Scotland has some truly special places. As Covid restrictions ease, our progressive access legislation means that they are there for everyone to enjoy.
So many people are feeling a greater need than ever to get out and explore the country we love. We are amongst them. But there are thousands of other people just like us – so keeping these places special means we all need to behave at our very best.
You will have heard about the “right to roam” – but what we actually have in Scotland is a right to responsible access. This is set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code – which governs what is responsible behaviour amongst both those of us enjoying the outdoors, and those of us working and living there. The code sets out where you can walk and how to do so without causing problems, but we’re highlighting five main issues: litter, parking, wild-camping, dogs and campervans.
We may be proud to live in such a beautiful country – but we’re not so proud of our national problem with litter. We’ve all seen the photos of left litter – whether in our countryside or in our cities; the culprits are in all parts of our society. Yes, we could really do with more or larger litter bins and more frequent collections in popular places – but if the bins are full, or there isn’t one, please take your litter with you until you can dispose of it properly.
If other people see one small item of litter, they are much more likely to go on and leave more themselves. It’s hard to change a culture overnight; the best we can do is to set a strong example, and leave no trace at all (no, not even bags of dog poo!) – and, whenever we can, remove safely any items of litter we find left by others. Taking a bag with us helps with this. The fact is that tidy places are much more likely stay tidy.
Last summer there was congestion at many locations, with difficulties around parking, understandably made much worse by people from different households having to travel in separate vehicles due to the pandemic. As with traffic congestion, there’s no point blaming other people if the car park for our intended walk is rammed full – they are just people who had the same idea we did!
On the busiest weekends, be aware that some locations – like the east side of Loch Lomond – can become difficult or impossible places to find somewhere to park. One of the original aims of Walkhighlands was to try to spread the visitor load, but it’s hard to advise on reducing impact here. When the large car parks at the busiest places are full, less popular walks often have less capacity and rely on limited roadside parking – often filled by just a couple of cars.
The Access Code doesn’t cover motorised transport, but it is how most of us reach our walks. The code advises that where there is a parking problem, landowners should get in touch with local authorities to see if a car park can be provided. But that doesn’t help you right now. So what should you do?
- always avoid parking in passing places on single track roads.
- use a car park if there is one.
- if you are heading to an area without proper car parks, be sure not to obstruct any gates or entranceways (as well as not obstructing the road itself!) Leave plenty of space around these for large vehicles such as tractors pulling trailers.
- be prepared to park further from the start of your walk in order to avoid causing problems. Using a bike to reach the start of a walk can be a great help in avoiding the busiest parking locations.
As with the car-sharing, the pandemic tends to mean that public transport isn’t such a good option. Normally, using it – especially at busy times – is a huge help, but for now, that is in the future.
Wild-camping – and fires
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows for wild-camping, but in limited numbers only and only for 2 or 3 nights in one place, leaving no trace behind. With the surge in desire to get out in the countryside, all types of accommodation in Scotland are likely to be in very high demand, whilst Covid restrictions have reduced capacity. Some campsites remained closed throughout last summer, and some are planning to do so again this year.
All of this means that for many people wild camping this year may not be done by choice, but simply as their only means of getting a much-needed trip away. This can so easily cause a major impact due to the higher numbers, so more care to reduce impact is needed than ever. If wild-camping:
- please do not have a camp fire. It’s almost impossible to leave no trace, even without high numbers of people doing it. Soils across much of the Highlands consist of flammable peat, and they remain alight underground long after you think the fire has been extinguished – a recipe for disaster. Use a stove for cooking. If you really want a camp fire, stay on a campsite that allows them and has fire pits.
- don’t use disposable barbecues – these work great at home on concrete patios or paving slabs, but in the countryside, they burn holes in wooden picnic tables, burn vegetation and set fire to the soil when used on the ground.
- do not camp anywhere near buildings or communities.
- do not camp in large groups or near other wild campers.
- leave no trace – take *everything* you bring away with you.
- take a trowel with you (they are cheaply available). If you can’t get to a public toilet, bury your poo well away from water. Seal your toilet paper in a plastic bag and take it away with you.
Free-roaming dogs are the single biggest outdoors access concern for farmers and their livestock. A single over-friendly dog can cause a pregnant ewe to abort, and far too many dog owners are unaware of the effect their dog can have. The outdoor access code applies to people walking dogs – but only when their dogs are kept under proper control, and owners are asked not to take your dog into fields where there are lambs, calves or other young farm animals. From April to July, your dogs should be kept on a short lead – or close at heel if very well-trained – in areas such as moorland, forests, grasslands, and loch shores; otherwise they will be disturbing ground-nesting birds and preventing breeding, probably without you ever being aware.
Campervans and motorhomes
Understandably, their self-contained nature means that campervans and motorhomes are seen by many as the ideal form of holiday as we emerge from a pandemic. Even before then, they were growing in popularity, following the trend of recent decades in continental Europe. These vehicles – usually with their own toilets (and bins!) on board – are a great way to see Scotland, and can reduce the excessive driving sometimes caused by travelling to-and-fro from fixed accommodation.
Unfortunately though, there have been problems on all sides. Scotland (and the UK) lags far behind other countries when it comes to disposal facilities. Roughly every 3 or 4 days campervans need to empty their toilet waste, and we have very few facilities provided for this, made worse by the fact that fluid is still sold that can’t be disposed of in the septic tanks common in the Highlands. Many of what would be the most responsible parking spots have had overnight stays forbidden. On the other hand, a large proportion of tourers in Scotland are using hire companies, and many people are not aware of what is regarded as good etiquette when not staying on a campsite.
- if faster traffic is behind you, pull over to allow them to pass (use passing places on single track roads).
- park responsibly; leave space for others and never block whole parking areas by parking across to try to ‘reserve’ more space.
- always dispose of toilet waste responsibly; due to lack of facilities in UK this often means you will need to use a campsite. Note that unlike abroad, many campsites here won’t allow disposal unless you are staying at least one night. Use only eco toilet fluid.
- do not empty your fresh water tank in public. It may be harmless, but people who do not know how campervans work often assume the water coming from beneath a van to be toilet waste, and then post about it on social media or tell others. Empty any fresh water left on your driveway at home if you have to. Grey water should be disposed of at a manhole or on a campsite with a suitable facility.
- when not on a campsite, observe the same rules as on aires in France or other countries – this means no ‘camping behaviour’ – use of chairs, tables, awnings, barbecues etc. are all reserved for campsites only.
- do not park up near houses or where likely to cause a nuisance.
Residents and visitors
Some of us are lucky enough to live in a place so beautiful that many other people love to visit it. This has been even more the case during the pandemic, when we’ve had more headspace and access to the outdoors compared to those who live in cities.
As we reach a time when travel restrictions are eased, what those of us living in the Highlands or other rural communities do to play our part? Like last year, this is going to be a difficult summer, especially since car numbers are even higher due to people needing to travel separately. Try not to be tempted to block off or reduce access or parking from what there has been previously. Remember that when we do this, those visitors don’t vanish, they head somewhere else nearby which becomes ever busier, and that cumulatively this increases rather reduces the problems. There are some Corbetts for instance where there is now literally no suitable place where people have not been officially banned from parking – effectively meaning there is no access except for those willing to ignore signs. Do we wish to make ignoring signs a necessity?
Some people do indeed behave terribly; if you see illegal behaviour, then do report it, either to local rangers or the police, as appropriate. However, remember that the majority of visitors really don’t want to cause any problems, and perhaps you could help them avoid doing so whilst they enjoy their visit. Do not tar everyone with the same brush; it may be hard sometimes, but things will only improve when people on all sides treat each other with more respect.
The key to a better future is based on respect – both respect from visitors for local residents, and respect from local residents for our visitors.