Fife has a gentle landscape and some wonderful coastal towns and villages, and the Moray coast is an excellent base for a seaside holiday. Of the islands, Skye is unmatched for scenery, while for escapism it's hard to beat the Orkneys.

Wherever you choose, there will be entertainment of some kind. Scotland comes alive with summer events - from the Common Riding festivals of the Borders to caber-tossing and traditional dancing at dozens of Highland Games and Gatherings. Nowhere can quite match Edinburgh with its Tattoo, Festival and Fringe, but we have listed the best of a big choice of other events around the rest of the country.

SOUTHERN SCOTLAND

DAYS OUT

Culzean Castle: The superb, cliff-top estate with its woodland park and acres of gardens around Robert Adam's massive crenellated fortress makes for a good family outing.

Dumfries: The centre of the Robert Burns industry - his house and favourite pub are here, and there's a Heritage Centre in a converted grain mill. To the south, the remains of the unique triangular Caerlaverock Castle are worth a visit, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands centre is home to Bewick's swan (among others). Nearby, the Cistercian Sweetheart Abbey is remarkably complete and has a fine setting.

Drumlanrig Castle: Leonardo's Madonna with the Yarnwinder and Rembrandt's Old Woman Reading are two good reasons not to miss this turreted 17th- century pile.

Edinburgh: Among the great sights of the Old and New Towns, those more likely to appeal to children include: the Camera Obscura (Castlehill); the castle (time your visit to hear the one o'clock gun on the Mills Mount Battery); Museum of Childhood (fun and noisy); Royal Museum of Scotland (especially the Hall of Power and its steam engines); the Georgian House (Charlotte Square); and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Glasgow: The city can feel chaotic and unmanageable - it's too big to cover on foot - but there are some rewarding family-oriented sights for those who do venture in, including the People's Palace (fascinating and idiosyncratic museum of the city); the Tenement House (Edwardian Glasgow life preserved); and the Museum of Transport (one of the biggest). Outside the city, the wonderful glass-panelled building that houses the Burrell Collection is as impressive as the wide-ranging exhibits inside.

Jedburgh: Jedburgh Abbey, although a rather stark ruin, benefits from an excellent and atmospheric visitor centre. Children may find more enjoyment in the cell blocks at the castle jail or the Jedforest Deer and Farm Park nearby.

Tantallon Castle: Ruined but still impressive red walls rise above dramatic red cliffs at the southern entrance to the Firth of Forth, with the North Sea boiling below. For even more spectacular cliffs head south to St Abb's Head Nature Reserve - home to colonies of guillemots, razorbills and puffins.

Tweed Valley: The graceful curves of the great salmon river curl through gentle heathery hills and past some outstanding sights. Abbotsford, Walter Scott's outlandish fantasy of a house, is stuffed with weird examples of his eclectic curiosity - including an elk's skull and Rob Roy's sporran. Traquair House isn't grand, or especially pretty, but it provides a fascinating insight into the life of the Scottish nobility. Of the three ruined abbeys along the river, Dryburgh has the most attractive location, but the vaults and buttresses of Melrose are the most memorable. Little remains of the splendour of Kelso Abbey. The nearby Floors Castle starred in the film Greystoke.

Gardens: Threave Garden, Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway; Logan Botanic Garden, near Stranraer, Dumfries and Galloway; Castle Kennedy Gardens, Stranraer.

EVENTS

30 July-7 August. Port William Carnival Week, Wigtownshire.

3 August. Scottish Dancing for All, Linlithgow, West Lothian.

4-6 August. Ayr Flower Show.

4-6 August. Scottish National Sheepdog Trials, Floors Castle, Kelso.

5-13 August. Glasgow International Early Music Festival (041-227 5511).

5-27 August. Edinburgh Military Tattoo (031-225 1188).

6-13 August. Edinburgh International Jazz Festival (031-557 1642).

11-20 August. Marymass Festival, Irvine, Ayrshire: Horse- drawn parade, races, music and fireworks.

12-20 August. Sanquhar Riding of the Marches: This is the last of the summer's traditional Borders medieval Common Riding festivals.

13-28 August. Hawick Summer Festival.

13 August. World Pipe Band Championships, Bellahouston Park, Glasgow.

13-28 August. Edinburgh International Film Festival (031-228 4051).

14 August-3 September. Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Information: 031-226 5257; box office: 031-226 5138)

14 August-3 September. Edinburgh International Festival (Information 031-226 4001; tickets 031-225 5756).

20-21 August. Grand Steam Fair, Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.

21 August. Junior Highland Games, Annan, Dumfriesshire: Children under 13.

26-29 August. International Rocket Weekend, Fairlie, Ayrshire: Model rocket flying.

27 August-3 September. Largs Viking Festival, Ayrshire: From opera to battle re-enactments.

28 August. Bat Day, David Livingstone Centre, Glasgow: Kites, cloaks, puppets and face- painting for children.

PLACES TO STAY

Balcary Bay Hotel, Shore Road, Auchencairn, by Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire (0556 640217).

The Old Place of Monreith, Port William, Wigtownshire - Landmark Trust property sleeping 7. To book see Further Information on page 56.

Philipburn House, Selkirk (0750 20747).

Roslin Castle, Roslin, near Edinburgh; Landmark Trust property, sleeps 7. To book see Further Information, page 56.

Woodlands Country House, Windyknowe Road, Galashiels, (0896 754722).

Tweed Valley Hotel, Walkerburn, Peebles (0896 870636).

ARGYLL AND THE HIGHLANDS

DAYS OUT

The Cairngorm Mountains: Aviemore was developed in the 1960s to provide a focus for tourists exploring the wilds of the Cairngorms. Most of the activities are channelled into Glen More, a nature reserve and one of the last vestiges of the old Caledonian forest. You could not call Aviemore charming, but at least there is always plenty going on if the weather on the mountains closes in.

Eilean Donan Castle: The location, on an islet at the confluence of Loch Alsh and Loch Duich , is hard to beat.

Fort William: Not the most prepossessing of Highland towns, more of a rallying place for those who are mountain-bound. Hardened hikers, unfettered by young children, can conquer Ben Nevis in a day from here. Easier walks are in Glen Nevis.

Glen Coe: The National Trust Visitor Centre, close to the scene of the infamous massacre, is the place to learn about the MacDonalds and Campbells; and to obtain information on local walks and wildlife - which includes golden eagles and wildcats.

Inveraray: The 18th-century castle, overlooking the majestic Loch Fyne, is one of Scotland's grandest. Nearby, Loch Awe is famed for its trout-fishing and the Argyll Wildlife Park, with its wildcats and wild boar, should keep the children amused.

The North Coast: The A836 winds its way along this remote coast of cliffs - spectacular sections include the rock stacks at Duncansby Head to the east and Strathy Point, about half- way along. John O' Groats is nothing more than a hotel and a rash of gift shops; and it is not the most northerly point of the British mainland - that's at Dunnet Head, the peninsula to the west.

Loch Ness: The Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition at Drumnadrochit makes a good shot at adding interest to the conundrum - a lot more fun than staring at the murky waters for hours waiting for a happening.

Oban: The bright, bustling harbour town is an attractive base for day trips to the islands and the coast, gentle walking country, fishing and pony trekking.

Plockton: This little harbour on the west coast is too popular for its own good, but the wooded Lochalsh peninsula just to the south is an excellent area for gentle family walks.

Ullapool: The best of the west coast tourist centres, with good family walking country all around, boat trips to the Summer Islands and good beaches. There are also scenic drives through the dramatic Wester Ross landscape to Loch Assynt, Loch Broom and the Falls of Measach, and Loch Maree.

Gardens: Crarae Glen Garden, Loch Fyne; Younger Botanic Garden, Benmore, Argyll; Inverewe Gardens, Poolewe, Highlands; Lochalsh Woodland Garden, Balmacara, Highlands.

EVENTS

25 July-6 August. Plockton Regatta.

30 July-6 August. Golspie Gala Week, Sutherland.

1 August. Tain Highland Gathering, Ross and Cromarty.

1-14 August. Grantown Festive Fortnight, Moray: Evening musical entertainment.

6 August. Newtonmore Highland Games, near Kingussie.

4 August. The Black Isle Agricultural Show, Muir of Ord, Ross and Cromarty.

12 August. Glorious day for shooting parties, bad news for grouse.

20-21 August. Machrihanish Surf Rodeo, Argyll: Kayak and wave ski-surfing.

20 August. Abernethy Highland Games, Nethy Bridge, near Grantown-on-Spey.

26-27 August. Cowal Highland Gathering, Dunoon.

PLACES TO STAY

Ard-na-Coille, Kingussie Road, Newtonmore (0540 673214).

Crinan Hotel, Crinan, Argyll (054 683 261).

Knipoch Hotel, Kilninver, nr Oban, Argyll (085 26 251).

Royal Hotel, Marine Terrace, Cromarty, Ross and Cromarty (0381 600217).

Stalker's Cottage, Torridon, Ross and Cromarty: National Trust for Scotland cottage, sleeps 4 - to book see Further Information on page 56.

Tigh an Eilean, Shieldaig, by Strathcarron, Ross and Cromarty (05205 251).

NORTH-EAST AND CENTRAL SCOTLAND

DAYS OUT

Blair Castle: This rambling pile commands the road into the Central Highlands (now the A9) - it is fun to explore, given the enormous range of knickknacks and curiosities that are on display.

Culross: Time-warp 16th-century port on the Firth of Forth that has been restored and preserved by the National Trust for Scotland. The steep cobbled streets, lined with pantiled cottages, are picturesque without being twee.

Deep-Sea World, North Queensferry: A huge aquarium with touch pool, coral reef display and a fish tank with a great underwater viewing tunnel.

Doune Castle: The remains of the once-magnificent 14th-century fortress near Stirling are still imposing, and there are some interesting details to discover - such as the original 'free-drop' latrines.

Dunfermline Abbey: The Norman nave is the most interesting part of the beautiful ruins of Scotland's royal abbey church (Robert the Bruce lies here).

The East Neuk: Crail, with its compact harbour and sandy beach, is the prettiest of the series of charming fishing villages along the Fife coastline south of St Andrews.

Fife castles: They can't quite compare with the dramatic piles of Grampian further north, but Kellie and Aberdour castles, and James IV's Falkland Palace, are worth a visit if you're in the region.

Glamis Castle: The Queen Mother's home (and scene of Macbeth's murder of Duncan) is the archetypal Scottish castle, originally dating from the 15th century.

Grampian castles: There are dozens of baronial castles littering this part of Scotland. The unmissables are: Cawdor (six miles south of Nairn - good fun with plenty of variety in the exhibits); Craigievar (eight miles south of Alford - the most extravagant architecture); Dunnottar (two miles south of Stonehaven - the most romantic and scenic ruins, high above the North Sea); Fyvie (14 miles north of Inverurie - grand facade, turrets and gables, and lavish Edwardian interior; plus an adventure playground for the children).

Loch Lomond: To explore the bonny bonny banks away from the roar of the A82 you need to take a long detour on minor roads to the eastern side of the loch. Alternatively hire a boat and head out on to the water. For Munro-baggers and those in search of an eagle's-eye view, Ben Lomond is most southerly of the Highland peaks over 3,000ft. Loch Tay (take the narrow winding road on the southern side), Loch Earn, Loch Rannoch and Glen Lyon are also worth a day out.

Moray Coast: Like the English West Country without the crowds - this coastline is a stunning mixture of cliffs, sandy beaches and attractive towns. Nairn is the best resort for families, although Lossiemouth has a slightly better beach, and Findhorn is the place for small- boat sailing.

St Andrews: The courtyards of the university, the ruined cathedral and castle, the beach and the Old Course (plus the new British Golf Museum and three other golf links) combine to make this one of Scotland's most attractive towns, spoilt only by the regular roar of jet fighters from nearby Leuchars. Serious golfers should also head for Carnoustie.

Scottish Deer Centre, Cupar, Fife. A chance for children to stroke the deer and bottle-feed the fawns.

Stirling Castle: Stunning early- Renaissance palace and medieval great hall. North of Stirling, the 13th-century Dunblane Cathedral has fine woodcarving and stained glass, installed when it was restored around the end of the last century.

The Trossachs: This famous beauty spot - a miniature version of the Highlands with its small lochs and mountains - suffers from being so close to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and gets unpleasantly crowded in summer. A quieter alternative might be the grassy Ochil Hills between Stirling and Perth.

Whisky: The best area to get to grips with the hard stuff is in lower Speyside, where there are around 50 distilleries - eight of the big names (including Glenfiddich and Glenlivet) are open to the public and make up the 70-mile whisky trail.

Gardens: Crathes Castle, Grampian; Aberdour Castle, Fife; Cruickshank Botanic Garden, Aberdeen; Pitmedden Garden, Grampian.

EVENTS

Until 8 October: Pitlochry Festival (0796 472680).

Until 21 August: Strathfest, Upper Donside. Music, art, drama and workshops. (09756 51430).

Until 28 August. Summer Music in Balquhidder, Lochearnhead: Concerts every Sunday at the church.

Until 12 August. Nairn Family Summer Fun.

30 July-6 August. Aberdour Festival, Fife: Folk, jazz, drama and children's workshops.

1-13 August. Fairground Fortnight, Nairn.

3-13 August. Aberdeen International Youth Festival: Orchestras, choirs, dance and theatre groups from around the world.

4-7 August. Strathearn Summer Music Festival, Perthshire: From folk to brass bands.

4-7 August. Blairgowrie Folk and Blues Festival (0250 873090).

6 August. Aberlour and Strathspey Highland Games, Banff.

6-13 August. Pittenweem Arts Festival (0333 311425).

11 August. Ballater Highland Games, Aberdeenshire.

14 August. Beating of the Retreat and Fireworks Spectacular, Stirling Castle Esplanade.

3 September. Braemar Royal Highland Gathering, Aberdeenshire: The most prestigious of all the Highland games; book in advance (03397 55377).

PLACES TO STAY

Banchory Lodge, Banchory, Kincardine and Deeside (0330 822625).

Craigendarroch Hotel, Braemar Road, Ballater, Deeside (03397 55858).

Four Seasons Hotel, St Fillans, Perthshire (0764 685333).

Haddo House, near Ellon, Aberdeen: National Trust for Scotland self-catering flats sleeping up to 6 - to book see Further Information, below.

Kildrummy Castle, Kildrummy, By Alford, Aberdeenshire (09755 71288).

Rufflets, Strathkinness Low Road, St Andrews, Fife (0334 472594).

ISLANDS

Arran: Attractive scenery - mountains in the north, lowlands in the south - and the proximity to Glasgow mean the island is often crowded, so avoid peak times. If you do go, Brodick Castle is worth a visit - especially for the kitchens and the woodland gardens.

Lewis: Even on a summer's day the peaty moorland of Lewis can feel bare and desolate - but tucked away on the west coast is one of the greatest prehistoric sights in Britain. The 53 Callanish Standing Stones, laid out in the form of a Celtic cross, are older than Stonehenge and in their way as impressive. For a more attractive landscape, head south to the rocky mountains and sandy coves of Harris (not an island but a peninsula). Crofters weaving the tweed will invite inquisitive visitors to watch them working the looms.

Islay: Developed and popular, Islay is the place for golfers, whisky drinkers and beachcombers.

Jura: Famous for its mountainous Paps, and the rest of the island is unexciting by comparison. It can suffer from day trippers who come over from Islay, but there are plenty of remote corners to escape to.

Mull and Iona: Tobermory at the northern end of the island is one of Scotland's most attractive harbours, with brightly painted Georgian houses lining the quay. Much of the rest of the island can seem bleak, except for the pink granite south- west coast and the white sand beach at Calgary Bay in the west. It's easy to escape the coach-loads of pilgrims on the mesmerising Isle of Iona - especially if you visit towards the end of the day. In calm weather there are boat trips out to Fingal's Cave, celebrated by Mendelssohn, in Staffa.

Orkney Islands: If the weather is kind, these can be magical islands: clear water, sandy beaches, myriad wildlife and no crowds. The standing stones of Stenness and Brodgar, the Cairn of Maes Howe and the Neolithic village of Skara Brae are the pick of the prehistoric sights on the main island.

Skye: This is Skye's last year as an island - the bridge is due to be opened in 1995 and is likely to augment the busy tourist trade (and the streams of coach tours). But it's the spectacular mountains - the Red Hills, the Black Cuillins and the vertiginous Trotternish coast - which are the biggest draw. For walkers, the terrain is exceptionally demanding - especially the stunning (and dangerous) Black Cuillin ridges. But when the weather closes in (which it frequently does), Skye can seem a miserable place - your best chance of cheer is to head for a tour of the Talisker whisky distillery, or visit Dunvegan Castle, where Dr Johnson stayed.

EVENTS

2 and 9 August Gaelic Concerts, Portree, Isle of Skye (0478 612341).

2-3 August. Piping Competitions, Portree, Isle of Skye.

3 August. Isle of Skye Highland Games.

6 August. Portree Show, Isle of Skye.

10 August. Salen Show, Isle of Mull.

10 August. Arran Agricultural Show.

10-13 August. Skye Fest Summer Fayre, Isle of Skye.

11 August. Islay, Jura and Colonsay Show, Isle of Islay.

13-27 August. Gaelic Music Festival, Isle of Skye (0478 613306).

13 August. Orkney County Show.

29 August-4 September. Harris Arts Festival, Isle of Harris: Music, poetry and story-telling (0859 550238).

PLACES TO STAY

Argyll Hotel, Isle of Iona, Argyll (068 17 334).

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran: National Trust for Scotland self-catering flats sleeping up to 6 - to book see Further Information, below.

Baile-na-Cille, Timsgarry, Uig, Isle of Lewis (0851 672242).

Eilean Iarmain, Sleat, Isle of Skye (04713 332).

Harlosh House, by Dunvegan, Isle of Skye (0470 521367).

Stonequoy, Lyness, Hoy, Orkney (0856 79234).

FURTHER INFORMATION

For details of fishing, sailing, walking, pony-trekking and other outdoor activities in all parts of Scotland contact the Scottish Tourist Board (031-332 2433).

National Trust for Scotland (Holiday cottages: 031-243 9331, Membership: 031-243 9555).

Landmark Trust (0628 825925).

Reading: Michelin Green Guide to Scotland ( pounds 7.45); Which? Guide to Scotland ( pounds 11.99); Rough Guide to Scotland ( pounds 8.99); Cadogan Guide to Scotland ( pounds 12.99).

(Photograph omitted)

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