Sustainable Tourism Scotland

It’s that time of year when travellers are about to descend on Scotland en masse. Peak season. All in the industry have been revelling in this wee chunk of the planet getting worldwide recognition as a must-visit, bucket-list, incomparable destination. Great stuff. But, with stereotypical Scottish caution, I present a spanner for the works.

The environment is our most priceless possession. I choose ‘possession’, because it belongs to all of us. With that comes responsibility, and that applies as much to travellers as it does to residents. While there has been an unprecedented surge in exposés and awareness-raising campaigns recently, I’m now throwing my hat in to see if there’s anything I can do to help the little corner I’ve dedicated myself to. This is the part where I need your support.

So get your credit card out and….just kidding. All I ask is that you read on.


Things for us all to keep in mind….


This is becoming a worldwide issue with hot-spots across the globe breaking under the strain of too many people at the same time. Big cities like Barcelona, Venice, Rome and many more are stunning ancient capitals that can hold large numbers but were simply not built to be descended upon without limits. Not to mention very specific sites like Petra, Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China. Ancient relics are at great risk.

In Scotland, this problem is primarily restricted to Edinburgh, Skye, parts of the North Coast 500 and parts of the Loch Ness area. The impact fluctuates between problematic and disastrous as the lack of facilities, infrastructure and controlling causes chaos. Fights by the roadside at the Fairy Pools; car parking free for alls in otherwise stunning, serene rural spots; hoteliers being asked if they will let people sleep on their lobby floors as there’s nowhere else available; litter bins overflowing; residents’ privacy being wiped out; non-locals, sensing a business opportunity, setting up low quality second home accommodation and charging scandalous rental prices; locals being completely priced out of the property market and being forced away; the necessity of an imminent tourist tax; chronic traffic congestion…..

Some gentle suggestions:

  • Is it possible for you to avoid coming to the above places in July and August? I appreciate that many travellers will be restricted by school holidays, but many will not. A word to the wise – the weather is generally better in the shoulder seasons, you’ll likely have better accommodation choices open to you and the midges are less nightmareish. So it’s quite likely to be in your own best interests too….
  • Do you need to go to these places at all? If you’ve never been before that’s one thing, but if you’re a repeat visitor could you not consider other options? Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee instead of Edinburgh. The North East 250 instead of the North Coast 500? The Outer Hebrides, Mull, Arran, Islay, Orkney, the Cairngorms instead of Skye? Scotland is utterly packed with quality outdoor destinations and the over-crowded ones are not necessarily the best. And I’m not just saying that.
  • Please don’t go to the Devil’s Pulpit (just north of Glasgow) in busy season. It simply can’t cope and is in danger of being completely ruined irreparably.
  • Don’t go somewhere primarily because of ‘Instagrammability’. Come on people, please. Go somewhere for an experience, blaze your own trail and make your own memories. Standing in a line of people queuing for your Instagram ‘hero shot’ is surely about as depressingly unauthentic as it gets.

I certainly do my best to be a responsible marketer and keep my promotion of all of the above ‘at risk’ places to a minimum. Some others do too. But it’s not enough, not by a long shot. The responsibility lies – with all that work in tourism – to promote sensibly and thoughtfully and not aim for the quick wins that are driving numbers to the same old spots. Spots that are struggling badly to handle demand.

coast sustainable tourism scotland
This is Orkney…
waterfall isle of mull scotland
This is Mull…
isle of harris drone
This is Harris…


Recycling and Waste

I enjoy a good rant about bins. Tenement life in Glasgow sees me cursing under my breath on a regular basis when I, like the good citizen, take my various bins down to the back close only to see that, yet again, the bins remain unemptied and overflowing. I’ll give the bins a good, feckin’ ragin’ kick (that’ll teach them) and trudge back homeward, with all my rubbish, tae think again.

The shortcomings of the collectors aside, however, we all have a responsibility to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we can. Blatant dropping of litter is an abomination and merits a night in the cells but, assuming that that’s pretty clear, the bigger challenge comes when recycling is involved. With our bloated public sector, things do seem to vary from region to region and lack standardisation, but this website allows you to search for all you need based on the relevant council/local authority that you’re visiting.

Usual bin guide:

  • Green bins are general waste
  • Blue is plastic/paper/cardboard
  • Grey is food waste
  • Brown is garden waste – a composter basically
  • Glass bins are separate again and will say very clearly on them at recycling points

But the rules here are understandably frustrating – precisely what can go in each bin can sometimes be ambiguous, particularly regarding plastic. Even us locals get confused. For example, if in the Highlands, this is what can go in your blue bin up there.

A very obvious free tip by the way, no charge. The tap water in Scotland is quite possibly the best in the world. You don’t need to be buying the bottled stuff. Save money, reduce plastic. Win at life.


Being an ‘Aware’ Traveller

These are Annoying….


Coming from a commercial drone pilot, it’ll likely not astonish to learn that I’m a bit pernickety about drone flying behaviour. Foaming at the mouth rabid actually.

One absolute bampot on Harris the other week sent his drone 1.5 kilometres away from him to put it over one of the outlying islands. Well chuffed with himself so he was.

Stupid. Dangerous. Selfish. Illegal.

The cheeky idiot was completely oblivious to the issue, not to mention my death stare. Seeing it drop squarely into the ocean would have been the very definition of karma, but would hardly have been fair on the sea life. The rules on this are (for the most part) crystal clear, here’s a few of the basics for the hobbyist flyers out there:

  • You must always be within Visual Line of Sight of your drone ie. you need to be able to physically see it all times. It’s not difficult you know.
  • Never fly it more than 500 metres away from yourself, or above 400 feet in height (unless you have specific permission from the CAA). The further away you go the less control you have and flyaways do happen. In such instances you have zero control of your drone and it’ll keep flying on its own accord until the battery dies and it comes dropping out of the sky. I’ll let your imagination picture how that could potentially go.
  • Always be aware of the weather (never fly in rain or anything more than light wind) and have permission from any relevant landowners of your take-off and landing spots.
  • Never fly within 50 metres of a person, building, car, busy road, animal or any other obvious hazard unless they are under your immediate control. Common sense, not to mention good manners. A drone flying at speed into an ancient castle could damage it forever, could kill a human and could cause a car to crash. It’s not hyperbole.
  • Don’t fly in restricted airspace, the consequences here can very easily be catastrophically lethal. This includes anywhere near airports of any description, and any built-up areas. Forget flying in cities and towns, just forget it.

drone code sustainable tourism scotland



Some campervanners have an increasingly large amount to answer for in the Highlands and Islands. Locals will grumble endlessly that they come in, bulldoze their way to the best spots, gobble up facilities and space and give next to nothing back to local economies and the environment. The criticisms:

  • The owners bring all their own food, shopping only in supermarkets and spend nothing in the rural areas that they are taking advantage of.
  • They take up a huge amount of space. Parking on roadsides (often illegally), devastating scenic vistas and scaring off wildlife.
  • The people controlling them can’t drive. Struck dumb by the prospect of reversing on single track roads they freeze at the wheel, causing congestion, erosion and road rage for those that can actually drive. Given the lack of motorways up north the pace of travel for everyone on the roads is slowed massively – not a big problem if slower vehicles are small in number but when they make up a big percentage of total traffic, no-one is going anywhere fast.
  • Outrage caused by the casual dumping of human waste by roadsides, in public toilets and worse. This waste is often chemical as well.

These criticisms certainly do not apply to all users, only a minority. If you are a campervan/motorhome user, all that I, and most others, will ever ask is that you are aware of the potential seriousness of the above and act accordingly. For all road drivers:

Respect other drivers by pulling over now and then if you’re causing a pile up behind you; practice reversing somewhere safe until confident; don’t park illegally; don’t dump illegally; respect that locals have lives to live; respect the environment (it’s the only one we have) and try, please try, to give something back financially to the places that you are visiting. That’s the only way that tourism works for the economy.

As someone who road trips in the Highlands regularly, all of the above requests come off the back of personal, often horrified, experience. I have campervanned before and it’s good fun. I’ve promoted them before too. But, no longer. I can, unfortunately, no longer in good conscience continue to encourage them as a mode of holidaying, thanks to a. the sheer number of them now in the popular locations and b. the selfish behaviour of a few bad eggs.


Moving On…

Now that we’re all good travellers and are going to green heaven, park the above to-dos and focus on having a great time in Scotland. It’s an amazing country, truly. It’ll find a place in your soul and may never leave.

But, probably the two biggest assets we have here are our naturally beautiful landscapes and our ancient, superbly maintained, history. Both are fragile. Both need a concerted effort to prevent them slipping into decline. And both can be preserved by considering all of the above and being honest enough with ourselves to assess whether we can do just a little bit more when we travel.

Enjoy Scotland, and let Scotland enjoy you.


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Share This Blog On....


  1. Neil, great article. I was in Scotland a few weeks ago and those were things going through my mind. It made me sad to see the trash on the ground next to trash bins. I tried to pick up trash when I pulled over to take pictures. I think people need to be reminded to take care of places we visit.

    1. Thanks Laura and thank you for doing your bit – if we’re all just a bit more aware, none of this needs to be an issue.

  2. Agree with sentiments.

    I live in Scotland and love touring our land.
    Hillwalking for years too, now I see an increasing number of man made paths on the hills. Some hills are being worn away by walkers.
    Do people realise how delicate physically delicate these hills are?

    Also to many cars on our roads.
    More often now I leave the car and take the bike on the train.
    As you why not try the less frequented places such Cowl. Can recommend the scenery and cycling. Even found a beautiful hill without a path

    1. Agree Gerard, the erosion on numerous of the more popular hills is another big issue. Resources need to be further diverted into dealing with this and it shouldn’t fall on volunteers to do all the graft. Certainly no shortage of places to escape the crowds though you are right, and the right marketing can help disperse people across the country in much more manageable levels.

  3. Solid advice! A healthy reminder to be conscientious regardless of where we travel. Have you written a post with shoulder season itineraries? I’d like to visit in October 2020, and I’d like to spend as much time exploring the islands, highlands and lochs as possible but I’m curious to know if accommodation and other amenities are as readily available at that time of year in the more out-of-the-way places?

    1. Shoulder seasons are great times to visit and, although I’ve not done one specifically on them, there’s no shortage of options. The weather tends to be very stable and most accommodation providers will remain functional. Some attractions will have started opening on reduced hours by October but many will remain open in some capacity. Most ferry routes will also run at that time so getting to the islands not an issue. Perhaps a little more research required for you but I’d always advise coming in the shoulder seasons over peak!

  4. Very well said Neil! This is definitely a great reminder for everyone and especially us visitors who my not be sure of local guidelines. Thank you!

  5. Well said, and absolutely spot on. Travel for many has become a mere photo op, posting the “next best” with little regard for the land and folks around them. Your previous post spoke to the reason I have returned to Scotland many time over the years ( decades, really). My daughter has fallen in love with the country, too. More than whiskey and castles, the remote wildness stirs something in my soul, and draws me back. But I have been dismayed at the amount of litter and rude crowds that shove their way through, and around, some of the precious places. People posing for photos and falling into beautifully planted gardens, trampling the grounds. At Scarista Beach on Harris, there are bins for collecting beach trash & plastic. But very few actually bend over to pick up something to place it in a bin. How difficult is that? Can’t everyone just help a little to remove the ugliness left behind by inconsiderate visitors and garbage from the sea? It’s not difficult. There is a little saying that goes, “you only have one chance to make a first impression”. Visitors everywhere should strive to leave the BEST impression where ever they are. Bring a reusable water bottle….if it’s empty, you can bring in in carry-on and use it as you travel. Less plastic waste. Pick up trash, use good manners, tread lightly in the magnificent landscapes, take turns, let patience and kindness rule the day. And as for travelling in the shoulder season, absolutely, if you can. The weather is wonderful, the crowds are less and the lines are shorter. You can actually get that good table with the great view at lunch & dinner.
    Leave the best impression possible. The country, and everyone, will thank you. Thank you, Neil, for bringing such important considerations into the spotlight. I hope they take them “on board”.

  6. Hello Neil,
    Thank you for another great post.

    We just returned from Scotland last weekend and I was surprised how crowded Edinburgh was at this time of year (we travelled with friends who were only available during that week). The ferry from Amsterdam to Newcastle was really full as well. In the past years, we always went in February, March, October or November when it’s very relaxed and quiet – so you see we aren’t afraid of bad weather which we did not even have… 😉 We also don’t mind if some of the “attractions” are closed during that time.

    I’m looking forward to going to Harris at the beginning of September and I hope it won’t be too packed.

    Concerning littering I never understood what’s so difficult about putting your stuff into a bin instead of throwing it right beside… (although I have seen birds pulling edible stuff out and littering the place in the process).

    As you may know I am an avid Scotland traveller and I just hope that I do not cause too much impact while I am there.

    Best wishes,
    Tanja (Caledonia72)

    P.S.: I have never used a drone, but I caught one flying over our garden a while ago (which is prohibited in Germany)

    1. Thank you Tanja! Oh yes Edinburgh is struggling quite a bit, almost year-round, to handle the interest. Very wise, good months to come and see the place at more normal levels! I’d expect Harris to be pretty busy at the predicatable spots in early Sept, but very easy to find serenity (particularly in North Harris). By the sound of it, you’re the exact kind of traveller that Scotland will always welcome and be grateful to have visit us!

  7. I loved this post. I live in Edinburgh and during the summer months, I consciously restrict my visits to the city centre. I am also worried of the impact that Airbnb etc are causing to some cities, Edinburgh being one of them!

    1. I’m not surprised! Airbnb is a big issue in various popular cities and the solution to this is not clear – and who is responsible for addressing the issues is also ambiguous….

    1. It does indeed, I remember witnessing this and I have friends there who keep me updated. Lots of wealthy second home owners that are stretching the disparity in wealth even further and making it harder and harder for young people in particular to get a foundation in life. Major problem.

  8. About tourism and it’s impact on the environment and infrastructure. I know it’s uncool to admit but I often ski in Switzerland.
    Where I skied this year was amazing; you would hardly have known it was there. It had been laid out in sympathy with the hills. The farms, still functioning were more evident. The skiing didn’t rely that much on man made snow either. It can be done, couldn’t we borrow some of their ideas.

    1. Always scope to learn from others and definitely important to blend in wherever possible with the environment and play to its tune rather than the other way around.

  9. Great post, thanks so much. I’m hoping to visit for the first time this October, bringing my family from the US. It will mean pulling the kids from school but for all the reasons you list, I think it well worthwhile. Secondarily, assuming we love Scotland as much as we think we will, there’s serious consideration on our part to relocate there. The main concern I have with the idea is this problem of overtourism. As much as I think I would love living there, I fear adding to the problem. I imagine myself being a responsible local and adhering to these guidelines (avoiding the “glamor spots” at high tourist time, etc), I just hope that the country isn’t being ruined so much by disrespectful tourists that I wouldn’t enjoy it as a home. I have a feeling it remains a wonderful place to live and once you learn how to deal with these issues, it’s well worth it, but it is definitely my major concern with this potential life decision… Thanks for your excellent words and thinking points.

    1. Hi Cab, full-on living here is a very differnet issue and Scotland is in need of more immigration, not less. People who are coming here to live are welcomed not just by locals who are very warm and liberal for the most part, but also economically. The problem I raised above is more to do with people buying second, third and forth homes, rarely living in them but driving up the cost massively for locals who are then forced out. As for the tourism impact, it sounds like you’ll fit right in and we’re a while away from things being ‘ruined’ just yet. Some short term course correction is certainly required in terms of sustainability but this is still a wonderful country to live in and, if you’re as considerate as you sound, you’ll be welcomed with open arms!

      1. Thanks so much for your reply, and for putting my mind at ease. I’m sure that being a resident is much different than a tourist, I just would worry that the increase in (especially disrespectful) tourists would make living there somewhat less enjoyable. However, the idea of living there means I’d be free to choose when to go to Skye/Torridon/(insert location here), and to come back the next weekend if I chose, rather than being limited by my airline travel dates. Sort of being a “resident tourist,” at least for the first couple of years when everything is new. And from what I’ve read and seen online, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t love it there. But, first things first, a trip this fall to see how we like it, then figure out how to get a work visa, a company to sponsor me and bring us over, etc. Brexit and/or possible future Scottish independence referendums certainly put wrinkles in things. We shall see! I’ll certainly be poking around your website for more ideas.

  10. Hi Neil! I met you this summer in Edinburgh. We traveled all around Scotland in May and were pretty impressed with the recycling and enviro-friendly resources/people. I think the US could learn a lot from Scotland’s efforts.

    I did wonder what locals thought of the massive campervans on the one-track roads. We encountered several that had traffic backed up for miles and caused so many issues when trying to squeeze in a passing place.
    We also had a terrible experience with a bus at Urquhart Castle. The bus piled out 50+ people, all of whom jumped the line for tickets because they had pre-purchased. I’ll just say the castle visit was a mess and we got out of there as soon as we could. All in all, I think folks should be a little more aware of this tourist-effect they’re having on ancient places. We loved every moment of our time there (even the times that requires a little extra patience!) Thanks for the recommendations!

    1. Good to hear we’re making some headway in the recycling department! 🙂 A reasonable number of campervans, with competent drivers, is not an issue and I think reasonable patience has to be expected on these roads but what we have at present is completely unsustainable and it’s got out of hand. So I feel your frustrations. Buses are just as big of an issue, but at least they are pretty limited in where they can go and they tend to focus on very predictable spots. But absolutely right, if everyone just took a few minutes at the beginning of their trip planning to actively prioritise a sustainable approach, it would make all the difference. It benefits everyone and gives travellers a better chance of wanting to come back for repeat visits. Most importantly, delighted you had a great time in Scotland and see you again soon I hope!

  11. I’ll be traveling to Scotland in January 2021 and would to see Cairngorms National Park. Do you have any suggestions as to what town I should base myself in? I’ll be traveling solo without a car, so decent public transport is a must.


    1. Hi Renee, Aviemore is the most obvious choice. It has its own train station with direct links to Edinburgh/Glasgow etc. and quick access to the heart of the Cairngorms, although taxis (or a bike) may be required to get around the Park.

Leave a Response