A STRANGE thing happened driving south from Tongue to Lairg, on the way to Ullapool, this summer. Now until recently, I’d guess few folk would know precisely where I’m talking about. But since the partly single-track route was rebadged the North Coast 500 in 2015, knowledge of the north-west Highlands and the desire to visit have soared.

Of course, parts of “undiscovered Scotland” have struggled to cope, lacking tourist accommodation, pubs, restaurants, public toilets and broadband. There are parking stampedes at spots like the Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous by Harry Potter and a Jacobite history revived by Outlander. Locals also must thole long, slow trips behind convoys of caravans and campervans. This much we know.

But on a rainy Sunday evening in May, it wasn’t mobile homes but 10 expensive cars, each with a single male driver, that forced me to grind to a halt in passing places as they whizzed north. A friend experienced the same thing a few weeks earlier on the east coast, south of Wick. What it looked like was NC500 bagging – the whole long route being completed by groups of young guys in Mercs in a single day.

Was this a figment of my imagination?

Well, a road safety blitz last week on the NC500 route in Caithness resulted in 70 drivers receiving warnings and 39 with fixed penalty notices. Offences included dangerous driving, careless driving, speeding, failing to wear a seatbelt and using a mobile phone while driving. It’s not certain if all the offenders were visitors but a spokesperson said: “The NC500 attracts a large number of tourists, many of whom are not from the local area and are not used to driving on the left or on single track roads.”

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Still, fa kens? There’s no law against young bucks emulating Top Gear and hurtling round landscapes more used to slow contemplation and crofting.

And after speaking to Highland Police, this doesn’t seem to be a frequent thing. But it does prompt a few questions.Is the North being commodified – and should that bother us?

Does the world need more experience of whipping quickly through nature or more slow engagement with it? 

And how easy is it for the average curious Scot to enjoy these parts of our own spectacular country?

My worry is that this summer, folk who live and work here will struggle to do more than show and go in the Highlands because they can’t compete with visitors bearing bigger wallets and stronger currencies for the limited and expensive holiday accommodation available. 

The website of promotions company Northcoast500.com hands out maps, suggests highlights, warns about the lack of facilities for emptying caravan tanks safely en route and offers useful advice about courteous driving on single track roads. It also sells NC500 merchandise and memberships. Its route sponsor is Aston Martin and one slogan reads "The North Coast 500 Gold Membership is all about luxury." 

Now, it's a free world, lots of North Coast businesses are delighted with the extra profile and luxury products do exist en route. But the North Coast of Scotland is not “all about luxury.” Some tourist businesses are thriving – others are really struggling, hit by a Brexit-induced exodus of European workers, housing shortages for staff and a higher level of cleaning and bed-changing as a consequence of so many one-night stops. Some B&Bs have imposed a two-day minimum stay, to try and slow the whole mad route-bagging down. And yet racing round the NC500 is bound to accelerate if reasonably priced accommodation is hard to find. And it is. Put simply, too many folk are chasing too few places to stay.

Scots are now finding day trips or wild camping are the only holidays they can afford. And wild camping doesn’t suit everyone. Midges. The Highlands are fast becoming an impossibly expensive holiday location for folk who actually live in Scotland.

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There’s a pattern here.

According to Katherine Haldane Grenier in her book Tourism and Identity in Scotland 1770-1914 “Victorian men participated in a range of ‘manly pastimes’ in the Highlands: hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, climbing mountains. Renditions of parts of the Highlands, such as the Cuillins, as ‘desolate’, ‘sterile’, and ‘inaccessible’ implicitly elevated the achievements of those who went there.”

She further observes that the ‘“subjugating face of tourism” changed the image of Scotland beyond and even within the country itself. As the pace of economic and social transformation intensified in England, “tourists came to envision the north as a place immune to change and understood journeys there to be antidotes to the uncertainties of modern life. While praised as the home of pre-industrial virtues, Scotland was also valuable as a place ‘rooted in the past.’

“The rhetoric of tourism increasingly froze Scotland in time in the 19th century.”

Now I realise this sounds a bit miserable.

NC500-related tourism has boosted business in Far North towns and villages which previously expected little but managed decline. According to northcoast500.com’s managing director, the route’s boosted business by almost 25% a year, extended the season for up to 10 months, created hundreds of jobs, attracted investment and development, and boosted the economy in excess of £10 million in its first two years of operation. Obviously, better infrastructure for tourists provides better facilities for everyone.

But will it create affordable space for local, Scottish visitors?

Across the rest of northern Europe, wooden, weekend huts have traditionally come to the rescue, removing locals from the commercial holiday market and offering the possibility of long, leisurely stays during the summer, extended family reunions at Easter and sanity-restoring breaks every weekend throughout the year. Believe it or not, this is what Scotland is missing.

Norway has the world’s highest GDP and the highest rate of hut ownership with one wooden hut for every 10 Norwegians (roughly one per extended family).

That means year-round relaxation, lengthy summer holidays, a stronger connection with nature, more exercise, escape from city pressures and strengthened family ties.

Few huts have running water (thanks to freezing winter conditions) some have electricity and most are custom-built with central wood burning stoves. They are close enough to reach every weekend (usually within 37 kms and one hour’s drive).

A smart system called boplikt has created two separate housing markets by designating huts as temporary and family homes as permanent dwellings. Houses in each category cannot have a change of use. Thus, family houses in remote areas cannot be bought or used as second homes. We could do that here.

But we don’t. Thanks to land scarcity, Scotland has the lowest rate of hut ownership in northern Europe with just 630 in the year 2000. Hundreds of hutters have since been evicted, though Carbeth Hutters did raise almost £2m to achieve a buyout in 2013.

Does it matter? Well, the absence of a secure, personal connection with the countryside has generated indifference or hostility towards the outdoors amongst many urban Scots. Is it a coincidence we have the lowest rate of hut ownership in Europe and the highest rates of problem drinking and drugs deaths?

If urban Scots can’t physically “escape” the pressures of modern life, is it any wonder they seek “chemical” release instead?

Of course, not everyone wants a basic, back-to-nature, wooden hut. But thousands do.

And unless working families can find affordable plots of land for huts, holidays here will always be a bit of a struggle for many Scots.

The Highlands are in vogue – and that’s deserved. But let’s find a way to make sure Scots can revel in our own fabulous nature too.