One of our many adventures this summer was attending Belladrum: a small music festival (about 18000-19000 people) in the highlands of Scotland. Billed as a festival for all ages, with a great, friendly atmosphere we had high, possibly unrealistic expectations for it. Now before I go on, a caveat: a lot of the issues I'm going to jest about here are to do with the fact that we were there with a 3 year old and a 6 year old. Anywhere you go with that age group is going to be a challenge. You could arrange a holiday which involved flying on a pink sparkly unicorn to minecraft island where you ate nothing but ice cream and it would still be a massive challenge. Somehow though, every trip turns into childbirth. We forget about the massive challenges and plough on booking new adventures and seeking out the elixir of children holidays.
We left Aberdeen on Thursday morning, keen to arrive at the festival before lunchtime and avoid the worst of the traffic. It definitely took longer than normal but was relatively painless. Arrived to lovely weather, got a great camping spot, set up the awning and had some lunch. WINNING.
Mid afternoon we headed down to the festival site itself. First impressions were great. A walled garden area with a myriad of activities for kids including circus skills and an old fashioned swing boat as well as art installations, stalls, a small music stage and plenty of other things we never got round to seeing properly. This was one area that we initially thought we would spend a lot of time in but the lure of the fairground type activities in the main site was too big for the kids. Oh yeah, you know when you are younger and go to a festival and spend a fortune on booze. Well the money you save on booze as an adult attending a festival with kids is completely trumped by the money you spend on kids activities. There was a merry go round, bouncy castles, zorbing, trampolining, ice-skating, dodgems and a helter skelter. Oh and you know how l mentioned it was a music festival? Turns out our kids had absolutely no interest in the music bit and would have been quite happy traversing from one pricey fairground ride to the next. Even though they are young, we had just assumed that the excitement of live music would thrill them and start their music loving journey. We were wrong. There were lots of free activities for kids as well: cinema, theatre shows, yoga, dancing lessons, puppetry. Our kids showed less than zero interest in the free activities, preferring instead to wail for each new pricey fairground activity they came across. LOSING.
We wandered through art installations and hay bales, stages and performances trying to get our bearings. One of the great things about the festival was the fantastic variety and quality of food on offer. Is there another festival where food options include: oysters, mussels, cullen skink, crispy haddock in a wrap with salad and basil pesto mayonnaise, venison burgers, halloumi wraps, hot garlic bread, chick pea curry, wood fired pizza, ice-cream, milkshakes, fresh fruit smoothies and waffles with an array of toppings? One other thing that l thought was great was there was a pop up co-op on site. We could get groceries here which helped with fussy kids and also meant we were loaded up for the drive back home. WINNING.
That evening we managed to catch our first band: First Aid Kit. Woot. I'm a big fan and was over the moon that they were one of the few bands we managed to see over the weekend. They played at the Garden Stage - a big open area on multiple levels with lots of places to sit/ stand/ retreat to with kids. We stayed near the back, on the hillside. No sooner had the band started than our oldest announced that he needed the toilet. Hubs took one for the team and made the 20-25min round trip to the toilet. This wouldn't normally take so long but the band had just started and there was a huge flow of people to get through to get away from and back into the stage venue. First Aid Kit finished a fantastic set (checking out their tour schedule now) and we looked hopefully at the kids to see whether they might last a little longer to see the start of Sister Sledge. It was a resolute no. Fair enough after such long day but aagh, it was tough returning to our camper van with some amazing disco sounds echoing out of the main stage. This set sounded amazing and is the band I'm most disappointed about not seeing. WINNING&LOSING.
They really aren't kidding when they sell this as a festival for all the ages. Babies right up to OAP's were there enjoying themselves. Some families were clearly Belladrum veterans and came prepared with mini homes on wheels for kids to rest in. These carts came with blankets, a mini shelter pod, snacks and fairy lights. A number of people got married over the weekend at the Belladrum Temple. No fear of mud on a white dress from these festival goers. We felt very safe the whole time we were there. It really did have a lovely, welcoming vibe. WINNING.
The next morning we woke up to rain. With no means of checking the weather due to a lack of signal, we kept our fingers crossed for a brief rain shower but it was anything but. The rain kept up the whole day into the early evening making for some interesting mud bath conditions. We headed down to the main festival site in the afternoon. Most people were huddled into the tents enjoying the bands but our kids just wanted to partake in kids activities. We made the mistake of letting the kids go on the covered bouncy castle. The covered bouncy castle was no match for the Scottish weather and the kids came out drenched. A rather wet and soggy walk back to the van to dry out and have a little nap and we woke up refreshed, ready to head down to see Feeder on the main stage. LOSING.
The rain had stopped by this time but the path to the festival site was on the treacherous side of muddy. Our wellies (which we wore the whole wknd, don't bother bringing any nice shoes) coped well though l kept a firm grip on my 3 year old's hand fearing an actual mud bath. Feeder are fantastic live. Our 3 year old actually rocked out to this band (the only time this weekend we saw any real interest from either of our kids in the music). We even managed to stay for the first half of the headline act that night: The Pretenders. I was really impressed with the festival line-up. WINNING.
After a great night's sleep we woke to sunshine. We enjoyed our breakfast outside and spoke at length about how wonderful music festivals would be if you had guaranteed sunshine for their duration.
We headed down to the site for more festival fun including my 3rd go on the merry go round. The hubs and l thought the kids would love Danny Macaskill's Drop and Roll tour (if you don't know who he is check out this video which shows off just some of his immense biking skills https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ_IQS3VKjA). To get a spot we had to be there 35 mins before the performance started. Things kinda fell down a bit here. Our son has additional needs (Autism) and struggles with waiting and sensory overload. Some people thought we were mad to take him to a festival and in lots of ways, they were right. But we've always been keen to open the door to as many experiences for him as possible, with safeguards and some planning involved. In this instance it meant lots of breaks and sensory activities (of which there was an abundance given all the kid friendly activities), his ear defenders to minimise the noise overload and avoiding long queues for things. There was no way of avoiding the queueing here. In order to get a spot, you had to be there early and from then on the crowd started filling out behind us and there was lots of jostling and pushing. Basically an autism nightmare. We managed to get him to the start of the performance but by then he had reached overload and couldn't relax to enjoy it and l had to remove him from the situation and find a quiet spot for a break. I'm not sure there is any way around this but it was a real shame to miss a chunk of the show. Oh and hidden disabilities make for lots of staring and whispers. On the whole, this seemed to be quite a welcoming festival for disabilities. I'm not sure how friendly the mud was but we saw plenty of people there with a range of physical disabilities who looked to be really enjoying themselves. I think a couple of little additions could help make this even friendlier for those with high functioning autism who want to experience a festival.
Whilst we enjoyed some fantastic food from The Seafood Shack (normally based in Ullapool and an absolute must if you are in the area), the kids enjoyed some bouncing in the zorbs. The guys running this must have lost a fair few pounds over the weekend running up and down the hill bouncing kids inside. This was my son's absolute favourite thing of the whole MUSIC festival.
We headed back to the van and the kids rested whilst we packed up our awning and clothes. We had decided to set off on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning fearing that there may well be chaos with a multitude of campervans all trying to leave at the same time up the same waterlogged dirt track. We headed back down to the site to catch the last headliners managing to see both Birdy and KT Tunstall (born to perform, she created a real buzz about the place) before both the kids and us decided to get going.
With the kids all snuggled up in their chairs and a Harry Potter audiobook on the radio we headed down the road pleased to have survived. Lots of funny family memories for the memory bank, a van full of mud and glitter and a resolution to return again. The question is do we have the energy to do it all again with the kids................