Britain by bike: 'Arriving in the Highlands, I was struck by how weary the locals are'

Simon Parker
·8 min read
Simon Parker is cycling from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly - Simon Parker
Simon Parker is cycling from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly - Simon Parker

Camping in earshot of the sea is a delicate balancing act. Get too close, and the rumble and thump will induce nightmares of shipwrecks and tidal waves. But edge too far away, and you’ll miss out on a calming rhythm that beats a diazepam any night of the week. 

Cocooned in my thick down sleeping bag, as the North Atlantic barged ashore, and then fizzed over the moonlit sand, I found myself lying in a slumber sweet spot. I wasn’t exactly being rocked to sleep – more tranquilized by sound. The two beers, fresh breeze and five hours’ cycling had probably played a small part, too. But nevertheless, by 1930 I was dead to the world – earlier than most toddlers. 

Wild camping – or simply camping” as most Scots have known it for centuries – became a moot point in mainland Britain this summer, at the easing of lockdown. All dressed up for our hols, but with nowhere to go, hundreds of thousands of us scrambled to the countryside, looking for a night in the sticks.

Most people followed the “leave no trace” maxim to the letter – but as always – a few imbeciles tarnished its image for the masses. Some areas of mainland Scotland and Cumbria had to contend with the fallout of rowdy parties – giving rise to the not-so charming term “dirty camping”. Rather than a few tent-shaped imprints and trampled grass, the aftermath looked more like the apocalyptic Monday after Glastonbury. 

On Orkney, however, summer looked and felt wholly different. Being cut off from mainland Britain – even by just six miles – allowed the islands to experience an unexpected fallow year. So much so, that for many Orcadians, 2020 will be remembered as the halcyon summer of campfires, surfing and beers under the stars.

Simon gets ready for an early night - Simon Parker
Simon gets ready for an early night - Simon Parker

“I’ve never seen so many tents on the beaches,” I was told by former BBC reporter and keen surfer, David Flanagan. “There’s been loads of camping, and campfires, and just hanging out on the beach. I think most local folk saw it as a chance to explore their own islands in a way they’d probably not done for a while.”

In a normal year, about 300,000 visitors pitch up on ferries and cruise ships – boosting the local economy by at least £67 million. It’s a vital industry, alongside the renewable energy sector, supporting jewellery shops, boat tours, food shacks and whiskey tasting rooms. This year, however, just a tiny fraction arrived. 

“We lost all our overseas visitors, and didn’t get anywhere near the normal number from England and Scotland,” said Elaine Tulloch, Chief Executive of Destination Orkney, as a brisk northerly wind whipped through Kirkwall Harbour. “But it’s given us all a chance to reset and plan for the coming years – we’re thinking about a recovery that works for locals and tourists.

“For example, we’re exploring how we can have fewer people arriving at one time, and in one place. We also want to persuade visitors that this is a year-round destination, regardless of the weather.”

Orkney’s hotels, restaurants and bars have been eager to push this message, too – in an attempt to encourage local people outside, despite the impending slide to winter. “We had to come up with a way of attracting business back,” said Stephen Kemp, Managing Director of Orkney Distilling. 

Stephen Kemp, Managing Director of Orkney Distilling - Simon Parker
Stephen Kemp, Managing Director of Orkney Distilling - Simon Parker

“That meant building a dog- and family-friendly garden. It’s not a normal thing for Orcadians to sit outside into autumn and winter. Culturally, we’re more prone to crowding together in cosy pubs, but – obviously – that’s not great at the moment.”

At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, Stephen and his team quickly transferred their efforts from making gin to hand sanitizer. “We only furloughed one person,” he told me. “We ended up producing about 50,000 litres in a really short time, and gave most of it [the hand sanitizer, that is] to the RNLI. They work in a confined environment, and one positive case could put a whole lifeboat out of action.”

Cycling into Orkney’s sheltered coves, and then juddering atop its gale-battered cliffs, I couldn’t help but marvel at the archipelago’s climactic and geographical purgatory – seemingly caught between two worlds. 

On one hand, it felt far enough away from the Scottish mainland, as to resemble a safely cut-off and autonomous polar community – akin to those in northwest Canada or Arctic Norway. But on the other hand, the foreboding presence of Great Britain was always looming in sight, just over the northwest horizon. 

I sailed out of Stromness under a cloak of gloomy morning mizzle, but rolled into Scrabster – just west of Thurso – beneath crisp blue skies. Whereas isolated Orkney managed to escape the post-lockdown onslaught, the Scottish Highlands experienced a wholly different summer. “We got smashed by people,” said the first shopkeeper I spoke to, when I asked what life had been like since the end of lockdown. 

On Shetland and Orkney, I’d got the overwhelming impression that people were glad to see me – as though some considerate visitors were now long overdue. In the Highlands, however – following the route of the North Coast 500 – I was immediately struck by just how weary many locals seemed. Moreover, most cars and vans whizzed past me, as though my bike and panniers were a cumbersome annoyance, rather than an amusing eccentricity.  

The welcome hasn't been so warm on the mainland - Simon Parker
The welcome hasn't been so warm on the mainland - Simon Parker

People working directly with British tourists – who arrived in July with their furlough cash to burn – have clearly had a bumper, albeit frantic, few months. In Bettyhill, a masked café waitress believed that in the three months since July 15 – when tourists were allowed back in – they’d managed to make more money than in last year’s entire summer. 

Even now, with the nights drawing in, many of the hotels, B&Bs and campsites at the very top of mainland Britain are still full to their bleached rafters. “We were very, very busy. Busier than we could have ever imagined,” said Stephen Macay, owner of the Kyle of Tongue Hostel and Holiday Park, as I pitched my tent amid a swarm of end-of-season midges. “But it was totally impractical to open the hostel. We’d need to clean the kitchen after every group. We’ve just stuck with camping. There’s also been a big increase in camper vans, especially.”

It’s not surprising that camper vans have become more popular this year. Like sleeping in a tent, at least you can be more confident of living in your own germs, rather than taking your chances in hotel rooms. But they’re not without their critics. “Count the camper vans,” I was warned by at least half a dozen local people.

The camper cause doesn’t seem to be helped by the fact that they’re produced from mostly garish, brilliant white plastic – completely at odds with the rusty aesthetic of the Highlands in autumn. Arriving at the top of Sutherland’s mountain passes, the first thing that always caught my eye – some 10 or 20 miles in the distance – was the sight of dozens of fridge freezers on wheels. 

It’s certainly not hard not to see the attraction of the North Coast 500. The mountainous scenery, unequivocally, deserves the mantle “epic” – and at the moment there are horny stags chasing tail, with curls of thick, testosterone-rich steam twisting from their nostrils. 

It’s just a shame the North Coast 500’s road surface isn’t better, considering the sheer number of people it attracts. The lack of regular toilet facilities also means the grassy roadside has the occasional smattering of loo paper and discarded nappies. And as I cycled slowly along, it reminded me of Peru’s Inca Trail or Spain’s Camino de Santiago – a grand tourist brand, but without the infrastructure to support its fame. 

Covid restrictions meant that public toilets remained closed for much of the summer, and most campsite owners considered the constant cleaning of their loos to be too much of an onerous and potentially risky task. This meant the Highlands faced a nasty problem. 

“Closed cafes, no public toilets and increased vehicle traffic created a perfect storm,” said Topher Dawson, the chair of Lochbroom Community Council, as we shared an al-fresco brew in the village of Ullapool. “The most dramatic scenery started to have big problems with litter and human waste, at and near to laybys. So we decided to equip them with trowels [so tourists could bury their business].

“Although some locals objected, people familiar with camping approved. It was an emergency response to an acute situation. And here,” he said – handing me a trowel. “Consider this a parting gift, for the remainder of your journey.”

We’ll be publishing regular articles and short films from Simon’s journey as he cycles the length of Britain. You can also follow his adventure in real time via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Search for the hash tag #BritainByBike.