Now that Scotland is seeing the benefits of increased tourism in the Highlands and Islands what’s needed is investment, not higher prices.
Time to acknowledge and celebrate success
There have been two big successes in rural tourism in Scotland lately. The first, the meteoric rise in popularity of the North Coast 500, is well known. The brainchild of the North Highland Initiative, the way that Scotland’s existing tourism offer has been packaged and marketed as the NC500 – Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – is a masterful stroke of genius. It’s captured the imagination not only of touring visitors but also of TV crews and journalists in a way that VisitScotland’s Marketing Team could only dream of.
The second is less well known and relates to the subsidy given to ferry operators serving the Western Isles, known as the Route Equivalent Tariff (RET). RET bases fares on the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by road and was introduced on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree in October 2008, cutting fares by up to 55 per cent. It was rolled out to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha in October 2012, to Arran in October 2014 and will now be extended to Orkney and Shetland from early 2018.
In reducing the cost of ferries for vehicles it’s provided a very welcome boost to the tourism in the Outer Hebrides. In fact there’s been a ten-fold increase in ferry traffic over the last decade, particularly by motorhomes, with the annual spend by motorhomers now put at £2 million. According to the research carried out by Outer Hebrides Tourism this year motorhome visitors:
- spent an average of 7 days in the Outer Hebrides
- spent over 60% of nights on organised campsite, paying fees to local operators
- spent an average of just under £500 per trip on food, drink, fuel, goods, arts, crafts and meals with businesses in the Outer Hebrides
- accounted for around 2% of annual ferry traffic to the Outer Hebrides.
So what’s not to like?
This is all great news. So what’s the problem?
Well, all this increased tourism traffic is starting to put a strain on local infrastructure, including roads, car parks, ferries, toilet and waste facilities. In a previous post I described how some motorhomers are creating congestion and environmental issues by preferring to camp informally overnight in car parks and laybys rather than in campsites. This might not be much of an issue off-season when numbers are low. But when motorhome websites are highlighting ‘free camping’ opportunities – often incorrectly – it’s led to dozens of motorhomes squeezed in like sardines into car parks that were just not designed for this.
I’m all for informal camping, just not when it creates antisocial issues. Local campsites are losing out when a minority of motorhomes expect to camp for free; existing toilet and other facilities are put under pressure; and some even have the cheek to drive on to campsites to empty waste tanks even when they’ve stayed elsewhere.
A growing number of voices have called for change. Communities across the Highlands and Islands from Skye to Assynt have been holding public meetings to discuss how they can best manage the growing issues of waste disposal and congestion at local beauty spots and car parks. But now Alasdair Allan, Western Isles MSP, has written to Transport Minister Humza Yousaf asking him to consider a “motorhome levy” with the proceeds being used to improve local infrastructure.
Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have
I put my head in my hands when I heard this. And I wasn’t alone. This move has been widely criticised by not only Outer Hebrides Tourism and other communities across the Highlands and Islands but also the motorhome community itself.
Right problem, wrong solution
Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have! And the response by a business when demand grows isn’t to raise prices but to invest in extra capacity, so it can consolidate and support continued growth.
The very last thing anyone needs to do right now is to introduce a “motorhome levy” since all this will do is to choke off demand by visitors to travel to the Western Isles and tour the NC500. This is already the understandable reaction among the motorhome community. Why should they bother returning to Scotland when they could have a cheaper experience in France, Spain, Ireland or England? Just as fragile rural communities in the Highlands and Islands have started to feel the benefit from new jobs and higher incomes what’s needed now is investment, not taxation.
Unfortunately, Scotland (in common with the UK as a whole) often suffers from under-investment. There’s a cultural malaise that sees many businesses and public authorities reluctant to invest in success, underpinned by a lack of ambition. But what if things could be different? What if we have an ambition for Scotland to genuinely be a world leader in rural tourism, and back this up with the proper investment?
A positive vision
My vision sees a network of aires right across Scotland similar to those common in France and Germany. These would complement existing campsites by providing a few hardstanding pitches for motorhomes, including basic facilities of water and waste facilities (many motorhomes have on-board toilets and showers). For a low overnight fee they would attract people to stay overnight and take advantage of local shops, restaurants and petrol stations. There are many parts of the Highlands and Islands without a campsite with touring pitches, and aires would enable many more places to benefit from additional income in a way that manages the potential waste and congestion issues.
But we don’t need to look to the continent to see this working already. The West Harris Trust has already provided serviced pitches at Talla na Mara and Seilebost. These community-owned and run pitches have electrical hook-ups, 24-hour toilets, water, waste disposal and recycling facilities. There’s also the Britstops scheme where 760 garden centres, pubs, churches, gift shops and golf clubs right across the UK offer free overnight stops for motorhomes on the understanding that visitors will contribute to sustainable tourism by spending money locally.
If we had a network of low-cost aires across Scotland, supplemented with campsites and Britstops, we would then have an infrastructure able to cope with a rising number of tourists.
Rather than choke off tourism with a levy what we now need is investment in new and enhanced facilities. That will consolidate the successes so far and lay the foundations for future growth.
So where could this additional come from? Of course, we all know that Councils are strapped for cash but it’s local residents who are being negatively impacted at present and so it’s them who should be lobbying their Councillors to put in place a comprehensive investment plan. That will then generate increased jobs and incomes, for local residents as well as the operators of new facilities. Highland Council is the obvious authority to oversee any plan for the NC500. Even if public investment can’t cover the full costs of the upgraded facilities needed then the Councils, in conjunction with local tourism bodies such as the North Highland Initiative, could incentivise local entrepreneurs and businesses to take a lead.
It’s worth remembering that an effective tourism strategy is about development as well as marketing.
In a nutshell
Clachtoll Beach Campsite, 134 Clachtoll, Lochinver, Sutherland IV27 4JD Web: http://www.clachtollbeachcampsite.co.uk/ Tel: 01571 855377 E-mail: email@example.com
Tents/campervans/caravans £12.00 per night / £5.00 pppn adult & £2.00 pppn age 5-16 / £4.00 per night EHU (20 serviced pitches). All prices per night during high season (2017).
Clachtoll Beach Campsite is a great site over 25 acres with direct access to the white sand Clachtoll Beach. The site is also handily located for those people touring the North Coast 500 route. It’s very well run and popular site, with booking highly recommended during July and August. There are two flat fields nearer the beach and a third overspill field behind. The washblock is clean and regularly cleaned. Other facilities include dishwashing sinks, a laundry, 20 electric hook-ups, a hot drinks vending machine, free wifi and a public telephone. The waste disposal point accepts environmentally friendly chemical product only.
Not many sites have such a great beach on the doorstep – as well as so many fantastic mountain and coastal walks close by. Assynt is one of Scotland’s gems and is a haven for hikers (eg Suilven, Ben More Coigach, Stac Pollaidh, Quinag), anglers (river, sea) and wildlife spotters (eg dolphins, whales, otters). Geologically, Assynt is part of the NW Highlands Geopark, a world class landscape boasting some of the oldest rocks in Europe (Lewissian gneiss). Lochinver, with cafes, a bank and shops, is 6 miles south of Clachtoll along an undulating road with passing places. There’s a small shop near the entrance to the site, and the award-winning Drumbeg Stores a few miles north.
What I liked:
The white sand beach! Well-run site and attentive owners. Great location near mountains and the coast. Wildlife is regularly spotted off the coast at the campsite including dolphins, whales, sharks, seals and otters. Large, flat pitches.
Not so wild about:
The wifi is pretty slow and patchy – not the fault of the owners of course, but the s-l-o-w speed of the local exchange which is yet to be upgraded.
Clachtoll is a popular site and deservedly one of my Top 10 Beach Campsites. If you like Scotland’s remote and spectacular northwest coast then you’ll love this site. It’s a great base for exploring the coast, with some of Scotland’s best coastal walks nearby. Hikers will want to climb some of Assynt’s popular hills including Suilven, Stac Pollaidh and Quinag. For cyclists, there’s a great but challenging route – the Assynt Circular – of around 65 miles on undulating roads.
Unfortunately it was cloudy and wet when I stayed recently – not an uncommon occurrence, sadly! But a little sunshine transforms the views and as anyone who’s been to the NW Highlands knows, if it’s raining you just need to wait half an hour for the sun to come out again!
Picking my way up through the steep sandstone cliffs the ‘path’ soon disappeared and the gradient increased sharply. Soon, I realised the only way up was to grab great handfuls of heather and hope they were well dug in. I put away my walking poles to concentrate on the task in hand. I was now committed … to some pretty serious scrambling.
There were several hair-raising moves. Looking down I could see the waves crashing against the rocks below. The wind was gusting up the cliffs. Yep, whenever you see a guidebook that mentions the word “airy”, you know it’s code for knee-trembling, adrenaline-fueled moments like this.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this of course. The WalkHighlands route description notes that the approach is “quite intimidating“. But it goes on to explain that “the initial broken crags are ascended slightly to the right and then the climb continues very steeply up the ridge“. I did go right, but to the right of what? It was certainly steep but I’d describe it more as a heather-covered cliff than a ridge.
All I can say is, if you’re approaching Ben More Coigach from the Culnacraig / Achiltibuie side, just take a few moments to suss out alternative routes up through the rocky outcrops!
Having wild camped on Quinag the previous day I opted for a slightly shorter circuit (around 5 hours) of Ben More Coigach. It’s not a Munro or even a Corbett. But it’s testament to the rule that in the North West Highlands the best hills are not the tallest.
There’s a superb sandstone ridge that gives fantastic views to the Summer Isles, to An Teallach’s rocky spires and across the panorama of the glorious Assynt peaks. If you’ve already skinned your hands clutching on to fistfuls of heather on the way up, the fairly exposed ridge will seem like a walk in the park. The trickiest bits can all be bypassed on easier paths.
The view north opens out as your approach the summit itself (743m). And what a spectacular view. Not a bad place to rest and enjoy some lunch.
I dropped down to the bealach on a curving line before the short climb up to the slightly lower (705m) summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir. It gives a rocky promontory with a huge drop below and is arguably the better summit for views. I stopped for a while to soak in the scenery.
The weather wasn’t playing ball that day unfortunately. The odd patch of blue sky opened up but the rare gaps didn’t become large enough for the sun to break through and transform the landscape. I gave up waiting and returned to Culnacraig via the subsidiary peak of Beinn nan Caorach; a steep hillside but at least I was saved another heather-grabbing descent.
For convenience and ease of use there’s nothing to beat lightweight canister stoves. Simply screw in an isobutane fuel canister and within minutes you’ve boiled up a brew.
MSR’s PocketRocket has been a firm favourite among backpackers and campers for many years and has also been my go-to stove for about the last decade. Recently I’ve been testing out the integrated 2-person MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit. It’s a well-designed and affordable option if you’re looking for a no-fuss approach to camp cooking.
The first thing you notice about the stove kit is its ingenious design. Everything fits within the 2-litre anodised aluminium pot, rattle-free and fastened tight. Inside there are two 0.7-litre plastic bowls and nested inside these are a pair of insulated mugs containing two folding sporks and the stove itself.
I found the bowls just the right size for hiker-sized portions but not too large so that your food gets cold quickly. The mugs seem a strange shape at first but then come into their own as effective hand-warmers!
The materials are good quality and I especially like the conductive, non-stick surface of the anodised aluminium pot.
The tiny PocketRocket stove weighs just 85g on its own and as its name suggests is a lively little burner that can boil a litre of water in just 3½ minutes. Paired with an isobutene canister it’s great for 3-season use. The lever control is easy to use, allowing you to adjust the flame from a simmer to boiling even with gloves on.
The transparent pot lid allows you to check on your food and doubles as a strainer with its handy holes on one side. Also useful are the volume measurements (in ounces and grams) on the insides of the pot and mugs.
I didn’t fully trust the folding sporks though. They’re quite bendy plus I suspect they could be prone to snapping over time after repeated refolding. For the sake of a couple of quid I’d prefer just to use regular sporks.
USING THE STOVE KIT
The PocketRocket gives a reassuring ‘roar’ when turned up high and is a quick, adjustable and efficient burner. You’ll want to make absolutely sure that the gas canister is sitting on flat ground so it’s totally safe. The height of the pot on top of the canister and burner means that it could possibly be knocked off or topple over, and this was one of the main drawbacks for me.
At 732g the weight of the stove kit is the other main downside of the stove kit. While this isn’t an issue for car camping it may put some backpackers off. It’s great to have a self-contained kit of course but by replacing the mugs and sporks with lighter weight alternatives, the ‘base kit’ of pot, lid, stove and bowls weighs a much more respectable 450g. And you could store your gas canister and some spare socks inside!
The MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit is available from Nevisport for an affordable £79.99. Apart from my minor niggle about the weight of the full kit, it’s a very convenient and versatile option for two campers and well worth a look.
Note: The MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit was provided to me to review for free by Nevisport. I am an independent member of the Nevisport gear review team and have no other connection with the company. I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using the stove kit.
I was in an expectant mood as I drove north. A large area of high pressure was due to cover the UK and bring fine, dry and settled conditions. Just perfect, I thought, for a wild summit camp, ticking off three Corbetts followed by an afternoon’s cycling. Even if the scattered clouds didn’t give a clear sunset there was still the prospect a starry night sky and cloudless views the next morning.
However, rounding the corner near Ardvreck Castle I realised not everything was going to go to plan. For while every other summit had been cloud free, my first view of Quinag was of the great hulk of a mountain draped in low cloud. As I parked up the rain started and I spotted miserable walkers in full waterproof gear returning to their cars.
Ever the optimist, I trusted the forecast; every mountain and general weather forecast had promised clear skies after the possibility of scattered showers. And sure enough, by the time I’d crossed the heather moorland on a well-constructed path, the showers had indeed passed and the clouds parted.
I eventually found a space to pitch my tent on the flattish bealach just west of Sail Garbh, at about 700m. In gaelic the name is translated as the “rough heel”. Not a particularly appealing name but very apt: I struggled to find a patch of tent-sized, vaguely soft, green ground on this stony perch.
But just as soon as my tent was up the wind started to blow, the clouds descended and the rain came on again. It was clear that, rather than giving a still, clear night with great views, I’d be holed up in my tent having an early night.
It was a fitful sleep. I woke up at 3am disturbed by the tent wall in my face and a loud flapping sound. I found and replaced three tent pegs temporarily displaced by the gusty wind, then poked my head out of the tent door at 6am just before sunrise. It was overcast. OK, I thought, time to go back to sleep …
While it was still cloudy and windy by the time I finally emerged at 8am it wasn’t raining. My original plan was to walk out to the two northerly peaks of the Y-shaped mountain before returning to pack up my tent. But since I wasn’t at all confident that my tent wouldn’t blow away without me in it (!) I instead packed everything up into my rucsac and just took a camera with me to climb Sail Garbh (808m) and Sail Ghorm (745m).
The views were impressive. The landscape of Assynt really is quite distinct from other parts of Scotland, built on a foundation of Lewissian gneiss which, at 3 billion years old, makes them the oldest rocks in Europe. The mountains are of Torridonian sandstone and have steep, seemingly impenetrable sides, rising up sharply above the peaty, loch-splattered landscape . There’s something very raw and ‘elemental’ about this landscape. Over the next two days I had rough plans to climb other peaks in Assynt mixed with some cycling.
I met up another chap and we walked out to Sail Ghorm, taking snaps along the way. There were great views out along the rocky coast, with the Outer Hebrides just visible in the distance. I retrieved my pack and hauled myself up the steep ground to Spidean Coinich, crossing its lower top first of all. By mid-morning the wind was starting to let up and patches of clear sky began to appear. The forecasters clearly hadn’t anticipated a weather front crossing the NW Highlands and so, about 12 hours later than advertised, the ridge of high pressure was now starting to take charge.
By the time I descended the long, stony SE-facing shoulder of Spidean Coinich patches of blue sky appeared and it was now a very different day. I had lunch and a short rest in the van before getting on my bike to explore Assynt at a slightly faster pace. The plan was to complete a 37-mile circuit of the headland via Lochinver, Clachtoll, Drumbeg and back to the car park near Quinag.
It was a fast, exhilarating descent south to Loch Assynt and a great ride along Loch Assynt, with gorgeous views. I dropped down the steep hill to Lochinver for an ice cream in the sunshine before heading north along the B869 towards Clachtoll and Stoer. But by the time I was cycling north I began to feel my tired legs. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have to cycle another 25 miles on a tough, undulating road, conscious that I still needed to find a campsite that night? So I changed plans, turned back just about at the Achmelvich turn-off and cycled back the way I came along the shores of Loch Assynt. Except this time, the fast descent from the car park was a long, slow slog uphill.
Plans change. Forecasts change. The lesson? Stay flexible.
I was fortunate to enjoy superb weather for my weekend on Eigg and, as I described in my previous post, I was blown away with the island. Having climbed An Sgurr, Eigg’s prominent peak, in the morning I ventured to the north of the island for the rest of the day.
Cycling is a great way to get around Eigg. There’s one hill over the island, so there’s a bit of huffing and puffing involved, but it means that you can cross the island on essentially its only road in around 30 minutes. I stopped by the former post office for a breather, which now serves as a museum with an interesting overview and artefacts of the island’s past. Staying on a ‘communications’ theme, the old and weathered postbox at Cleadale is still in use, and its pealing paintwork hints at the many stories it could tell from events over the decades. It’s not altogether when the next collection might be (but I’m sure the locals know when the postie is likely to call past anyway) but I liked the contrast with the telecoms dishes you can just see further up the hill.
I followed a marked trail from near the road-end in Cleadale to the famed ‘Singing Sands’ beach. It occupies a fabulous view looking out to Rum and is a beautiful white quartz sand beach. When it’s dry the sand ‘squeaks’ as you walk on it, attributed to the uniform size of the grains of sand apparently. It really is an weird experience.
My plan for the afternoon was to do the circular Beinn Bhuidhe walk, climbing up above the cliffs at Eigg’s northern end. This meant for a fairly steep climb up from the beach for just over 300m. It was very warm and sticky so I was glad to reach the top and gain a breeze. Of course, there were plenty stopping opportunities en route to take photos. With the views of Rum and the south end of the island, the bird’s-eye view of the tiny crofts in Cleadale, as well as the purple heather and other wild flowers, I was in no particular rush. It’s just such an unbelievable beautiful setting – and I’m sharing just a fraction of my photos from the walk!
Incidentally, you can find my circuit of the Rum Cuillin a few years ago described in a previous post – and this is what Eigg looks like when looking back from the opposite direction.
The path follows the line of the cliffs, which create a spine down the northern half of the island. It gives superb views west towards the beaches and Rum beyond, south to An Sgurr as well as east, back to the white sand Morar beaches and mountains on the mainland. With an Atlantic gale and showers blowing in this wouldn’t be a place to linger, but today it was like a stroll in the park. I only saw two people to speak to the whole afternoon, and I met them just at the end of the walk.
I descended a steep path through high bracken back down to the road and returned to collect my bike. Next stop was the beach at Laig for a refreshing drink (embarrassingly, from neighbouring Skye rather than the local microbrewery on Eigg – the community shop didn’t seem to have the local stuff in stock). Several other groups were also spending the evening at the beach, swimming, camping on the machair or having a campfire. For me, it was a chance to cook my evening meal and soak in the view. (I did dip my feet into the water but it was far too c-o-l-d for me to swim …)
West-facing Laig Bay is a well-known location for photographers and I have to say that you could not fail to take a good shot on this absolutely stunning beach (two of the photos below are simply iPhone snaps).
On the northern side of the bay there are several large, almost circular sandstone boulders, with some up to two metres across. They’re apparently formed by the migration of calcite within the sands over a period of up to five million years, and have become eroded out of the cliff like giant marbles. They certainly make for interesting foreground, alongside with the sun slowly setting over the Rum Cuillin which sets the clouds on fire. The colours, reflections and silhouettes made for a memorable evening.
I sunbathed and read a book the next day until the ferry arrived late afternoon. There was hardly a cloud in the sky for much of the day – and I know this isn’t always the case!
Eigg really is a fascinating and hugely enjoyable island, and this was one of my favourite trips for some time. If you get a chance, please do climb the hills and explore the island. For even on a supposedly busy weekend, I pretty much had the best of the island to myself.
There’s something about islands. Maybe it’s the wistful sense of adventure that comes with travelling by boat. Or perhaps the physical and psychological separation that gives islands their unique character, setting them apart from the familiar mainland. Even, perhaps, it’s the feeling of ‘commitment’ in the sense that having arrived – come rain or shine – you’re there to stay … Eigg was all of these things.
I’m catching up with blog posts after a busy summer and this is the first of a two posts on my short, two-night stay on Eigg. I’d planned a birthday trip away with my Mum – neither of us had previously visited – but a brief illness meant that I arrived alone.
In fact the influence of ‘island life’ started in Mallaig harbour. Eyeing up other passengers I noticed a mixed assortment of families, luggage and personalities. Some were Eigg folk returning; others heading out on holiday. Friends and family were reunited and parted in between ferries arriving and leaving.
The jagged outline of the Skye Cuillin and the slightly more rounded Rum Cuillin provided a superb backdrop for the land and seascapes on my journey to Eigg. The Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Canna, Muck – were all transformed by intense volcanic activity about 55 million years ago. The basalt lava and gabbro rocks give the islands their unique and bold character, most notably with the Sgurr on Eigg being formed by an ancient lava flow.
I stayed in one of the camping pods owned by Eigg Adventures. They’re literally just a stone’s throw from the harbour, the café and community-run shop and have a fantastic view looking back out to sea to the mainland. While just providing the essential amenities I found them comfortable although it would be good if that the plans for new community hub include dedicated toilet and dishwashing facilities for campers.
That evening I ventured along a cliffside track west from the harbour at Galmisdale, following a marked footpath to investigate the two large caves. It was here in around 1577 that the massacre of around 400 islanders of the Macdonald clan took place at the hands of the warring Macleod clan from Skye. It’s said that after a series of skirmishes the Macdonalds hid in a large cave, thinking that the Macleods had left the island. But the Macleods spotted a lookout and followed his footsteps in the snow to the mouth of the cave, then lit a fire. Almost all of the islanders perished in the cave, now called Massacre Cave. Over the years skulls and other bones have been found and even as recently as last year more than 50 bones were discovered.
The next day I set off to climb An Sgurr, fortunate to have fine weather forecast for the whole weekend. (Not really believing the forecast, I hadn’t bothered with sun cream and forgot to take my sunglasses … The shop was sold out of sun cream and needless to say I returned a fine, sunburned colour …).
The track from Galmisdale emerges from woods to give a great first view of An Sgurr, the hill that dominates the southern end of the island and that clearly distinguishes Eigg from the mainland. The prow of the Sgurr rises vertically and from a distance it seems impenetrable, but a narrow defile half way along the northern side gives easy access. It’s hexagonal rocks and twisted shapes are a geologists’ dream and there’s much to see if you’re into rocks. 55 million years ago what is now the Sgurr was part of a river valley. After the massive volcanic eruptions hard lava (called pitchstone) flowed along the valley. Millions of years of weathering wore away the softer rocks around the valley until eventually, the ‘valley’ became a shapely hill protruding boldly above the island. Fascinating!
Although the weekend I visited was the busiest of the summer so far (in terms of ferry and accommodation bookings) I was puzzled to know where everyone was. I didn’t see a soul all morning, which is quite strange since I would have thought that climbing the Sgurr would be near the top of the ‘to do’ list for most visitors to Eigg. No matter: I had the hill to myself.
Superb views to Rum and the northern end of Eigg opened up. To the south the Ardnamurchan lighthouse was clearly visible with Mull beyond, and past Muck I could see out to Coll and Tiree with the Outer Hebrides showing up through the haze. I stayed on the summit for almost an hour taking photos. I could never tire of the view to Laig Bay and the croft houses at Cleadale; this must surely be one of the finest viewpoint in all of Scotland.
I was thrilled to spot a large raptor – I think, a juvenile golden eagle – soaring on the thermals above An Sgurr before flying north to the cliffs above Cleadale. I’ve shared mountain ridges before with eagles, just me and these magnificent birds, and it’s really an amazing sight.
The circular route from An Sgurr descends via a very steep path to the south (from the same bealach that gives the easiest access from the north). Guidebooks warn that this route is only for experienced hillwalkers and I’d echo that: it’s steep and potentially dangerous in wet weather. But this route does give the best close-up view of the amazing geology (click on the photo below for better detail), and comes out at Grulin bothy which was in the process of getting a new roof. From the bothy it’s an easy walk along the Grulin track back to Galmisdale, giving fine views out to Muck and the Ardnamurchan.
There’s been so much to say, and so many photos to share on this post, but after my walk up An Sgurr it still wasn’t lunchtime ..! In my next post I’ll describe my afternoon’s sojourn, a walk around the beaches and cliffs on the northern end of the island, ending with an amazing sunset.
Streaking at break-neck speed across the sky, it’s easy to miss a meteor. Blink and they’re gone.
For a brief instant a speck of dust emitted from the Swift-Tuttle comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s travelling at 37 miles (59 km) per second. At this incredible speed the comet debris heats up the air around it, generating a burst of light as it hurtles across the sky. In only a fraction of a second it burns up and is gone.
And this amazing sight is caused just by a tiny speck of dust the size of a grain of sand.
Meteors are nature’s fireworks. The Perseids meteor shower provides the best show each year, when the Earth passes through the dust and debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet, the largest known object that regularly passes by our planet. It peaks this year on 12-13 August when, if you’re lucky, you can spot up to 100 meteors an hour. This year, owing to the bright three-quarters moon, it’s more difficult to see weaker meteors when around 40 – 50 meteors an hour can be seen.
I spent an enjoyable couple of hours last night stargazing beside Loch Achray in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The night was clear and still.
Others were there too, camping beside the loch and enjoying a fire, and the sound of voices and laughter drifted across the water. In a place that’s usually very quiet I looked around and spotted no less then four fires around the loch – and it’s one of Scotland’s smaller lochs.
There’s a real moral dilemma for the National Park authority. People should have the right to enjoy the outdoors by camping and lighting a fire – it’s a fantastic thing to experience. But their concern is the cumulative impact of all of the scorched areas of earth, impromptu campsites and litter left behind. Loch Achray is within the newly-designated Camping Management Zone but I have no idea whether any of these campers had a permit or what state they left their campsites this morning.
Just as meteors make a brief appearance before they disappear without trace can we humans do the same?
For the most part, the design of the VW California is pretty tried-and-tested. Most owners make a few ‘essential’ improvements to their vans including adding seat covers, carpets and perhaps a removable shelf, as well as adding those all-important accessories to personalise their van that add a splash of colour.
However, one additional accessory that I’ve recently added is a movable coat hook. The Cali comes out of the factory with two fixed coat hooks, one on the door pillar behind the passenger seat and one above the rear seat just behind the sliding door. Neither are very useful: the first is difficult to get to and the second risks hanging a dripping coat over your seat.
Enter the world of 3D printing. It seems that there’s a design for almost any fixture and fitting you can imagine – and lo and behold, there’s a downloadable design for a VW California coat hook that can be positioned very flexibly.
3D printers work by heating up plastic filament to produce bespoke parts which are very light and very strong. The filament is heated to about 200 degrees Celsius and then laid down in a very accurate, additive manufacturing process using successive layers of material. My 12-year old son has a small 3D printer at home which he’s used to make a whole variety of things: fidget spinners, neat boxes and even a small tripod that I use with my mobile phone. Quite the entrepreneur, he’s sold these to generate some welcome income from his friends and family.
The coat hook seems the most useful accessory I could find for the Cali but you can also download printable designs for the small shelf clips, a strainer for the sink and a new knob for the controller unit (for the roof, heating etc).
The coat hook fits under the rail at either side of the ‘ceiling’. It’s most useful at the sliding door side and is great for hanging wet jackets. The design is almost perfect but not quite. The end that’s opposite the coat hook is just about 5-6mm too short and otherwise would fix securely behind the aluminium rail to the side of the ‘ceiling’. As it is, it works perfectly when the roof is down since the ‘ceiling’ holds it firmly in place and while it does work when the roof is raised, the design could be improved.
If anyone’s interested in buying one please let me know by using the ‘Get in Touch’ form. They’re priced at £6 (or two for £10), including P&P within the UK. If there’s sufficient interest my son could possibly also produce them in grey to blend in better with the Cali interior,
The freedom of the road
As the main summer holiday season starts we’re now seeing more visitors on the roads, including motorhomes and campervans. It’s great to see people enjoying what Scotland has to offer and also spending in the rural local economy.
That’s how tourism should work, right? You travel, experience new places and activities, and support incomes and jobs in the local economy by buying food, accommodation and so on.
However, there seems to be a growing trend among a minority towards ‘free camping’, deliberately searching out car parks, lay-bys and roadside beauty spots where they need spend nothing. I frequently receive e-mails from people asking me to supply them with a map of “wild camping spots”, particularly along the North Coast 500. I don’t share such information, but politely direct them to great campsites instead, since attracting even more people to increasingly crowded hotspots just puts more pressure on local communities and the environment.
I appreciate this is a sensitive topic that can often divide opinion but I’d like to move beyond the ‘blame game’ to discuss constructive solutions. But first, let’s set out what’s actually happening just now.
I’ve written previously about ‘informal’ or ‘free’ camping in motorhomes and campervans. The motivation for many people, including myself, is to get away from the crowds and deliberately search out informal camping spots in remoter locations. The responsible approach is to arrive late, leave early and leave no trace. This is good practice and I want to make sure that those of who do behave responsibly like this aren’t penalised for doing so.
However, I do take issue with websites and forums designed to share GPS coordinates of free camping spots. Deliberately avoiding staying at campsites deprives local communities of much-needed income and is surely inconsistent with the idea of responsible tourism.
Take a popular beach location on the Moray coast, for example. I was contacted recently by someone highlighting the fact that up to 12 motorhomes, campervans and minibuses regularly stay overnight in the beach car park. This is in spite of the fact that there’s a ‘No Overnight Parking’ sign … and there’s a caravan park just 800 metres away.
A quick Google search reveals why. The car park is incorrectly listed on a motorhome wildcamping website as allowing overnight camping. But still, the many vehicles that continue to turn up ignore the sign – as well as the nearby caravan park.
This practice is a long way from what I see as low-impact informal camping. While one motorhome staying for a single night might seem reasonable to their owners I wonder if they stop to consider the cumulative impact of dozens of motorhomes turning up every week from April to October? Given such car parks generally don’t have facilities other than litter bins, what about rubbish collections, toilets, waste water and so on? In the Moray example, the car park belongs to a popular visitor attraction, so that local residents and other visitors sometimes can’t get parked. Some of those free campers sometimes even have the gall to walk along to the nearby campsite to use their showers and toilet facilities!!
Let’s scale up this single example across the whole of Scotland. The growing popularity of owning as well as hiring motorhomes and campervans means that there are more people touring Scotland – which in itself is a good thing. The recent impact study of the North Coast 500, for example, showed that it attracted an additional 29,000 visitors in its first year, with traffic volumes also increasing 10%. However, the report also highlighted challenges to ensure long term success of the NC500. These include maintaining the condition of the route, ensuring sufficient parking, waste facilities and public toilets, and continued efforts to encourage better driving. While more visitors to Scotland should of course be welcomed the fact that the report highlights the additional pressure placed on local services underlines my point.
Four possible solutions
So how do we encourage people to do the right thing?
Here are four ideas that I think now need more active consideration. They’re not necessarily new but equally, they’re not currently being taken forward.
- Do we need a network of aires in Scotland?
In France, there are over 2,000 aires – or serviced stopover sites – which are normally run by the local council and of varying sizes. They offer low-cost overnight parking for motorhomes, often with basic services such as water, chemical disposal and waste water disposal facilities. Toilets and showers generally aren’t provided since motorhomes tend to have these facilities anyway. Some are free and only charge for services, and others charge for overnight stays. Tents are not allowed so aires wouldn’t replace the great many good campsites across Scotland (and of course we need to continue to promote these). An approach similar to aires is already used on Tiree to help protect the fragile machair as well as on Harris, where the West Harris Trust reinvests the £5 overnight charge into community projects including site maintenance.
The Britstops scheme already operates across the UK where their guide contains details of pubs, visitor centres, farm shops and so on who are happy to host motorhomes and campervans overnight on the expectation that visitors will support sustainable tourism by buying local food and other products. The overnight stops don’t have facilities but are free to use, all for the £27.50 cost of the annual guide. Creating an additional network for aires would essentially extend this successful model.
For: Attracts overnighters to places where there are proper facilities; generates ongoing income; successful models already exist
Against: Cost to introduce; reduction in income for campsites.
2. Can we shut down the irresponsible websites and forums?
These sites often aren’t up to date and are only as good as the information they contain. But when they direct people towards particular locations without the proper facilities it’s no surprise that this inevitably leads to issues resulting from overuse.
For: Tackles the cause of the issue
Against: Can only request that the wild camping maps are removed.
3. Can we have motorhome and campervan hire companies sign up to a code of practice that promotes responsible tourism among their hirers?
There’s clearly an education issue, and this includes people hiring motorhomes and campervans who may be under the impression that Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ land access legislation covers vehicles (it doesn’t). A few years ago a code of practice was drawn up between SNH, Visit Scotland and several hire companies but I can’t find any information about it any longer. I’m pretty confident that the number of hire companies has mushroomed over the last five years so reintroducing this would seem a sensible action.
Tourism promotion agencies should also promote this code of practice, including Visit Scotland and the North Highland Initiative, who run the North Coast 500 project. The Scottish Tourism Alliance, the industry body, already has a clear position on the importance of sustainable tourism.
For: A straightforward and obvious solution
4. Can we raise awareness of the principles of responsible tourism?
This is also a no-brainer and I would have thought this message is already communicated via the popular guide books to touring and camping in Scotland. But given so many rely on social media these days, are the messages around responsible tourism clear enough on Facebook and Twitter? We hear a lot about “filter bubbles”, where people only take in the information on social media via the sites they ‘like’ or ‘follow’. So is there something more that needs to happen to raise wider awareness, particularly for those who might miss mainstream messages?
For: Needs to remain a priority
Against: Some people may still miss these messages unless the campaign goes sufficiently wide.
What do you think?
The bottom line is that we need to ensure that Scotland is open for visitors to enjoy – and that more visitors get to enjoy its fabulous scenery and experiences.
But there’s a fine line between being open and welcoming to visitors while making sure that tourism hotspots are managed in the interests of everyone as well as the environment. The popularity of motorhome/campervan touring is increasing and with it, the demand for free camping. So how do we make this work for everyone?