Scottish news headlines and social media periodically fill with alarm that rural Scotland - the Highlands and Islands specifically - are being “swamped”, “trashed” and generally inundated by an “out of control” volume of tourists which communities are ill-equipped to cope with. Disquiet is chronic. It swells on queue with the summer tourist season and has been inflamed by the popularity of the North Coast 500 in recent years. This time, it is encouragement of ‘staycations’ and the general phenomenon of lockdown tourism which have raised the alarm.
Larger than narrow NIMBYism, unease is not without warrant. The inadequacy of the region’s infrastructure at the best of times has long been highlighted. Roads are narrow, services limited, and options for proper waste disposal scarce. The result is that overcrowding has become a staple of the tourist season. It is not uncommon for single-track roadsides to be lined by cars and campervans whose owners, unfamiliar with driving etiquette on these roads, block passing places and prevent essential access and movement. Car parks and villages too can become impromptu campsites.
Concerns, however, generally centre on ‘dirty camping’ by a minority of visitors: an irresponsible use of land in which campers pitch tents in inappropriate places, abandon camping gear and rubbish, scorch the ground with fires and cut greenwood, and leave human excrement and tissues where there should only be footprints. In the context of Covid-19, these same pressures are being laid upon the shoulders of a barely operational hospitality sector and services which are having to deal with even further reduced capacities. Couple this with a reminder of the Highland Council’s decision to permanently close public toilet facilities across the region last year, and the problem becomes increasingly evident.
The situation raises a few questions, not least of which concern the sustainability of Scotland’s ‘Right to Roam’ legislation. The 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act protects the public’s right to enjoy the natural beauty of Scotland and provides for freedom of access to most land for recreational purposes. In light of ongoing issues over irresponsible land use and overcrowding, where does this leave land rights in Scotland?
Arguably, it leaves land rights untouched. It is not access to land that is the problem, but education. The exemptions to the right as outlined in Section 2 (c) of the 2003 act are based upon the premise that land use must be responsible, the onus is almost always upon the conduct of the public. It is a classic case of rights and responsibilities: irresponsible land use invalidates the right to roam. The partner document to the 2003 Act, the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, clearly outlines the proper ways in which the public must exercise their rights to the land and leave no trace. Perhaps more attention should be paid to the promotion of the code, particularly among those least familiar with rural Scotland, rather than leaping to the abolition or dilution of land access.
This means that the introduction of charges, or even the extension of regulations such as those that exist in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, perhaps to other beauty spots or throughout the country generally, would be an overreaction. These are terms which would undermine the ethos of the hard won legislation, which prides itself on ensuring that Scotland’s land is always a resource for all people to enjoy. It is also a principle that goes some way to altering the conception of land as an essentially private commodity. Now is not the time to jump at legislative reform; instead, the focus should be shifted to better education surrounding the accompanying responsibilities outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
But what of those allegedly responsible visitors? Certainly, lockdown in Partick is different from lockdown in Plockton. It’s a banality, but the lived reality of Covid-19 is not the same across Scotland. Restrictions can seem far more oppressive in congested inner city areas of the central belt - perhaps in a flat without outside space - in comparison to a hamlet in the North West Highlands. Scots have been permitted to leave their homes for essential activities like exercise but until the 3rd of July, a 5-mile local travel limit was in place meaning opportunities for access to green space have been severely unequal. It is unsurprising, then, that the easing of lockdown restrictions and encouragement of ‘staycations’ has meant many based in the cities have sought refuge and a bit of breathing space in the relatively accessible rural areas of Scotland.
Covid-19, then, has added a further layer to established worries. How is social distancing regulation to be maintained in busy tourist destinations and what of the possibility of introducing the virus into fragile rural communities? Overcrowding dons a far more insidious guise in a pandemic. Rural communities are particularly vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19: the population is older on average. This is a cohort to which the virus poses a higher risk; hence many have been shielding. In the event of transmission, access to health care is tenuous. There is a limited supply of ICU beds (28) and ventilators available to NHS Highland and the sheer distance between and sparsity of hospitals in rural Scotland must be stressed. Inverness’ Raigmore is the only District General Hospital under the Health Board, and there are just three more Rural General Hospitals intended to serve 320,000 people spread over 32,500 square kilometres. Locals in Highland villages have reported that, even with eased regulations, they are choosing to isolate in their homes while tourists enjoy their towns. They simply see the situation as too dangerous.
As such, absent from this conversation about land rights and education so far has been the issue of ‘wilderness’. Simply teaching the public how to properly use the toilet in the hills will not qualm the concerns of locals. The root of the problem seems to lie in the national imagination and the misty idea of ‘The Highlands’ itself. In the Scottish (and indeed, British) psyche, the Highlands are constructed as a wilderness. A product of 18th century romanticism, the upshot has been that the perception of this area of the country as a mysterious landscape untouched (or rather, untainted) by human lives is stuck stuff. A problem arises when imaginings of this sort pave the way for an understanding of the area as the ‘back garden’ or playground of the nation. The Highlands and Islands are reduced to a scenic expanse which exists solely for the purpose of satisfying the leisure pursuits of a majority-urban nation (overcrowding from lockdown tourism is equally an indictment of the lack of green spaces in the central belt).
Yet this is a construction which obscures the reality of the Highlands. Far from a wilderness, more than 230,000 people live within the jurisdiction of the Highland Council alone, a figure which does not include those whose home is in Na h-Eileanan Siar, Argyll and Bute, Stirling, Perth and Kinross, and even areas not traditionally regarded as ‘Highland’ yet rural nonetheless: Moray, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, the Orkney Islands, and Shetland Islands. Rural Scotland is as much filled with homes, workplaces, and communities as the urban areas most are familiar with. This fact itself problematises the possibility of curbing land access rights - would locals then have access to the land around their homes? Tellingly, adding people into the discussion of Scotland’s land seems to complicate the issue of land rights. When an understanding of the Highlands as a ‘wilderness’ is adopted, the people who live in these areas are forgotten, the land rendered empty, and lockdown retreats are not scrutinised as they should be.
It becomes clear that the easing of restrictions can certainly mean that more of us are able to return to a degree (or semblance) of normality, yet this is happening at the expense of others. Visitors, no matter how benevolent their intentions, must recognise that they present a risk in the current situation. By no means is this to suggest that visitors to the Highlands are always unwelcome. The land remains an asset for all in Scotland to draw upon and communities are clear in emphasising the necessity of the tourist industry to local economies, but the enthusiasm with which the Highlands and Islands have been presented as an ideal, home-spun alternative to an overseas summer holiday destination has been reckless. It has failed to adequately emphasise that responsibilities towards the land and people are part and parcel of access rights in Scotland. If changes to land access rights cannot be on the cards, consideration for local communities must be a key-component of any visits to rural Scotland. Respecting the environment is one thing, respecting communities is another.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code: https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/practical-guide-all
Photography: Emily Donnelly