Scotland is Calling
The gentle swish of the wind worrying the leaves, the flight of some beastie underfoot, the rush of hidden water and the creak and groan of the trees that have seen it all. It’s amazing what you notice when your senses have the inclination. Taking a simple walk in nature in these pandemic-dominated times is suddenly a very different kind of experience. I’ve become estranged with the outdoors for the entirety of the year and have had to wait patiently to begin the shy reacquaintance. But with a busy autumnal season of travel ahead, the time has come.
It’s been several months since my last post. In addition to the restrictions and risks brought about by Covid-19, I’ve had the all-consuming responsibilities of beginning a historical fiction novel and raising a Golden Retriever puppy. The novel is taking shape nicely as I dive into the grime of medieval Scotland and attempt to find a different take on our most legendary chapter in the times of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Or rather it was taking shape nicely until little Harris entered my life. Priming a new Scotland adventurer for years of bounding about the hills, ruins and beaches has been utterly relentless, but his most difficult adjustment period is now closed and he’ll even be joining me on some of my trips over the next couple of months. Oh my.
I’ll be dotting around most of the mainland, hopefully bringing back plenty of inspiration for others and showing off the diversity of these lands. I should underline that I’ll not necessarily be promoting these places with 2020 in mind for you but – and you wouldn’t be alone here – if you are already looking longingly towards next year’s travel planning then there may be something in what I unearth that proves useful. I start easy, with day-trip walks in the Trossachs and history hunting within easy reach of my home base in Glasgow. I’ll be aiming to capture solitude and those almost-forgotten natural sensations, as well as observe how our castles have fared after months of neglect and loneliness.
In blogs posted earlier this year I summarised the state of play and, in a nutshell, Scotland recovered from a painfully slow initial reaction to weather the virus storm pretty well. It has been contained over summer with a very low number of deaths and we’ve seen restrictions eased throughout peak tourism season as a result. Quarantine enforcement has predictably and heavily depleted international visitor numbers, but many Scots and Brits have holidayed here which has at least prevented the place from feeling empty.
Most recently, however, in the aftermath of all that travel and with schools and workplaces transitioning back, we’re seeing the expected gradual rise in cases (although not deaths so far thank goodness) and, despite major alarm bells not currently ringing, it seems obvious to surmise that winter 2020 is going to be nervy.
The Impact on Tourism
Well it’s been a disaster hasn’t it.
I wish there was more cause for optimism – and longer-term there may very well be as Scotland’s most enticing natural and historical assets haven’t changed – but my personal observations tell me that the industry may be taking plenty of bruising knocks for some time yet. Even after we leave 2020 behind, some international travellers are likely to continue to face prohibitive and discriminatory quarantine issues as different countries handle new outbreaks much better than others. Folk are generally still going to be very wary of travel (particularly by air). Many tourism businesses, big and small, will simply disappear due to the delicate nature of their margins. The human side of the Scottish tourism product, that welcoming hospitality that we’re so famous for, will be diluted and hidden behind facemasks. And it seems what we’re most likely to see in 2021 is a broadly similar continuation of the trends we’ve had this summer – more short-distance tourism that prioritises self-containment and isolation. In other words, lots of independent camping and self-catering.
Now, a bit of that stuff is great and I’ve enjoyed plenty of it myself in recent years so I’m not knocking it, per se. It’s long been an interesting arm of the Scottish tourism scene, and I especially like that locals are looking on Scotland with new interest (forced upon them as it may be). Economically, though, this is dire stuff. And it’s a grimness that I must say has brought out a state of denial from many that work in tourism and in the mainstream media here (not exactly known for its quality at the best of times). I have been sought out by numerous journalists over the summer keen on creating lazy and misleading headlines in articles claiming that the ‘staycation’ market will save the industry. But overflowing car parks and congested mountain trails do not tell the true story. Because pitching a leaky tent that’s been dug out from the cobwebs at the back of the garage and forking out for no further than some tuna sandwiches from Tesco funnily enough does hee-haw for actual tourism and job creation. The industry ordinarily creates around 10% of GDP in Scotland, and is an employer of tens of thousands. It encompasses accommodation providers, tour companies, restaurants, distilleries, public transport, visitor attractions and many more. They all pitch in passionately to make Scotland one of the best ‘experience’ destinations in the world. This new kind of low spend, high containment tourism we’ve seen in 2020 (I refer mainly to the Highlands and Islands here) does precious little, if anything, to help any of them survive this economic crisis.
Socially and culturally, too, the explosion in wild camping has met with plenty of regional uproar, dismay and disgust. I’ve never seen the like as social media has been flooded all summer with evidence of bad behaviour in our rural escapes. Littering, ignorantly constructed campfires, illegal parking, hyper over-tourism at the most predictable beauty spots…. Stupidity and selfishness appear to have gone into overdrive, with no-one benefitting. Those actually working in tourism therefore face the new, and unexpected, challenge of helping to raise awareness of such bad behaviour and educate and encourage local travellers that their backyard is as fragile as it is convenient.
More indirectly, the knock-on effect on the housing market (which has gone berserk over the summer as buyers evacuate the cities, particularly London) in rural areas is alarming too with second home seekers driving up property prices exponentially, pricing out locals in the process. We can expect an accelerated exodus of young people of working age (many who’d ordinarily be drawn to tourism employment) from these areas, not to mention the ‘ghost town’ effect of many second homes that only see their owners for a painfully small percentage of the year and that otherwise lie soulless and empty. Is that really what visitors imagine when they come from far and wide to see this wonderful country for themselves?
It’s all become very serious, and concerning. A sudden far cry from the days when tourism was the ‘fun’ industry, synonymous with innocence, memory making and universally happy faces.
So, this, the stuff of 2020 to date, for me, is not tourism. And all that has transpired this year places me in a difficult position. I moved into this industry (almost a decade ago now) because I enjoy telling stories about Scotland. I love the excitement that folk get when they are planning a trip here and when they find a deep connection to my homeland – in whatever form that takes. I wanted to help them – even if just modestly – get the best out of the place on a practical level too, and by giving them the confidence to experience the country in their own unique way. The fact I’ve loved learning more about home, have been able to mould some sort of bizarre career out of it and have had some unforgettable experiences was nice too of course.
But Covid-19 has, and will, change things for me. I’ve travelled much less; I’ve completely avoided the potentially extremely vulnerable and remote areas; I’ve published much less online (out of a hesitancy to promote regions that don’t want it); I’ve sweepingly ruled out working with various businesses and sub-industries that could well exacerbate the problem as I see it and I’ve chosen to sit out the summer season entirely simply because I didn’t feel there was much I could, should, or wanted to add.
On lengthy reflection though, I’m not quite done with tourism. I’ll have to continue to be very selective, focus on other areas of income generation and change my tactics a bit to adapt but I’ll not be packing it all in just yet. I’ve ended up naturally falling into line with most of the tourism bodies in their marketing activity and am only now, tentatively, getting going for the year having let the summer be. As ever, but now even more so, I hope to be able to dissuade knee-jerk travel instincts and find ways to convince readers that they have to dig a little deeper to find the very best of Scotland. But it’s there. And it most certainly can present much more than just a quick fix to the need we are all having for escapism.
I’ve enjoyed keeping at least partially up to date with many of you on social media over the summer, often chatting through how the pandemic has impacted you and your plans. If you’re following me and reading these blogs you clearly have an interest in Scotland, and in travel, so I’d love to hear more from you. How has it affected your views on travel? Aside from the obvious, what are your big concerns with exploring Scotland in the foreseeable? Are you worried that the place won’t be the same? Does the prospect of short-distance travel (wherever you are) appal you, or can you find an opportunity there? And for those who have travelled here this year, what has been your experience? Let me know in the comments.
Starting tomorrow and continuously over the coming weeks I’ll be covering the Trossachs, West Lothian, Midlothian, the Borders, the north west mainland, Aberdeenshire, the Central Highlands and, of course, Glasgow. Virus dependent, I may or may not fit in a short trip to the Outer Hebrides as well. Parking Covid talk for a bit, I’ll be returning to my usual service of showing off Scotland to you all, which feels good. Whether for vicarious travel, future inspiration or just cute photos of me getting dragged about by an over-zealous puppy….do join us.
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So glad to hear from you again, Neil. Your posts make me think longingly of Scotland, even if I can’t get there yet.
It’s a start Deb, and hope to see you back here before too long!
I was really excited this morning to find your current message. I started to follow you for several reasons, first, because I love everything that relates to Scotland. I also found your information to fit in so perfectly to a new book that is still in the research stage, one that is a sort of spinoff of my last book.
Be well, and I look forward to up to date information as to what is happening in Scotland relating to not only the virus, but your walkabouts.
Delighted to be of use with the research Barbara! Hopefully some useful stuff will come out of my upcoming trips too. Take care.
Another stellar post! In the part of Canada where I live, we’ve also experienced the staycation behaviour you described. My village is particularly touristy in the summer months and this summer it was packed despite COVID distancing appeals. I know our restaurants and shops needed the traffic to make up for months of lockdown so I can appreciate the business. But our nature trails were littered with coffee cups and take away packaging (even though there are recycling and waste receptacles every few meters) and the noise levels were oddly obnoxious. I kid you not, some guy put his drum kit on a raft and played solos up and down the river that runs alongside our village. I wouldn’t have minded if he was any good but it sounded more like an exercise in anger management than anything resembling music.
My staycation has been watching virtual nature walks on YouTube whilst riding a stationary bike. Now that most of the west coast is on fire affecting our air quality, getting outside has another layer of risk so I don’t see much travel of any kind in my foreseeable future.
I do look forward to vicariously meandering through Scotland with you and Harris so thank you for continuing to bring Scotland to us until we can get there ourselves.
Thank you Kristen. Sounds like it has been the case in many places, some people seem to be on their worst behaviour when closest to home. Anger management that ends up making everyone else angry by the sound of him! Tough times for sure, with troubles ahead still but we’ll just have to get outside at every single opportunity. I’ll do my best to send plenty of Scottish inspo your way if nothing else!
Thank you Neil! Always inspired by your travels. A little dose of peace with every post.
Ohh, I empathise re both puppy and novel! I’m trying to write The Scottish Exiles whilst training Bonnie (no idea what I would have done without Kikopup videos, yak chews, and Morrison’s £1 bones), and also missing the hill walks. I’ll look out for you: the puppies so need to play!
Haha, relentless aren’t they! Hadn’t quite appreciated the scale of the challenge myself and quite looking forward to moving to the adult dog phase I think, though I will miss his wee face. Enjoy the puppy hugs with Bonnie and hope the hills are on the radar for you both very soon!
Very good article. I enjoy your your writing very much. I too have been very frustrated as I had planned on a month long journey starting with a small reunion with some colleagues in Bath UK then onto Scotland for over 3 weeks of fun. Hopefully we can make plans for next year in August to September.
Tough one to have to cancel James, my sympathies. We’ll still be here next year (or the year after if needed) and the industry will be falling over itself with delight to warmly welcome folk when it is fully safe to do so. Hang in there!
I’ve only dared cross the border once this year when I got the bus from Berwick upon Tweed to Eyemouth and hiked back via the Berwickshire Coast Path and England Coast Path.
I love these posts, they are so easy on the eye to read and so evocative on the mind. I have had a few of your walks in recent years and you seem to be putting my feelings into words.
Thanks Jim, lovely to hear that I’m capturing some of what a good walk is all about. Much, much more than just excercise and putting one foot in front of the other aren’t they? 🙂
Neil, what a cute puppy to go traveling with! I’m glad to hear you’re getting back to it. I’ve been to Scotland only 3 times and hope to get back next year 2021 if the UK will let us Americans in again. Here we are dealing with the same problems as Scotland, loss of businesses and jobs etc., so I can only hope to find hotels, restaurants, musics festivals, and travel guides as before in Scotland someday soon. In the meantime, I’ll read your posts and dream of wonderful Scotland, and hope you and Scotland stay safe and healthy.
He is very cute. Slightly less so at 5am but still a sweetheart. Many in the industry miss our American friends for sure and the passion that you bring for Scotland so really hope there are better times ahead for you guys too. All the best and will try to keep Scotland at the forefront of your mind in the meantime!
Hi Neil, I managed to make it over to Europe twice this year returning back to the states on March 10th then the wheels fell off…
Some answers to your questions: My big concern with travel is becoming trapped in a country for 10 days or so, I have no trouble testing before I leave and testing when I arrive, but the results need to be same day.
A concern with Scotland is a big part of the charm is the solitude, so it may be a couple of years before I make it back for that Knoydart trip, hopefully by then I will a, still be able, and b, the new normal will be established by then, so no pent up demand to escape the house…
I have traveled once this year locally, three hours drive North is St Augustine Beach, we stayed for a week, it was a little weird, once you checked in they never touched the room again which once we got used to it was fine, when we go again in October we have booked an air bnb .
Anyway other thoughts on your post; you remind me of William Wordsworth and his poem The tables Turned, it includes the lines “Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher” A great poem for nature lovers like ourselves.
Things we would never have done if it hadn’t been for Covid: A friend of ours from Aberdeen, now living in Spain did a couple of lock down cooking classes on zoom, they were great, (I pour the wine) we had a friend over and had a great laugh, the food wasn’t bad either!
The best though was “tuning in” to Duncan Chisholm every day for his Covid Ceilidh, over 100 days of tunes of which my favorite includes the poem July Evening set in Assynt, check it out and see if this does not transport you back to the shores of the Minch.
Lastly check out “foot on foot together again” on you tube, lots of Scottish folk bands doing a great job….
Take care and enjoy the day hikes!
Hi Andrew, can certainly understand that as a concern. Solitude is still in abundance at least here, folk seem to be flooding to the handful of usual suspects more than ever strangely. I’ve never been compared to Wordsworth, thanks for that! And terrific to hear of positives. Creativity the key to surviving this sane I think. I did follow the ceilidh with amusement too actually, terrific stuff. Take care and fingers crossed for at least some increased freedoms to escape to the wild spots before too long. I’ll keep sending the inspiration from Scotland in the meantime!
Glad to hear you’re getting back out in the Scottish countryside. Just wish I had made it up there this year. Roll on 2021. Neil keep inspiring us all
Will do Martin and yes indeed, let’s hope for rapid improvements and a lot more to look forward to next year! Take care.
I enjoy hearing from you Neil and I pass on your newsletter to other Scottish community groups in Australia.
WE are very disappointed with the ongoing high levels of COVID 19 infections in Great Britain. and particularly in Scotland.. While we all hope that greater freedom for travelling will become possible by April 2021 we do need this goal to be able to start planning visits to Scotland from Australia.
Thanks John. Scotland did end up running things comparatively well to be fair but yes there was a period when Britain was out of control, and it could be returning imminently and with force based on today’s news. Tough winter ahead perhaps but we’ve got to be hopeful for a welcome spring release to travel safely once again. Stay safe down under!
So much to understand and process. I was at a point where I attempted to put a toe in the water for professional involvement in Scotland which I would couple with travel to my remote favorite places. Covid, of course, has altered that on many levels. I cannot travel from the USA without a long quarantine, and the air travel concerns. Your insights into the broad ranging changes is humbling and heartbreaking for so many. However, I do firmly believe that the wonder of Scotland, it’s natural treasures, fascinating history and wonderful people will continue to be the bedrock of great experiences. More than capturing that “perfect selfie”, magnificent Scotland will always offer an incredible experience. There may not be as many choices of places to eat or stay, but all that one could want will still be there. The islands & ferries, the cities , lochs and glens, the universities, galleries, ruins and on and on… they are still there. For me, my experience will still be wonderful. Although it is currently on pause, everything that means the most to me in Scotland will still be there.
Good luck in your adventures, with adorable Harris, and I will look forward to more incredibly helpful information and insights! Please keep writing!!
Charlotte Merriam Cole
Thanks Charlotte and yes, our most valuable assets can withstand this. They’ve seen worse over the centuries. And we will emerge, hopefully wiser and more aware and appreciative on the other side. Harris is loving his adventures already and going to be a lot of fun showing him Scotland whenever I can! Take care for now.
Hello Neil, welcome back! Just like many others I really missed your posts.
Here in Germany, I consider us quite lucky so far concerning Covid-19, although we have also experienced this “Covid is bringing out the best and worst in people-thing”. I live in a rural area which saw people lighting fires in dry forests and littering places. 🙁
Unfortunately, we had to put all our trips to Scotland on hold for this year and move them to 2021. If we used our “default” ferry from Amsterdam we would have to quarantine and I am not keen on flying at the moment, either.
I have been working from home since mid-March which I really enjoy as it saves me a 4-hour daily commute. We are lucky to have a garden and although we do not have a cutie like Harris to play with we can still enjoy the outdoors without even leaving our home. Stay safe.
Thanks Tanja, very glad that your work situation is improved at least! Yes, this seems to be a big mentality problem, certainly in the western world, where too many people seem to view what is on their doorstep as ‘theirs’ to do with as they please. It’s going to form part of government marketing messages going forward for sure. Hope to see you back in 2021 and that the second wave is the last we’ll have to endure from this thing. Take care.
As a first generation Wallace/Steedman born outside of Scotland, born and living in Canada, I have made a few trips to your beautiful country, starting with a pre-uni trip in 1971. Over the past 7 years, my husband and I, now retired, have made 2 wonderful, long (2+ month) trips to Scotland. As well as the big cities and highlands, we have visited Lewis and Harris (absolutely loved the beaches and rocky scenery on Harris), Islay (1 week each visit), Skye and Mull. We are planning another for the summer/fall of 2022, when we will also add Orkney to the itinerary. Canada has suffered and is still suffering from Covid but all trends are heading in the right direction for travel once again. I just joined your blog and love all your writings and pictures. I have gotten more ideas for next summer from your blogs. We are also raising a golden retriever puppy, named Fergus. Keep travelling and writing so folks like me may continue to live vicariously through them!
Thank you Barb, glad it’s helping while you wait for safer times. I hope Canada gets the green light to travel soon, I’m sure the world is missing all the lovely Canadians! Give Fergus a cuddle for me!