In the remote embrace of Shetland's northern tip, where the horizon dons a rugged edge and the defiant island of Muckle Flugga wrestles with the tempestuous North Sea, tranquility reigns. Crowned as the northernmost point of the British Isles, the lighthouse standing sentinel on Unst's coast beckons those in search of isolation—a haven from the tourist tumult that has swept across Scotland’s far north.
On my last pilgrimage to this windswept sanctuary, the wind played the role of a cheeky assailant, the sea unleashed percussive symphonies, and solitude became my only companion. No crowds disrupted the communion with nature, no coach tours intruded on the symphony of shrieking gulls. Perhaps those gulls, in their chaotic chorus, pondered the rarity of a lone seeker traversing their pristine domain.
However, the serenity of this distant outpost faces an imminent threat. A recent proclamation by Lonely Planet bestowed the coveted title of one of the "50 Places to Visit in 2024" upon the "Far North of Scotland." The accolade, while an honor, casts an ironic shadow, for it heralds an influx of eager explorers seeking respite from the familiar tourist trails that wind around Edinburgh Castle, Loch Lomond's shores, and Glencoe's peaks.
Lonely Planet describes the current flow of travelers as a "trickle," a term met with skepticism by those intimately acquainted with the region. Short of chartering a personal hot air balloon to survey the untouched northern coast from the skies, finding unspoiled landscapes remains a challenge. For enthusiasts of opulent country house hotels, tranquil sea lochs, salmon-rich rivers, and venerable single malt whisky distilleries, the Far North beckons—but not without a crucial caveat.
Beneath the surface of its scenic allure, the region grapples with the weight of unsustainable tourist numbers, a predicament exacerbated by the meteoric rise of the North Coast 500 in 2015. The trail's popularity, akin to an unruly force of nature, has not only attracted admiration but also triggered concerns about the conservation of the region's pristine charm.
Contrary to the idyllic image of a time-stood-still backwater, the far northern Highlands now contend with congestion and inconvenience for locals. This summer witnessed a surge in tourist misbehavior, prompting a local community group to brand it "utterly disgusting." With roadsides lined bumper to bumper with motorhomes, activists and MSPs raise a collective call for intervention, proposing a visitor vehicle levy or a number-plate recognition camera system to alleviate the strain on local services.
In the delicate balance between preservation and exploration, Shetland’s northern tip stands as a refuge for those seeking the genuine embrace of untamed landscapes, whispering winds, and the solace of true solitude—provided one arrives before the rising tide of tourism reshapes the serenity of this hidden gem.
In the quest to unravel the essence of Scotland's far north, I found myself traversing the breathtaking landscapes last month on behalf of this esteemed newspaper. My mission led me to the recently unveiled Dornoch Station hotel, situated an hour north of Inverness, proudly overlooking a meticulously manicured golf course and waves dancing on the horizon. Operated by the ambitious parent company Marine & Lawn, this establishment strategically targets the flourishing North Coast 500 market. However, my arrival was met with an ominous busyness—staff seemingly elusive, the restaurant overwhelmed, and management grappling with a symphony of complaints that echoed through the hallways, culminating in awkward scenes during the checkout process.
During my stay, I overheard a disgruntled couple sharing tales of an hour-plus wait for dinner, ultimately resorting to the familiar aisles of Tesco in nearby Tain. In the unpredictable realm of hotel launches, glitches are to be expected, yet the road farther north echoed a similar sentiment. The ornate Dunrobin Castle, a grandeur spectacle among Scotland's largest estates, greeted me with a vibe reminiscent of a Disney fairy tale, complete with Cinderella chateau nuances. Despite earning a coveted spot on Lonely Planet's recommendations for the region, the castle was a hive of activity. A busload of Americans swarmed the portico entrance beneath witch hat turrets, while a Chinese group occupied the galleried rooms—a testament to the region's burgeoning popularity. With the North Coast 500 blazing past at the end of the driveway, it became evident that this coastal stretch had already embraced its zenith in tourism, despite Lonely Planet's endorsement.
Another reason for my sojourn was the Royal Marine Brora, a retreat nestled farther up the road from Golspie. Here, I encountered a diverse array of visitors from the Netherlands, France, and the distant shores of Vancouver Island. All were living out their North Coast 500 dreams, the culmination of years of saving and anticipation. Overseen by Highland Coast Hotels, a group managing five enchanting lodgings along the route, including outposts in Tongue and Kylesku, the Royal Marine Brora radiated a peculiar charm—mad uncle eccentricity that resonates with visitors drawn to Britain's unique allure. Picture a full Scottish breakfast accompanied by the spirited melodies of manager Billy McKechnie's bagpipes echoing across the front lawn—an experience teetering on the edge of hilarity but hardly aligning with the notion of a crowd-free coastline.
In a conversation with CEO Guy Crawford, I gleaned the hotel group's perspective. Their motivation extends beyond the allure of summer crowds, aiming instead to welcome visitors during the quieter autumn and winter months. The objective is not just to cater to fleeting tourists but to create enduring hospitality employment opportunities for local communities, fostering a symbiotic relationship between visitors and the landscapes they traverse. As the sun sets over the far northern horizon, the region grapples with the delicate dance between sustaining its allure and navigating the pitfalls of burgeoning popularity.
In the face of escalating concerns about overtourism along the famed North Coast 500, stakeholders in Scotland's far north are grappling with the delicate balance between promoting tourism and preserving the pristine landscapes. Acknowledging the pinch points during peak times, a spokesperson emphasized the region's unwavering commitment to fostering responsible and sustainable tourism.
According to a representative from VisitScotland, the national tourism body, the North Coast 500 has undeniably played a pivotal role in job creation and elevating awareness of the North Highlands. Yet, the spokesperson also emphasized the importance of diversifying tourist routes, urging visitors to explore beyond the well-trodden path. The collective ambition of local stakeholders, including VisitScotland, is to inspire travelers to delve deeper into the region, extend their stays, and immerse themselves in the destination during quieter periods.
In the evolving landscape of travel journalism, the focus is increasingly shifting towards recommendations that promote sustainability and avoid the pitfalls of overtourism. However, even well-intentioned suggestions can occasionally miss the mark. Lonely Planet, for instance, pairs its endorsement of the coastal journey with an encouraging exploration of the interior—a landscape that seamlessly oscillates between boggy terrain and breathtaking brilliance.
Venturing into the less-charted territories, there's respite from the bustling crowds. Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve offers a serene retreat, allowing visitors to hunker down with tea and binoculars, observing a myriad of birds in their natural habitat. A hike through the marshy peatlands of Flow Country promises a unique experience, with the site aspiring to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status in the coming year.
For those seeking a symphony of experiences beyond the typical summer spectacle, the far north beckons with its magical encounters—stags in their element, star-studded nights, rugged hills, and the allure of smoky fireside drams. However, a word of caution is extended to those fixated solely on the blushed pinks of long summer skies and the sublime blues of beach days. The motorhome and campervan crowds, prevalent during the warmer months, might hinder the pursuit of solitude and serenity, leading to a less-than-ideal experience.
In essence, the far north of Scotland remains a realm of diverse offerings, catering to both the seekers of solitude in the off-season and those enchanted by the vibrancy of summer hues. The key lies in understanding the ebb and flow of tourist patterns, choosing the right time for exploration, and embracing the multifaceted charm that this captivating region has to offer.
In the ever-evolving landscape of Scotland's far north, the narrative of responsible and sustainable tourism unfolds against the backdrop of escalating concerns about overtourism along the renowned North Coast 500. Stakeholders, from local authorities to national tourism bodies, grapple with the delicate task of striking a balance between promoting the allure of the region and safeguarding its unspoiled landscapes.
Acknowledging the challenges posed by peak times and crowded attractions, there is a resolute commitment to responsible tourism practices. VisitScotland underscores the multifaceted impact of the North Coast 500, celebrating its role in job creation and heightened awareness of the North Highlands. However, the call to explore beyond the well-worn routes is a resonant one—a plea for visitors to delve deeper into the region, extend their stays, and savor the tranquility during off-peak periods.
In the realm of travel journalism, the focus has shifted towards recommendations that champion sustainability, urging travelers to avoid the pitfalls of overtourism. While acknowledging the occasional missteps, there's praise for initiatives like Lonely Planet's endorsement, which seamlessly dovetails coastal exploration with an invitation to discover the interior—a landscape oscillating between boggy expanses and breathtaking brilliance.
The less-charted territories beckon, offering refuge from bustling crowds. Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve provides a serene escape, and the marshy peatlands of Flow Country promise a unique UNESCO World Heritage-worthy experience. The far north reveals itself as a realm of diverse offerings, where off-season magic unfolds with stags, starlit nights, rugged hills, and the warm embrace of fireside drams.
Yet, a note of caution is sounded for those enamored solely by the allure of summer skies and beach days. The warmer months, while vibrant, may bring forth motorhome and campervan crowds, potentially diluting the sought-after sense of solitude.
In essence, the conclusion is an invitation to navigate the far north of Scotland with an understanding of the ebb and flow of tourist patterns. It is an encouragement to choose the right time for exploration, embracing the multifaceted charm that this captivating region offers—from the enchantment of the off-season's serenity to the vibrant hues of summer, each revealing a different facet of Scotland's far north.