Reforming Scotland’s outdoor economy

blue dome tent on green grass field near mountain under white clouds during daytime

Last Wednesday I spoke in a debate on ‘dirty camping’. Over the summer, we have seen some careless, reckless, and anti-social behaviour by people visiting scenic areas of Scotland. This is a matter of great concern to many people, especially those who live in the Highlands and Islands, Perthshire, the Borders and local beauty spots across the country.

I unequivocally condemn that kind of behaviour.

However, disturbing as these incidents have been for local residents, they have not been – as media reports might have led to you to suppose – a widespread occurrence. For example, the Cairngorms National Park Board considered a paper last Friday that looked at the summer visitor experience. It observes that:

“Early August was very busy with large numbers of visitors to the park… Despite a noticeable increase in irresponsible behaviour the vast majority of visitors have been reacting favourably to information offered by the Rangers with few, but significant, occasions of difficult behaviour.”

A more detailed analysis of Badenoch and Strathspey, Deeside and the Atholl and Angus Glens says that the data “shows a relatively small… but noticeable increase in irresponsible behaviour.”

Punitive action against anti-social behaviour and littering – involving police, permits and permissions – might be appropriate in particular cases, in the short term and in specific locations, but is not an appropriate response in the medium and long term. I know from conversations with rangers and outdoor activities instructors, many of whom have engaged with so-called dirty campers, that many are cutting live wood and leaving litter out of genuine ignorance. Who is responsible for that ignorance?

For centuries the law has sought to punish those who camp, who travel and who use land for recreation. Luckily we now have some of best access legislation in Europe: it is a statutory right to camp responsibly in Scotland. During the debate, some MSPs questioned whether the laws in this area are adequate. There were suggestions that the law as it stands is not working. One suggested route forward was expanding permit zones – areas where campers must buy a permit in order to camp.

Rather than responding by reacting solely to the most extreme examples, we should ask ourselves how we can encourage people to act responsibly. We need to focus on education and on inspiring a love of outdoors amongst a generation more used to Mediterranean beaches and music festivals.

Scotland has woeful outdoor infrastructure – basic camping facilities, a woeful lack of public toilets, and so on. I have cycled in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark – these countries take outdoor recreation seriously and provide the appropriate facilities. Outdoor recreation should not be only for those who can afford a car or expensive equipment.

Outdoor recreation is also concentrated in a small number of over-visited hotspots, which have borne the brunt of recent incidents. We have a statutory right to roam, but often the land over which it is most pleasant to roam is far away from the cities where most people live.

A great deal of the accessible information online relating to outdoor activities in Scotland is ‘hitlist’ style. It focuses on must-visit spots, such as the Fairy Pools on Skye, Glencoe and Loch Lomond. As a consequence, these spots receive a disproportionate number of visitors.

We need to democratise the countryside.

That means supporting outdoor education centres, many of which are facing serious financial challenges. The Scottish Government have now said that no domestic residential school trips can go ahead in the Autumn 2020 term, leaving these centres bereft of income.

It also means ensuring ranger services have sufficient funding to protect fragile landscapes and educate visitors. The Scottish Countryside Rangers’ Association estimate that over 140 ranger posts have been lost since 2008. Rangers

Land around cities should be managed primarily for recreation, community food projects and recreational hutting rather than low output publicly subsidised agriculture so that the public have easy access to leisure opportunities.

Hutting provides a valuable opportunity to change the shape of domestic tourism and the relationship people have with the outdoors. It would also mean affordable, low-impact holidays.

Diversifying ownership of land is also part of this. I hope that where communities take over the management of the land around them, they also take the opportunity to improve access and to provide the kind of basic facilities that would allow so much more responsible enjoyment of the countryside.

More information about attractions and paths would also help issues of crowding. Path mapping projects like that currently being carried out by the Ramblers are vital in spreading visitor numbers across many areas. Information about walkable paths would also open up the countryside for many without specialist knowledge.

Finally, it means communication. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to increased campaigns around littering. However, tackling litter is just one piece of the puzzle. We need a grand reset of people’s relationship with the countryside.

None of this requires legislation. It requires funding and communication. Money spent on improved outdoor infrastructure and education saves public money – it means less money spent on cleaning up litter and policing camping hotspots. As the blogger Nick Kempe has suggested, it would be a good idea to focus the £43 million that Visit Scotland spent on marketing last year on improving infrastructure and promoting responsible enjoyment of the outdoors.

No rural community should have to feel besieged or threatened by a surge in visitors. However, this is not a problem that can be solved by punishing individuals. For decades, the services that support people to interact with the land around them have been cut. It should not surprise us when some people act out of ignorance.

13 thoughts on “Reforming Scotland’s outdoor economy

  1. We have to make up our minds to provide proper facilities for tourism or to expect difficulties with the waste produced. We are not the cleanest people in the world,just outside our towns huge amount of fly tipping is done by those who don’t t like car or home full of rubbish. We drop litter for no good reason. We all need to clean up or the entire place will become one big rubbish dump.
    Wild camping does not mean careless selfish camping . You should go with the correct equipment and take you rubbish away with you.
    Another common sight which does not help is when the bins are not big enough or emptied often enough. It also is not beyond us to have bins which are not able to be raided by birds or animals.
    Outdoor centres go a long way to help young people form groups and friendships which last a lifetime. For many this can be a first time away from home safely.
    We have so much to offer but we need to fund and respect it

  2. Councils have no obligation to provide public toilets and these are an expense they are choosing to save in these hard pressed times. Public toilets charging stations for electric bikes and litter facilities need to be part and parcel of the outdoor economy. Whither it is elderly people or people with young children, restricted in walking for health or visiting shops because there are no facilities or visitors or tourists, facilities make good economic sense for all of Scotland. These should be Nationally funded and supported. Expecting businesses to bridge the gap is not practicable in towns, never mind more rural parts. Visit Scotland have been very successful in bringing people in, they then need services. If you encourage motorhomes and campervans, the reality is they need waste disposal facilities able to cope with sanitary chemicals. Notices saying dont dispose of in this facility leads to sloping into Loch and Rivers.
    Provide showers, charge for them. It works in Europe.
    There will always be selfish people who litter and leave. That is not the majority. See this as an economic benefit for the whole country.

    1. Totally agree. We need an infrastructure that supports more motorhomes and campervans to cater for those spending money and enjoying Scotland.

    2. It would be extremely easy for public toilets, where sited in car parks, to become self funding. All that is required is the facility for motorhomes to empty black (toilet) and grey (washing up) waste, for a small fee. Where toilets exist, the cost of providing such a facility is inexpensive and would easily and quickly be recouped. If you add in the ability for motorhomers to stay overnight in the same car parks for a charge of between £5-10 per night, the councils will derive further income and local businesses will also benefit. Recent studies have shown that motorhome visitors spend in the region of £45 per day in local businesses.

    3. Very well put, I completely agree that the infrastructure is woefully lacking in Scotland and local councils/government need to look at the way facilities for motorhome/camping is supported in Europe thereby illiminating most of the problems Scotland is experiencing 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

    4. Just proper easily accessible parking in towns, well signposted would make me happy. We are a 7.3m motorhome with bikes on the back. Frequently there is nowhere large enough to park. We want to visit towns we pass, buy food and visit museums. Often the places we stay overnight are just a little too far from the towns to cycle to, or the roads are too busy for cycling. Result? We don’t visit, we buy food from large supermarkets with big carparks and cook in he van. This does not benefit the local community, whereas when we find easily accessible town centre parking we use local shops, have a coffee and often a meal.

  3. Excellent article and I agree that there are several issues to be addressed. Infrastructure is at the top of my list. We own a motorhome, which is a self contained unit. Having travelled in Europe, we have seen how welcoming local communities can be by providing proper facilities, as in a place to park overnight with facilities to empty toilet cassettes and waste water. By providing these facilities the communities reap
    the reward of the motorhomers spending money in shops and restaurants. This year camp sites have been full and overpriced or often have not been open at all ( in excess of £ 30 per night) By providing a National network of Aires, as they are called in France, Motorhome tourism can be spread more evenly and year round to everyone’s benefit. Re education, social media and TV advert campaigns, I think would be a start. I’m old enough to remember the Joe and Petunia adds.

  4. I belong to a Facebook group Called Campaign for Real Aires, CAMpRA.
    Motorhome tourism is becoming increasingly popular with the sales of campervans/motorhomes soaring making it a huge business, 280,000 registered in the UK. There is a desperate need for overnight parking/sleeping areas (Aires), for these vehicles. Providing these areas along with service points for water, and waste disposal will help control where they park. Apart from the financial benefits they bring to local communities, they also add to the security of those areas where they park helping prevent anti social behaviour such as fly tipping.

  5. At last, a well informed article which addresses the lack of infrastructure in camping and outdoor activities in Scotland. Totally agree in putting Visit Scotland funding towards this. They have achieved their goal of visitors to our beautiful country. Now it’s time to fund the services for people who are visiting.
    Thank you.

  6. Very good article and agree we need a network of aires and we would then get visitors from abroad. In stead of as all going to France etc to get the easy parking etc

  7. Couldn’t agree more. Much more thoughtful and widespread infrastructure needed along with a positive and welcoming attitude to our great outdoors.

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