Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

People, or at least lists of child friendly days out, keep suggesting London’s Museum of Childhood as a suitable destination to Mama.

Mama does not really believe in this recommendation.

She is a bit over toys. Don’t get me wrong, the rise of things like adult colouring books show that everybody likes indulging their inner three year old at times. And indeed Mama herself enjoys a good sticking opportunity, a reasonably challenging jigsaw puzzle and the zip wires in the playground.

Plus, she LOVED the World of Illusions.

But toys no longer have the same pull of nostalgia that they might have done if every day she weren’t having to avoid treading on them, worry about whether this or that set is complete, scrub dried on glue off the table, listen to the robot shout rhyming demands for me to play with it every five seconds until she removes its batteries, or repeat the same mind numbing game of snakes and ladders over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Mama also considers that if she wanted to watch us get wound up into a froth of frustration over not being allowed to play with and take home the really cool things we see all around us, she could just take us to the local toy shop for a few hours.

So it might come as a surprise that one of the first places she took us to both times she has been in Edinburgh was its Museum of Childhood.

The thing is, it’s right on the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile from Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

In fact, it’s right on the Royal Mile in such a location that if you have come by train, crossed Waverley Bridge and entered the famous length of street, wandered up to have a look at the castle, wandered back down again, admired the Cathedral with its crown like cupola, its stained glass, its war memorials and its cafe, slogged past a thousand tacky souvenir shops, admired the architecture, boggled as Londoners at the idea that, apparently, many of the top floor flats in the buildings surrounding you are unoccupied, explored a few side streets, investigated how the streets are on top of each other in places rather than side by side and so on and so forth, then you will reach the Museum of Childhood at almost precisely the moment when us small children are about to rebel mightily at the thought of doing any more of the sort of idle rambling around a city that Mama and Papa used to enjoy before we turned up, leavened only by the street performers, who have a lot in common with those at Covent Garden and are therefore definitely worth a 20 minute look see.

And it’s free.

So Mama can be excused from popping in, she feels, in an attempt to break up the day and have a fighting chance of pushing on to Hollyrood House and the Scottish Parliament at the bottom of the hill. Or sidestep off the Royal Mile altogether and take in another excellent Edinburgh museum, the National Museum of Scotland.

And whaddayaknow. The Museum of Childhood is certainly not totally without interest. Each room has a theme – games, books, dolls, trains and so on – and each room has a corresponding set of toys to play with, so we mostly did that, while Mama strolled round and looked at the stuff.

Fish Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Plus, the Museum of Childhood has the most freaky looking mannequins we have ever come across. Definitely one for connoisseurs of the art of making full sized wax models of humans, although Mama rushed me through the school room full-sized mock ups on the grounds that she didn’t want any of us to be having nightmares that evening. Wise choice.

Of the toys, we liked the fishing game, the board games and the tea set but our favourite by far was the puppet theatre, where we took turns elbowing each other out of the way to put on increasingly elaborate shows for Mama with the three available characters.

Puppet Theatre Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Mama was enthralled by the playlettes of course, but also seemed pretty taken with the published book written by a nine year old in the 1800s, the doll house furniture and the many many dolls themselves, most of which rivaled the mannequins for worrying expressions and starey eyes.

Child Author Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

On his visit, Papa had his nose glued to the trains. And even we sometimes left off playing to come and look at the exhibits. We enjoyed quizzing Mama about the things that she said were straight out of her childhood games, and she enjoyed trying to impress upon us just how modest a set of random plastic tat children of days gone by were willing to put up with.

Early Board Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

It wasn’t convincing, that talk. Well, how could it be with floors and floors of toys to prove Mama wrong? And the shop. The shop you have to walk though to enter or leave. Now that’s what I call handy.

Mama seemed a tad less impressed though. She prefers to spend her tourist dollars in the café. But then there isn’t one at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. This matters not a jot, however, because, spiritually refreshed for more sightseeing, you should have ample time to track down some haggis or similar once you are back out on the Royal Mile before your children reach breaking point again.

The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, then, is perfectly placed to provide a distraction should you find yourself trundling through the middle of Scotland’s capital with small people to entertain. Enjoy!

More Information

The Museum of Childhood’s page on the Edinburgh Museums website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the seven deadly sins of electronic toy design.

Address: 42 High Street, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 1TG

Opening: Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm; Sunday 12pm – 5pm.

Admission: Free

By public transport: By train to Waverley Station, and then head towards the Royal Mile over Waverley Bridge. You want to be heading away from the castle down the hill. The numbers 6 and 35 buses stop nearby, or you can get any number of buses which go over North Bridge and bisect the Royal Mile.

By car: Allegedly there are car parks in Edinburgh, including some pay and display spaces near the museum.

Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

If you are ever in doubt as to whether or not your smalls will enjoy the Edinburgh’s World of Illusions and its Camera Obscura all you need to do is hang out on the street outside for a bit and let them play around with the fairground mirrors the attraction has set up along the walls.

Look Mama, I’m really small! And! Terrific Big Brother’s really tall! You are (even) fatter, HAHAHAHAHA! My body has disappeared! WE’RE UPSIDE DOWN!!! Our heads! Our heads are unimaginably huge and our legs are really skinny!!! That’s the FUNNIEST THING I’VE EVAH SEEN!!!!!!!

World of Illusions entrance with mirrors

At which point you go in, if only because you are starting to feel as though you should give them the talk about how body shapes and physical attributes should not be quite so wildly amusing as they appear to be.

Once inside you are encouraged to book straight in for the next Camera Obscura show. This is probably because it’s at the very top of the five floor building, which is listed and therefore has no lift. It’s definitely best to get the climb over with and work your way down rather than have all those stairs to keep looking forward to.

Which, by the way, also means the place is pushchair unfriendly. They pack a lot into a smallish venue at the World of Illusions, and while there are generous (unlocked) cupboards for your coats behind the counter, it’s going to be difficult for them to store five hundred wheeled baby carriers. Bring the sling for those unambulatory children.

There may or may not be a short wait when you get to the Camera Obscura, but this is not a problem as there is a balcony up there too where you can look out over the very striking Edinburgh rooftops.

Edinburgh rooftops from World of Illusions

You are at the top of the Royal Mile here and at one of the higher points in this multi leveled town and so if you are into your cityscapes, this is an excellent place to indulge yourself. Especially because of the striking splodgy stone used throughout the city and, of course, the fact that the World of Illusion (with its Camera Obscura) is right by Edinburgh Castle, so you can have a good gander at those imposing walls too.

Edinburgh Castle from World of Illusions

The show itself will depend a bit on the weather – the brighter it is, the better you will see. It was a decentish day when we went, so everything was pretty clear.

Now, I’ll be honest, I am not sure what is so fabulous about looking at a slightly faded image of the outside world we were just admitting on the balcony projected upside down onto a table aside from the fact it has been going since the 1850s.

I mean, I have a camera of my own which makes films, cartoons and inserts my face into computer games, and I can turn my Mama pink or stick funny hats on her too!

But the woman wielding the controls had a good line in patter and we all enjoyed the tricks she, and then later we, got to play on the people walking down below, so our attention did not, in the end, waver.

Incidentally, if you are walking the last 100 metres up to the castle do look upwards and smile! People up there will be messing with you and it’s nice to acknowledge it!

After that it was time to go and play with all the illusions. Which are not at all just based around doing it with mirrors. Although some of them are. One of Mama’s cherished memories is of watching my Terrific Big Brother bounce off one of the genuinely confusing panels in the mirror maze before he realised that not all corridors are what they seem.

And then do it again round the next corner.

We were also highly entertained by the puzzle that made it look as though our severed heads were being served up on a plate and by the room which allowed us to swap places. I was the giant! My Terrific Big Brother was tiny! But were were still the same size really! Endless entertaining photo ops for those who do not mind putting their kids’ images on the Internet.

Entertaining photo opportunities abound, in fact. Unfortunately, Mama was having too much fun to remember about taking some for the blog.

We also thought that the shadow generators were cool – you throw a shape, the light flashes, and there is your shadow fixed on the wall! And you can do it with different colours and cutout shapes later on!!

You can also paint with light, paint with pixels, and manipulate a photo of yourself so that you are older, younger or belonging to a different gender. And… look, the list goes on and on, and it’s very varied.

Our very favourite was the computer games projected on the floor. You do it all with your feet! Jumping! We’ve come across these before, but the World of Illusions took it to a whole new level, with football, a PG version of Grand Theft Auto, fish squashing opportunities and more.

But we were also thrilled to see the mechanical automatons. The *singing* mechanical automatons. The singing mechanical automatons of the type which Mama usually declines to put 50p in to get to work. The singing mechanical automatons of the type which Mama usually declines to put 50p in to get to work and which here were FREE. Coulda watched those for hours.

Singing cats and a dog playing the piano automaton at World of Illusions

And my Terrific Big Brother was also pretty taken with the objects hidden in sometimes quite famous paintings, reproduced on the walls throughout the World of Illusions. Just goes to show that sometimes even the oldies are the best.

Which you can certainly see in what caught the adults’ eyes. They were particularly impressed by the electricity based illusions. Bless. They really are that old that a bit of artificial energy generation is thrilling. It’s so quaint! Mama also enjoyed making mini video clips of herself dancing around or pulling faces, which then got speeded up and put on a loop. So nice to see her entering the 20th century at last.

Thermal imaging at World of Illusions

They also liked the ones that messed with your head. The way you could shake hands with yourself if you stuck your hand just right in that hole, or boggle as your left hand became your right if you put them in this. I dunno. My sense of self is only a few years old. I’m discovering new things about it every day! Do your own hands ever get overfamiliar? Apparently.

In fact, the Edinburgh Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is that rare rare thing, though, a place which is equally as enthralling for both adults and children alike, where everybody can enjoy playing around for hours on end.

You know all those really good interactive bits in museums which are for the kids, and which adults have to all be mature and let the little darlings run off steam before they drag them back to the dead fly catching exhibits? Where, maybe, the adults’d like to join in but can’t because there are SO MANY small bodies in the way and potentially judgmental peers all about so they just have to stand around staring gloomily at their phones instead?

It’s like that but with adult participation positively encouraged without them without having to wait for late openings. Everything is even at adult eye height as well as kids’! Or at adult eye height with a box nearby for us to stand on. There were, in fact, adults there without any children at all! Radical!

3D pictures at World of Illusions

And best of all, there is no obvious educational point to any of it. I mean, I daresay you could get all enthused about light, physics, computing power, psychology and so on and so forth but you don’t actually have to. Minimal explanatory placards! Very liberating once in a while. Wooohooo!

Basically Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is a LOT of fun. Highly recommended and definitely worth the price of admission.

More Information

The Edinburgh Camera Obscura and World of Illusions’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making 3D pictures.

Address: Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 2ND

Opening: Every day 9.30am to 7pm (NB there are slightly shorter hours in winter and longer hours in summer).

Admission: Adults: £13.95, Children 5 – 15: £9.95, Under fives: free.

By public transport: From Edinburgh’s Waverley station, go over Waverley Bridge and up the Royal Mile towards the castle. The Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is on the right just before the castle. There is also St Andrews Square Bus Station off Princes Street, and local buses  23/27/41//42/45/67 to Market Street and George IV Bridge stop nearby the attraction.

By car: Apparently there are car parks in Edinburgh. Mama cannot comment on their ease of access or price, however.

Scottish Owl Centre, West Lothian

Almost the entire point of going to Scotland as far as my Amazing Big Brother is concerned is visiting the Scottish Owl Centre, conveniently situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the M8.

Owl slide at the Scottish Owl Centre
This slide is whizzy! And very cool.

This is because of the owls (surprise!).

There are a lot of them though. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, really really small ones, white ones, grey ones, brown ones, ones with speckled feathers, stripy patterns, spots, owls that hide away in burrows with alarmingly long legs, fishing owls, owls from hot countries, cold countries and tropical rainforests (Tropical! Rainforest! Owls! Says Mama, delightedly), owls with black eyes, yellow eyes and orange eyes (there’s a story behind that), owls with signs on the doors suggesting you stay weeeeeeell back so that they do not savage your little fingers, hooting owls, screeching owls, owls which make other hauntingly beautiful noises while you eat your sandwiches and play happily in the sunshine, and lots of owls who are, apparently, getting ready to hatch out new baby owls before our very eyes.

Which is reassuring from an ‘are the owls enjoying themselves in those cages’ kind of way.

And all of these owls had that thousand yard solemn unblinking stare and did that distinctive wiggly head movement as they watched me go by.

Tropical owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
Tropical owls! Tropical! Owls! Wanting to eat me for lunch! Cooooooool!

My Amazing Big Brother is convinced this means they are trying to get a bead on the aerodynamic possibilities of swooping down and carrying me off like a mouse.

Sometimes it’s quite worrying being small. But it certainly added a bit of spice to our visit.

Burrowing owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This one will probably not be able to make off with me.

But despite the variety of owls, the Scottish Owl Centre is not really a full day out, even if, like my Amazing Big Brother you insist on going round twice, very very slowly, getting Mama to read all the placards. In fact, it will probably only take you forty five minutes to an hour tops to saunter around all the owl enclosures, although there is also a giant fast tube slide and a small crawlabout maze to occupy you next to a picnic area, and some oldschool educational displays in a covered space, which do an excellent job of conveying really quite a lot of information about owls, their habitats and habits in a simple, but fun interactive manner. We particularly recommend the one where you have to stick your hands in squidgy wet artificial snow and play hunt the voles. It’s FABULOUSLY gross.

British owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
My Amazing Big Brother got all of these right – can you?

Luckily there also is an excellent and quite extensive adventure play area right outside in Polkemmet Country Park, where the Owl Centre is situated. There’s a sandpit with its own built in sand toys, a wooden castle, various climbing nets and structures, a zipwire, and swings.

Playground at Polkemmet Country Park
Please be as amused as Mama is by the can of Iron Bru.

There’s also a real life steam engine parked and ready to climb over, although much to our disappointment, you couldn’t actually turn the handles, stoke the fires or set it moving.

Steam train at Polkemmet Country Park
Choo choo!

Tickets for the Scottish Owl Centre are valid all day so you could pop in and out after playing there, and there are also woodland walks to had, although much of the park is taken up by a golf course, which Mama says might spoil things, although I think she might be quoting Churchill there.

Why would you want to pop back in, I hear you ask?

Because the highlight of your visit to the Scottish Owl Centre will be the thirty minute flying shows that take place twice daily in winter and three times in the warmer months.

It’s not just that wherever you sit in the covered flying area you will feel (but not hear, their silent flight not being a myth) an owl swoop millimeters past you, or, if you go to the show where you get to lie down on the floor while the owl skims your nose, over you (which frankly is thrilling enough), but that the handler’s chat which accompanies the display is packed full of genuinely interesting tidbits of owly facts as well as a fair amount of background into the history of the place and its work as a conservation centre.

Grey grey  owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
Release the owls!

The particularly nice thing is that each show is different, with different owls, different information and even different handlers, so Mama and my Amazing Big Brother think it is well worth sticking around for more than just the one. I, on the other hand, was enthralled for the entirety of the first show, but I did find that my three year old attention had wandered a bit by the end of the second one. This was the reason that we didn’t go back for the third.

I think our favourite bit, though, was when we got to HOLD THE BIRDS! One of my Amazing Big Brother’s most prized possessions is the photo of him with an owl on his arm from our first visit here, but that time he was only my age so he had to make do with a smaller owl. This time, he was determined to hold a really big one, and so he did, even though it was so heavy he could barely manage it on his own.

I took one look at the size of the Milky Eagle Owl’s beak and declared myself quite happy with the exceptionally cute White Faced Owl, whose parents Mama had only just that minute been admiring. You have to pay extra for this privilege, of course, especially if you want the centre to print you off a photo, but we are convinced it is well worth it.

White-faced owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This was my owl! Isn’t it cute!

Plus, if you have any burning owl questions still left unanswered, this is the time to ask them. The advantage of this small venue is that the people manning this attraction are fully involved in the work of the centre and very happy to chat about it.

There isn’t any food outlet on the Owl Centre site, barring some tubs of ice cream in the reception foyer. The café in the grounds of the park (which otherwise gets rave reviews, Mama understands) was also closed when we went. But you can take sandwiches. There are certainly some attractive places to eat them both inside and outside the centre and the website for the Polkemmet Country Park also boasts a site you can hire for your very own barbeque in the spring and summer months.

All in all, a child less relentlessly fixated on the animal world than my Amazing Big Brother might not think that the Scottish Owl Centre is quite worth a drive of two days with an overnight stop at an unrevamped motel in a service station off the A1 to get there, but my Amazing Big Brother certainly does. I’m not joking – he’s been going on and on about in the three years since our last visit and clearly did not accept Mama’s description of quite how far it was as any kind of barrier for a weekly trip.

Mama and I are a touch less enthusiastic, but we both agree that if you are in the area and the weather is even halfway decent it is definitely somewhere you should have on your list.

More Information

The Scottish Owl Centre’s website.

The Polkemmet Country Park page on the West Lothian council’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about eyesight.

Address: Polkemmet Country Park, Whitburn EH47 0AD, Scotland

Opening: Feb, March, Sept, Oct, Nov: 11.30 to 16.00 (flying displays 12.30 and 14.30). April to August: 10.30 to 17.00 (flying displays 11.30, 13.30 and 15.30). December to January: closed.

Admission: Adult: £7.50, child (3-15): £5.50, family (2+2): £24

By car: Leave the M8, which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, at junction 4a. The Centre (and Polkemmet Country Park) is clearly signposted from there on brown signs. The Centre is probably about 45 minutes from both cities. The car parks in the park are FREE!

By public transport: Apparently, buses which run through Whitburn and Harthill pass the entrance to the park.

Deep Sea World, Edinburgh

Today we have a guest post from far far far far far away from the centre of the universe (London). Mama says it is Kidding Herself’s nod to Burns Night. I have no idea what she is talking about, since she forgot all about it until now. 

Hi I’m R and although I’ve never met Herself, apparently my Mummy knows her Mama because of the inter-webs.

Anyway, we were in Edinburgh for a week and thought we would share with you one of our adventures. Edinburgh being, apparently, a bit far for Herself to travel for a day out on a regular basis. Despite what her Gallus Big Brother seems to think, having been here once and liked it.

He probably liked it because they went to the same place we did, Deep Sea World which is situated beneath the Forth Rail Bridge, across the other side of the river from Edinburgh proper.

Deep Sea World is decidedly fishy. You can tell this immediately you walk through the front door because you are greeted by a delightful aroma. Admittedly this made Mummy feel a bit sick (something to do with her currently growing a tiny human I think) but there’re some tanks that go all the way to the floor near the entrance which I think is compensation enough. I enjoyed sitting in front of these and pointing at all the different fish (the day involved lots of pointing at fish). There really were lots of them.

Deep Sea World Edinburgh

However, there were also lots of tanks that I was to small to see into properly which I was less amused by. Of course, says Herself, who is wise to the vagaries of aquariums. She recommends growing.

Still, we had a good look at a whole range of varied fish, piranahs, seahorses etc, then we ventured down into the main attraction, the big glass tunnel.

This has a moving walkway on one side and a normal path on the other side. Mummy, feeling a little lazy, parked my buggy on the moving walkway while we looked at even more fish and, wait for it, SHARKS! I liked the SHARKS and all the fish. Again I couldn’t easily see into the tank from my low vantage point, but the tunnel arches right above the walkway so I did get a good look at anything swimming overhead. Fish mostly and did I mention the SHARKS? ( I was rather keen on the SHARKS). Nevertheless, I got bored half way round on our second circuit so we ventured back up to the main level in search of lunch.

Shark Deep Sea World Edinburgh

Mummy had thoughtfully packed a lunch to bring with us. Gran ate from the café though. She says the food was a little expensive but had decent portions. I was happy with my sandwich and snacks. Mummy let me escape from the buggy for a bit of walking around after lunch but as it was quite busy I had to wear my backpack reins.

After lunch, we went round the big tunnel another couple of times and pointed at more fish and SHARKS. Then we tried out the shop. There were assorted cuddly sea creatures mostly with tags stating that they were only suitable for over 3s, and also the normal souvenir stuff of mugs and pens etc and sweets. All overpriced, Mummy said. But Gran bought me a bag of of squirty bath creatures so I didn’t come home empty handed!

To finish off with we went along to have a look at the other big aquatic draw, the common or harbour seals. These occur naturally in the Forth Estuary that Deep Sea World is attached to, but given that it is a socking large expanse of water, it’s nice that the centre has enticed a few up close for our entertainment, and, according to them, the purposes of conservation. I watched around half of the seal feeding show thing, but it was a bit busy and Mummy said I was too heavy to sit on her shoulders for too long so we missed the end.

All in all it was a reasonably enjoyable two and a half hours we spent there. Mummy said that its probably better for children who are a bit older than me because in the end fish are all pretty much the same to me (except the SHARKS). Mummy also notes that we went during the school holidays so it was rather full of other children! Be prepared to elbow them out of the way is what Herself advises, being that much older than me. I have listened to this advice carefully. Mummy will doubtless be so proud next time we go.

More Information

Deep Sea World’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about ‘SHARK Summer’, New Jersey 1916.

Address: Battery Quarry, North Queensferry, Fife, KY11 1JR.

Opening: Weekdays: 10am to 4pm. Weekends: 10am to 6pm.

Admission: Adults and over 13s: £13.50, children over 3: £9.50, family of 4: £44.00. You can save if you buy in advance online.

By train: North Queensferry Station is a short walk from Deep Sea World and is served by trains on the Fife Circle Line from both Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket stations. The journey takes about 15 minutes.

By car: Deep Sea World is just off the M90, 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 50 minutes from Glasgow and under 2 hours from Aberdeen (according to the website). There is free car parking on site.