THERE needs to be bigger investment in Scotland’s natural assets if the country is to really get a handle on overtourism, a leading figure at the charity which took over Skye’s Fairy Pools has insisted.

Duncan Bryden, chair of the Outdoor Access Trust For Scotland’s (OATS) board, was asked by Highland Council in 2015 to come up with potential solutions to a problem that was becoming unmanageable at the beauty spot near Glen Brittle.

Between 2002 and 2015, visitor numbers to the Fairy Pools had rocketed a staggering 600% with roughly 82,000 venturing to see the clear blue waterfalls eight years ago.

The site to this day has minimal signposting, but the rise of social media has led to tourists from all over the world flocking to one of Scotland’s top natural wonders at the foot of the Black Cuillins to get their selfies.

But there in lay the issue. It was a natural wonder, not built for people, not synthetically designed to withstand thousands of feet trampling around it every day, and nor were the Glen Brittle residents living there.

READ MORE: What can we do about Scotland's overtourism problems?

Bryden told The National: “The car park was completely inadequate so people began to park up and down the roadside.

“On the road to Glen Brittle there are hairpin bends and they were parked all around the bends and it’s just a single track road.

“People living in Glen Brittle couldn’t get basic goods and services down there, the bins couldn’t be emptied, they couldn’t get food deliveries.

“The tenant farmer’s mother, I think, was delayed in getting to hospital because the ambulance couldn’t get through.

“The council did a bit of work in putting up signs saying no parking but people just parked anyway and headed across to the pools, spurred on again by social media.”

Eventually, as numbers continued to climb to well over 100,000 a year, the Minginish Community Hall Association (MCHA) decided it wanted to get facilities in place to improve the visitor experience and make life easier for residents.

The organisation took ownership of the land via a community asset transfer with OATS eventually taking a 25-year lease on the back of its pledge to build a car park and toilets and manage the site.

The National: Am off-grid toilet block was opened close to the Fairy Pools as a way of managing high levels of touristsAm off-grid toilet block was opened close to the Fairy Pools as a way of managing high levels of tourists (Image: Andrew Woodhouse)

With the help of Scottish Government funding, OATS opened a car park and off-grid toilet block, with full-time and seasonal staff from the community now there to oversee the running of both.

The Fairy Pools can now safely accommodate around 200,000 visitors a year.  

OATS has also replaced two river crossings and resurfaced paths around the site, with both having come under severe pressure from the level of footfall.

Bryden said: “It had become a bit Wild Westish.

“Our feedback from the work has been hugely positive. Crucially for the residents, they can get in and out safely now in amongst quite large numbers of visitors and the visitors seem pretty happy.

“You can’t get away from large number of visitors coming, but things are running much more smoothly with real benefits to the community.”

Challenges still remain with some who go to visit the Fairy Pools still leaving feeling overwhelmed by the number of tourists, but OATS does seem to have relinquished some control over a situation that was getting out of hand.

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Issues with overtourism at the Fairy Pools were similar to those currently haunting Glenfinnan, where residents are becoming increasingly resentful of floods of tourists stopping by to see The Jacobite train – otherwise known as the “real” Hogwarts Express – cross the viaduct at the top of Loch Shiel.

In 2019, a whopping 500,000 people visited the Highland hamlet – an almost three-fold increase from four years before.

The National Trust for Scotland - which manages the Glenfinnan Monument but not the viaduct - is fully expecting that to be knocked out the park this year with 230,000 people having already visited as of the end of last month.

The central issue in Glenfinnan is no one body has stepped forward to take responsibility for tourism at the viaduct, which sits on privately-owned land.

The National:

Bryden (above) believes a similar organisation to OATS taking ownership of the problem could be the answer.  

He said: “I think a third party [coming in] could be a solution. They’ve got to know what they’re going into though.

“I know they’ve got another car park at Glenfinnan now [funded by Highland Council and the Scottish Government Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund] and that’s been a huge improvement but these things still need to be managed. I don’t think we can just build bigger and bigger car parks.

“There’s quite a lot of hands-on management needed on the ground on an ongoing basis which commits you to salaries and the costs of employment and you’d need some sort of lease as it needs quite a big capital investment upfront.  

“At Glenfinnan there’s the draw of that bridge and everyone just parks everywhere. I think you could do a lot in terms of interpretation and signage about safety. We’re working on something app-based at the moment where if you sign up to the app you can get real-time information about how busy the car park is, what conditions are like etc, which helps you decide when to go.

“But all that needs a body to manage and look after it.”

Bryden also stressed if an organisation did takeover the site it would have to find some way to arrange community benefits. Not only do OATS employ staff from the community at the site but a portion of the surplus revenue goes to MCHA which, during the Covid crisis, helped to fund hardship grants. 

Highland Council said the new car park in Glenfinnan is fully run by the community [Glenfinnan Community Faciliities] and all income goes directly to them. 

Ultimately though, the issue of overtourism is a stubborn beast that needs constant attention and Bryden believes much more cash needs to be injected into Scotland’s natural wonders, which are its biggest attraction.

He said: “If we’re serious about Scotland being a world leader in 21st century tourism, which is the strapline for the 2030 national tourism strategy [Scotland Outlook 2030], then we need to invest in our natural assets because that’s what’s bringing people here.”

Tourism Minister Richard Lochhead said: “The Scottish Government is working to ensure tourism across Scotland – a vital part of the economy – remains sustainable. Since the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund’s introduction, £18.9 million grant funding has been awarded to 75 projects across 17 local authorities and both national park authorities, investing in facilities such as car parks, waste disposal and toilet provision.

“Scotland’s national tourism strategy - Scotland Outlook 2030 – outlines our ambition to become a world leader in 21st century tourism. It balances economic growth and protection of the environment by encouraging extension of the visitor season so numbers are less concentrated, directing tourists towards lesser-known areas and attracting higher value visitors who stay longer and spend more.”