In My Travel Opinion: Staycationing in Scotland

Scotland postcard

There are always two sides to every story.

Take the ‘news’ today that a few restaurants in the South West have left the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, complaining of overcrowding Monday – Wednesday and empty tables the rest of the week. That’s fair enough. But from my perspective, it’s a fantastic offer and I’ve enjoyed dining out in Sherborne in Dorset a few times. What’s more, I’ve noticed both cafes to be quite busy on other days.

Meanwhile in Scotland, there are tales that a new type of tourist has been invading Scotland since July: the ‘dirty’ or ‘clatty’ camper.

The Clatty Campers

A field filled with tents
Crowded tents by Edward Paterson

I first heard about the problem a few weeks back on the BBC radio programme Scotland Outdoors. Presenters Mark Stephen and Euan McIlwraith chatted to campaigner Anne Widdop who was very quite impassioned, shall we say, about what’s going on in Morar, Western Scotland:

It started on 11th July, before the 5 mile travel ban had been lifted. We had 42 tents appear on Morar beach, basically a shanty town of tents, cheek by jowl. The road was blocked with cars and camper vans, the bins were overflowing, people dumping rubbish in every nook and cranny. After the weekend, [there were] abandoned tents, camping gear, fire pits, destroying the marram grass. And the human excrement everywhere…it’s truly awful. It really is the wholesale desecration of an internationally important habitat. The responsible, sensible visitors are already saying they don’t want to visit and they don’t want to come back, entirely due to this.

Yet, when one of the presenters journeyed over to the popular Hebridean island of Mull, he found… nothing out of the ordinary. You have to pay to travel over on the CalMac ferry, but that doesn’t stop it being a hugely popular island. Clearly, dirty camping hasn’t reached every corner of Scotland.

When I dug a bit deeper to see how related to the pandemic it was, I noticed that ‘car campers ‘, as Anne calls them, aren’t a new phenomenon in Scotland, as this report from last summer shows.

But human poop in bins is not something any local should have to deal with. Couldn’t the council be doing more to assist?

Under increasing pressure, some councils are responding. Lochbroom Community Council, responsible for the area around Ullapool on the North West Coast, announced a few days ago that they’d be increasing signage towards open facilities and putting out trowels in lay-bys, as an ‘emergency last resort’ for drivers.

The Vast Majority

Three sheep in a field
Sheep on the island of Mull

The truth is, though, that the majority of Scotland’s visitors seem to be behaving themselves. Summer is always going to be a bit of a stress on locals, but perhaps it can be slightly blown out of proportion. That’s the impression I get anyway. When I asked a friend from Dundee if she’d heard of any incidents, she hadn’t. In her view, for the most part ‘locals have a charmed life up there.’

And, despite recent calls on the people behind the popular North Coast 500 driving route to stop advertising, Scotland’s tourism business can’t do without visitors. And there are plenty on their way to drive along those roads, given how much accommodation appears to be fully booked through September.

If facilities are closed, you surely can’t entirely blame tourists when nature calls. Councils should adopt more ideas from mainland Europe and New Zealand, such as creating Aires, which are car park or farm pitstops designated for caravans or cars, often free of charge. Creating permit systems for cars in beauty spots is another idea.

But with options like this not yet a reality, VisitScotland has its work cut out for the rest of the year to encourage tourism, curb dirty camping and keep locals happy. Last Monday, its Chief Executive Malcolm Roughhead promised to step up efforts, targeting novice campers and encouraging them to use official campsites.

‘I think it’s been about people who are maybe [new] to the countryside not understanding the access code, and not understanding that we have to protect those assets’.

So, how to avoid the ire of locals, and be a considerate visitor?

1. Be responsible

In the forest on a campsite at Banff National Park
A campsite in Banff National Park. We could learn a thing or two from how things are organised in North America.

The access code that the chief of VisitScotland mentions is the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. All 135 pages of it.

I’m going to bet a haggis that few members of the public have read the entire code, word for word.

So here’s a summary:

  • Take responsibility for your own actions – eg. care for your own safety, keep alert for hazards, take special care with children.
  • Respect people’s privacy and peace of mind – eg. do not act in ways that might annoy or alarm people, especially at night.
  • Help land managers and others to work safely and effectively  – eg. keep clear of land management operations like harvesting or tree-felling, avoid damaging crops, leave gates as you find them.
  • Care for your environment – treat it with care. Don’t disturb wildlife and take your litter away with you. [And don’t shit in bins].
  • Keep your dog under proper control – dogs are popular companions, but take special care if near livestock, or during the bird breeding season, and always pick up after your dog.
  • For a slightly expanded version, check out this leaflet.

It’s just common sense really – something you all have, friends of the blog!

2. Wild camp like a wild camper

Two tents on a remote mountainside
Wild camping by Dino Reichmuth

Because of the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act, the country has some of the best access rights in the world. This means that wild camping is easier. But common sense, and the code, state that even when wild camping, you should look to seek permission from landowners.

From what I’ve read, many locals and landowners are only too happy to assist in explaining where is best to wild camp, because it means that it’s being done responsibly, and you’ll be more comfortable too. Result.

Camping right next to a ‘do not camp here’ sign on the other hand? Not cool.

3. Support hostels

Gearrannan Hostel on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides
Gearrannan Hostel on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides

If you prefer a bed to a sleeping bag, booking before you go is pretty essential, unless you’re told otherwise. Some accommodation owners are understandably stipulating that walk-ins and on the day bookings won’t be possible.

A large part of this is down to the distance between guests that’s required under Covid regulations. As you’d expect, hostels have taken a huge hit because you can’t have strangers staying together in dorms.

But a healthy number are open for business. For groups of family or friends it can be good value to take over a dorm or even a whole hostel. Always worth seeing if there’ll be a hostel near you to support; You can search hostels across the UK via the Independent Hostels website or browse Scottish Youth Hostels, who have seven hostels open at the moment (if you include Cairngorm Lodge, recently renovated and re-opening on 20th August).

4. Go remote

Outlines of a loch and mountains in a remote corner of Mull
A remote corner of Mull

It can be hard to judge how popular or overcrowded certain spots will be, particularly given that Scots are rightly staycationing in their own country, reaching further afield than outsiders might. Google maps is quite handy for zooming in to remote locations to find off the beaten track accommodation. And even small villages can have their own websites with great local information.

So far though, I’ve found islands such as Orkney, Shetland and those in the Outer Hebrides (famous last words) to have the most availability at the moment. And I love how well-covered the islands are by public transport, helping those who can’t drive (like me).

And if you just can’t seem to find anything in a specific location, ask a host who is fully booked where else they’d recommend you try. Or go wild…

Me? From early September I’ll be up on the North Coast before sailing out to live the island life for a bit. Question is, what side of the story will we fall on?

You’ll have to wait and see – but whatever we do, I hope it’s not clatty.

Published by Kateonhertravels

An insatiable appetite for travel.

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