North Coast 500 — An Alternative View

The NC500 is a travesty. The idea of car touring holidays harkens back to the environmental ignorance of mid 20th century and is wholly unfit for these days of an unfolding environmental catastrophe. VisitScotland, the Scottish Government, and all those who lend their name to promoting this anachronism, should be ashamed of themselves.

The principal contribution of the NC500 to the northwest highlands is pollution — particulates from tyres and Diesel engines, chemical toilet waste dumped into roadside streams and on beaches, camping detritus and fire rings decorating any and every scenic spot reachable by car. Quiet villages along the north coast have been turned into noisy thoroughfares. During the main season the stream of traffic is incessant.

Campervans wherever you look. Invariably two up front (plus a dog), the back loaded with stacks of Heinz beans from supermarkets down south. The professional types in their shiny T5s with eye-wateringly expensive conversions, the retired couples in ever bigger mobile homes, at times towing a small car behind. Even now, still off season, you will find them hogging passing places along every minor Assynt road from an early afternoon on.

Once upon a time the quiet roads of the northwest highlands provided some of the best cycle touring in the country. No more, thanks to the ever growing volume of traffic and vehicle size. Many of these vehicles are too wide for the single track roads to safely pass a pedestrian, never mind a cyclist. An opportunity missed.

This is not sustainable, the putative benefits to the local communities are failing to materialise (or so I hear from the locals), the real beneficiaries the car makers, the campervan hire places, the oil companies. Politicians congratulating themselves on being seen doing something for the Highlands without spending any money. Meanwhile the roads crumble.

It will not (cannot) work. We only need to look at the Icelandic experience to see what’s coming.

Following the economic crash of 2008 the Icelanders thrown themselves wholeheartedly into developing tourism, it was all that was left. Myriads of camper van hire companies sprung up chasing the tourist buck. It didn’t take long for the country to be overrun and completely overwhelmed by them. It dawned rapidly that they bring nothing to local communities while causing no end of environmental damage; legislation banning all forms of car-camping outwidth officially designated campsites followed.

This is what needs to happen in Scotland, now.

Some will undoubtedly come out to blame the locals and the Highland Council for the associated problems: lack of adequate (read ‘free’) campervan facilities. Let’s think about this for a moment: people in purpose built luxury vehicles worth tens of thousands of pounds expecting the highlanders to, directly, or indirectly through their council tax, subsidise their holidays. Not sure what the right word for this is. Entitlement? Greed?

If the economic model for the revival of the highlands is to be tourism (which shouldn’t be automatically assumed to be the right answer, BTW), it needs to be built on bringing people in, rather than, as the NC500 does, taking them through. The Scottish Government and VisitScotland should be promoting places and communities, not roads; physical activities such as walking, cycling, paddling, not driving. This area has so much to offer that reducing it to iPhone snaps taken from a car window, as the NC500 ultimately does, is outright insulting.

I am sure my view that we should ban all roadside car camping as they did in Iceland, and heavily tax camper vans and mobile homes, will not be very popular. The campervan has become the ultimate middle class outdoor accessory, virtually all my friends have one. You will be hard pressed to find an outdoor influencer that doesn’t; vested interests creating blind spots big enough to park a Hymer in.

But I’ll voice it anyway, the Highlands deserve better.