Is Skye too busy? A tourist’s view.

I clicked on a BBC news article a couple of weeks ago bemoaning the fact that Skye was over-run with tourists. Made all the more topical as I was part of the problem, a tourist sitting in a cafe on Skye.

What did I, a visitor, think?

Skye, May 1993

I first visited Skye with a group of walking friends in 1993. We were walking parts of the notorious Cuillin Ridge, the traverse of which is deemed to be the finest mountaineering experience in the UK. It was an incredible week with spectacular scenery. However I am left with a lifelong aversion to exposed ridges, ‘bad steps’ and scree slopes!

Although we saw walkers and climbers I do not recall any other tourists on Skye. We arrived at our campsite without a reservation and easily parked on a day trip to the Quiraing. Not so these days.

I knew my return visit to Skye was going to be busy. We were travelling in peak season, mid-August, and our visit coincided with a major event, the Portree Highland Games.

Even so I was surprised when I tried to book campsite accommodation in March and found it fully booked. What would the island be like?

Skye, August 2017

Glenelg to Skye ferry
Glenelg to Skye ferry

Fast forward 20+ years and our family trip started quietly with a trip on the tiny Glenelg to Skye ferry. The perfect introduction to the island.

But as we joined the traffic on the main road towards Portree it was obvious the island was busy. A string of B&Bs with No Vacancy signs. Car number plates from all over Europe (on the return journey the kids kept a tally, French cars won). A stream of tour buses heading back towards the mainland. And, later on, a huge cruise ship looming in the distance.

What are the problems?

Skye is an easily accessible island, with several incredible natural attractions, that fit neatly into a tourist circuit. This makes it the perfect island to visit on a tour of Scotland. Added to this, tourism has increased rapidly in the last few years and the facilities haven’t caught up yet.

Many visitors appear to visit Skye for the day. Either on an organised tour or as part of a whizz round Scotland in a hire car trip. The Skye Trip Advisor forum is full of people planning a day trip from Fort William and wanting advice on how to fit in all the main sights. Of course not everyone has time to spare but Skye would benefit from its visitors staying longer and seeing other parts of the island.

Coral beach, near Dunvegan
Coral beach, near Dunvegan

Overnighting campervans are another issue. They are parked on every available (and not so available) spot. On an evening walk to Coral Beach, near Dunvegan, we found a string of campervans parked up beside the single track road. I’m not sure if this is because the campsites are full or if it’s an attempt to save money and camp informally. But where do they leave their rubbish or empty toilets?

As our stay on Skye progressed it became clear that whilst it welcomes visitors it isn’t equipped to deal with the number of summer tourists or the associated traffic. The small car parks fill quickly, leading to cars parked along muddy verges and in passing places. Many drivers are unfamiliar with their vehicles and the driving rules for single track roads leading to some interesting driving. There are no public toilets at the main natural attractions. Or much in the way of rubbish bins.

Let me put it into perspective though. As my mum said, when she looked at my photographs, “If it was so busy, where are all the people in your pictures?”. Good point. There generally weren’t any. I’d never get such empty landscape photographs at other popular tourist attractions further south!

Of course, we have an expectation that the Scottish Highlands are remote and empty of tourists. This is part of its appeal, and some parts are. But why shouldn’t Skye benefit from visitors the same as much of the UK?

What can the visitor do?

First and foremost we need to remember to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs.

If you desperately want to avoid tourists you’re best off visiting out of season. And perhaps steer clear of the top things to do as listed by Trip Advisor. Which is a pity as these attractions are top of the list for a reason!

I wanted to visit the Fairy Pools before our visit. Trip Advisor recommended it (half the problem of course). But I couldn’t ignore the comments about the parking nightmare. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy hordes of tourists (even if I’m one of them) and the stress of trying to find a parking space. So we didn’t go. Instead we drove out along the Waternish Peninsula to Trumpan Church, stopping off at craft shops and for lunch in Stein. We hardly saw anyone else. It was a great morning.

I was determined to revisit the Quiraing though. We made an effort to arrive early and luckily found a parking spot. We were immediately hemmed in by a minibus whose occupants piled out, walked a couple of minutes along the footpath to take photos before returning to the minibus. As we find the world over, walk half a mile from the nearest car park and you’ll almost be alone.

Quiraing, Skye
Quiraing, Skye

What is the solution?

It’s tempting to jump into solution mode and state the island needs more car parks, better roads, more public toilets and regularly emptied weatherproof bins. But who would pay for these facilities, both the initial outlay and their upkeep?

Skye residents have suggested they need a long term sustainable tourism plan. Absolutely.

Trumpan church, Skye
Trumpan church, Skye

Another suggestion was for a tourist tax of £1 per visitor to help fund facilities. I’d be happy to pay this. However it was rejected by the Scottish Tourism Alliance stating that visitors already pay tax. Alternatively, how about reasonable parking charges at the main tourist sites to help upgrade the facilities. Not a popular suggestion but it would hardly be setting a precedent.

What else would work?

Skye could look to other islands to see what works for them.

For example, we’ve used a hop on hop off bus service on the Isle of Wight, which has several set tourist bus routes and an affordable 24 hour ticket. Whilst there is already a shuttle service from Portree to several attractions it’s way too expensive for a family of four; it needs to be cheaper and easier than a hire car.

In the Channel Islands campervanners must buy a permit and only stay overnight on campsites. Perhaps the provision of summer only basic overnight campervan parking facilities, with access to toilets and water for a nominal fee (say, £5) would help enourmously.

Other areas place limits on the size of vehicles that can access certain roads. Tricky to enforce and controversial perhaps. But tied in with a regular shuttle bus and a campervan park it could work.

Lastly, improved visitor education, with pictorial road signs. That way, tourists cannot misread ‘passing place’ for ‘parking place’!

Have you been to Skye? What do you think?

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Suitcases and Sandcastles
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Should children visit art galleries?

Jake Chapman, one half of the Chapman brothers, courted controversy this week by suggesting that children shouldn’t visit art galleries. In an interview with The Independent he stated “taking children to art galleries was a total waste of time”.

His comments are hardly surprising given the Chapman brothers have a certain reputation to uphold. Their art consists of delightful pieces such as mannequins of children with genitalia instead of faces and decaying corpses. Although he forgot to mention one of their previous shows; a macabre art exhibition for children and their families. Accompanied by a £5 colouring book.

I’m sure his aim was to provoke the middle classes and generate publicity. Yet when I read the comments associated with the various online articles he’s not alone in suggesting that children should stay out of art galleries.

Nobody would ever suggest children shouldn’t visit libraries because they’re too young to appreciate Shakespeare. Yet art galleries are generally the preserve of the more mature. Kids have their own spaces in libraries and shelves of books dedicated to them, but how many art galleries really go out of their way to attract children? And should they?

In Jake Chapman’s defence, I can see where he’s coming from. I don’t generally take my kids to art galleries yet we went to the Matisse exhibition at the Tate Museum last week. This wasn’t because I wanted to further their knowledge of art. It’s just because it had great reviews and I selfishly wanted to see it.

Chapman could have used my children to demonstrate his points perfectly. Within 5 minutes of entering the exhibition my youngest was bored, leaning up against one of the walls asking how much longer he had to be there.

Only one of the rooms grasped his attention, namely that of the Blue Nudes. Nothing to do with the art works of course; anything with the word ‘nude’ in it will have my 9 year old son sniggering.

So what do children gain from visiting art galleries?

I saw another family at the Matisse exhibition. A family whose kids who were carefully drawing some of the art works in their sketch pads. No doubt they would get the scissors out when they got home and start creating paper cut outs. Whereas mine would probably be outside having a water balloon fight. It bought home to me that every family is different. Some children will be inspired by visiting art galleries; they will become the artists and art lovers of the future. We cannot deny them this inspiration.

This brings me nicely on to another point that Chapman made. Namely that it would be insulting to stand a child in front of a Jackson Pollock artwork. He doesn’t think children understand the significance of it. Personally I don’t either, but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with my age.

The arts can be appreciated on many levels, there is no need to be over complicate. I love reading but hated Shakespeare at school. I couldn’t stand the in-depth analysis of each and every line in his plays. It took away my enjoyment. Yet I’d happily go and watch one of his plays nowadays. Similarly, is there anything wrong with just looking at an art work and enjoying it without knowing, for example, what a specific shade of blue indicates?

I’ll leave you with this. The item that has pride of place on my son’s bedroom wall is a Jackson Pollock inspired painting that he created for a school project.

art We looked at some of his paintings online (a visit to an American art gallery being outside of our budget) and watched a film for background information before he started his creation. Did this lead to his greater enjoyment of Pollock’s paintings? No, but he sure had fun dripping paint on his canvas!

So what do you think? Should kids visit art galleries?

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My video entry for the Center Parcs family blogger challenge

A different type of blog this week.  I’ve entered a Center Parcs competition  to produce a 1 minute video showing how our family enjoy the great outdoors.  I’m hoping to win a break at Center Parcs, and thought I’d share my video as I’ve had great fun making it, even if it’s not a winning entry.

The subject choice was easy.  We live near an off-road Sustrans cycle route, and often bike along it at the weekends. At the end is a playground which the kids love.  If we cycle a little further there’s a cafe which I love!

On to the hard part…..  I’ve only ever taken a couple of clips with the video functionality on my phone before, and  I’ve never done any video editing.   It’s taken me a good week to get to grips with the editing, adding the video to a sharing site and getting the link working on my blog.  I gave up on YouTube, as although the rest of the world are able to upload videos of dancing cats I don’t appear to use the right file format, aargh!

I know it’s not perfect, as some of the quality has been lost in the upload and the muzak is a little irritating after you’ve watched it for the 10th time, but without further ado I hope you enjoy my entry for the Center Parcs challenge.

If we do win we don’t really mind which village we visit, although Whinfell is quite a drive from us, so we’d prefer one a little closer!

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Top tips for walking with kids

Before children we used to spend much of our free time walking. We were members of a local club, and every month we’d head to the mountains, exploring Snowdonia or the Lake District. We knew things would change when the kids came along but naively assumed that after a few years they’d be accompanying us on our trips.

boots

How little we knew! As our children have grown, they’ve developed their own likes and dislikes. Walking has never featured strongly on the ‘like’ list, but as I’m keen for the children get out and enjoy the countryside, we’ve worked out ways to keep the whole family happy. Our top tips for walking with children are below, if you have any other suggestions please do leave a comment.

1. Food works wonders

Pack a picnic, take plenty of water and snacks and finish your walk at a tea room. This last suggestion is for my benefit, rather than the kids, but everyone deserves a slice of cake after a walk!

2. Choose child friendly routes

Woods and streams offer paddling, tree climbing, den building, log balancing and stick collecting fun. Long treks through featureless fields or along the edge of main roads should be avoided.

3. Incorporate a challenge

Try geocaching, practise map reading skills or have a race up a hill. Any distraction away from the act of walking works well for us.

4. Know your limits

You’ll know how far your kids can walk, and how fast (or slow) they’re likely to be. On average, adults walk around 3 miles per hour on flat ground but this will reduce substantially if you’re walking with a toddler! Similarly, if you’re heading out into mountainous or moorland areas ensure you are confident in your map reading and route finding abilities.

5. Take a camera

I always enjoy seeing the photographs my daughter takes. Whereas I’m the one taking classic landscape photos she’ll be snapping away at a bug, or more usually, herself whilst pulling a funny face.

6. Plan an expedition

As the children have got older, we’ve been on a couple of  ‘expeditions’ with them and both times they’ve gained a great sense of achievement. We walked up Snowdon (the highest mountain in Wales) a couple of years ago.

snowdonia
Misty view from Snowdon

Last year we took them to Black Sail Youth Hostel in the Lake District for an overnight visit, made more exciting because it’s only accessible by foot.

7. Escape routes

When planning your walk, work out how you could shorten it if the weather takes a turn for the worse, or it ends up being too difficult or long for the children.

8. Let the kids plan the walk

I can still vividly remember route planning for my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. Whilst our kids aren’t at the stage yet of planning full scale walks, they’re certainly old enough to learn how to use maps, and help with decisions on route choices.

9. Get friendly with nature

Take an I-spy or Usborne nature spotters book with you and see what wildlife you can find. If there are no obvious large animals or birds to identify, look at flowers, mosses or small bugs instead. The Woodland Trust Nature Detectives website is also a fabulous resource with lots of suggestions for activities in the great outdoors.

10.  Get the gear

Plan for the weather and conditions you’ll be walking in. All in one waterproof suits and wellies are great for young children out for a walk in the woods. If you’re taking older kids into more remote areas they’ll need decent waterproofs and walking boots. Remember hats and gloves too!

11. Walk with friends

Your kids will be too busy playing and talking to the other kids to notice that they’re walking as well. As a bonus you’ll also get to spend time with friends.

And lastly…..

12. Don’t mention you’re going for a walk

Just about any other terminology is preferable. If we tell our kids we’re going for a walk they’ll often groan. Tell them you’re going on an adventure instead.

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