22 December 2014 by Helen Todd
I love camping – but I didn’t always feel this way! As a family our only camping experiences were in warm, sunny France. The idea of camping in the rather damper, cooler UK didn’t really appeal.
Until I came to Scotland, bizarrely, well known for being the land of the midge – and it can certainly rain here too! The difference is that my experience of camping here has not been on formal campsites but of wild camping, whether travelling by bike, on foot or by car. As well as being a walkers’ paradise, Scotland’s a fantastic place for cycle touring – hopping on ferries between Hebridean islands, or exploring remote tracks into the wildest of Britain’s landscapes. With our gear crammed into two panniers apiece, the tent balanced on the top, we are ready to go anywhere. Even if walking into a bothy for the night we usually take a tent, just in case any fellow residents stay up late – or are loud snorers!
Why do I love wild camping? The misery of the occasional evening swathed in a midge net while trying to set up camp is totally wiped out by the many pleasures gained. There’s the closeness to nature and wildlife, from the sound of the cuckoo in the woodland across the glen to the deer grazing quietly nearby, and the utter peace and tranquillity of a clear starry night. Waking up to blue skies and a freshly-washed landscape, with a nice mug of tea in your hand, can’t be beat – especially when there are no other tents nearby full of noisy late revellers or early risers.
Scotland enshrined the right to camp wild in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, and it’s a great comfort to know that, as long as you are acting responsibly, you are free to camp anywhere – well, anywhere you can find a piece of flat ground which isn’t a bog, anyway! The Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives clear guidance on what responsibilities you have. While mountaineers and backpackers benefit, roadside camping is also included in this right.
Given that there are relatively few places where you can pitch a tent by a road, many places we find have already been used by others, with evidence in the remains of fires, beer bottles and cans left behind. Wherever we have camped we have always left the place in a better state than when we arrived, but it’s very dispiriting to see the lack of respect to the environment felt by some who think that, because nobody is watching them, they can leave their rubbish behind.
And of course there are those honeypot areas, where roads run along lochshores in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, for example, just an hour’s drive from half the population of Scotland. Here the cumulative impact of campers in the same place every weekend throughout the summer is damaging the environment, and there’s a need for better management and camping provision. But there’s also a small minority who cause greater problems, those who come to party outdoors leaving entire campsites abandoned afterwards, or whose anti-social behaviour can intimidate other campers or local residents.
In 2011, the national park authority introduced a byelaw to ban camping along a stretch of the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Decades of problems in the area relating to irresponsible camping, including anti-social behaviour, uncontrolled fires and littering, meant the ban was seen as a way of changing the culture here. As well as byelaws banning camping and alcohol consumption, investment was made in setting up new informal campsites where for a small charge you had a pitch, toilets and rubbish collections. Ranger and police patrols were stepped up and since then the area has seen a huge improvement and local communities have breathed a sigh of relief.
But the park authority is now seeking to ban camping from nine other lochshores within the park. Ramblers Scotland is very much opposed to this proposal. For a start, the success of East Loch Lomond can’t be put down solely to the camping ban when other measures were also brought in at the same time, and it was recognised as an entrenched, historical problem. Also, a ban in the park could displace the worst offenders elsewhere, and we know that stretched local authorities couldn’t cope; the park authority is relatively well resourced in terms of recreation management.
Sure, there’s an issue with very irresponsible behaviour by some campers in the national park, but the whole point of Scotland’s access legislation is that if you’re not acting responsibly, you can be charged under other criminal laws for your behaviour – whether it’s a breach of the peace, vandalism or littering. By removing the right to camp, this penalises those campers who are acting responsibly, while not using the right legislation to punish those causing the problems in the first place.
The need for proper visitor management was one of the driving forces behind setting up the national park in 2002. The park’s current proposals include some very welcome ideas, providing picnic benches and car parks, camping sites and kiosks. It is a shame that this positive planning is being overshadowed by a heavy-handed approach towards camping, especially when the vast majority of campers are likely to respond well to a more managed approach.
There’s no easy answer, of course, but continued educational work by ranger services, investment in campsites and greater police presence at busy times would all help, and surely would resolve most issues without the need for a ban. If people feel discouraged from getting outdoors, this will have serious consequences for future generations who won’t learn the simple joys of camping wild, or be taught to respect the countryside.
More information on the proposed camping byelaws, with links to the consultation documents, can be found at: