Why this treehouse beats Disneyland. Holidays in Lismore

WE are walking back from the island's only shop at a pace that would disgrace a snail. But it doesn't matter - supper is at least three hours away, and that's the only other thing we have planned for today. On the verge, which stands 15ft above the single-track road, we can just glimpse the top of a caramel-coloured head amid the long grass. Reuben -
who, at six, is the eldest of the eight children in our party - is commando-crawling back to the cottage.

Every now and then he stops, disappears and doubles back on himself, reappearing behind a tree further down the track. If one of the others catches sight of him, a
lengthy gun battle ensues, involving pointed index fingers and amazingly realistic sound effects. This is a Scottish holiday very much as it would have been 50 years ago, when the Broons left their tenement in Glebe Street for a two-room but and ben in an anonymous glen.


There is very little in the way of organised entertainment here, but we are lucky – in our eyes – in having enough children with us that they are able to create their own dynamic. My two children and I are visiting friends on the small island of Lismore, off the west coast, just north of Oban. My friends are three sisters who are staying in the cottage where they used to spend their own seven-week summer holidays each year.

Now they are here with their own six children. Sarah Campbell, a hat-maker, says:
”Children are often over-stimulated in town. It takes then a couple of days to settle down here but after that they can really make their own entertainment.” We have been lucky with the weather here the last few days.

Despite lashing rain in the central belt it has been mostly dry on the island and we can do what we came to do, which is to give the children the kind of freedom they cannot have at home. Reuben and his four-year-old cousin can walk to the shop alone to perform important errands – after the shopkeeper has been alerted by phone as to what they
are supposed to buy.

They can free their imaginations and engage completely in the magical world of childhood. Yesterday my four-year-old daughter Mary had a big adventure which involved her being ”charged” by a gang of sheep. While she bravely stood her ground and told them to
go away in a firm voice, Reuben gallantly cantered across the field to rescue her. One of our most frequent excursions takes us to the abandoned tractor in a nearby field.

The children delight in jumping up and down on the rusty bonnet while I watch, hoping their tetanus injections are up to date. Boring? Not at all. In fact, being a mum on ”holiday” is never boring – especially in a small cottage crammed with adults, children, washing up, muddy boots and dirty clothes. There are so many tasks competing for the attention that boredom is a mere memory. Watching the children grow and develop through their play while they enjoy the peace and beauty of the mountains and the sea is the main source of pleasure.

The weather is the wild card. One or two – or even more – days of torrential rain can turn a memorable holiday into a test of fortitude, as any parent of young children who has holidayed in the Highlands can testify. In my 20s, a trip to my family’s cottage in Angus
was relaxing whatever the weather. A wet weekend was an excuse to light the fire and curl up with a book – and a walk in the rain was a pleasant interlude, leaving you exhilarated and deserving of your supper. But an Easter break with my tiny daughter was a revelation. Despite an expensive backpack and a waterproof, she howled like a dog in a trap
when the wind caught her face, and we spent the bulk of a week eating cakes in the teashops of Forfar while she grubbed around under the table.

It took a wonderful warm two weeks later that year to restore my faith in the Scottish countryside. Since then, with children in tow, we have driven for hours searching for that holy grail of the glens – wet weather entertainment – and found that there are few sights more depressing than a small caravan with wet clothes drying absolutely everywhere and squabbling children littering the living area.

So why do we persist? Why don’t we just join the crowds to head for Orlando every
summer and Mr Disney’s famous theme park with sunshine, toothy smiles and Mickey Mouse outfits guaranteed? The freedom we can offer the children to be wild and roam free is one factor. Another is money. It is possible to maintain a small country cottage in a remote part of Scotland for a comparatively small sum – if it is shared between members
of an extended family or friends.

Another factor is a sense of continuity and a sense of place. Anne, one of the three sisters who are our hosts, describes why she loves to bring her two sons regularly to the same place. ”What James really likes is knowing exactly where he is going and what to expect,” she says. ”He knows about the treehouse, the fields, the kite, the shop and where he is going to sleep – and he loves that.” For them, as well as for my own family, having a cottage to escape to has added an extra dimension to life and has become part of
the glue which binds them together as a family.

They feel, as I do, that the positives outweigh the negatives. It is worth taking the chance of a bit of bad weather – which is, after all, the reason the Scottish Highlands is the last wilderness in Europe. Where else this side of the Urals can you find the degree of isolation you can find in parts of the Highlands within an hour’s drive of a major airport? On interrogation, we all admit having been bored during long sojourns in the countryside
with no TV, but the boredom was only ever short-lived and children who are sat in front of endless videos and taken to Disneyland get bored too.

If you do decide to head northwards at holiday time there are certain precautions you can take. Firstly, take friends – you will have other adults to talk to and the children’s ability to amuse themselves will increase exponentially. If there are no handy adults then at least
borrow some more children. Take a grandparent – preferably a teetotaller. My own grandpa used to happily stay in our caravan playing endless games of cards with the children every evening while my parents went to the pub. Board games and card games are another necessity. Your children’s motor skills and maths will improve immeasurably, even if your temper doesn’t after three days of playing Monopoly. Don’t expect
to have too much fun. Holidays – wherever you go – are not the same when you are a parent. Forget sitting around chatting and drinking wine or sleeping over a book. But do take the kids out for walks at every opportunity.

They will get used to it, and you will be amazed by the range of their imagination and their free play. They should go out for a walk in the morning, an expedition or a picnic in the afternoon if at all possible and a walk after supper. If you keep them on the go and in
the fresh air all day you can expect them to be asleep by 7.30pm. You will have earned a bit of adult time by then. Then, at last, with the children sleeping peacefully, you can relax and enjoy a wee deoch and dorris in your wee but and ben and hopefully a braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht as well.

The Scottish Herald
April 23rd 2000