Life under lockdown: Stories from those working in rural tourism and the outdoors

Scotland has been in lockdown now for more than eight weeks, and many of us have been missing getting out in the hills or visiting our favourite places. But how is this affecting the businesses that serve us all?

Tourism is Scotland’s biggest employer, providing more jobs than oil, food and drink, financial services or manufacturing, across the whole country. But it’s even more crucial to communities in remoter areas like the Highlands and Islands. Not only do so many people here work directly in tourism, but other rural businesses such as retail and construction also depend on money from tourism for much of their income.

Many tourism jobs are in the thousands of small, diverse businesses based across rural areas like the Highlands and Islands, which means that a higher proportion of the income from visitors spending tends to stay and circulate locally. In some areas it’s been estimated that tourism contributes up to 80% of all economic activity. It’s what makes many fragile remote communities viable.

So what effect has lockdown had so far – and what comes next? We’ve been catching up with some of the businesses that usually serve Scotland’s walkers and outdoors-lovers, to hear about their experiences, how they are coping and their take on the future.

the independent hostel owners

Keith and Davina Melton run the Glencoe independent hostel and bunkhouse, which also has self-catering accommodation.

“We knew quite a few weeks before that lockdown was inevitable,” says Keith. “We were extremely scared and worried – quite literally having panic attacks. As well as the health side of things we did not know how the business (our sole livelihood) would survive. We were really concerned about keeping a roof over our heads and feeding ourselves and the kids.”

The Meltons had to make one staff member redundant, and put the other four onto furlough. They’ve already lost a third of their usual annual turnover, and the loss of another third looks likely.

“This income helps us stay afloat over the cash-draining winter months so not sure how that will work,” says Keith. “I’ve taken a job in the local Co-op, and am currently looking for a full time job somewhere to see us through.”

“We have some key workers coming to stay in the hostel shortly for an extended period, so that will help us stay afloat a while longer. We’re also trying to juggle home schooling and of course keeping on top of the business admin and enquiries.”

So how do the Meltons’ see their business in the future, as lockdown eases?

“We anticipate a really bumpy few years so we are cutting costs by renting our house out and moving back into a park home (big caravan) onsite. We’ve already sold our wee touring caravan so no holidays for a while.”

“Our self catering accommodation can run quite well in the new circumstances. People are isolated by our location and the privacy of the accommodation.”

“Our hostel and bunkhouse are more problematic and we need to wait for further guidelines. Our initial thoughts are to run at less than 100% capacity and designate each room a specific bathroom to use. Kitchens would still be shared but we’d allocate times for each room and disinfect in between guest use. We may still be able to offer both buildings at full capacity for our usual lovely outdoor groups.”

the outdoors cafe

Kirsten and Al Gilmour run the Mountain Cafe, in Aviemore, providing locally-sourced food and renowned cakes with a Kiwi feel. The cafe normally serves 70,000 meals a year and employs 20 staff; over the 16 years since they started the business, it’s become a much-loved institution in the Strathspey area.

Kirsten Gilmour baking from home

Like the Meltons, they knew what was coming before lockdown was announced.

“We actually closed the doors before we were forced to,” explains Kirsten.  “We just felt that we had a moral and social responsibility to both customers and staff. It just didn’t feel it was possible to look after everyone and stay viable. Although we were full right up to closing.”

“It felt unknown, strange, scary and daunting. How could we look after the staff? How would we survive? How long was it going to last? So many questions.”

So how has lockdown turned out?

“​It has been incredibly difficult,” says Kirsten. “Emotionally and financially.”

“We have had to furlough all of the staff. We have received no other financial support. We have fallen through the cracks at every stage so far with regards government support.”

A plan was hatched. “So, to survive at all, I have started baking from the house, running a wee pop-up bakery. This was primarily to try and pay the local supplier’s invoices we were due on closing. The larger bills like taxes would have to wait. This has involved many 20 hour work days and a load of adjustments to our house.”

“Due to the fact we have just come out of a particularly quiet winter carrying a full team in readiness for a busy spring and summer season we were already carrying a substantial financial burden. The sudden stopping of all income was really damaging in many ways, mentally and obviously financially. A huge stress. “

“But change is needed and baking from the house was one new way to go. It has been both challenging and incredibly rewarding. The community support has been immense.”

“We have had to commit to a bank loan. In the short term this has taken the pressure off. But we certainly wouldn’t have chosen to put ourselves into debt at this point.”

“One thing we are well aware of is this virus has had a massive effect on all walks of life, including business. We have therefore been working hard to collaborate with a range of small local businesses to try and protect and look after what we have on our doorstep – both financially and emotionally.”

“This is a very lonely time for many self employed and small business owners. We feel it is essential to all work together in these hard times.”

Kirsten cycling up the A939 to make a delivery during lockdown

How do the Gilmours see the future?

“Learning to adapt is key as we move forwards. The new norm is full of opportunities but it will be a difficult journey to get there.”

“​As we move forwards there are almost too many changes likely to mention. We are still learning. It is such a dynamic situation and the situation changes almost daily. Certainly weekly. The future still contains so many unknowns. So much uncertainty and confidence to plan is low. The following 12 months will still carry massive risks. The following Spring will be a key time as well.”

“We will constantly need to be dynamic, we will need to embrace change.It will be a different business we run if we want to survive in many ways.The one thing we do know is that there is a way of getting through this. It will be difficult mind. We will need, though, to work hard to manage all the risks, both to the business but also to our staff and customers.But there are opportunities and there is a future. “

the skye bed and breakfast

Kirsty Faulds and Simon Wallwork run the Glenview, a bed and breakfast on Skye’s Trotternish peninsula, where they’ve lived for 12 years. They also run two linked businesses on site – The Isle of Skye Natural Dye company, and a yoga studio.

“When we first heard we had to close there was a huge mixture of feelings,” says Kirsty. “2 of our B & B rooms are in our family home and we had obvious concerns about that, so in a way there was relief knowing we wouldn’t have to make that decision. But also absolute financial panic – we had just come through our winter where we have paid for some more upgrades and were completely relying on an early season start to replenish the bank account.”

Simon, Kirsty and their family on Skye

“We are very fortunate in that we changed our business to being self employed with no staff some time ago– so we did not have to cope with that issue. Refunding deposits has been the most emotionally worrying activity – totally understandable but none the less each time we have to do it we sink deeper in debt and it can really put us in a worrying place. “

“We have two boys so the juggle of trying to be active in home schooling but trying to keep the momentum and productivity up in our yarn and yoga business is a real challenge and usually leaves us feeling like failures on all levels!”

Simon has started teaching his yoga classes online via Zoom. “He does 6 classes a week and although the price of an online class is half that of a face-to-face class, it’s been important for him, not just to bring in a small income but also to feel he is offering help, continuity and community.”

“The yarn business already had an online shop but typically 80 percent of our takings came from island visitors, in the bricks and mortar shop.  So I am trying to improve my online marketing and social media presence to try and push the online sales. In between home school lessons I am also experimenting with different dye techniques – something that I have always wanted to do but never somehow had the opportunity – it is a welcome distraction!”

“I think I try and put the importance of our mental health first and foremost in each day.  So what if we don’t achieve every bit of school work, or that the motivation to dye yarn has slipped. Getting out every day for walks and runs has been an absolute saviour and the fact that we have such beauty on our doorstep makes us think there is no better place to do lockdown.”

The future looks uncertain.

“It is so hard to know how the tourism trade will grow back on Skye. We have 3 letting rooms and at the moment we are considering just letting 2 as they are at the opposite side of the house from each other, thereby keeping people apart.  We have talked about staggering breakfast times or just closing the guest lounge and serving breakfast in individual bedrooms to help stop mixing of people.”

“The yarn shop should be okay – I will be masked up and ask customers not to touch the yarn before they decide to buy (very difficult to do for any yarn lover!) Yoga may have to remain online for a while longer or see more one to one classes rather than large groups. We are just going to keep an open mind and keep adapting where we have to and putting out mental and physical health and that of our customers first.”

the mountain guides

Matt Barratt, John Smith and Sarah Sutton own and run Skye Adventure, taking small groups, families and individuals mountaineering and climbing mostly in the Cuillin. They also do a lot of coasteering, canyoning and climbing all round the island. There has also been involvement with the film and TV industry, working on SAS Who Dares Wins, and with athletes like Danny MacAskill.

The Skye Adventure team

“It’s been an ever changing situation,” says Matt. “At first we thought we’d have a short period of not working but being able to get into the hills ourselves. Once it became apparent how serious the situation was, it became very worrying indeed about how things were going to turn out both for the country and business specifically.”

“The government support of wages was a major turning point in being able to deal with the situation in a more relaxed fashion.”

“Under the current lockdown restrictions, it’s not been possible to carry out any of our normal business so we’ve had to furlough our staff. We have sold some clothing merchandise and been involved in planning for some future TV projects on the island, so that’s been a real positive.”

“We’ve also been baking for community food groups, shopping for elderly neighbours and trying very hard to stay fit by cycling, mountain biking, running and doing many online yoga and pilates classes too!”

As for the future? “We will get to see exactly how many people live within a realsitic day trip of Skye to start with! On a lot of our activities we will have to dial back the level of risk that has been acceptable so that we are able to maintain a physical distance.”

“Activities such as hill walking will be a lot easier to do than the full on mountaineering where physical proximity is unavoidable. As a whole it is also going to be a while before the community up here is fully comfortable with the resumption of large numbers of visitors. So I guess we are going to see things scaled back a lot in terms of numbers, but we are very hopeful that perhaps we will see a lot more local people enjoying activities in the outdoors.”

the walkers’ inn

The Clachaig Inn in Glencoe occupies a special place in the outdoors community, with so many tales of the day’s mountaineering exploits shared in its, always lively, Boots Bar, backed by weekly live music. The Inn also has 23 bedrooms and is very busy for food as well as drink.

So how did co-director Ed Daynes feel when lockdown was announced?

Ed Daynes

“Initially, with some relief, after the complete fudge of the earlier message to ‘avoid pubs’, as it made things much clearer. But that quickly turned to sheer desperation as the reality of stopping a business dead in its tracks began to sink in. We were at the lowest ebb in our annual cash flow cycle, had built up stocks, staffing levels and were ready for the onslaught of Easter trading. Some very, very dark days followed.”

All the staff had to be furloughed, except for one retained to help with processing all the booking cancellations.

“My brother and co-director and I have been trying to keep on top of the masses of admin, and have also been trying to engage with followers on social media, as many care passionately about the glen and their ability to visit it. With no grant support we, and the business, are living off reserves.”

How will things be different in the future?

“The Clachaig is a social animal. It’s all about getting together, most often after a day in the hills. Being ‘socially distant’ therefore doesn’t compute. We anticipate that for the coming months we’re going to be food led, with a maitre d’ required to manage numbers and (socially distant) seating.”

“Just talking about the very idea of it feels like the character that defines our business has been lost already. We can see a way of surviving as a business, but we’re a business that thrives, and that’s a much harder prospect to imagine at this time.”

the outdoor gear shop

Munros is a family run outdoor equipment shop based in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, since 1989. They produce a range of mountain t-shirts (sold online as well as in-store) and cater for visitors and day-trippers as well as a local base.

Owner Rod Munro feels that by mid-March, most people knew lockdown was coming. “It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, and yet when the announcement was made it seemed sudden and it felt like a hammer blow.  Having to abruptly close the shop midway through a day’s trading added to the sense of shock.”

Rod Munro, in his store in Aberfeldy

“Apart from occasional internet sales, all income has stopped, while the overheads continue, so the small business grant we received from the government really has been a lifeline.  This will only keep us going for a short time and it feels like a race against time to reopen and salvage at least some of the summer tourist season.”

He sees recovery as taking a long time. “In contrast to the start of lockdown, the easing will be very gradual and it seems certain that social distancing will be encouraged long after shops have opened up once again.  With this in mind,we’ve been looking into floor markings, signage and hand sanitisers for our shop, in advance of us re-opening.” 

“I can’t see things getting back to normal during the remainder of this year, so for us the ‘new normal’ might mean less long distance and overseas tourists, but more locals and visitors from nearby areas.”

“Hillwalking has always been at the core of our business and during lockdown all hillwalkers, me included, have been yearning for the freedom to get back into the mountains once the restrictions are lifted, so perhaps the longer term prospects for our industry will not be quite as bad as we fear…”

the island self-catering business

Carolyne Charrington runs Treshnish holiday cottages with her husband Somerset from their coastal farm on the Isle of Mull, where they also keep five hundred sheep – and have won an RSPB award for their nature-friendly farming practices. Their business has eight cottages, four in a remote position along a farm track, and four around the steading, overlooking the sea.

Carolyne explains their reaction on hearing the news of lockdown. “We feared this would happen as soon as we heard of the initial outbreak in Europe, but the reality was very strange, just as we had got the cottages all ready for the first guests of the season.  We miss our guests!  We have lived here for 25 years and we’ve always had guests staying throughout the season, so it feels very quiet without them.”

The Charringtons, at Treshnish

“We got our daughter safely back from uni and locked down as a family,” she explains. “The two permanent staff who work with us on the cottages have been furloughed.”

“There is always plenty to do on the farm so day to day life continues to be busy.”

They feel very lucky to live in such a rural location as Mull. “Not only do we have space and beauty around us but we are also well supported by a huge community of volunteers who are out delivering shopping, prescriptions and other necessities.  Everyone is pulling together, which is lovely. Local fishermen have been selling their catches within the community whilst their usual markets are closed.”

“It has been, and still is, an extremely worrying time for our business but we are determined to adapt and do whatever we can to keep going.  We have already decided to postpone several new cottage projects as a consequence.  It is difficult not knowing when we will be allowed to reopen, and what systems we will have to be put in place to ensure guests, staff and our community are kept safe.   We look forward to being able to welcome our guests back to this beautiful place – at a safe distance though!”

the outdoors book publisher

Vertebrate Press are one of the best known publishers of books and guidebooks on the great outdoors, with titles covering hill walking, climbing, cycling, wild swimming and off road running.

 The company was founded and is run by Jon Barton. “In the two weeks before lockdown I saw our business fall off by 80% so I knew we’d have to do something. I also thought that our books would form an important role in getting people through lockdown, so we adapted.”

Jon Barton

“We furloughed half our staff and the rest continues from home,” explained Jon. “Many of our authors rely on book sales and we wanted to keep some income for them and us. Publishing can’t just stop and start, most of our team are working on next years titles so we need to keep some activity going.”

“We decided we needed to just adapt, which meant posting out books direct to readers. I won’t lie it’s been tough at times and super scary. But we’re climbers, and when a storm hits on the mountain you can either stop and succumb to hypothermia or you can get on with it.”

“My dad used to say, you don’t know what the future will be like, you just know it’ll be different. I don’t know what we will have to do but in the short term, I have three aims: all our team at Vertebrate have kept their jobs, our authors see their books inspiring people again and smaller independent shops get whatever they need from us to promote our books. 

the campsite owner

Mark Hibbert runs the Shepherd’s Rest campsite on his family farm in the Borders.

“Of course, when we first heard the news of the lockdown, our thoughts turned to family and friends,” says Mark, “some of whom have underlying health conditions, but also the wider community in our area. Our thoughts then turned to how this would impact our small family business and how we would cope without this much needed seasonal income.”

Mark with his new toilet hut

“We have coped pretty well as a family with the lockdown, being lucky enough to live in some beautiful countryside. We’re able to get out for some fresh air fairly easily. My wife also managed to pick up a part time job at a local fuel merchants, which helps pay some bills. Of course there are always plenty of jobs to do on the farm and the campsite. During the lockdown we also decided to put some new facilities on the campsite including an extra toilet hut!”

“I am sure when the lockdown begins to lift everyone will be keen to get out in the countryside again, but we will have to manage their expectations and those of our local community. Hopefully many of the usual attractions will start welcoming visitors back, so everyone can have some much needed fun.”

“From our business’s point of view, we are going to have to adapt to the New Normal, as indeed are our customers. This means re-organising our campsite with changes to our check-in procedures as well as the site layout to enable social distancing and hand hygiene. Additional cleaning regimes will have to be carried out on the site regularly also, to maintain customer safety. We hope that people will still be happy to say hello to each other in the mornings and that everyone feels safe and able to relax on our campsite – that is definitely our aim. After all, I think we all need a bit of a break, meet a few more friendly faces and make some new friends.”

 what can I do now?

Tourism remains closed in Scotland at the time of writing.

Scotland’s plan for coming out of lockdown will not begin to relax restrictions on accommodation and travel outside your own local area until Phase 3. It is not yet known when this will be.

Many accommodation businesses are accepting bookings for further into the future. It’s a great help and encouragement for owners if you book now, but do ask them what their policy is if the booking has to be cancelled or rescheduled further into the future. You can find hotels and inns, self-catering cottages, bed and breakfast, hostels and bunkhouses and glamping and campsite accommodation listed on Walkhighlands.

You can still order outdoor gear online from many retailers, whilst guidebooks and other outdoors books are also available – ordering direct from the publishers helps them during this difficult time.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.