This has been a difficult summer for anyone who loves visiting Scotland’s glorious landscapes, especially those who enjoy wild camping or campervanning. With overseas holidays largely off the agenda, and formal accommodation capacity in Scotland much reduced due to Coronavirus measures, social media has been ablaze with anger at littering and poor behaviour, tension between visitors and locals, and talk of “overtourism”.
Over the last 12 years I’ve spent on average a couple of days a week out in the Highlands, all year round, sleeping in a vehicle by the roadside – firstly in a Berlingo, more recently in a proper campervan, in order to be able to keep Walkhighlands up to date. Prior to that I spent a whole year wild-camping in a tent, on a walk across Spain, France, Italy and Greece; sometimes camping high in the mountains, and sometimes near roads. Over recent years, I’ve also spent many months continuously in a campervan in the French Alps, researching a forthcoming guidebook.
In many ways, I think it may be useful to compare the way tourism is managed in the French Alps to the Scottish Highlands. France has the world’s largest tourism industry, and the Alps is a major part of that. Both areas are mountainous, with remote rural communities that depend on tourism in order to survive, but have to balance that with farming and other traditional ways of life. Both have many narrow, single-track roads.
But the tourism pressures in the Alps are undoubtedly even greater than in the Highlands; the snow-free summer season is much shorter and a large proportion of the French have fixed holidays when many workplaces close, leading to it being exceptionally busy in the second half of July and the first half of August. Many more visitors use campervans.
Tourism is, of course, of vital importance to communities in the Highlands, being by far the largest employer, and also key in ensuring the viability of other sectors such as retail and construction. It is also one of very few parts of the rural economy that operates without subsidy from the cities. Although wild-campers in tents aren’t spending money directly, they are often younger people developing a love of the outdoors who go on to become bigger spenders later, and they do spend in cafes, pubs and restaurants. Campervans, on the other hand, have an older ownership base, and all the evidence suggests they are amongst the bigger tourism spenders.
So how do the French Alps cope with litter, wild-camping, campervans, and traffic management – and what can we in Scotland learn?
The fact is we have a national problem in the UK with litter. There seems to be a substantial minority of our population that finds littering acceptable.
This isn’t restricted to people staying overnight in tents or vehicles; discarded fast food containers and coffee cups can be found in most laybys, left by tradesmen, delivery drivers, or just thrown out by passers by and locals. Restricting wild camping or staying in vans would be tackling only a tiny part of this problem, as locals, day trippers and those staying in paid accommodation are dumping litter too. We had lots of litter and vandalism locally during lockdown, and in England (where wild camping is banned in most places), there has been the same spate of littering this summer.
There seems to be far less litter in the French Alps, despite many more visitors. Why?
One factor is that there are more (and much larger) bins, and many more public toilets (provided free). Secondly, there seems to be a cultural difference; French people are less inclined to litter. Thirdly, enforcement – there are signs stating fixed penalty fines for leaving litter and rangers patrolling in the national parks.
So, to reduce litter we need better disposal facilities (and to reopen closed loos), education of the public, and increased enforcement.
That sounds simple – but I think it’s actually going to be the hardest of our problems to deal with. It will cost money. But pretending we can deal with this problem by just taking action against any one group is going to get us nowhere.
2. Wild camping
In Scotland, many of us are proud of our access legislation. A part of this enables us to wild camp wherever access rights apply, if we do so responsibly, stay away from buildings, crops and fields. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, this can include camping near the road, subject to responsible behaviour and choice of location (see this official guidance).
This liberal approach has great benefits. It means that the pleasures of our great outdoors are more accessible than they would otherwise be to less well-off members of our society, and younger people, who may not be able to afford high campsite fees.
There are many other reasons beyond cost why people might not want to stay on a campsite, beyond wanting to be up a mountain. In summer, sites often need booking in advance (weeks ahead this year), a real gamble given our fickle weather, whilst at other times of year they may be closed. They may have rules about not arriving late or leaving very early, which may not fit with travel plans, or with long mountain days that need a very early start from a sleep nearby. In the UK we have a drinking culture, and some campsites can be pretty noisy, so many people camp elsewhere to ensure they can get a good night’s sleep.
Conflict over wild-camping – in particular roadside camping – has built up over several years, and this summer our social media feeds have been filled with pictures of what people are calling ‘dirty camping’ – where people have left large amounts of litter, sometimes seemingly all their camping gear (although in some of these cases the people involved have left their undoubtedly messy camp during the day to return later).
We’ve discussed littering already, but there are also quite widespread problems with campfires. Some people are cutting live trees to feed their media-promoted ideal of a night round the campfire. Ugly fire rings are left behind, and, more serious, most of Scotland has peat soil that burns easily. Some campers are under the impression that if they place a few stones around a campfire, it will be safely contained, but even after their fire is extinguished, the soil can be alight beneath, with potentially devastating consequences. Whilst there will always be a few irresponsible individuals in every activity, in some locations these problems have become serious.
One way to deal with this is through education. This doesn’t mean sharing pictures of someone’s dump of rubbish on social media to gather hundreds of angry comments. No one thinks they are part of the problem, and posting photos of the very worst behaviour might be counter-productive and mean that those seeing these posts may think their own lesser amount of mess left behind is acceptable. Instead, we need communications that are engaging and, crucially, sympathetic to the activity, if we want people to listen. The Cairngorms National Park recently commissioned a great example in this video.
But beyond educating people, what else can we do?
In the French Alps, there is no blanket right to responsible wild camping, though it is widely tolerated. In a very few locations it is indeed prohibited, but in most key, high-demand areas – such as the National Parks – there are instead strict rules (some of which we would find very restrictive, such as a complete ban on dogs and mountain bikes).
Fires are usually also banned in such locations, and setting up a full ‘camp’ isn’t allowed. Instead, what the French call a bivouac is permitted – which means you are allowed to camp in a tent, but can only put it up at dusk and must take it down again soon after dawn.
Rather than introduce blanket bans through bylaws, could we not copy some of this approach?
Given the problems with cutting wood, peat soils and fire rings, I think it may be time to consider whether allowing campfires under our access code is appropriate; so many of the problems come from fires and using a stove has so much less impact.
And in our most under-pressure locations, we could implement a bivouac-only system, which still permits a quiet, low-impact overnight stay – with no booking, permits or bureaucracy – for those wishing to enjoy the outdoors.
Both these measures would be easy to enforce, rather than resorting to very restrictive bylaws like those at Loch Lomond, that hit responsible campers too.
Staying overnight in campervans is often lumped together with wild-camping, but in fact both are dealt with under different laws and have different challenges.
Whilst Scotland has very liberal laws on wild-camping compared to the French Alps (or elsewhere), the situation is reversed with campervans. In the UK, you can sleep in your vehicle in a layby which is a part of the highway – which is how lorry drivers also operate – or beside the highway if not causing any obstruction (ie. not in a passing place). But there is no right to sleep in car parks – that is at the discretion of whoever owns it. In the Highlands there are fewer and fewer places where campervans are tolerated; things are far more regulated and restricted here compared to most of our European neighbours.
This summer, I’ve heard many reports of more serious hostility – including locals videoing and photographing campervanners, banging on their vans at night, shouting and threats.
Some vanners do leave litter (perhaps less than others as they have bins), some park selfishly across many spaces, or outside someone’s window; there’s a need for education here too. But responsible and respectful behaviour needs to go two ways, or things will only get worse.
We tend to misunderstand campervans and motorhomes in the UK. The majority of these vehicles have toilet facilities and fresh water tanks on board, designed so that there is no need to stay over on a campsite. People buy these vehicles so they can move around each day and park at a different location each night, climbing mountains, riding their bikes, visiting beaches. They do not want to stay on a campsite for a week like with a caravan. In our own campervan, we can go around 5 days without the need for any facility apart from a spot to park; we never use hookup as driving and solar panels are these days efficient enough. After 5 days, we would need somewhere to empty the toilet, the grey water (that from washing pots and ourselves), and fill up with fresh water.
So campervanners have two separate needs: somewhere to park at night, and then, only every few days, somewhere to service their van.
In the French Alps, overnight parking is permitted almost anywhere. You’ll find campervans at the roadside, at car parks at trail heads, and they are widely permitted to stay in car parks in towns and villages. This wide choice of places to park makes it easy to find somewhere to park responsibly, and apps like Park4Night (which is French despite the name) help with this, enabling sharing of locations and information. In some parts of Scotland, some individuals (claiming to be local) have logged on to Park4Night and posted telling campervans they are not welcome and to go away (often in more offensive terms) on every single entry in their area; our French visitors must be shocked by this.
There are a very few exceptions around the French Alps where vans are discouraged or banned from parking, but since there are always plenty of other good places nearby, it’s very easy for people to respect that. Apart from the Chamonix valley and the shores of Lake Annecy, both of which are very heavily built up and developed (unlike anywhere in the Highlands), campervans can easily find places and are not restricted to official ‘aires’.
You can park out in a remote location at the start of a walk, or, if you fancied an evening meal out or a shop in the morning, then you’ll likely be equally welcome in a village or small town car park.
In more than 100 nights in a van in the French Alps, I’ve only once been charged to stay in a car park ‘aire’ – and that was at Saint-Veran, Europe’s highest village which is so busy at peak season that it employs three stewards just to direct and help cars and vans into spaces (it cost 5 euros for a van and had waste facilities).
In the Scottish Highlands, the prohibitions are ever growing. We actually have acres and acres of parking that is little used at night and would be ideal for campervans – ranging from the forestry car park network (which is far beyond the French equivalent), to car parks in towns and villages. But campervans are being banned or discouraged from more and more of these places. This is counter-productive, as it is leading to more vans being forced to park somewhere actually less suitable – like roadside laybys (where they have a legal right), or directly outside people’s homes. On the overnight parking issue, intolerance or hostility to campervans is driving some of the problems.
There are some encouraging signs of a turnaround, however. This summer, Forestry and Land Scotland relaxed its blanket ban (introduced a few years back) on parking overnight in its vast network of car parks, and is allowing campervans to stay overnight in just a few of its car parks, for a trial period. Soon they came under pressure from campsite industry lobbyists – F&LS is commercial partnership with the Camping and Caravanning Club (CCC), though sites like Glenmore – which may help explain how their blanket bans on vans arised. They dropped the trial, but after an outcry the minister intervened and it was reinstated; since then F&LS has once again removed some of the car parks from the scheme under pressure from the caravan lobby.
In France many campsites are run by the local councils and typically charge around half or less of what is commonly paid in the UK. Many of them allow campervans to park freely just outside the campsite or nearby, which seems unthinkable in Scotland.
It seems to me we have actually more than enough overnight parking – what we need on this issue is a change in attitude. This will include an acceptance from campsite owners that campervans cannot be forced into being customers. Why not allow parking out in the forests and countryside to be used at night? (Unless it’s just to pander to F&LS’ commercial partner the CCC – but is that in the public interest?) Wouldn’t places like Wick and Thurso benefit greatly by welcoming vans on the NC500 to park up overnight free so they could have a meal out in town?
On the second need, for campervan servicing, Scotland does have a lack facilities compared to elsewhere. In the French Alps there is an extensive network of campervan service points, most either free or coin operated for 2-3 Euro or so. Where there are no service points, campsites charge a small fee for those staying not to use it. Some campsites in Scotland won’t allow use of disposal facilities, whilst others are now charging more for disposal than they do for an overnight stay; this is simply irresponsible.
Once we get away from our strange idea that servicing facilities are needed in the places where people park overnight (very expensive due to lack of proper sewage facilities), they will become much easier and cheaper to provide. At their most basic, all that is needed is an opening to a sewage system, and a tap to fill the van and clean up; is it really beyond us to provide this? (As an aside, most vans now use fluid that can even be emptied into septic tanks – so why is the toxic old-style fluid that septic tanks can’t handle still on sale?)
Rather than relying on remote communities, such facilities could instead be provided much more cheaply in industrial estates in Aviemore, Ullapool, Portree, Broadford, Durness, Fort William, Mallaig, Wick and Thurso. We’d be well on the way to fixing our shortage in the Highlands.
Perhaps the problem comes down to the fact that there is no representation of the interests of campervanners, so instead vested interests prevail in influencing our public sector against the situation. The nearest thing we have is CaMPA, the body which represents ‘van hire firms in Scotland. Based in the Highlands, they have done great work but we really need a wider voice representing all campervanners.
What is needed here is not a large amount of money – just the genuine will.
4. Traffic management
In the French Alps, there are quite a few single-track, dead-end roads in popular areas that really can’t cope with the numbers of visitors in peak season.
We have fewer such roads in Scotland, but we do have some – probably the best example would be the road up the east side of Loch Lomond (that has sometimes had to be closed due to excessive numbers), followed by the road up Glen Nevis and that to Loch Muick.
The obvious solution to this is for more visitors to be using public transport. It’s quite bizarre that our biggest bottle-neck road, leading to our busiest walks like Ben Lomond and Conic Hill, has no public transport at all.
On the very busiest weeks and roads in the Alps, further steps are taken. These roads are closed (except for locals) during the busiest part of the day – say from 9am to 5pm, when visitors are required to park at the foot of the road and take a constantly-running shuttle bus. The fact that the restriction is timed means that those who wish to start early on a major hillwalk are unaffected, without the shuttle bus needing to run at an uneconomic time. People who have already driven up the road are allowed to return down it at any time.
Could such a system work on the east side of Loch Lomond, and possibly elsewhere?
Whilst you might not agree with the suggestions above, let’s at least try to change the nature of the online debate. Making very angry posts on social media that generalise about all visitors or all locals simply escalate the problems.
Visitors and locals depend on each other, and I do think there are things we can do to improve the situation without antagonism, to help make a better Scotland for us all.