Poo, Potholes and Park-Ups – Why Highlanders Are Tired of Scotland’s North Coast 500 Route

Last year, I wrote an article on the ‘summer of discontent’ on Scotland’s ‘North Coast 500’ road trip. As a resident on the route here in Caithness, I spent a lot of time writing about responsible travel and repeating the phrase ‘let’s hope things improve.’ A summer of littering, outdoor toileting and inconsiderate ‘wild camping’ couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue. Summer 2020 was an anomaly, a lockdown-induced madness, a result of lack of education and awareness. I had faith that things would settle down, they had to.

Which seemed like a good plan until summer 2021 arrived.

When travel restrictions eased at the end of April, many people in the North Highlands were wary. Communities felt guarded, still reeling from the events of the previous year. There appeared to be room for optimism, though, with Highland Council announcing a £1.5 million visitor management investment strategy and plans to invest in roads, enhanced litter collection and the creation of seasonal access ranger posts. I tried to feel positive, grounding myself in the hope that the summer could be enjoyed by visitors and local folk alike.

In June, I visited my favourite local beach at Dunnet to do a beach clean. I had been there a week earlier, being filmed reading a poem (this one) about my connection to the long expanse of sand. By now, I was aware of the growing popularity of informal camping along the sands, in the dune areas and indeed all around beauty spots in Caithness. What I wasn’t prepared for were the amount of campfire remains, disposable grills and scorch marks I would encounter on my walk. Next to the village I grew up in, a campfire stuffed with toilet roll and litter sat abandoned after a ‘wild camping’ adventure by the harbour. Around the twisting roadside, more evidence of campfires and cut branches blighted the pretty shore. On later beach clean visits, I would find wipes and toilet mess at the entrance to the beach being used for overnighting, more campfires stuffed with rubbish. I would clear up the remains of someone’s park-up, their toothbrush. At the other end of the beach, residents were clearing informal campsites, disposable barbeques, sanitary protection, poo.

By the following month, our dog had rolled in human waste while out walking in the local countryside. We would find soiled wipes at the roadside, our shock diminished by the regularity with which these things occurred. In local beach clean and litter picking groups, reports of human waste and camping litter became more common. On North Coast 500 Facebook groups, posters would ‘set the record straight’ about the lack of problems encountered on their 4-day/week-long/fortnight’s visit, distant voices invalidating the experiences of those who live here all year round.

Any Highland resident expressing concerns about unsustainable tourism or ‘wild camping’ could now, it seemed, be branded ‘anti-tourist.’ Highlanders have been reduced to caricature, the imagined cliché of a pitchfork-wielding mob. In reality, most Highland residents are possessing of a politeness born of living in small places. Never knowing when you might bump into your auntie/boss/teacher (in the main, at least) tends to encourage good manners. Most local residents will say hello in passing, even if they don’t agree with you staying in that layby overnight.

And that anti-tourist rhetoric, too, tends to miss out on a lot of context. Attitudes towards tourism intersect with other issues affecting rural areas – underinvestment in roads, loss of services, lack of affordable housing, the need for better connectivity, sustainable jobs. For many local residents, the £22 million boost from the NC500 to the North Highland economy reported in 2018 feels intangible. It can be jarring to see huge motorhomes pulling into the supermarket car park while local roads are crumbling. It can be painful to see house prices inflating, making it impossible for young people to stay in the places where they were born.

Fires, Dunnet Beach NC500
Fire remains and branches at Dunnet Beach, with disposable grill and fire pit left in the foreground.
Fires, Dunnet Beach Dunes NC500
The remnants of another ‘wild camping’ adventure in the dunes at Dunnet Beach.
Fires Near Castletown, NC500
Nearby Castlehill, where more branches had been cut for this fire pit.
Campfire, NC500
Some of these fires have since been dismantled by rangers and local folk.
Remains of BBQ, NC500
A disposable grill left at Dunnet Beach.
Fire stuffed with toilet roll and litter, NC500
In a nearby wooded area, a fire built by a ‘wild camping’ group.
Toilet wipes left at Dunnet Beach, NC500
Toilet wipes left at an entrance to Dunnet Beach, a regular spot for overnight stays.

There is also a sense of unease about our promoters and their regard for local communities (even if the ‘NC500’ was born of good intentions as the brainchild of North Highland Initiative – a non-profit organisation set up by HRH Prince Charles to promote economic growth in the North Highlands). The brand is now managed by a private company, North Coast 500 Ltd., and although NHI note on their website that they remain a ‘significant investor,’ the majority shareholder is listed as Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen’s Wildland Ventures, who according to the Wildland website, ‘invest in businesses like the NC500 that directly contribute to local communities,’ in line with Wildland’s wider commitment to nurture ‘a landscape where wildlife can thrive and nature can heal.’ The NC500 has long been the subject of concerns related to over-promotion and under-infrastructure. In March, a NC500 spokesperson was quoted in the local press stating that ‘infrastructure investment is the responsibility of the Scottish Government and Highland Council.’ Recently, there have been renewed calls for NC 500 Ltd. to contribute to infrastructure in the places they promote.

Rural areas of the Highlands do of course need visitors, and most Highland residents recognise the wider benefits of sustainable tourism. Visit Scotland statistics published in 2018 indicated that tourism employment in 2017 accounted for 13% of total employment in Highland, while HIE state on their website that tourism-related employment represents up to 43% of the workforce in some areas of the Highlands and Islands as a whole. In the town where I live, that figure is likely to be much lower due to the presence of other large employers in the area. The idea that the whole of the Highlands are being ‘kept afloat’ by tourism has a condescending air, which at times has been used to justify putting up with behaviour that is unacceptable. None of this means local people aren’t supportive of tourism-related business in the region. Neither does it mean residents aren’t welcoming of tourism which is respectful to the communities in which they live.

The long-term sustainability of the NC500 and its impact on the quality of life of local people has been the subject of some scrutiny. Earlier in the summer, it was widely reported that residents in Applecross were to be consulted on withdrawing from the route. In places like Durness (and on nearby Ceannabeinne Beach) images shared on social media show scenes that look less like visitors enjoying their holidays than invaders laying siege to places. Would-be travellers discuss plans to ‘wild camp in Durness,’ apparently unaware that affixing ‘wild camping’ to the name of a village is a contradiction which conveys a lack of regard for the folk who call such places home.

Of course, many of these issues are not confined to the North Coast 500, and in the background is a Covid/Brexit/restrictions maelstrom which has forced additional pressures in many areas. Over the last two summers, antisocial behaviour has been reported at beauty spots all over the UK. Irresponsible behaviour exists in every sector of humanity (including local) and is not confined to the portion of visitors behaving badly on the North Coast 500. Yet with increasing numbers comes an increase in the irresponsible minority. When we are asking visitors to ‘bag and bin’ their poo because there are now too many poos for holes to be dug, we are not in a sustainable position. And very little of this feels commensurate with a route being touted as ‘the best road trip in the world.’

And therin lies another problem – the marketing of the North Highlands as a driving route, a destination ‘tick-list.’ As a friend recently commented on social media – the North Coast 500 is now a thing to ‘do’ and not a place to be. The cultural identities that make areas unique are being eroded along the sweep of 516 miles, the ‘north coast’ title infiltrating businesses, signs, places. Years ago, I contributed to this myself, writing (unpaid) articles for the North Coast 500 and other tourist organisations. Now, reading them makes me feel a little sad, something to atone for. A sense of place has become disposable, and the shift feels irreversible, out of reach.

Little of this is helped by the packaging of the North Highlands as a remote landscape and a place devoid of people. If the influx of visitors over the past two summers has shown us anything, it’s how un-remote and accessible the Highlands really are. Telling the world about a pre-existing road network that ‘appeared as if by magic’ (NC500 ‘about’ page) paints a picture of the Highlands as a landscape without the lived experience of people. This in turn renders local residents invisible, leaving pleas to ‘respect local’ feeling hollow, falling flat.

Infrastructure, of course, remains a hotly debated topic. There’s not enough of it, and local people need public toilets too. There’s also a balance between infrastructure and the urbanisation of rural places. One of the things that makes our landscape special is its sense of being ‘wild.’ Plans to provide low-cost facilities for motorhomes might be more welcome if they included parallel measures to exclude informal park-ups around villages, settlements, and around sites of cultural and historic significance. Beaches, too, have rarely been enhanced by the addition of 27 tents, human waste and fires (see Ceannabeinne, and in another area of the Highlands, the Morar Silver Sands). Infrastructure is needed, so too is consideration of a type of tourism that infringes on local residents’ access to amenties, quality of life and mental wellbeing. I don’t have the answers on this – it’s complicated. What I do know is that the people most impacted by the effects of tourism in the Highlands should be listened to and heard.

I recently read a piece of tourism-based research that concluded ‘local stories were best told by local people.’ In regards to the North Coast 500, it’s now rare to see non-business related local voices represented in the posts they share. The North Coast 500 feels like something apart from us, something being ‘done’ by others, something that has little connection to our way of life here in the Highlands. In a sense, it has left local people – the diverse, vibrant communities who live here – feeling storyless. Nowadays I find myself hesitant to tell my stories, concerned that they might end up on a ‘wild camping’ site or somehow or other causing damage to the home I love.

A few days ago, I went back to Dunnet Beach to do another beach clean. Along the undulating dunes, a large area of the grasses had been burnt. I had no way of knowing who had done this or how it had happened, but nonetheless it hurt me. I climbed another peak, looking over at the farm where my Grandfather had been the ‘cattle man’ for fifty years. I wondered about the future of this place, what it would come to. I wondered what we’d think when we remembered these summers of fire and disrespect. I thought about broken windows, the idea that a house left with one broken window would soon have all the others smashed, the sign of a place uncared for, abandoned. It felt like everywhere I looked, the windows were getting broken.

It felt like the walls of my house were falling down.

I stepped onto the beach and found another fire pit stuffed with pieces of someone’s litter. Further along, ‘NC500’ had been written in large letters in the sand. It felt like a burn, a brand, a means of taking something away – although I’m sure that wasn’t the intention. I looked at it for a moment and passed by, deciding to leave it to the rhythms of the tide.

Burnt Dune, Dunnet Beach, NC500
Burnt area of dune on the beach at Dunnet.
Campfire left with litter, NC500
Campfire and litter. More litter was scattered on the sand.
No Overnight Parking Sign NC500
Signs erected by local rangers are regularly ignored.
Picture of sign on beach saying ‘leave nothing but footprints.’
‘Leave nothing but your footprint on the beach.’

I once read a book about wolves, and how in order to want to protect them, people first needed to love them. Getting people to love destinations can come from stories, stories of place and the people who make them what they are. At a time when Highlanders feel pushed out of the narratives of where they live it’s ironic that 2022 will be Scotland’s Year of Stories. Here in Caithness, I see buds of those stories returning, in poet George Gunn’s ‘Words on the Wind’ project with Lyth Arts Centre, in work being done by charities like Caithness Broch Project, and in ‘Living Landscapes‘, a research project by UHI PHD student Julian Grant.

Perhaps it’s time for more coming-together of voices, a binding of the fabric of the North Highlands.

Perhaps it’s time for communities to join together, to speak out, to be listened to and heard.

To find an approach to tourism that encourages visitors to love our places and our stories as we do, and to truly ‘respect local.’

The people of the Highlands need change, and a way to reclaim the stories that are ours.