When it comes to planning a trip in Scotland for families, there are a few must sees and must dos: the cities of Edinburgh and Stirling; anywhere in the Highlands; and the odd island or two.
Of course there are a plethora of other Scottish places and experiences that might make up your itinerary, but would you include anywhere in West Lothian? It’s not the first place you’d think of visiting, but on a recent weekend break with the family I found out exactly why you won’t be disappointed if you do.
You just need to see the amount of B&Bs and holiday cottages in the area to realise that West Lothian is already a popular destination for holidaymakers. We stayed at the four-star Williamscraig Holiday Cottages (www.williamscraigholidaycottages.com), just a couple of miles outside Linlithgow. The three cottages are situated at the end of a long winding road that takes you into the heart of the countryside, with the surrounding fields and woods teeming with wildlife.
The outside of our cottage
The cottages have been immaculately restored, renovated and refurbished by Findlay and Rose Erskine, who live just behind the cottages. Each cottage has two double rooms and a twin room, and is fully furnished throughout with a flat screen TV, DVDs, games, even an iron. Each cottage also has a wood burning stove, set in a large, spacious open plan sitting room. On arrival, guests are also provided with a complimentary welcome pack containing Scottish produce.
We stayed in Rose Cottage, which differs from the others in two respects: first, the wrought iron four poster bed and secondly – and this is the piece de resistance – an outdoor hot tub on a secluded deck. We arrived quite late on the Friday night after a hectic drive, so jumping into the hot tub was just brilliant. Just about all of the guestbook comments say the same thing. Findlay has taken this on board and there are plans afoot to install hot tubs in the other cottages as well.
Racing Karts, Livingston
After we’d managed to drag the kids out of the hot tub, we set off for Racing Karts (www.racingkarts.co.uk), in Livingston. Unfortunately for my 5 and 7 year old they had to sit this one out, because you need to be at least ten to take part. My other two were okay, and so the three of us got gloved and helmeted up and off we went.
You learn a lot about people when they get behind the wheel. I learnt that my eldest son is careful – he plodded around the middle of the circuit as if he was on a tourist coastal trail, without a care in the world. I also learnt that his younger brother is a fearless psychopath: he careened around that course like his life depended on it; how he didn’t flip the kart I’ll never know.
The kids discover the racers in themselves.
This was also a journey of self discovery and I learnt that I wasn’t happy about being beaten by my ten-year-old son. So I put my foot down, avoided the Sunday driver ahead of me and made my move. The second thing I learnt about myself is that I’m not a very good go-karter, as my undertaking manoeuvre on a corner went horribly wrong and I smashed straight into Charlie’s kart. Not only did I spin hopelessly into the tyres at the side of the track, I also got a ‘calm down’ motion from one of the Racing Kart guys, so I fell in behind my eldest and enjoyed the scenery.
Racing Karts is great fun – perfect for kids’ parties, stag dos, or just with the family. The guys there are friendly and professional. It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours and, if you’re ultra-competitive, you also get a lap time print out. Opening times, 10-10 7 days a week, 363 days a year. Prices start from £14 for 30 laps.
After an adrenalin-soaked morning, we slowed things down with a bit of culture and we headed back to Linlithgow to visit the palace, which is right in the middle of this historic town, next to the 15th century St Michael’s Kirk. Already popular with American tourists and school parties, it is to my shame that I have never been to the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. However, I suspect there are many others who have never been here before, but they really should, because this place is a hidden gem. Although the palace is in ruins, you can still spend hours walking around the place – and the view from the top of the palace is something to behold. Linlithgow palace was the home of the Stewart Kings, but was also a hunting lodge and party palace. Looking at the Great Hall, it’s not difficult to imagine the sorts of parties that were thrown here.
Historic Linlithgow Palace.
To be perfectly honest, whilst I did the leisurely tour of the ruins – the ornate three-tiered ‘wedding cake’ fountain in the centre of the courtyard is a highlight, but being in the same space in which Mary, Queen of Scots was born is pretty good too – the kids were nowhere to be seen. They were too busy playing hide-and-seek in the tunnels that make up the vaults in the palace’s underbelly. Needless to say they loved it.
The palace also overlooks a small natural inland loch and expansive parkland called the peel. There is a lovely walk around the loch – about 2.3 miles – which is a good way to work up an appetite and attempt to tire the kids out. Open 1 April-30 September 7 days 9.30am-5.30pm; 1 October-31 March, 7 days 9.30am-4.30pm. Admission: Adults £5.50, children £3.30, concession £4.40.
The Park Bistro, nr Linlithgow
I failed to tire the kids out, but they were definitely hungry, so we drove a few miles out of Linlithgow to The Park Bistro, which has a lovely situation next to the Union Canal.
It was really busy, which is always a good sign, the staff were friendly and attentive, and they really cater for kids, with decent kids menus with puzzles, games and pictures to colour, plus a dedicated kids’ play room, with books and toys. The food was good as well. They have an extensive and eclectic menu, and looking around me it was all well presented and smelled delicious. My homemade soup was delicious and the kids loved their mussels (only my five-year-old has a kids menu these days). We all had burgers – which were generous in size and very well cooked, except Charlie, who had the chilli beef enchilada. It was enormous, and though he tried valiantly, he couldn’t finish it. Dessert was also very good, and all-in-all this is a great family friendly place to eat decent food that was very reasonably priced. www.theparkbistro.co.uk
Almond Valley Heritage Centre
After lunch we headed back to Livingston, to the Almond Valley. This place has many strings to its bow. First of all it’s a really interesting museum that celebrates West Lothian’s industrial heritage. It has with some really good, interactive displays – including a pretend mine that really freaked my youngest out (that’s okay, he deserves it). There are also old mill at Almond Valley, which is a fascinating insight into how things were done back in the day.
The site is also a farm, home to a wealth of animals, including ducks, geese, sheep, Highland cattle, ponies, horses and pigs. It also has the largest rabbit I’ve ever seen in my life. There is also has gardens, orchards and crops.
Almond Valley is also an enormous kids’ playground. There are dedicated rooms for really small kids, whilst an indoor soft play area, loads of outdoor play areas, trampolines and a pedal car track, will keep the older kids amused for hours. If that’s not enough, there are also tractor rides, and the Almond Valley Light Railway takes visitors along a 500m track.
Almond Valley is a cracking day out – especially for families with younger kids and whilst a lot of it is outdoors, there’s still enough to do inside to make it a worthwhile visit. Open 7 days, 10am-5pm (except 25/26 Dec & 1/2 Jan). Prices, adult £5.50, children between 3-17, £4. There are supplementary charges for some of the other attractions.
Bar Leo, Linlithgow
After a brilliant day, we headed into the centre of Linlithgow for dinner, at an Italian restaurant called Bar Leo. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of the place, but it being Italian I half expected red and green checked table cloths and a long, open kitchen with smiling chefs making pizzas. Not that this would have been a problem, mind you, but Bar Leo is a long way from the stereotypical Italian eaterie.
The inside is very contemporary and clean, with polished wooden floors, modern furniture and ambient lighting. The place was mobbed and the atmosphere was great, and the waiters bustled about the place as if they were really enjoying their work – which is refreshing to see. We sat in an uber-cool booth with a huge round table. As with any good Italian restaurant, they were also great with the kids, finding time for a bit of banter – which they loved.
The food was also really good. The starters – unlike in many Italians – were a decent size (I’d heartily recommend the foccacia Al bruschetta), and were fresh and tasty. The kids had pizzas, and their empty plates say everything that needs to be said, whilst I had a veal T-bone, which was very good.
Bar Leo is a class act. The place looks good, the atmosphere is fantastic, the staff are friendly and the food is great, without prices that make you eyes water.
You should always play to your strengths. So whilst Livingston will never win any prizes for its beauty or architecture, nor can it claim to be a thriving cultural hub, it does outshine most parts of Scotland in one area – shopping. Admittedly, it was harder to drag the kids out of the hot tub on a gloriously hot Sunday morning to go to the shops, but the promise of an ice cream swung it.
Shop 'till you drop.
Livingston town centre is literally an enormous shopping arcade. The Centre has five zones, each with its own unique atmosphere, shops, restaurants and cafes contains a wealth of shops and restaurants, all under cover. We had timed it just right, because the kids were all needing new school shoes, and there was no way we could have them shoes for the price we did in Edinburgh.
Livingston Designer Outlet is also a very popular place, with people from all over Scotland, and further afield, coming to take advantage of some proper discounts on gear that is guaranteed to be genuine. We didn’t hang around there for long, though – far too tempting! The kids got their ice creams, by the way, but not before we had lunched, at Wagamamas – really fresh and tasty noodles that we all enjoyed. The funniest thing was watching us all attempt to use the chopsticks.
Beecraigs Country Park
We concluded our weekend with a stroll through Beecraigs Country Park, 913 acres of countryside nestled in the Bathgate Hills, with a wide range of leisure and recreational activities. Many of the attractions at Beecraigs are free, such as the fabulous woodland walks, or the walk through the deer attraction – which includes raised platforms with cracking views. The park also has a fishery, and offers a range of outdoor activities such as archery, orienteering and mountainbiking. Or, for the more sedentary, just bring a picnic and spend the whole day relaxing in the countryside. www.beecraigs.com
In the heart of Beecraigs Country Park is Go Ape, a treetop adventure that is simply brilliant. Again, the young ‘uns were disappointed; you need to be at least ten for this as well. Imagine tree-top wires, awkward crossings, a huge tarzan swing and five zip-lines and you some idea of how cool Go Ape is. There are five different stations spread through the forest, each with a zip wire, each becoming increasing longer (the last one is 275 metres).
You need to give yourself plenty of time to complete the course; we were at it for about three hours – but it was very funny. Also, because it’s in the trees, it doesn’t matter if it rains. I can’t really do justice to the Go Ape experience in words, I would just implore you to come along and try it for yourself. Imagine watching your husband, wife, or ‘too cool for school’ teenager, forty feet in the air, face white, holding onto a tree for dear life screaming for their mum? Imagine filming it. www.goape.co.uk
Our visit to West Lothian was been brilliant, and a real eye opener. But we only scratched the surface of what you can do in this part of Scotland. We could have gone to 5 Sisters Zoo, in West Calder; or had a boat trip – or hired one for ourselves – along the Union Canal from the Linlithgow Canal Centre; or we could have visited the splendour of Hopetoun House; or the aptly-named Blackness Castle – a formidable garrison fortress that will scare the kids; and, if the weather’s bad there are swimming pools, cinemas and ten-pin bowling. To find out more, got to www.visitwestlothian.co.uk So to answer the West Lothian question – yes, you should definitely come, you won’t be disappointed.