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Best Free Things To Do With Kids in Inverness

Inverness, Scotland Scenery
Inverness, Scotland Scenery

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Fairy glens, fairy wells, mysterious lake monsters, and (so it’s sometimes said) even the Good People themselves…the area around Inverness, often described as the Gateway to the Highlands, is about as close as you can get to fairyland in Scotland. The countryside is known for its slightly unearthly beauty. The city’s name means Mouth of the River Ness, and it’s the British city that’s the furthest north. It’s steeped in history too, with nearby Culloden particularly famous for the 18th-century Jacobite rising. The city regularly scores very highly for both quality of life and overall happiness of the residents, and despite its northerly location, there are some surprising hidden gems tucked away in the area.

Table of Contents

Botanic Gardens, Inverness

What it is: Who’d have thought there was a place in Scotland where you could see bananas, coffee, ginger, and pineapple all growing away merrily? (Even if they are under cover.) Plus the waterfall and the carp in the pond are both great too. Possibly the hottest hot spot in the Highlands (though Inverness does have a microclimate of its own), this is the most northerly of all the Botanic Gardens in the UK, and one of the most popular visitor attractions in this part of Scotland. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, there is always something new to see, or you can just sit and drink in the atmosphere.

Why we liked it: We loved the fact that over half the garden is taken care of by the G.R.O.W. project, which helps adults with a learning disability to gain and develop practical horticulture skills. It stands for Garden-Recycle-Organics-Wildlife and we’ll definitely be trying out some of their suggestions in our own garden. The bug hotel was a big hit, and while you’re on the Jungle Path, look out for wooden bears, and meerkats peeking out from the foliage.

More information about the Botanic Gardens

Address: Bught Lane, Inverness, IV3 5SS

Opening Hours: 10am to 4pm daily; the gardens are occasionally closed for special events so do double-check before visiting.

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery Building
John Allan / Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, CC BY-SA 2.0

What it is: This is arguably the foremost history museum in the Scottish Highlands. You can find out about natural history, the Jacobites and their ill-fated rebellions, and possibly take part in one of the workshops or other events. The Art Gallery has exhibitions that change regularly, with interesting crafts and local fine art displays.

Why we liked it: It’s super-easy to find, right at the foot of the hill with the castle, and the first museum opened in 1826. There’s geology, history, silverware, weapons, and authentic Highland bagpipes (don’t worry, no one will expect you to play them!) A lot of the events take place at lunchtime, so check with the enquiry desk for more details.

More information about the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

Address: Castle Wynd, Inverness, Inverness-shire, IV2 3EB

Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Saturday (summer); 12 noon to 4pm Tuesday to Friday and 11am to 4pm Saturdays (winter).

Clava Cairns

Clava Cairns Scenery in Scotland
Clava Cairns Scenery in Scotland

What it is: Stonehenge in Wiltshire might be the most famous prehistoric monument in the British Isles, but if you know where to look, so much of our landscape is littered with cairns and chambers and memories of our ancestors. You’ll find the ancient cemetery of Clava Cairns on a terrace overlooking the River Nairn. There’s a stone circle, entrance passages, and different kinds of cairns. Since the Outlander series was broadcast, the site has become more popular (although the themes and storylines in Outlander are definitely not suitable for under-18s).

Why we liked it: This prehistoric site is managed by Historic Scotland and Milton of Clava and Balnuaran of Clava are open to the public – as well as the cemetery area, there’s a chapel from the Middle Ages. The cairns are around 4,000 years old (for comparison, the circle at Stonehenge usually gets dated at about 2,500 years, although it’s thought that there was a monument there at least 2,500 years earlier). The way the cairns are laid out, they form a line that runs from the northeast to the southwest, and it’s thought they were lined up along the line of sunset at midwinter.

More information about the Clava Cairns

Address: Clava Cairns, Near Inverness, IV2 5EU

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round.

Merkinch Local Nature Reserve

Merkinch Local Nature Reserve Scenery
Merkinch Local Nature Reserve Scenery

What it is: Sometimes referred to as one of the city’s hidden gems, you’ll find marshes, reed beds, scrubland, and tidal pools at this nature reserve, which is also known to attract cormorants, curlews, ducks, geese, herons, kingfishers, owls, swans, and wading birds, as well as roe deer and weasels. It’s at its best at low tide when birds come to feed, and there are usually plenty of different boats to see in the basin as well.

Why we liked it: This might not be the most glamorous location, but there’s parking nearby and a good path which leads up to the towpath at the Caledonian Canal and has plenty of smaller boardwalks and smaller paths around about. There’s a circular walk that’s between 1.25 to 2 miles, depending on how far you feel like exploring. It’s a popular spot for local dog walkers, and as you walk along the shore path you get great views over the Moray Firth. If you’re using public transport, double-check the times of the buses – the last one back may be earlier than you think.

More information about the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve

Address: 40 Craigton Ave, Inverness IV3 8AZ

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Culloden Battlefield and Culloden Viaduct (Nairn viaduct)

Culloden Viaduct Scenery and Skyline
Culloden Viaduct Scenery and Skyline

What it is: One of the most famous and important battle sites in the British Isles is four miles to the east of Inverness city – Culloden was the location of the decisive battle in the second Jacobite Rebellion, on 16 April 1746. Although a new visitor centre was added recently, and visitor numbers have risen, the moor retains its eerie atmosphere. This was the last major battle to be fought on British soil, and it’s possible to walk the battle lines and remember those who fell. The nearby viaduct is still the main link for railway journeys to the Highlands and was opened in 1889. It’s 549 metres long (that’s 1800 feet) and has 29 impressive arches.

Why we liked it: If you want to go into the Culloden Visitor Centre, there is an entrance fee, but the battlefield itself is free. Culloden viaduct, sometimes called Nairn Viaduct, is around 6 miles east of the city of Inverness and visible for miles around. If you feel like making a day of it, combining the battlefield, viaduct, and Clava cairns make a good combination.

More information about the Culloden Viaduct

Address: Culloden Moor, Inverness IV2 5EU (Battlefield); Nairn IV12 5EJ (Viaduct, approximate location)

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round (moor and viaduct); effectively dawn to dusk. Indoor visitor centre (charges payable): 9am to 4pm from late May Bank Holiday to end October; 10am to 4pm from November to just before Christmas Eve; closed Christmas Eve to 11 January approx; 10am to 4pm, 12 January to end May.

Culloden Woods

Culloden Woods Scenery
Culloden Woods Scenery

What it is: The Highland landscape is known for its fairyland-like features, but it’s also borne witness to so many historical events over the centuries. The trees in the wood cover part of the site of Culloden battlefield, and the Prisoners’ Stone bears witness. There are waymarked trails throughout the woodland., covering either 3km or shorter distances depending on how energetic you’re feeling/how long your legs are.

Why we liked it: Despite the tragic history, the woods are peaceful and beautiful, and we especially enjoyed learning about the ‘clootie well’ wishing traditions at St. Mary’s Well. Watch your footing in places as the earth and gravel can be a little bit loose, and parts of the paths are often muddy if it’s been raining. There’s a trail that you can follow if you feel like rambling that covers about 2.25 miles, or 3.6 kilometres. Plus, there’s free car parking close to the woods.

More information about the Culloden Woods

Address: Inverness, The Highlands, IV2 7BZ or IV2 7PW (approximate postcodes for Satnav)

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round (effectively dawn to dusk)

Ness islands

Ness islands Foliage View
Ness islands Foliage View

What it is: You’ve probably picked up on how important the picturesque River Ness is to the area and exploring the Ness Islands offers a great way to get to know the river better. It’s a popular location for fishing enthusiasts, with the salmon known to be especially lively. It’s said that the benches along the way are trees that fell naturally, in their own time, before being carved as they lay. If you get the timing right it’s very peaceful, although it can get busy at weekends.

Why we liked it: We loved the footbridges from Victorian times, and the fact that it was just a short walk from the city centre. There are carved sculptures in stone and wood doubling as benches. Walking from one end of the islands to the other by way of the winding paths transports you to another world in between the high pines and other mature trees on the trail. Don’t forget to look out for the wooden Nessie and the two Californian Redwoods. It’s also not far from Whin Park.

More information about the Ness islands

Address: The Infirmary Bridge, Inverness, The Highlands, IV3 5NF or Great Glen Way, Inverness IV2 4RT (suggested starting points)

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round (effectively dawn to dusk).

Abriachan Wood, Loch Ness

View from Abriachan Wood
View from Abriachan Wood

What it is: This lovely woodland overlooking Loch Ness is run by the Woodland Trust, and is teeming with wildlife, some of it unique to this part of Scotland. It covers just over 3 miles on the northwest shore of the Loch, close to Abriachan village. There are several access points, including via the Clansman Hotel at Brackla or Balchraggan. You can follow various trails, one of which leads to the lovely Abriachan Gardens.

Why we liked it: It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, there’s always something gorgeous to look at – the vivid colours of autumn, bluebells and primroses in spring, and the glorious green of summer leaves. There are waymarked walks and plenty of grassy paths, but it is a little bit steep in places, so those with shorter legs might like to bear that in mind. We loved the wildlife – red squirrels (rare in most of the rest of the UK), pine martens, badgers, crossbills, willow warblers, red deer and roe deer, and we’re also pretty sure we saw a golden eagle at one point. That’s before even thinking about the silver birch, alder, hazel, oak, Scots pine, holly, rowan, and blackthorn.

More information about the Abriachan Wood

Address: Abriachan Forest Car Park, Abriachan, The Highlands, IV3 8LD (suggested starting point)

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round (effectively dawn to dusk).

Dolphin spotting at Fortrose Beach or Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point Lighthouse and Skyline
Chanonry Point Lighthouse and Skyline

What it is: Speaking of dolphins, this is one of the best areas in Scotland to spot our aquatic friends, with some areas noted for it. One of those areas is the Black Isle peninsula. The beach is a mix of shingle and sand, and it stretches for around a mile and a half with views out over the Moray Firth. You can also look across to Fort George, where the Highland museum is located. Although you can’t go into the lighthouse at the end of the spit of land as it’s owned privately, it’s still a popular place to look for dolphins – in fact, it’s supposed to be one of the best locations in the whole of the British Isles to see them in their natural habitat, and about as close to the shore as you’ll see them in the UK.

Why we liked it:  We found you’re most likely to spot these intriguing creatures about an hour after there’s been a low tide, as the waters begin to rise again and the dolphins hunt their food. The beach and the nearest car park can get a little busy at times, and you do need to bear in mind there are parking charges, but it’s a very pleasant (if often bracing!) walk from Fortrose to Chanonry Point, or from the seafront at Rosemarkie along the beach. Even if you don’t see the dolphins, you could always have a go at searching for shells or sea glass.

More information about the Fortrose Beach

More information about the Chanonry Point

Address: 4 Harbour Road, Inverness, The Highlands, IV10 8TY (Fortrose Beach); Ness Rd, Fortrose IV10 8SD (Chanonry Point).

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Hunting for Nessie

Loch Ness Nessie
Loch Ness Nessie

What it is: It’s debatable what’s more famous in this part of the world: Culloden, the gorgeous countryside, the dolphins, or everybody’s favourite sea loch monster, Nessie (or the Loch Ness Monster if you want to use her formal name). Just walking near the loch and trying to spot her distinctive humps is an entertainment all its own – make a day of it and take a packed lunch with you. Loch Ness is one of the deepest, largest stretches of water in the UK – the banks go down to 800 feet, and it’s just southwest of Inverness city.

Why we liked it: Everyone knows that Nessie is not just a myth – who knows what lies in the dark waters of the loch? She’s a little shy, though, but if you look very carefully, you’ll see her long, slender shape, with the distinctive black humps, and the slightly reptilian head. Look for perfect circles on the surface of the water…Or you can just enjoy the lovely scenery and pretty villages.

Address: near Inverness, Drumnadrochit, The Highlands, IV63 6XP (suggested starting point)

More information about the Inverness Lochness

More information about the Ness Walk (just over 3 km circular walk)

Opening Hours: 24/7 (effectively dawn to dusk)

Honourable Mentions

Fairy Glen Aerial View
Fairy Glen Aerial View

One of the main draws of the Scottish Highlands is its stunning scenery (as long as you’re appropriately dressed). Other locations you might enjoy include some of the city’s smaller parks like Bellfield Park, or Whin Park. Alternatively, take a literal trip to Fairyland via the Fairy Glen near Rosemarkie. (No, we didn’t make that up. That really is its name.)

If you’re not in the mood for countryside pursuits, you might also enjoy window shopping in the Victorian Market, a trip to Inverness Scotland iCentre for more ideas on what to do and see, as well as any special events or festivals, or a bit of skating action at the Inverness Skatepark.

You probably do want to think seriously about sturdy boots and waterproofs if you’re visiting Inverness – although equally, there are some times of the year when you’ll need sunblock and something to keep the legendary Scottish midges away.

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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