Since its inception in 2015, The North Coast 500 – the re-branding of an existing 516-mile loop around the North Highlands – has attracted visitors from all over the world, keen to experience the untamed beauty of this area of Scotland. Originally the brainchild of North Highland Initiative – a non-profit organisation set up by HRH Prince Charles to promote economic growth – the brand is now managed by North Coast 500 Ltd., who have been operating as a private company for the last five years. According to their website, NC 500 boast a social media following of over 100,000, and in 2018, achieved a global reach of 3.3 billion, with research reporting that in 2018, the route had boosted the North Highland economy by over £22 million. Indeed, many local people – myself included – have been generally supportive of the route, appreciating the need for responsible tourism to rural areas (in the past, I have written unpaid articles for tourist organisations including the North Coast 500 and regularly extol the virtues of my home county, Caithness, on this very blog). Concerns about the sustainability of the NC 500 route have been rumbling along for some time, though, with a separate 2018 study from Stirling University highlighting a range of negative impacts on local people, including issues around traffic congestion, lack of community consultation and an increase in visitor numbers leading to reduced quality of life for some respondents. In the background, the stream of glossy Instagram pictures prefaced with the hashtag ‘nc500’ continued unabated.
And all of a sudden, it felt like everything had changed.
When the Scottish Government re-opened tourism in mid-July, Caithness, like many other areas in the Scottish Highlands, saw an influx of visitors keen to embrace 2020’s biggest travel trend – the staycation. Yet this year, the hospitality Highlanders are known for was tempered with caution around Covid – when you consider that the Highlands are home to a scattered, ageing population and a fragile healthcare system, such concerns are surely easy to understand. As an example, most expectant Mums where I live are forced to travel 110 miles to give birth, one of the balancing acts of benefits and challenges that rural locations, by their very nature, offer their inhabitants.
Very quickly though, fears over the virus were almost eclipsed by numerous examples of uncontrolled camping and inconsiderate motorhome parking, with a minority of travellers causing anguish through littering, parking up at unsuitable locations and – worst of all perhaps – the unconcealed dumping of human waste.
I should point out, now that I have reached the discussion of – yes, poo – that this article is not a wholesale demonisation of any group of people, whether that be campervanners/campers or any other sector of society. If you look around my other articles you’ll see that we ourselves own a VW campervan, and travel in it responsibility. Anti-social behaviour happens in all areas of humanity – that’s just humanity it seems. My own experience in this area, though, relates to being on a walk near my home with my children and discovering an open plastic bag left at the roadside containing human waste and a pair of soiled underpants. At any time, in the vicinity of residential houses and our local care home, this would be a grim experience. In the time of a global health pandemic it’s a public health liability. And sadly, my experience is not an isolated case.
All across the Highlands, groups on social media are sharing examples of irresponsible behaviour in the hope of highlighting issues to decision-making bodies (a Facebook Group set up to this end for the NC 500 garnered thousands of members within just a few days of being established.) It’s hard to look at social media right now without being led to the conclusion that the entire Scottish Highlands are covered in irresponsibly pitched tents, pieces of toilet roll and mounds of human waste. Of course, this isn’t the full picture, and the vast majority of visitors to our area, as in every other year, are being responsible. Elements of anti-social behaviour also exist at a local level, of course, and the piles of drink cans and plastic bottles I pick up on my daily walks are a harsh reminder that not everyone is behaving as they should. Attitudinal change is needed at a deep rooted level across society, and therin lies the challenge.
While we all wait in hope for that shift then, what can the people of the Highlands – or at least those making decisions for the people of the Highlands – positively do?
Elements of behaviour over the last few weeks have shown a lack of clarity around the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, in terms of both letter and spirit, and particularly amongst people who may not have ‘wild camped’ before (I use this phrase loosely as much of what we have seen here this summer does not fall under the definition of the term as most people would describe it.) Mountaineering Scotland have just launched a fantastic campaign on this – you can read about that here – and it has been positive to see the launch of similar initiatives across various platforms in recent weeks. More understanding, perhaps, on ‘best practice’ elements of wild/roadside camping is important – common sense things such as arriving late and leaving early, showing consideration towards local communities, avoiding busy spots and leaving no trace of your visit are all hallmarks of the respectful traveller. In contrast, doing things like parking up in front of people’s houses, camping on enclosed agricultural land or pitching tents around areas of historical and cultural importance are all ways to make a nuisance of yourself, and ruin the summer for everyone involved.
At a deeper level, there is room, too, I think, for more outdoor education at the earliest stages of life, instilling respect for the outdoors in children from all backgrounds and sectors of society. With resources stretched due to Covid, some of this may fall to community and youth groups – and of course parents – with activities like vegetable-growing, nature walks and outdoor learning given more prominence than they are. There is a responsibility, too, for everyone involved in promoting travel, whether that be tourism operators, campervan rental companies and travel bloggers, to be mindful about the type of information they provide (for example, van rental companies could be awarded some sort of ‘considerate’ status for inducting clients on passing place etiquette, waste disposal and single track road driving). It has been painful this summer to see NC 500 Instagram posts captioned to the effect of just rocking up anywhere, for free, with scant regard for the natural environment. In a culture where likes and shares are virtual currency, perhaps every single one of us posting publicly about travel has a valuable part to play.
INFRASTRUCTURE, INVESTMENT AND OPPORTUNITY
Much of the problem, of course, relates to infrastructure – well before this summer, there was a lack of toilets, bins and information facilities on the North Coast 500 route. Post-lockdown, the situation has inevitably deteriorated, with many campsites either not opening, or not opening toilet facilities when tourism recommenced. A woeful shortage of open public toilets, and a less-than-adequate supply of places to dispose of waste safely have also contributed to the unfortunate scenes the Highlands have been faced with. Still, a lack of personal accountability also features. Whatever the inadequacies of the infrastructure, leaving bags of human waste and underpants at the roadside should never be the go-to for anyone disposing of their poo.
Investment is obviously needed for the future – and yes, in the Covid era, I get that this is challenging. Many people locally, I think, would like to see more investment from the organisations promoting us, as well as Government (I recently heard Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for rural economy and tourism, discuss something called the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, so perhaps that is something to be explored). There are opportunities too, which could be considered further, such as the much-debated tourist tax, the employment of land wardens, or some approximation of the French ‘aires’ system of low-cost camping/overnight parking areas with basic facilities for toileting and waste disposal. The challenge would be ensuring that such initiatives don’t drive business away from local campsites, while providing some sort of income for local communities. Most realistic people, I think, accept the fact that the North Coast 500 isn’t going anywhere. At the same time, a more symbiotic relationship between visitors and locals might help to smooth over some of the rapidly growing cracks.
Recently, I visited the Badbea Highland Clearance village on the outskirts of Berriedale, where tenant farmers displaced by sheep were once pushed to life on a cliff edge under the rise of a new economic order. It struck me as poignant, looking out onto the NC 500 route, of a new economic order – an order with fast cars and motorhomes replacing sheep. For Highland people, well used to uneasy compromises, the North Coast 500 presents yet another balance of benefits and difficulties. On the one hand, responsible tourism is something rural areas absolutely want and need. Yet the North Highlands existed well before 2015 and the NC 500. Suggestions that the whole region would collapse without it have something of a condescending air. Perhaps the one positive to be taken from the summer of 2020 is a new focus on sustainable tourism and a move towards a model that is tolerable for both visitors and local people. A model that is grounded in the unique beauty of the Highlands and its landscape, and protection of the wildness and isolation that has attracted so many visitors to this awe-inspiring place.
A slower, more gentle approach based on (and marketed towards) respect and responsibility. An approach that listens to the concerns of local communities, and the lessons of the past.
For many people in the North Highlands, the worst possible scenario is that the lessons of 2020 will go unheeded.
For many of us who call this place home, change can’t come soon enough.