A 9-year-old’s view of Scotland? Awesome!
By Paul Abercrombie,
Our son Ewan saw it as high adventure.
My wife and I secretly called it “the test.”
That is, could we visit Scotland with a 9-year-old for a little over a week — and all have fun?
I don’t want to jinx us for future family trips, but the answer was a resounding yes. Let me put it this way: At one point he even described a visit to a garden as “awesome.”
And no, we didn’t drug him.
To be fair, we did let Ewan tote along his Nintendo handheld video game. But he played it so rarely that we often forgot that he had it.
In recent years, we’d stoked his interest in Scotland, leavening lessons about where our Abercrombie family clan hails from with legends of mythical water monsters. (He can pretty well recite the dialogue to the movie “The Water Horse.”)
So when we began tossing around the idea of a vacation out of the country, Ewan suggested Scotland. It had been a dozen years since Gail and I had visited. We’d talked about taking him there one day. And let’s face it, folks who name their son Ewan are bear-hugging their Scottish heritage.
We settled on an itinerary that promised something for us all. Castles, falconry, spook tours, fantastic food and whisky, a pony ride, even a little fly-fishing and a visit to a spa. We’d see both country and city, including a visit to the ancestral hamlet of Abercrombie. We decided to start with the farthest afield and work our way back to Edinburgh, where we landed one day in early August.
Maine on steroids
A goof-up with the GPS in the Peugeot we’d reserved wins us a free upgrade to a sleek six-speed BMW sedan. Throw in an uncharacteristically sunny Scottish sky, and we’re off to a fine start.
We’re making a beeline northwest to the highlands city of Inverness, at the mouth of the Ness River, which flows into the loch famous for a certain fanciful resident. Along the road, we play a literal game of counting sheep, which dot the rolling hillsides. Ravenous and starting to feel the effects of an overnight flight, we stop for lunch in the town of Pitlochry, halfway into our three-hour drive.
At the Auld Smiddy Inn, Ewan boldly orders haggis, which he abandons after a few bites. Still, Gail and I marvel that he even tried it. A bottle of crisp muscadet, assorted smoked, poached and peppered fish for Gail and me, a toffee pastry for Ewan, and we’re ready to stretch our legs with a walk to the nearby hydroelectric dam and salmon ladder. Ewan bounds up and down hills, joining other kids sliding down a grassy embankment. To a family used to life in subtropical Florida, it’s dramatic topography. Or as my wife puts it, “Maine on steroids.”
In the early evening, we arrive at the Rocpool Reserve hotel in downtown Inverness. Like many hotels in the neighborhood, this was once a house. Eager to get to bed early, we have dinner in the hotel’s cozy, six-table Chez Roux Restaurant, where Ewan discovers how sublime real bread and butter can be. I only hope that our ecstatic groans over the food didn’t scare the other diners.
Turndown service apparently includes installation of an Xbox video gaming console, which we discover when we return to our room. “Awesome,” Ewan says, the first of many times he’ll utter this word over the week.
The next morning’s light rain stops as we board the Jacobite Warrior ship for a tour of Loch Ness. A short ride over inky black water takes us to the ruins of Urquhart Castle, on the loch’s north shore. No sign of Nessie, but Ewan delights in feeding cracker crumbs to a handful of friendly ducks on the island’s stony shore. By the time we’re back on the boat, there’s hardly a square foot of the ruins that Ewan hasn’t climbed. “I’m part goat,” he teases.
We skip the nearby Loch Ness Inn and Restaurant, which looks suspiciously like a Scottish version of South Carolina’s South of the Border tourist trap, and stop at Fiddler’s pub a few miles down the road. Gail and I have mouth-puckeringly pickled seafood, washed down with local beers. Ewan defaults to a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke.
Eager to explore the surrounding hills, we follow a nearby hiking trail, climbing among prehistorically big ferns and pine trees whose trunks are as wide as our minivan at home is long. No wonder the locals see dinosaurs. Atop a hill, we rest, looking down at the valley below, including Loch Ness. Ever critter crazy, Ewan points out a mouse and big shiny black slugs.
It’s this evening, at a stop at a pub for drinks before dinner, that Ewan meets his true culinary crush of the trip: Irn-Bru, a super-sweet, improbably orange-hued soft drink beloved by Scots. “Mmm, tastes like bubblegum,” Ewan says between sips.
Maybe it’s the fly-fisherman gracefully casting across the street in a drizzle, but Gail and I are inspired to order rainbow trout for dinner at the Kitchen, a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the River Ness. The accompanying sea scallops are easily the best I’ve had — and I’ve lived on Florida’s Gulf Coast for more than two decades. Ewan seems to agree, scarfing down most of ours.
As if on cue, the rain clouds part and a rainbow appears. We stroll back to our hotel, marveling at the pinkish glow of a sunset at 9 p.m.
Gardens and graveyards
The next morning’s couple-hour drive takes us southwest, down the winding length of Loch Ness, to Fort William. Ewan and Gail have been jonesing for more hands-on animal action, so we pop into the Fort Augustus Highland and Rare Breeds Croft. A terrestrial Noah’s Ark of Scottish fauna, the puny park is home to creatures from shaggy highland cows to red deer. Son and mom soon find their faves: pygmy goats, eager to be petted and fed blades of grass by hand. “I’m goat gum,” Ewan says as a smitten piebald goat named Smartie licks his palms.
At the end of a long driveway, we arrive at Inverlochy Castle Hotel, a building and grounds straight out of a Merchant Ivory flick. Bags barely in the rooms, we’re off exploring the grounds, walking (Ewan running) the mossy paths, where we happen on a walled garden. It’s inside this lush oasis that I hear the first and probably last time that my son will describe a garden as “awesome.”
Before dinner at the hotel, we play a game of lawn chess with knee-high pawns and rooks. “Check,” Ewan triumphantly hollers, toppling his mom’s king.
Gail and I are probably more intimidated than Ewan by the blizzard of silverware at dinner. And we’ve been to a Michelin-starred restaurant before. We pause from reveling in our Scottish blue lobster with cauliflower to see whether Ewan is enjoying his meal. “Best spaghetti ever,” he declares. So much for worrying about whether he’d like the fancy-pants food.
Later, after I’ve sampled several of the drawing room’s rare whiskies, Ewan drags me out for a moonlit mission to show me the old graveyard he has found a short walk from the hotel. “Cool, huh?” he says. Definitely.
Whisky and falcons
At breakfast the next morning, we’re joined by an American couple with three boys between the ages of around 11 to 14. These kids, too, are curiously well behaved. Maybe there’s something to this place that inspires good manners. That, or the dram of whisky in my morning Scottish porridge is making me less excitable.
Two Irn-Brus and as many hours’ drive southeast through peaty, rock-strewn hills and mountains, we reach the golf and spa resort of Gleneagles. With a game room that includes air hockey, a pool table and overstuffed leather couches parked in front of a TV set and video game consoles, it’s the most conventionally kid-friendly place we’ve been to yet.
Before Ewan can disappear into the video game maw, he’s off for a pony lesson. Astride barrel-bellied pony Beano, he learns the basics of trotting and turning. Then his favorite part: feeding and brushing his new pal.
Later, while Ewan and Gail dip into the two indoor pools, I duck into the bar for a lesson on whisky-tasting from beverage manager Christopher Peck. Wielding a pipette of water, he shows me how “less than a teardrop” of water can coax whisky — in this case, Johnnie Walker Blue — to reveal all sorts of facets. By the time I finish this bibulous striptease with several other whiskies, we’re all ready to hit the sack.
Which is good, since we’re up early to make it about an hour away to the Scottish Deer Centre for our Beak to Beyond falconry experience. A big fan of owls and other birds of prey, Ewan beams as our young hosts, Christine and Caitlin, show and tell us about the several dozen birds that live here and, better yet, let us hold, fly and feed them.
“Come on, boy,” Ewan whispers a moment before a hulking Bengal eagle owl named Oddball lands on his leather-gauntlet-clad hand and gulps down a chunk of chicken flesh.
The next day at Gleneagles brings more individual indulgences: for Gail, a spa visit; for me, a guided fly-fishing jaunt; and for Ewan, a pilgrimage to the game room.
A capital trip
On the road late Sunday morning, we spot it on the car GPS before we spy a road sign for it: the town of Abercrombie. Parking the BMW on the edge of town — really more of a clump of half a dozen houses or so — we strike out in the rain on a muddy road to the woods that hide the ruins of the church of Abercrombie. Ewan likes the remnants of the Abercrombie clan crest adorning one wall, but Gail and I agree that he’s more interested in the oversize snails climbing thistles.
As much as I’ve enjoyed driving on the “wrong” side of the road, it’s nice to ditch the car when we get back to Edinburgh. After so much time in the country, the city seems comically bustling. Of course, we also happen to be here during the chaotic annual Fringe Festival.
We clamber atop Edinburgh Castle, the iconic fortress that dominates the city skyline. Lunch at the famed Witchery restaurant leaves Gail and me stuffed (we spring for encyclopedic and delicious Scottish seafood platters).
Touristy as it is, a visit to the Edinburgh Dungeon that afternoon is undeniably fun. Or, as Ewan says several times during our live-action tour of five centuries of the city’s darkest and goriest history, “This is awesome.” He and Gail seem to especially enjoy when an actor playing a female member of Sawney Bean’s infamous family of murderous cannibals threatens to “pickle” me. They also really like when, at my mock trial for witchery, I’m accused (and convicted) of cross-dressing.
By the time we experience a hilarious (honest) tour of haunted Edinburgh by a duo of young Scots, I can see how the city earned its dubious distinction as the capital of witch-related executions.
Packing for the airport the next morning, Gail and I break a cardinal travel rule, letting Ewan raid the hotel minibar for one last Irn-Bru. “I wish we could get that at home,” he says.
By the time we’re in the old-fashioned boxy black taxi on the way to the airport, Gail and I are already conspiring to score some for Ewan’s 10th birthday party. And planning our next family vacation.
Abercrombie is a freelance writer in Florida.