Currently celebrating the Year of Stories 2022, Scotland is steeped in history and legend. It is also an exciting country, with formidable landscapes, exciting cities and, most importantly, a wealth of imagination. Countless writers, singer-songwriters and poets have been inspired by its mountains, its castles, its heroes and battles, its fairies and monsters. The line between past and present, and between real and imaginary, feels more porous here. My children, who came up north frequently for family holidays, loved the feeling that history in Scotland somehow feels more present and real: you can see armour, you can climb old moats, you can touch rakes. Truly, there is no place like Scotland to live the myth. When I was a boy growing up in Edinburgh, my zoologist father answered very serious questions about Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, quite regularly.
I would start any trip to Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway – the whole of southern Scotland has an extraordinary wealth of stories and attractions that children will love. Some of the country’s greatest writers, such as Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson, had close ties to the area. There would be no better launching pad than Wigtown, a beautiful seaside town in the South West and Scotland’s answer to Hay-on-Wye. Wigtown has more than a dozen second-hand bookshops and the annual Wigtown Book Festival features performances and workshops for children as part of Scotland’s National Book Town’s 10-day celebration of literature. Just outside the town is the magnificent Torhouse stone circle, home to the tomb of Galdus, the mythical Scottish king.
Some of the Wigtown Book Festival children’s events take place in Dumfries, which is about an hour’s drive east. Here you should definitely visit Moat Brae: a beautiful, fully restored Georgian house and garden that JM Barrie visited regularly as a child and apparently inspired him to write Peter Pan, which has been transformed into the National Center for Children’s Literature and Storytelling, a museum. and interactive playspace-cum-library. The house has a dress-up box and drawers to open, locks to peek through, little cubbies and bean bags where kids can sit with a book from the collection. Outside there is a huge pirate ship swing and a garden dotted with wire figures that bring Barrie’s characters to life. Children can also go in search of the 10 crocodiles cleverly hidden in the enclosure.
Another great Scottish storyteller was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, and no place could be more fascinating, or more intriguing, than his country home in Abbotsford, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. This is Scottish baronial architecture at its most extreme: a gothic extravagance of crow’s feet, turrets and gargoyles. In the front hall are mannequins in full armor brandishing broadswords, and around them are deer antlers and animal skulls. Scott collected everything from fine china to exquisite lace doilies. But he had a special love for weapons; here is a panoply of swords, daggers, tomahawks, maces, blunderbusses, flintlocks, even a breastplate with a bullet hole in it, and it’s this kind of gruesome detail that kids love.
Equally atmospheric, but very different and on a much smaller scale, is Smailholm Tower, just half an hour’s drive from Abbotsford. Smailholm was built in the 15th century when the ‘reivers’ (or cattle rustlers) invaded the Scottish border and my children loved climbing up the big rocky mound that the tower sits on. At Smailholm you have a very real feeling of living in a fort. The walls are eight feet thick, so inside it feels tiny and there’s really only one room per floor. In addition, the very steep spiral staircase has uneven steps, a common feature of Scottish castles and intended to give any attacker the wrong foot.
Scott knew Smailholm well. He had stayed on the nearby farm as a boy and later published an anthology of frontier ballads: love stories, fairy tales, feuds and battles. These ballads have been the inspiration for an exhibition of very beautiful dolls made by the artist Anne Carrick and which are on permanent display at Smailholm. The bright and diaphanous horses of the Fairy Queen are especially wonderful.
Just over an hour’s drive north and you arrive in Edinburgh, the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson and where JK Rowling wrote some of the Harry Potter books in cafes near the Royal Mile (the historic street that connects the Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse). The street itself is dotted with wonderful sites for children, including the Children’s Museum, which houses a significant collection of toys, games, dolls and more dating from the 19th century to the present. In the castle you can see a royal portcullis, a trebuchet and a huge stone cannonball that is believed to have been thrown into the walls during the siege of 1296. And at 1 pm every day you can see how an artilleryman fires the gun. at one o’clock in full regimental attire. The noise is unbelievable, it can be heard all over the city.
At the Scottish Storytelling Center at John Knox House (parts of which date back to the late medieval period, making it the oldest building on the Royal Mile), children can explore a 17th-century house and clothes shop, see puppet shows and listen to professional storytellers. Further up the Royal Mile is Gladstone’s Land, a quirky old tenement building where, especially until New Town was built in the 18th century, people lived haphazardly on top of each other. Children are often very open to sensory experiences and this makes Gladstone’s Land a great place to visit as the museum has tried to reproduce authentic sounds and smells on every floor of the building.
No trip to Scotland is complete without a visit to the Highlands. If you go directly north from Edinburgh, you’ll first come to Perthshire, where Beatrix Potter spent many of her childhood holidays and where, in Birnam, just outside Dunkeld, you can visit the interactive Beatrix Potter Garden, which celebrates the fact that history of Peter Rabbit was inspired by the time of Potter. in the village. Then head to the fascinating Badenoch region and visit the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore. The open-air museum is a scattering of buildings that recreate Highland life from the 1700s to the 1950s. The old black houses, where the Highlanders lived with their cattle, are startlingly primitive – the The term “black house” derives from the fact that they were built without chimneys, thus covering the interiors with soot – and the enthusiastic team of costumed actors are extremely knowledgeable. More modern houses are also interesting: the gradual rise of more comfortable living can be traced during the 18th and 19th centuries. But the pièce de résistance is the 1930s school where kids can try pen and ink copper handwriting exercises.
The places mentioned above are just a sample of what Scotland has to offer families with children. There are countless other stories to discover, along with castles for children, folk museums and battlefields to visit. Because in most of these places, history, myth and legend tend to mix, and that, I suspect, is what gives them their special appeal. If you want your son to imagine more deeply, take him to Scotland.
Amanda Mitchison is a children’s writer and novelist. Her latest book The Wolf Hunters is an adult crime novel set in the Scottish Highlands.
The Year of Scottish Stories 2022 highlights, celebrates and promotes the wealth of stories inspired, written or created in Scotland. More information about the program can be found here