Walking for beginners

Holidaying with young children often means a rethink of priorities. But, as Ben Ross found out, Scotland proved to have something for everyone
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The Independent Travel

Spot quiz: when on holiday, which of those among us would rather sleep than sightsee? Or moans when exquisite foreign cuisine is placed before them? Or refuses to enjoy the tranquillity of a hotel room, preferring instead to amuse themselves at high volume until 4am? Who ignores the views and won't travel by car unless chauffeured? No, not Liam Gallagher. Babies. Toddlers. Children of an age too low to amuse themselves.

Spot quiz: when on holiday, which of those among us would rather sleep than sightsee? Or moans when exquisite foreign cuisine is placed before them? Or refuses to enjoy the tranquillity of a hotel room, preferring instead to amuse themselves at high volume until 4am? Who ignores the views and won't travel by car unless chauffeured? No, not Liam Gallagher. Babies. Toddlers. Children of an age too low to amuse themselves.

Pity the parents. Particularly those relatively new to the game, such as myself, my wife and our two friends. A week-long self-catering holiday in Perthshire certainly wasn't beyond us; after all, we outnumbered our respective toddlers two-to-one. But for a group of thirtysomethings more used to cocktail-infested Caribbean beaches, the prospect of packing nappy-rash cream rather than sun-tan lotion still constituted a bit of a wrench.

The first readjustment concerned the destination itself, a secluded cottage just off the A9, three-quarters of an hour's drive north of Perth. It's at the geographical centre of Scotland, so beaches are in short supply - and cocktails are definitely out of the question (our local pub was five miles away and didn't look the sort of place that majored in banana daiquiris). The weather, too, is less reliable than that of the Caribbean.

On the plus side, though, Perthshire isn't a toddler-traumatising long-haul flight away - and it's terrific walking country, with splendid views of mountain, waterfall and wooded glen. What's more, the drive up the A9 carves through some of the best views from any road in Britain, although these are best appreciated - and here I speak from experience - minus the smell of baby sick.

We soon discovered that adventures with toddlers require regular rethinks. Our plan had been to load the kids into baby backpacks while we tramped around the countryside, allowing us to have an adult hiking holiday and them to get their first eyeful of grass. However, poised at the start of a likely uphill trek near the grey heft of the hydroelectric dam at Glen Errochty, we immediately came unstuck. While one of our charges would consent to riding pillion, the other flew into a rage and insisted on using his own rather short legs. Muesli bars and extra juice were offered as bribes, but it was no use: our walking range was now limited by his stamina (two hours maximum, including regular breaks to listen out for "sleeping bears"). Fortunately, if you downsize your expectations, you leave yourself with the capacity to be surprised.

The Falls of Bruar are marked from the A9 by the low white buildings of the otherwise unprepossessing House of Bruar, purveyors of golfing apparel and expensive local delicacies such as smoked venison and "cocktail haggis". The falls themselves are treated almost as an afterthought: a photocopied sign and an arrow pinned to a piece of fencing showed us the way. But the walk alongside the water is a delight, with the upper and lower falls offering a wonderful backdrop as you pass through woods of Scots pine and birch. Although the climb isn't steep, the route isn't very pram-friendly (unless you've got an all-terrain version), but it's a short enough trek to allow toddlers to stretch their legs. Stay alert, though: the path winds past some sheer drops, so you'll need to have a firm grip on your offspring.

Pretty soon we reached a new understanding: where we'd originally hoped to hike athletically through pine forests and gawp at waterfalls, our two-year-old was more interested in lagging behind to drop stones into tiny streams or play boo from behind trees. Which, suddenly, seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do. And whereas in the past we might have tried to avoid the crowds at the communal picnic area, now we welcomed the chance to get set up with our plastic plates and beakers at a nice flat table. Indeed, on the way back, even the House of Bruar - a place we would have shunned while snootily unencumbered - was suddenly revealed as an enormously relaxing way of mainlining cake into hungry tots.

We had become Parents on Holiday - and that's where the other side of travelling with toddlers kicks in. It's not just about fidgeting car journeys, homesick tantrums and a bad night's sleep. It's more that they point at things and say "tree", "stream" and "sheeps". The glee in their voices makes you very aware that you should be doing this sort of thing more often, as every leaf and flower is revealed anew in a fresh, uncynical light.

Twenty-five miles south of Bruar lies the tiny town of Aberfeldy, whose celebrated Birks, or birches, were immortalised by Robert Burns in 1787: "The braes ascend like lofty wa's/ The foaming stream deep roarin' fa's/ O'erhung wi'fragrant spreading shaws/ The Birks o' Aberfeldy". Here, we ventured forth again, on a path strewn with beech leaves turned brown and golden by the passing seasons. The route runs through the birches and up alongside the Moness Burn to a seething waterfall at the top. The walk is easily reached from Aberfeldy's high street, but we had the place to ourselves. The steepness of the path dictated that the pram again remained in the car, but with an interesting stream or a wooden bridge every 50 yards there was always something to occupy the children's attention, and at the end of our journey we'd managed to walk - or toddle - our way into a state of pleasing fatigue.

For every success, of course, there was a (relative) failure. Regardless of what the people in the National Trust shop may say, the Pass of Killicrankie is not negotiable by pram, as we discovered to our cost halfway down. However, the gorge itself, and the famous Soldier's Leap (where one plucky chap leapt the river to escape his Jacobite pursuers), are jaw-droppingly impressive, even in a downpour. Similarly, Menzies Castle just outside Aberfeldy looks well worth the £3.50 entrance fee to see its ancient interior, but crucial nap times meant we never got beyond the front door.

However, even in wet weather there was always something to delight both child and grown-up: head north on the A9 into the highlands and seven miles south of Aviemore near Kincraig lies the Highland Wildlife Park. It can be explored from the comfort of your vehicle (assuming you've got rid of the baby sick) - and with wild boar, highland cattle and red deer on show, it's a great chance for all your vocabularies to be stretched. Of course, train journeys still seem interminable; we have to travel with obscene amounts of luggage (surely someone should take up the notion of a "travel cot" with the trades descriptions people?); and struggling with fiendish child-seat set-ups in rental cars will never constitute a pleasant way to spend time. But near the shaded rivers and woody hillsides of Perthshire we discovered an astonishing fact: Parents on Holiday have fun too.



To travel from Edinburgh to Perthshire Ben Ross rented a car from Holiday Autos (0870 400 0100; www.holidayautos.co.uk) which offers weekend car hire from £67.40. Edinburgh is served by flights from many UK airports, by rail on the services of GNER (08457 225333; www.gner.co.uk), Virgin Trains (0870 789 1234; www.virgintrains.co.uk) and First ScotRail (08700 005151; www.firstscotrail.co.uk). For national rail enquiries call 08457 48 49 50.


Visit Scotland (0131-332 2433; www.visitscotland.com) is able to advise on self-catering and hotel accommodation across Scotland.

Scottish Country Cottages (08700 781100; www.scottish-country-cottages.co.uk) also has a broad range of rental accommodation.


Highland Wildlife Park (01540 651270; www.highlandwildlifepark.org), Kincraig, Kingussie, is open daily from 10am-6pm, last entry 4pm. Adult tickets cost £8, children £5.50.

The Falls of Bruar ( www.perthshirebigtreecountry.co.uk) are located roughly 10km from Pitlochry off the A9 and the walk to reach them is about 1.5km.

Castle Menzies (01887 820982; www.menzies.org) in Weem, is now closed for winter and will reopen in April, when opening hours will be Monday-Saturday from 10.30am-5pm and Sunday from 2pm-5pm.


Perthshire Tourist Board (01738 627958; www.perthshire.co.uk) Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board (01997 421160; www.visithighlands.com).

Sophie Lam