As travel restrictions ease across Scotland, many people in the North Highlands are feeling nervous about the resumption of tourism. 2020 was a challenging year here in the far north, and memories of irresponsible camping, inconsiderate motorhome parking, and the litter and human waste left by a minority of visitors will be difficult to erase. Here in Caithness last year, informal campers were criticised for pitching up on enclosed grazing land at Duncansby Head, while a short-lived craze for swinging from the iconic John O’Groats sign resulted in the breakage of one of the finger-posts. Historic Environment Scotland confirmed they were aware of human waste being left inside the 5000-year-old Grey Cairns of Camster, while washing was hung from the historic remains of Nybster Broch. Later in the year, a group of young men posted YouTube footage of themselves dumping toilet waste into a far north layby in the name of entertainment.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Every day it seemed there was some new and unappealing turn in what became an ‘annus horribilis’ for local people, all leading to the impression that those most affected by the impact of the North Coast 500 also had the least amount of influence on how visitors experienced their home.
As we look towards another year of domestic travel, then, should there be cause for hope, or hopelessness? Reports consistently point to the North Coast 500’s popularity with restriction-weary travellers, and undoubtedly, we should be prepared for another influx of visitors this year. And while antisocial behaviour is limited to a minority (a minority that exists not just amongst ‘wild campers’ but humanity in general), the numbers involved mean a degree of challenging behaviour is likely to be inevitable. All that being said, there is still room for optimism and the hope that this summer can be enjoyed by both visitors and local folk alike.
We’ve been told much of last year’s irresponsible behaviour was down to a lack of understanding and awareness – indicating things could get better if visitors are equipped with the right sort of information. Unfortunately, social media doesn’t always help with this – as illustrated by the number of informal NC500 groups pointing members to inappropriate camping spots, or ignoring best practice guidelines on how and where to park up motorhomes or wild camp. Thankfully, there is also lots of good information around – my friend Andrea at Fiction Burns has written an excellent post on the practical elements of travelling the North Coast 500, including information on passing places, waste disposal, fires and responsible access (you can find the post here – please read it if you are planning the route this year). More generally, organisations like Walk Highlands and Visit Scotland are running responsible travel campaigns on their websites and social media, while CAMPA, the campervan and motorhome professional association, have useful information on their website on responsible informal camping in motorhomes (while encouraging visitors to use official facilities if possible) – click here to find out more.
In March, Highland Council announced a £1.5 million visitor management investment strategy agreed as part of the Council’s budget proposals, with plans to invest in areas such as roads, enhanced litter collection and the creation of ten seasonal access ranger posts across the Highland area. On social media, North Highland Initiative recently announced the completion of a signage project across 30 locations, pointing visitors to the whereabouts of infrastructure services such as waste facilities, toilets and shops. How much of an impact this can all feasibly have within the next few months is debatable, but it’s positive, at least, to see efforts being made to avoid a recurrence of last summer. More widely, there are issues around the sustainability of the North Coast 500 route and its impact on the social and cultural identity of the North Highlands, and the quality of life of local residents. Here in Caithness, we have seen the damaging effect notions of a ‘wilderness escape’ – often used to promote the route – can have.
As someone who writes regularly about place, I believe that everyone posting about travel should be mindful of representing social impacts and the manner in which we relate stories about the places we experience. Focusing on mere aesthetics renders our experience shallow, and ignores vital information about what places really are. With care and support to local businesses who rely on tourism for their income, I now choose not to talk about ‘living on the North Coast 500,’ and avoid affixing ‘nc500’ hashtags to my photographs – except where the term can be useful in raising awareness.
As I said on this recent post on social media, I’m from Caithness, and I’m proud to call it by its name.
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I recently read an article from another area of rural Scotland, which described residents ‘bracing themselves’ and feeling ‘dread’ in light of the easing of travel restrictions. These are exactly the same sentiments I’ve heard from many in my own community – a sense that for local people, the season ahead will be something to endure. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in, and the mental health impacts of irresponsible tourism on local folk should not be underestimated. At the same time, irresponsible behaviour is not only confined to visitors to the area, and it’s important that everyone – including those promoting the NC500 from afar – behave with personal responsibility and a sense of understanding and respect.
As this new season approaches, then, my advice for anyone travelling the North Coast 500 would be to tread lightly and travel politely. To leave no trace of your visit, and make as many special memories as you can. But remember, too, that this is where we live, and we are just as excited as you about enjoying our local area and the amenities that are only now opening up to us.
And therein lies a reminder for all of us:
Our travel destinations are also someone else’s home.
For more background on the North Coast 500 and impacts on local communities see this post from Summer 2020. If you are planning to travel the route this season, please spend some time familiarising yourself with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code before your visit, and enjoy your time in our beautiful far north.
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