Lost Solace: Tourism, Social Media and Our Shifting Sense of Place in the North Highlands

Earlier this summer, my husband and I made an evening visit to the harbour at Dunbeath on our way back to Caithness after a day of appointments. In the preceding days, I had been reading Neil M. Gunn’s Highland River and wanted to reacquaint myself with the information boards on Gunn – who was born in Dunbeath – and the memorial statue of the book’s protagonist, Kenn, who is captured in a struggle with a salmon he lands in an early chapter of the book. At the time of our visit, tourism season was already well underway, and several motorhomes were parked up around the harbour. A box fixed to a fence requested donations for the village Christmas lights fund – whether this was intended for overnight stays or day visitors I’m uncertain; either way a quick Google search of the harbour indicates its popularity on a number of overnight parking sites (a Google search for any number of locations in the north Highlands will yield similar outcomes: places no longer possessing of meaning bar that which extends to the overnight stays of those undertaking the ‘North Coast 500’ route). On my way past the main harbour and towards the small beach, more vans were parked up, filling the available space completely. A group of people – presumably the vehicles’ owners – were congregated on the sand, each turning to me with expressions of surprise. Although it may not have been their intention, I was left with the impression that I had somehow intruded on a space that belonged to them, a moment that reminded me of a friend’s experience at a local bay, when the steward of a casually parked-up van had peered and tutted at my friend’s children as they shrieked when water met toes on the shoreline. That sense of intrusion hung around the air now, and I found myself turning tail, leaving the visitors to their campsite, feeling strangely unsettled and displaced. In recent years some visitors have reported feeling ‘unwelcome’ in the north Highlands, hearing of an increased distaste for large numbers of motorhomes and free camping in the region amidst an associated rise in irresponsible parking, littering and outdoor toileting. Strangely, I too felt a sense of being unwelcome in the county where I live that day, something I have noted in other instances where my presence has felt like an imposition on someone’s hard-won leisure time. I had to wonder what Neil Gunn himself might have thought about it all, as I retreated past Kenn’s statue. In 1935 *, Gunn wrote that the Highlands…’may yet become a popular tourist playground dependent on tourists and nothing else. After sheep, deer; and after deer, tourists. It is the ascending order of our age of progress. For those who know the deep humanism of a past age, there will be regret at the gradual passing of the human stock that was bred of it.’  By 1937 **, writing in the Scots Magazine, Gunn appeared even more disillusioned with the matter of tourism in the Highlands: ‘The best that Inverness Town Council could suggest the other night at a public meeting was tourism as the solution of all our ills, and the Highlands no longer as a brain or a heart or a creative force but as “a lung” – a lung freed from all the taint of industrialism, so that folk from south of the Highland line could clamber into its emptiness to breathe. Well, it is not enough.’

In 2022, I suspect that more than a few north Highland residents might agree.

After several painful years, many people in the area have wearied of the brand of tourism that has loomed over the north Highlands since the inception of the ‘North Coast 500’ and dominated the post-restrictions rural landscape. As I type, I’m mindful of the retorts to articles I’ve written on this subject previously. Local people also drop litter/drive too fast/behave irresponsibly (as a member of local litter picking groups and a resident of Caithness, I’m aware of this; it does not negate concerns around irresponsible/unsustainable tourism). It’s not just the North Coast 500, it’s happening everywhere (this I also understand and sympathise with. For my own part I’m a writer from Caithness, writing about the place I experience every day). Don’t you realise that you are also a tourist when you go to other places?  (I do, and I think being critical about the way we experience and perceive places and the impact we have as visitors is about self-awareness). You don’t own the place. This kind of statement often stems from a misstep in communication and a lack of understanding of what it means to live in rural areas. Of course we don’t ‘own the place’ – that sense of ownership tends to flow the other way. It’s seen in statements of belonging, such as ‘I belong to Caithness,’ or in questions like ‘where do you belong?’ – questions levelled with the belief that another might feel the same sense of belonging to the area they were born in. If you don’t like it then move. Understanding of the answer here relies on grasping the response I’ve just outlined. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Such statements overlook the range of skills and occupations in rural areas (in Caithness, area profiles show full time equivalent jobs in tourism in the county totalling 1015 of a population of 25191 between 2010 and 2020). You need to accept the world is changing, move on, bend, accommodate. Here I defer to the words of Neil Gunn again:

To cut what is known and loved from under my feet and in the same breath to tell me to march is to require of a poor fellow, who knows himself as one of the multitude, an excessive nimbleness.

Neil M. Gunn, ‘On Belief’, Landscape to Light.

Don’t cut the thing I love from under my feet and tell me to march.

Neil M. Gunn Memorial Statue Dunbeath

Tourism isn’t all bad, of course – at its best, it can promote cultural exchange, preserve heritage, enhance a sense of pride in local areas, boost economies and generate employment. Statistics from Highlands and Islands Enterprise suggest that tourism-related employment accounts for up to 43% of the workforce in some areas of the Highlands and Islands as a whole. Relationships with tourism exist on a spectrum, and – at least here in Caithness – are often distinct to views on matters pertaining to the North Coast 500. Most people I know are supportive of sustainable levels of tourism that on balance offer benefits to local communities visitors staying in locally-owned B&Bs, holiday homes, hotels, campsites. Much less popular is the trend towards free roadside parking and rough camping in every available nook and cranny along the ‘NC500’ route. Other popular usage of the route, by groups of speeding cars, contrastingly slow-moving vehicles and convoys of all descriptions also tend to be viewed unfavourably. Pre the NC500, tourism of course happened, but was generally carried out by people who extended bonds of respect and appreciation to the local environment and its folk. ‘Wild camping’ (a term now unfortunately bound up with something it is not), happened in small enough numbers and with the application of enough common sense to only very rarely be viewed as a problem for local people. It would have been hard to fathom in such times that places like Ceannabeinne Beach in Sutherland would find itself with between 8000 and 15000 free overnight visitors in 2021’s peak tourism season***, or to find tents pitched on popular local walking routes, or, as I recently experienced after someone’s park-up in a nearby residential area, to get to a point where the discovery of human waste left by overnight visitors would no longer come as a surprise.

It would be wrong to lay all of this at the door of the NC500 or NC 500 Ltd. themselves (the private company who promote the brand to a reported 11.2 billion global audience reach**** but do not contribute to infrastructure in the areas being promoted). The last few years (most markedly in the post-restrictions era), have seen an increase in antisocial leisure behaviour at beauty spots all over the UK and elsewhere. Much of this appears linked to the growth of social media as a means of influencing travel choices and behaviours, and in the case of the NC500 at least, a tendency for the Highlands to be positioned as a ‘bucket list’ destination for supercars and park-ups, where the only locals you have to worry about are sheep and Highland cows. The views of local residents are a mere drop in the ocean against the social media reach of many influencer accounts, with would-be visitors often more inclined to follow the advice of Instagram bloggers than the comparatively serious guidance of local access Rangers and the Highland Council. Debates over whether to do the route clockwise or anti-clockwise are doubtless more appealing than learning the ins and outs of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Informal social media groups with thousands of members have sprung up all over platforms like Facebook, often legitimising bad behaviour and engendering notions of ‘ownership’ a phenomenon that is not confined to the north Highlands, but to any romanticised rural area in the UK and elsewhere. In his memoir of rurality in the Lake District, The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks writes of a late relative’s likely puzzlement at this sense of ownership by tourists:

He would have found that as odd as him walking into a suburban garden in London and claiming it was ‘sort of’ his because he liked the flowers.

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life.

The landscape in which visitors to rural areas of the Highlands plan their holidays has shifted guidebooks and tourist information centres replaced by people taking ‘wild camping’ advice from internet bloggers and social media users who have ‘done the NC500’ once or twice, elevating them to local area experts. This tendency isn’t confined to NC500 Facebook groups: most travel writing is weighted with the tourist gaze; what separates the extremes is the very awareness of that fact. The tensions within social media groups – and the tensions around the NC500 in general – are often posited as local vs visitor, the result of local residents’ inherent distrust of ‘outsiders’, the upshot of insular, inward-looking communities. The reality is much more complex, threaded with nuance around rural and urban-centred perspectives, functional and aesthetic place-relationships, the experience of a cultural, living landscape and what that really means.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the upset caused by cemetery car parks and sites of historic and cultural importance being used as park-ups for overnighters on the NC500. At a beach not far from us, a cemetery car park affords access to both daytime beach visitors and a burial ground (in some areas of the Highlands and Islands, cemeteries fringe coastal areas where the land is less rocky and easier to dig to the appropriate depth). In recent years, locals have reported distress over visitors staying overnight near the cemetery, while folk visiting the graves of loved ones have been resigned to picking their way past fires and cheery gatherings. In 2021 Highland Council banned overnight parking in cemetery car parks, although signage to this effect has been slow to manifest and was not installed at this particular location until August 2022. The perceived function of toilet facilities available in an on-site cabin perhaps illustrates the dichotomy of views on the matter of overnight parking between residents and visitors. What is viewed as a facility for day-trippers and funeral-goers by locals has been seen as an invitation to stay the night by others seeking free holidays in the north. One social media user applauded the views and facilities at the beach before bemoaning the local residents who resented people parking in the ‘specifically designed car park.’ Time and again, issues of functionality, culture and heritage illustrate the clash between local life in the Highlands and the perception of a landscape designed for leisure, where park-up apps are the last word on overnight accommodation, and influencers publish ‘ultimate guides’ to places they do not fully understand.

Although the dominance of social media-based travel influencing has impacted heavily on rural places, the influence of the NC500 brand itself cannot be underestimated. While it has been helpful to see a shift towards messaging on responsible travel from the brand this year (with the odd foray into narratives of ‘wilderness’), what many people would like to see is 1). a commitment to contribute to infrastructure in the areas NC 500 Ltd. are promoting, and/or 2). an effort to rein in (or cease) said promotion of the NC500 route. As neither of these things seems likely (NC 500 Ltd. have repeatedly stated that responsibility for infrastructure investment on the route lies elsewhere), tensions between local people and the brand are destined to remain frosty. In August 2022, Highland Council approved a Strategic Tourism Infrastructure Plan for Highland, which noted that priorities within non ‘hotspot’ areas (in places like Caithness) ‘are likely to be more reliant on local’ (as opposed to Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund) sources of funding. After the pain of recent summers, local people are increasingly mindful of the lack of community consultation at the inception of the NC500 route. The brand’s widely touted success does not, for the everyday resident, seem apparent in the things that tend to matter to people – things like the state of local roads, the availability of affordable housing, loss of services. One person’s leisurely road trip along the A9 is another person’s 100-mile journey to Raigmore Hospital for an appointment. One person’s supercar rally is another person’s journey to give birth. The means of benefitting from the success of brands like the NC500 is bound up in a much bigger story around ownership, concentration of power, displacement and dispossession. The CEO of Rural Housing Scotland recently wrote that ‘…in this 21st century Clearance, it is young people who are having to leave rural communities – not forced out in favour of flocks of sheep, but by flocks of tourists and the cash rich seeking a post-Covid rural idyll.’ With many activists now discussing ‘economic clearance’ in the Highlands, there is an irony to tourism companies posting about the Highland Clearances; the resulting comments expressing sadness and regret. Against the backdrop of areas facing challenges with services, roads, depopulation, living costs (and all the other things that bust the myth of the rural idyll), isn’t it natural that communities feel underserved and over-promoted? Isn’t it understandable for them to question: Whose success? Who benefits? Shouldn’t communities expect a symbiotic relationship with tourism in order to accept some of its inevitable ills? For many people in the north Highlands the success of the North Coast 500 has been at the expense of local people, the environment and the vitality of culturally distinct places. NC500 terminology now permeates all manner of things – road signs, business, promotional hashtags (the slide into mass homogenised culture feels all the more painful when we do it to ourselves). I’m from Caithness, a name born of our Norse and Celtic roots, a place filled with stories, folklore, people.

Names and identity matter.

I belong to Caithness and I’ll call it by its name.

Caithness Beach on Summer Solstice

The other (often overlooked) people impacted by the more negative effects of the North Coast 500 are those who wish to visit the north Highlands in a way that doesn’t cause nuisance to people or environment. Opinions on the nature of ‘responsible’ travel now vary – is it ever responsible to free park/camp up (even without leaving litter and faeces) in places suffering the cumulative impact of this new travel trend? Is leaving a digital trace of ‘wild camping’ spots really ‘sharing and caring’ or just a dizzying route to social media followers and likes? Is it necessary to leave a landscape altered and impacted by a small village of stone stacks? Is it reasonable that after so many calls for infrastructure, communities might expect visitors to stay in the facilities available, instead of parking up near houses and in car parks with half-empty campsites within sight? It should be said that 2022 has been quieter in terms of tourism than the last two years, and efforts from excellent (though under-resourced) Rangers have impacted positively. Unfortunately, the large numbers of visitors ‘doing the NC500’ means irresponsible behaviour is still a widely-reported issue and a deterrent to those not keen to be bundled up with the NC500 throng. I’ve seen reports from people visiting the north Highlands for the first time these last few years who have indicated delight in the area, and I’m glad they’ve enjoyed it. I’ve yet to meet anyone who visited regularly pre the North Coast 500 and sees the brand as an enhancement to the north. Instead, there is a sense of the loss Neil Gunn once wrote about; that regret over an age now lost to us.

Perhaps that is just the nature of progress, the ascending order of our time.

Dunnet Head sign, Caithness

Away from the headline-grabbing tales of human waste, speeding and litter there’s something deeper. Media outlets like to talk of locals ‘raging’, but what I see is sadness, profound distress. It’s something I’ve come to understand as ‘solastalgia’– a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the feeling of an ‘endemic sense of place being violated’ in a way individuals feel powerless to impact on. It’s often associated with emotions around climate change, and conveys a sense of longing, loss, nostalgia.

In the last few years, I have felt all of these things. I know I’m not alone.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I took an evening ‘run’ (drive) to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland. It was nearing sunset, and the road to the Head was punctuated with motorhomes, vehicles with roof tents and campers settled into every available roadside nook. At the top, just before the car park being trialled as an ‘invitation to pay’ stopover site, four more vans were huddled for the night, just outside the boundary where payment expectations cease to be an issue. Local residents are now also invited to pay at a number of locations we once accessed freely. Times are changing and we are expected to keep up. Dunnet Head looked familiar that night but everything was different. On the drive back, we passed the nearby campsite with its swathes of empty space. Outside the village where I grew up, we rounded the harbour past two men setting up camp close to the shoreline. Beside them was a large shovel and the two motorbikes they had negotiated around boulders set to discourage camping on the grass. Along the rest of the twisting road, vans were parked up for the night, in a place that once had other meanings, other stories.

Accept the world is changing, move on, bend, accommodate.

I think of Neil Gunn again.

Don’t cut the thing I love from under my feet and tell me to march.

Gail A Brown, 2022.

A note on comments: Having written previously about the impact of tourism on the north Highlands, I understand that this can be an emotive issue for many people. Comments are welcome, and I am always open to perspectives that do not align with mine. However, please note that comments including offensive or aggressive language will not be published. Unpleasant messages and emails directed to me privately will be deleted and ignored. I aim to be respectful in my interactions with others and hope that the same courtesies are extended in my direction. In that spirit, please keep any comments on this article within the boundaries of civility and respect.

ADDITIONAL/QUOTED REFERENCES

* Neil M. Gunn, ‘Caithness and Sutherland’, (1935), quoted from Landscape to Light.

** Neil M. Gunn, ‘“Gentlemen – The Tourist!”: The New Highland Toast’, Scots
Magazine
(March 1937).

*** Data quoted from Highland Council ‘Location Action Plans for Visitor Management’ report dated 16.2.22.

**** Official NC500 website, ‘About’ page.

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