With an ever-growing number of Britons choosing to holiday in the UK, campervans and motorhomes have become much more popular, providing, as they do, a balance between freedom and home comforts. But in Scotland, in particular, the sheer number of large vehicles visiting popular rural areas has become a seasonal problem for some communities. Last summer, issues with inappropriate parking and waste management reached crisis point, causing local frustration and negative newspaper stories.
Calmac, which runs ferries to the Hebrides, reports that annual motorhome crossings have risen from 16,507 in 2015 to 56,420 in 2021. The story is similar in the Highlands – Gordon Petrie from Scottish Campervan Rentals in Crieff, tells of an overwhelming increase in inquiries.
Many visitors do not understand that Scotland’s wild camping rules don’t apply to motor vehicles, which causes additional problems. So, as campervan numbers climb, many Scottish communities are looking for ways to make their tourist season more sustainable. One successful model is on the Hebridean island of Tiree.
Tiree was suffering from uncontrolled campervan arrivals long before this latest surge in popularity, and the community took uncompromising action in 2010. Visiting camping vehicles must now book an overnight pitch in advance, which will be checked by a ranger on arrival. To facilitate this, Tiree’s Croft Camping scheme allows individual crofters to allocate an unserviced piece of land and host a maximum of three vehicles. There are nine sites on the island, with pitches costing £12 a night and water and waste facilities in the island’s main village of Scarinish. There is also a traditional campsite at Balinoe.
Tiree ranger Hayley Douglas says: “The scheme was introduced to ease pressure on Tiree’s fragile environment, and reduce conflict over inappropriate access. Our machair and sand dune habitat is unique, hosting protected rare species. Additionally, some crofting land is unfenced. Previously, visitors were driving on to folk’s crofts and damaging their grazing, as well as our protected areas.”
While there was some initial pushback from visitors, the scheme has now been operating for over a decade, and Douglas says it’s been a success. Crofters can make additional income, and campers are generally keen to visit responsibly, and pitch on picturesque sites. “Last year, we had none of the publicised campervan problems here, despite nearly triple the usual campers. Since then, many other communities have contacted me to see how they can set up something similar,” Douglas adds.
Crofter Rhoda Meek says the scheme is vital to balance the number of campervans with the capacity of the island’s roads and infrastructure – and the added benefit for crofters. She says: “It hopefully helps visitors understand they are not just parked in beauty spots, but that the land is someone’s home and livelihood.”
Across the constituency, Brendan O’Hara, Argyll and Bute’s SNP MP, describes campervans as a welcome frustration. “We rely on tourism economically, and understand why folk want to come here: it’s a beautiful part of the world. We’re set up for tourism and, as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier.”
However, he says, the frustration comes from the failure of some campervan drivers to realise they are visiting local communities, where “folk have to get on with their daily lives”.
Funding is needed to establish infrastructure, and it’s unlikely any one-size-fits-all approach would suit the whole Highlands and Islands region.
Mull, a larger, more populous island, has recently taken similar steps to stop campervans arriving without bookings. The island has asked Calmac to display a warning message during online ferry bookings. While a small minority of visitors go against this request – pitch bookings are not checked on arrival as in Tiree – the situation has greatly improved.
Anthony Robin, manager of community-owned Camping Skye, says the road and parking infrastructures on Skye are not yet good enough to cope with increasing visitor traffic.
While the Highland Council and community try to address this, the campsite provides visitor information. “We point people in the right direction, making it easier for visitors to enjoy themselves, while protecting small communities from waves of tourists on wheels,” says Robin. The campsite’s profits are used for community projects, including new public toilets in Broadford and Elgol.
Highlander John MacPherson says opinions on campervans are polarised. His family have been working in tourism since the 19th century, when his grandfather owned a stables in Fort William. They ran carriages for visitors, including Queen Victoria, and offered pony trips up Ben Nevis. Managing Highland tourism is nothing new to them.
“I’ve worked around the Highlands and Islands for 40 years, sleeping in my van, and have seen dramatic changes recently: previously accessible pull-outs blocked off, and a huge surge in the number and size of vans,” MacPherson says.
He describes the popular NC500 route as “a missed opportunity”: it put the Highlands on the map, but too suddenly and without broad local buy-in and infrastructure development. He suggests that long-term government funding is needed to ease these pressures. “It shouldn’t be left to locals to fill infrastructure gaps.”