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Hundreds of tents, cars, motorhomes, as well as piles of rubbish and damage left behind at the weekend at several Lochaber beauty spots saw Scottish Government tourism secretary Fergus Ewing host a hastily organised telephone summit this week with local community leaders desperate for help to cope with the growing problems of so-called ‘wild camping’.
Mr Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, hosted the conference call with representatives from Mallaig, Morar and Arisaig Community Councils, as well as other local organisations, together with local councillors Allan Henderson and Denis Rixson.
It came in the wake of a weekend that saw hordes of campers descend on Glen Etive, leaving piles of rubbish, with problems also reported on beaches at Morar and Arisaig.
A spokesperson for Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council told us:’ The mess is appalling – sadly nothing new – but are we really going to close our eyes to this and let Scotland drown in litter?’
Another community representative, Anne Widdop from Arisaig, who is spearheading an action team spanning the Road to the Isles marketing group and community councils, said her local community is at breaking point with concerns.
‘It’s a double whammy of Covid-19 being potentially spread in the area and the devastating impact on the beach environment by uncontrolled camping,’ she said.
‘While some cash has been secured to improve toilets at Traigh and Mallaig, it does not go nearly far enough. We all welcome visitors and recognise the importance of tourism to the local economy.
‘Visit-Scotland has done a great job persuading people to come here, but to date the Scottish Government has failed to provide the cash for infrastructure required to accommodate the increase in visitors.
‘The result is having a detrimental effect on the environment, the quality of life for people living in these areas is impacted, and visitors are having a poorer experience.
‘The Scottish Government did listen to us at a meeting with Kate Forbes and Fergus Ewing and they are taking the concerns very seriously. We remain hopeful that their words convert into action.’
Following the conference call, Dave Newnham, chairman of Morar Community Council, wrote to Mr Ewing on behalf of local community councils, telling him there should be immediate action to reverse the decision to permit wild camping be allowed as from yesterday (Wednesday).
‘Sadly it has come to our attention that there are a number of posts on social media that suggest we may once again be inundated with people at the weekend,’ added Mr Newnham.
‘If we see a repeat of the events of last weekend, there are potentially going to be over 100 people camping on the beach in Morar, more at both Traigh and Camusdarach, and none of them will have the means by which they can maintain even the most basic level of personal hygiene.
‘We also feel there needs to be urgent measures put in place that restrict the parking of campervans and caravans along the roadside next to the beaches.
‘Whilst we feel that some urgent and immediate action needs to be taken, we also feel far more positive about the future and would like to thank you again for taking the time to listen and to everyone for the constructive contribution they made.’
Mr Ewing told the Lochaber Times: ‘We understand that the majority of people visiting Scotland’s scenic sights do so responsibly, however we are absolutely clear that visitors should respect the local communities and areas they are visiting. Anti-social behaviour, in any form, is unacceptable.
‘This afternoon I convened a call to discuss concerns raised by local stakeholders and consider how public sector partners, including Police Scotland and local authorities, can work with them to mitigate such issues reoccurring.
‘There are already many policies in place to support sustainable tourism, including the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, which is benefiting community toilets and motorhome facilities in Mallaig and composting toilets at Traigh beach. We are committed to doing more to reduce pressures on communities.’
Commenting afterwards, local MSP Kate Forbes, who secured the conference call with Mr Ewing and local community representatives, said there was no quick and easy fix to events of the past few weekends.
But she added: ‘I hope this shows the commitment and willingness of the Scottish Government and the Highland Council to find solutions and also to work constructively with the local communities in Arisaig and Morar, as well as Glen Etive, to alleviate some of the pressures.’
Caol and Mallaig councillor Allan Henderson said what was witnessed at the weekend was not wild camping but groups clearly out to ‘colonise’ the beaches.
‘It is not possible to leave no trace on pristine beaches such as the silver sands which has been a beach much adored and shared by day visitors and locals for many years. Unfortunately what was a local issue is also a national problem – anti social behaviour,’ he told us.
Nevertheless, he also said the call with Mr Ewing had been very positive with the council mainly able to focus on short-term measures and the Scottish Government and other agencies the longer term national issues.
Frazer Coupland, chief executive officer at Lochaber Chamber of Commerce, said it was important everyone uses consistent and accurate language.
He commented: ‘The talk about ‘wild camping’ in recent weeks has included camping that leaves litter, smouldering fires and human waste. That is not ‘wild camping’ that is ‘illegal camping’, far removed from our wonderful Scottish Outdoor Access Code.’