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, and each of them turned 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 place 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 19351, 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 19372, 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 resident and a member of local litter picking groups, 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 the north, 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 reach for 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.
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 season3, 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 reach4 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 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’, 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) 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 comment threads bursting with regret and sadness. 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.
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 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 wary of being 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.
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 littered 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.
- 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, 16.2.22.
- Official NC500 website, ‘About’ page, 2022.
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I feel your distress. For decades I’ve visited your beautiful countryside to walk and climb, believing in the tenets of ‘take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints’. The land and the solitude, the birds and deer, have all combined to make this a most enchanting land in which to immerse oneself to escape the grind of modern life.
I was staying in Durness when the inaugural convoy of the NC500 passed, and since that time, for the next four years, saw the increasing ‘bucket list’ mentality of tourists (as opposed to visitors), and talking to local people my partner and I had got to know over the years, learned that not all were thrilled by the prospect of unbridled tourism.
The joy of the Highlands was the thrill of solitude, waking up to the spectacle of wide skies, rugged coastlines, and imperious crags, when wild camping. We were always aware we were visitors, allowed to share what you had on your doorstep. Since the pandemic, we have not visited, and like you feel sad that such changes have occurred. We only hope that the NC500 will become a fad, and that you will have the various beauty spots to yourself again soon.
Thanks for your comment, Russ. I’m sorry to hear that the last few years have impacted your experience as a long-time visitor. I hope that in the future you’ll get to enjoy the Highlands once again.
I think this is a very good article. The concept of ‘free/wild’ is very misleading. People are taking advantage of infrastructure to reach their chosen spot, usually roads, but are not contributing to the local economy in any way which has provided these local amenities/facilities.
There needs to be much more discussion about how visitors can contribute to the local economy from buying supplies in local shops to paying for accommodation.
I am currently in Orkney visiting family and have been surprised at the increased number of people free camping, quite often in sites car parks, so making it difficult for others to visit.
Thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts on this, Sarah.
A brilliant article.Your writing is powerful on this subject…..I hope the promotors of tourism on the nc500 will take on board some of the issues to be resolved.but I fear they have no conscience in this matter
Thank you, Meg.
Such an interesting article. In many ways I feel some of the same feelings here on the canal. In the last three days I have had three hire boats smack into my boat. Often the multitude of passengers are whooping and hollering, drunk and unaware that this is actually my home; that we live here on this water, trying to be as much at one with nature as possible. I watch huge fancy boats not fit for these waters as they carve up the banks where moorhens will nest in spring. It makes me sad. But who am I to decide who has the right to enjoy the canals? I have been a long-term van traveller too and have definitely felt unwelcome in places but we humans used to move…to higher and lower ground. So when did the transition come to “we now live in one place”? I have a gypsy soul, feeling pulled to many places, wondering why there have ever been boundaries put on this earth…And I believe myself to be a considerate and quiet traveller, whether by boat, foot, or wheels, but what do others think of me? Perhaps what I think of others, here on the water… The truth is, the world is changing. Social media has a lot to answer for—everything has a lot to answer for. For our inability as people to be respectful and peaceful. People have changed and perhaps there is the problem. I don’t know what the answer is…I don’t really know what else to say…only that I think I understand some of your feelings but I do not know how things will play out. Perhaps just with a sadness towards the human race…Most importantly, though, your words make me think and if we can think then we can be in conversation and if we can be in conversation then perhaps, one day, we will all feel less unwelcome.
Thanks Alice, for your thoughtful, insightful comments. So many conversations to be had around all of this. As you suggest, a good starting point is opening up a discourse on how we all move through this world (and our impact on others and their environments in doing so). Thanks again for reading and engaging with the piece.
Another well written and thought provoking article Gail and as usual your passion and love shine through.
When I first came to Caithness in 2016, it enveloped me with its beauty, it’s remote wildness and clean air. I’d travelled there alone, but I felt safe and at ease. Local people welcomed me and were keen to know why I’d ventured to their area and I experienced a connection that has drawn me back at least once a year since – with the exception of lockdown. Caithness may be remote and, in places wild, but it isn’t a wilderness, or a last frontier to be conquered as part of a ‘to do’ list.
On the back of the NC500 ‘success’ my own area now has the NLand250, which giving its branding and logo, I believe is promoted by the same aggressive marketing company and they also lease defender land rovers with roof tents for travellers. We do have the plus point that wild camping isn’t allowed in England, however there has been a huge amount of ‘wild with consent’ camps set up all along the route. Like the NC500, the route does encompass small villages without the infrastructure to cope, however they are not overwhelmed at present and I hope they don’t become so, but it is early days for this route as it’s only been promoted over the last couple of years. I do fear what will become of these lovely, quaint places in future years.
I recognise that social media is as much a double edged sword as tourism can be, bringing with them both business and problems alike and I don’t know what the answer is to this – I do think much of problem is a symptom of modern life and it’s need for instant gratification, rather than the slow reward gained from taking time to learn, time to feel and time to just be still and at one with a place. I personally do not understand the need for ‘likes’ from unknown followers. Don’t get me wrong, I do share photos on social media, however my friends list is limited to family and a select few friends, is not public and I know those there can be trusted to share my life and enjoy it with me, rather than add the places to their own ‘list’ to then compete with me for a better photo or experience etc.
@wanderingalice mentioned that it seems like people have changed and I would agree with that to a point, I do think there are still a lot of respectful people, but I also think that the ‘media world’ seems to be dominated by a selfishness and that unfortunately this is spilling over into real life.
I’m looking forward the going north again later this year and will continue to do so in further years. I hope I will still find like minded people to connect with, who enjoy the stillness and being still and that local people recognise, we are not part of the invasion, but should who love their world as much as they do.
Thank you for your thoughtful words, Linda. I hope you enjoy your next visit north, I’m sure you’ll always find like-minded people here.
Thank you for a well written and thoughtful article.
My husband and I used to visit the Highlands twice a year in our motorhome. We started doing this about 2004 and loved our visits. We stayed mainly on campsites with an occasional night roadside parking in out if the way areas.
We always took great care not to be a nuisance to anyone and made friends with many locals. We never left anything behind.
When the NC5OO appeared, a route we had completed many times before it had a name, we were dismayed. The Highlands would become a nightmare, much like the Lake District which is a few miles north of our home.
We stopped coming to the Highlands, it was no longer enjoyable and we didn’t want to add to the problems of the locals.
My heart goes out to you all and I would like to thank you for the many trips we did enjoy.
Thank you for your comment, Shirley. I really hope that in the future you can enjoy visiting the Highlands once again.
Puts my own feelings and thoughts into an excellent article.
Thank you, Anne.
couldn’t have put it better, (literally, I couldn’t) Many thanks for this eloquent and heartfelt article, it is a shame it is needed, but we who live in Northern Scotland have had enough, an article such as this may help make our voices heard, Thank you.
And thank you for reading, Edward and June.
As someone who lives and has a tourism reliant business on Skye I think it will always be difficult to get the balance right. We rely on tourists for much of our income but I am still horrified when I see the damage caused by people visiting. Things like the park4night app telling people where they can stop for free and the regular posts on facebook groups asking for “wild-camping” locations don’t help. I passed someone who had set up their roof tent on the end of someone’s drive last week.
There seems to have been a loss of peoples sense of adventure, I used to go on holiday knowing a few places I wanted to visit but also wanting to explore and find things for myself. Now people seem to want a list of what to see, where to stop and where to eat and they plan an itinerary to the last minute. I don’t know what the answer is, but I fear people who used to visit every year will stop coming and we will be left with the ones seeking an instagram moment without any understanding of the Highlands and the people who live here.
I fear the prophesy of your last sentence is coming to pass. My partner & I annually spent time in the north of Scotland but have refrained from doing so now because of the volume of traffic, tourists, and the ‘instagram’ effect. Like you, we loved serendipitous travelling, exploring either by car, cycling, or on foot, the myriad of small roads and tracks, whether it be a full blown tour, or visiting places from a static site, spending the odd night abroad from our base. Finding beautiful glens and coves to camp in that had not been occupied for decades and waking up to bubbling brooks, or the sound of the sea made even the odd skirmish with the dreaded midge worthwhile; that, and the wonderful seafood to be found at the likes of Kylesku Hotel (my mouth is almost watering at the thought of the scallops freshly harvested there…..).
I have noticed a few comments such as this from those who regularly travelled your wonderful roads, yet hope that this ‘staycation’ rush will eventually be a fad, and that responsible tourists/visitors will re-emerge and once again enjoy the genuine hospitality you offer.
Good luck with your business.
Well put, I know exactly what you mean and have felt these things myself.
Something else that bears on this, a touchy subject I know, is the amount of incomers now living in the Highlands, many of whom originally visited as tourists I suspect. Someone writing on tourism and the sense of place here (can’t remember the guy’s name) quoted Maya Angelou, who said: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”, this is a feeling that has been growing for me in the last decade or so, but I’m from here, have always lived here (Ross). I did used to feel, without realising it, that I could simply be myself here and be accepted and well understood, it was just the unquestioned assumption that that’s how life was, why should I seem odd, uncouth, quaint or alien?
Nowadays I feel these things pretty regularly, I’m not “broad spoken”, a pretty average young-ish man from my own area, but the only other Scottish person living on the little lane I’m on is from the central belt, everybody else is from England. People who bought the houses here as the previous inhabitants died or went into care, with their kids having moved away and never returned, one house is on airbnb, most of the others are retired, I live with my partner and a parent. Of course people are people wherever you go, I get on with them, but still there is certainly this feeling for me that I’m the outsider here now. Apart from my accent, there is a difference of mentality, values, norms etc. I don’t fit the norms of the areas which they come from, expect as universal and for the most part find as universal in each other.
Something this makes me realise is that there is in fact a unique and distinct Highland culture, it’s hard to pin down or illustrate something like culture (especially when somebody wants to deny its existence, or has that kind of reductive consumer mindset) without getting fixated on a few surface level expressions of it, like a particular music, comfort food, or using parables. When the culture you feel at home in is vanishing though you certainly feel it, especially when it seems to exist nowhere else and you can’t see any long term way to stay in the area. How people can move here without feeling a sense of intrusion I don’t know, I would feel incredibly guilty if I moved to East Anglia and found most people greeting me with something along the lines of “hi aye mannie how ya doing the day?” with seldom a young English person to be seen.
I agree entirely with your sentiments. I can’t bring myself to visit the North Highlands anymore. I’ve both worked, lived and taken holidays in the West Highlands and the Islands for over 50 years but the volume of tourism around the NC500 and Skye, driven by social media, is dramatically changing the culture in a negative way. I’m not optimistic that the Highlands will ever recover.
I’m from Caithness but now live in England. Responsibilities have prevented me from returning for several years but now I wonder if I will get a shock when I do manage to visit. The wonderful wildness of Caithness and the feeling of nature being relatively untouched was an important part of my youth. I’m afraid of the disappointment I may feel when I come across familiar areas that are spoiled by the lack of respect and pure laziness of some of these visitors. I can remember my mother used to say that the air in Caithness was so clean and fresh that it ‘tasted like champagne’. Well, the air may still be clean, But she’s have been grieved to see the countryside she loved being used as a dumping-place for rubbish and human waste. I can only hope that there’s a way of encouraging tourists to be more responsible and thoughtful towards the place they visit. Thank you for an excellent read!
The first time we visited Caithness was in 2010 (oh my, the years pass quickly do they?), we fell in love and we’ve come again and again since then. We love the area, we love the people, made friends there and always take our time when we come up. This year we went with out dog for the first time and he loved it too. 😀
Even for us, as visitors, it’s clear that a lot of things have changed and we to see the decline in the roads, the way the roads are abused, the litter people leave behind and the haste a lot of people have. Never understood why people are “doing the NC500” quickly, there is so so much to enjoy, to experience, to see and it’s when you make time to truly be somewhere that you truly begin to “feel” a place.
Unfortunately people nowadays just want to tick things off a list, sort of a ‘been there, done that, look I got the Insta the proof it” instead of be somewhere and really experience a place. What also doesn’t help is the whole “the best part of the NC 500 is the west” thing people are telling each other, as if the true north or the east doesn’t have anything to give and is just something you have to see quickly to get to the best part.
I do think the NC500 company has a responsibility, an obligation even, towards Caithness and Sutherland and it’s people to invest in the area, they are the ones that are promoting it, they should be aware (and I am sure they are) what the influx of people is causing. Just a note saying “Please be responsible as you explore – remember to plan ahead, be flexible, and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access code. For some this is an adventure, for others it’s home. Please respect the land and the local communities. #leavenotrace” at the end of their social media posts isn’t enough and don’t believe it has got a lot of effect. They can do more and should do more.
Hopefully in the next years it will get better for you all. There’s not much we can do to help, apart from being responsible tourists, but we will always tell people, if we hear them wanting to go there, that they should take their time, stay at local places and just enjoy the area instead of racing through.