I'm sat on a rock. I'm a quarter of the way through an easy run at Huisinish. The sun is out, the views are stunning, and I'm contemplating a mid-run skinny dip on one of the deserted beaches scattered along the shore. I feel overwhelmed by gratitude: gratitude for the places I am able to go, the people I am able to meet, and the things I am able to do. My mind reels as I contemplate how lucky I am to be here, and how important it is that we nurture our ability to travel freely.
As lockdown has started to lift in the UK tourism is gradually reopening. Many more people are staying in the UK and exploring what these wonderful islands have to offer. A growing number of these are exploring by tent or campervan, and I'm one of them.
Earlier this year I bought a campervan with the intention of driving out to Europe for the summer, living the mountain life dream and running my heart out at various races. Like so many plans for 2020 it soon became apparent that this would be impossible. So, what did I do? I packed my van, bought some maps, and headed for the hills regardless. In the last six weeks I've been exploring all the parts of Scotland I haven't found time for before, and the best bit is that I've hardly scratched the surface. The last three weeks have been spent in Torridon, Applecross, Ullapool, Lewis and Harris. Tomorrow I'll be boarding a ferry and continuing to Skye. I've absolutely loved the past few weeks (midgies aside) but I can't help but notice that tourism in Scotland is changing.
Covid-19 has changed the way we live drastically, and now it is changing the way we travel. More people are coming to Scotland. They're travelling in vans and cars, camping rather rather than staying in hotels, and cooking for themselves. They're coming into fragile, vulnerable communities where the need for an economic boost is at odds with the desire to protect themselves. They're travelling to areas where the infrastructure to support them simply isn't there. Inevitably, this is causing problems.
As someone who values my right to travel but who has also seen an influx of tourists into my home area I can see the problem from both sides. We've seen the damage done to the environment through litter, fires, irresponsible parking, toileting and more. We've watched as our favourite spots have become swamped with tourists. We've worried as the virus breaks out again across the country and spreads closer to home.
I was recently given a book on campervanning around Scotland and, ironically, the most mentioned camping spot in it is a mere 300m from my family home on Lewis. Over the years we've grumbled as the beach becomes increasingly popular with campervans; we find more litter, the dunes are quickly eroding, and we've lost the remote privacy we're used to. This year the local campsite is closed and even more people are flocking to our village instead. It feels strange walking down to the beach knowing that the vans now outnumber the locals. In principle, and mostly in reality, I'm happy that tourists are coming to the island and enjoying the landscape, but that doesn't mean I don't long for the quieter days of years gone by.
Tensions between tourists and locals are on the rise: tourists are needed and feared, welcomed and scorned. Facebook posts showcase irresponsible campers, whilst local businesses use social media to plea for more visitors. CalMac now don't allow campervans on their ferries unless they've got a booking at a campsite on the island. Trowels have been left in laybys around Lochbroom for anyone who arrives unprepared. Locals lament the loss of peace whilst relying on tourists for their income. A friend was recently approached by a local and asked to explain her toileting procedure. In some cases things are escalating: towards the end of my trip I was woken in the night by a car beeping and flashing, before a man got out and started shouting. I was told that if I didn't move on he would call the police.. and shit on my van.
The problem is that just as locals vary in their attitude to the rise in campers, so the campers vary wildly in their approach. As a responsible camper it can be frustrating to be tarred with the same brush as those who blast music, litter, and light irresponsible fires. The majority are exploring the countryside because of a genuine love for the land and work hard to leave no trace behind.
There's plenty of information online about how to camp responsibly. Individuals should carry out research before they go. The basics include:
- leave no trace
- bury your poo
- park or camp away from houses
- do not use passing places
- stay in a spot for one night only
- use camping stoves instead of fires and barbecues
- support the local economy (I ate out or shopped with independent businesses everyday of my trip - if you can afford to travel, you can afford to support. Plus, it's a great excuse to eat well and buy nice things!)
What I've come to realise over the last few weeks is that we are exceptionally lucky to live in a country which allows us to explore and camp freely. This is a right which we must work hard to preserve as numbers grow. It can feel uncomfortable when your local area receives an influx of visitors, but I can't complain when I do the same to other communities. As long as campers behave responsibly I believed exploration and activity should be encouraged.
Recently I was discussing the dramatic rise in campervanners at 'our' beach with my cousin. She laments the increase in tourists to the area. However, the conclusion that we reached was that camping itself was not a problem, it was only those who do it poorly; those who leave destruction and make no contributions to the local economy. Therefore, the solution is not to remove camping rights but to educate campers. Hopefully, over time, resistant locals will come to understand that we aren't all awful and even see the benefits of camping. And I won't have to move on the the middle of the night for fear of a turd landing on my bonnet.