As everyone knows, October half-term is a time for lying on the sofa, eating crisps, playing X-Box and watching Squid Game on Netflix. Only joking. It’s actually a time for getting out into what remains of the light before winter comes and experiencing something new. So here’s some ideas of new things to try as well as a few old favourites to enjoy as the colours turn and the nights draw in.
Deep Sea World at North Queensferry offers what it calls a Junior Shark Encounter. This allows children aged eight to 15 to don wet suits, enter the centre’s main shark tank and walk along a sunken platform where they can view the sharks in complete safety. Full training is given and the sessions lasts around an hour and a half, of which 20 minutes is spent on the platform. The shark encounters run every Sunday until December (10am and 11am). It isn’t cheap – £120 per child – but all equipment is provided and the price includes free entry for one adult. Plus you get an ‘I dived with sharks’ certificate afterwards, which is going to look cool framed.
Hidden 100 feet below a very ordinary-looking farmhouse between Anstruther and St Andrews is RAF Troywood – not an air force base such as planes depart to and from on their way to scare hillwalkers but a Cold War-era nuclear bunker and command centre. Built in 1953 and occupying two levels and a whopping 24,000 square feet of space, this is where the country’s high heid yins would have decamped to if a nuclear war broke, safe in the knowledge that hidden underground and encased within 15 foot walls of reinforced concrete gave them a better chance of surviving Armageddon than those left ‘up top’. The complex has since been re-born as Scotland’s Secret Bunker, as evocative place as you could wish for to learn about the Cold War and its attendant threats. Tickets range from £8.95 to £12.95 with family tickets available at £36.95. There are no lifts, so the bunker isn’t suitable for wheelchairs, though they are available on each floor if you can manage the stairs. Open daily until the end of October (10am-5pm).
North Berwick’s Scottish Seabird Centre is a must for aspiring twitchers and offers a wealth of information and interactive activities relating to Scotland’s seabirds and their coastal habitats (the solar-powered webcams are cool, if a little erratic). Prices run from £7.95 to £11.95, with a £34 family ticket available, and if you live locally and can make multiple visits, annual membership prices start at £30 per adult. Of course there’s nothing like taking to the water to see the birds up close: the centre’s own boat trips have finished for the season, but Sula Boat Trips depart daily from North Berwick harbour. Their 90 minute trips take in Bass Rock and Craigleith, and you’ll see guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and, of course, gannets. Tens of thousands of gannets. You may even spot a dolphin or Minke whale.
Paintball Kilmarnock at Galston covers 30 acres of woodland and offers a variety of playing arenas with huts, trenches, platforms and military props laid out for your convenience. Admission is £9.99 for a morning or afternoon session, or £14.99 for a full day of paintballing. There’s a minimum age of 12 years for juniors (aged 15 and under), and the centre can accommodate mixed adult and child teams. You pay extra for smoke grenades.
You’ll have to pretend the October break is lasting a little longer than it does for this one, but it’s a Sunday night so technically it’s still the weekend. Anyway, to the flaming heart of the matter: Edinburgh’s Samhuinn Fire Festival is a sight to behold, both for its sheer drama – Fire! Noise! Weird costumes! – and for the historic and folkloric punch it carries. Dig into the beliefs and the symbolism and you could have the beginnings of a lifelong obsession with Scotland’s Celtic traditions. This year’s event takes place on October 31 but not on its usual site of Calton Hill. Instead it will wind its way through the Old Town, with far fewer break-out performances than usual. Still worth watching, though. Full ticket details have yet to be announced but prices for the volunteer-run extravaganza will run from £5 to £10.
Scale the heights
The Glasgow Climbing Centre in Ibrox and the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena at Ratho are both excellent places either to learn the basics of climbing, practice some newly-acquired skills or show the gawpers 60 feet below just how much of a rock god you really are. There’s all manner of courses and taster sessions available, which means there’s something for all sizes and abilities.
Scotland’s portfolio of ‘regional’ Royal Botanic Gardens –Benmore, Logan and Dawyck – are one of the country’s unsung gems, and whether it’s something for the kids (a Hallowe’en trail for example) or a more contemplative walk among stunning woodland and verges rich with plants from around the world, there’s nothing quite like them. Each has its own particular flavour – check out Benmore’s Red Wood Avenue, Dawyck’s cute stone bridge and Azalea Terrace, and the uber-cool palm and eucalyptus trees at Logan – so why not make a real adventure of it and visit them all?
Street art walking tour
Have a Banksy fan in the family? Then this is the walking tour for them. Guaranteed free of cathedrals, churches, municipal buildings and all that boring historical stuff, this tour concentrates instead on street art such as you find executed with spray cans under bridges and on walls. There are around 10 sites to visit on the 90 minute tour and as well as viewing the works themselves – and taking pictures for Instagram, of course – you’ll hear about their makers, artists with names such as RogueOne and Smug. The tour takes place daily at 2pm and mustering point is outside The Lighthouse on Mitchell Lane. Cost is £12 per person.
Get on yer (mountain) bike
Strung across the south of the country, the 7stanes mountain biking centres offer a variety of trails at a variety of lengths through scenery which is of unvarying beauty. Glentress, Newcastleton and Innerleithen host the Borders sites, and in Dumfries and Galloway you’ll find them at Dalbeattie, Forest of Ae, Glentrool, Mabie and Kirroughtree. Each site has a specially-carved sculptural stone somewhere in it – the six tonne marble stone at Glentress is carved with an inscription in Klingon. Beginners in good health with basic skills should be able to manage the green trails, and a mountain bike and some basic off-road skills will be needed for blue trails. If you fancy yourself something of an expert, try the red and black trails. They’ll pit you against such perils as drop-offs and large rocks. Naturally, proper protective gear is also a requirement.
The Big Bounce
This science-themed, two-day family-focussed event taking place in Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom on October 12 and 13 (10am-4.30pm) is billed as a festival of “curiosity and discovery”. It will host enquiries into, and examinations of, everything from rainbows to robots. With climate change an ever-increasing threat and the UN’s COP 26 climate change conference due to open in Glasgow next month, there is no better time to interest children in science. Operating under the auspices of the Institute of Physics, the UK’s professional body for physicists, it offers drop-in workshops, demonstrations and many other activities. Oh, and it’s completely free.
From October 11 to October 15, Polmonthill Snowsports Centre near Polmont is offering full-day ski camps for beginners right up to advanced skiers. The centre has a 100 metre long all-weather artificial slope and a 20 metre nursery slope for both skiing and snowboarding, so there’s something for everyone. The centre itself is open until 9.30pm (it’s floodlit) and prices for the ski camp. Prices range from £45 to £90 depending on experience and the amount of coaching required.
The huge estate park of Hopetoun House near South Queensferry is the venue for this magical light and special effects display, opening on October 21 and running until November 14. Thought by many to be one of the best lighting trails in the UK, it returns after last year’s successful debut. Fans of Outlander, which filmed at the 18th century pile, should be especially thrilled. Booking is essential and tickets start at £9 for children and £19 for adults, rising to £11 and £20 for peak days (Friday to Sunday). Family tickets are also available.
Go on safari
The Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie is located in 260 acres of prime landscape within the Cairngorms National Park and features yaks and Bactrian camels roaming free along with European bison and elk. In the Main Reserve you can either travel in your own car or in one of the guided Land Rover tours, and if you fancy two legs rather than four wheels, try the Woodland Walk, where you’ll encounter satyr tragopans (or crimson horned pheasants, in plain English) as well as the odd red squirrel. The Wolf Wood is the place to head to if your tastes tend more towards the lupine and other highlights include red pandas, Japanese macaques, owl, wildcats and tigers. The park is open seven days a week (last entry 4pm) and tickets range from £12.50 to £18.50 (children under three are free). Walk-up tickets are available but advance booking is required for non-Royal Zoological Society of Scotland members.
You can’t beat castles and waterfalls for drama and Dollar Glen, located just east of Stirling in the Ochil Hills, has both – and how. The ruined Castle Campbell, 15th century stronghold of Clan Campbell and the lowland seat of the Earls of Argyll, is the place you’re heading for (cool fact: it was once known as Castle Gloom). But as you wind up the gorge along woodland paths you’ll pass the falls where the wonderful named Burn of Care and Burn of Sorrow meet and plunge downwards. If you like your drama on a smaller scale, this Site of Special Scientific Interest has 100 different types of moss and 190 kinds of lichen. Park at the Dollar Glen car park and hoof it, but make sure you’re well shod: the paths are easily manageable but can be slippery at this time of year.
Edinburgh Zoo Spooktacular
Building on the success of its Chinese Lanterns shows, Edinburgh Zoo has opened its doors after sundown and launches an illuminated light trail through the hillside park for the run-up to Hallowe’en. Expect rustling in the trees and bright eyes peeping from the undergrowth as well as a cast of wizards, witches, scarecrows and spiders. Tickets are available online and range in price from £8.50 to £17 (carers and children under three years are free).
Treetop adventure specialists Go Ape have four centres in Scotland: in Glentress Forest, Dalkeith Country Park, the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle and Aberdeen, where you’ll find them in the grounds of 16th century Crathes Castle. The Aberdeen zip line is a whopping 125 metres long and this month they’re also offering Sundown Sessions which allow you to hurtle through the dusk. The Treetop Adventure is available at all centres and will suit confident younger children, while adults and older teenagers can tackle the Treetop Challenge. The Treetop Adventure Plus for older and taller children is available at Dalkeith. Some of the English centres have axe-throwing on offer too, though for some reason that isn’t available this side of the Border. Can’t think why.
Anywhere with trees in abundance is looking great at this time of year, but if you like your blazing autumn woodland to be just a little bit special, check out the model forest around Faskally House. A mile north-west of Pitlochry on the banks of the River Tummel and encompassing Loch Dunmore, it was planted in the 19th century by one Archibald Butter and is also the venue for the much-loved light and sound show The Enchanted Forest, which attracts 80,000 visitors annually.
The art park at Wilkieston near Edinburgh normally shuts early in the autumn but this year it’s staying open until Hallowe’en. There’s an appropriate seasonal menu at Café Party in the Artland’s funky courtyard space, and a chance for some early Christmas gift-buying at the well-appointed shop. And of course there’s the art: Charles Jencks’s massive Cells Of Life ‘landform’, Anish Kapoor’s Suck, Anya Gallacio’s sunken, gem-lined pit and Antony Gormley’s Firmament are all firm favourites, and chief among the new additions is Mimi, a permanent installation from Glasgow-based artist Rachel Maclean. And with the autumn colours showing in all their glory, the walks through the woods to view the works will be something special too.
Foxlake near Dunbar in East Lothian is a water-sports hub offering everything from open-water swimming and wakeboarding to rope courses and Ringo sessions, in which you’re hauled up the lake on a padded inflatable. Away from the water there are Segways available for 60 minute trips along the trail routes: this being John Muir Way country, it’s plenty scenic. Further up the east coast, Wild Shore Dundee offers similarly adrenaline-charged waterborne activities at its hub at City Quay, close to the site of HMS Unicorn.
The Skye at night
Skye has a whopping nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites, making it one of the prime locations in the UK for watching the heavens. So if it’s a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights you’re after, or if you simply want to lie on your back under a startling canopy of stars, it’s the place to be. Even better, why not camp or glamp? The Trotternish Peninsula at the north of the isle is one of the most likely spots for a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis and is also home to Shulista Croft, which has a set of well-appointed huts you can hire. Back along the road to Portree, you’ll also find Flodigarry Pods, each of which sleeps four people. With zero light pollution (and probably no phone reception) it’ll be quite an adventure for the kids.