Skye High Tourism

Gill's Skye

Skye, do they have the stones to deal with the problem?

In the previous five years, this Hebridean Island has received a rise in visitors incomparable with any other destination in Scotland. The rapid acceleration of tourism peaked this March as CNN, broadcasting to over 200 countries, warned of overcrowding in Venice, Barcelona and the Isle of Skye.

Boasting some of the UK’s most pristine landscapes, there is little preventing a rise in tourism. Forced to contend with a global reputation, all eyes are on Skye, as locals desperately seek a solution to the issues exacerbated by the increase in visitor numbers.

Social media has influenced the recent trend, ensuring tourism seeps into every corner of the island. The incessant and pervasive ability to share information has distorted Skye’s image, pushing it to a level of popularity beyond its capacity.

Inversely, the problem of social media has also been a part of the solution. Facebook groups and online forums have provided space for locals to vent their frustrations. Permitting the island’s residents to share their grievances, name and shame poor practices, and even occasionally work collectively to find resolution.

Stacked onto the growing list of concerns are standing stone piles, which have become a grinding source of annoyance. Cairns, as they are locally known, are interlocking stones places one on top of another. Historically built to indicate a landmark, a trial, or even a burial site, their purpose today appears to be as multifaceted.

There are locations on Skye where up to fifty of these standing stone piles are erected. It has caused strife amongst the locals and some tourist operators who attribute it to the speeding up of erosion, and as potentially dangerous to children and livestock.

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The perpetrators of these seemingly benign standing stone structures are almost exclusively tourists. Unaware of the historical implications of erecting the Cairns, they appear to materialise for any number of idle, ill-conceived reason. The flippancy of such practice has divided opinion, online.

So, the craft of placing stones, one on top of another, is part of a much more complicated picture. #nofilter. The issue silhouettes a far more significant problem for the Isle of Skye. To an outsider, it represents a community’s struggle for control, signifying a point to channel the island’s growing resentment at the mismanagement of a runway tourism train.

The standing stone issue does not stack up. Those convinced of the environmental erosion, and its subsequent deterioration, are at best, fanciful. The Fairy Glen, a popular location for the Cairns, is subject to thousands of visitors each week traipsing over the earth, and the innumerable vehicles that decimate the roadside verges. Each form of erosion is as severe, if not more, than the repositioning of stones in the area.

The call to prohibit the practice echoes the recent attempt to ban plastic straws. On the one hand, the straw embodies the systemic frivolity of choice and the flagrant malpractice of a society consumed by plastic: on the other, to stop their production is only the very tip of the whole problem.

Single-use plastic is a 21st-century quagmire that requires unified action. To stand, self-indignant, sipping from a glass is to rest your laurels at the top of a much greater battle, while actively ignoring the totality of the situation.

I do not support the decision to erect standing stone piles for pseudo aesthetical reasons, or for most other, but I do not think it deserves the same platform on today’s environmental stage.

Prof. Jane Downes, director of the Archaeological Institute of the Highlands and Islands, observed the current jeopardy of approximately half of the 3000 archaeologist sites on Orkney due to climate change accelerated by human activity (1). Higher levels of rain and rising sea levels are already affecting a number of sites across the island. The residents of Skye might soon be thankful for the standing stone piles – they may be the only places for tourists to stand soon enough!

If it were seriously an argument pitched on environmental uncertainty, then I would ask, where is the opposition for the reopening of a commercial runway on Skye?

The last commercial flight to the island was back in 1998. Proposals to redevelop the airfield would require an investment of over £2 million. The service, to operate from Skye to both Glasgow and Edinburgh, could transport as many as 15,000 visitors a year (2).

Given what we already know about the CO2 emissions, the development of a commercial airline is a direct juxtaposition to the Paris Climate agreement.

It is easy then to view the standing stone fiasco on Skye as representative of the current model of tourism. The bottom rock denotes the island’s infrastructure, above it, the accommodation, the facilities, the work-opportunities, the environment, and then the community itself – sat precariously on top. Moreover, when you characterise like this, it is not difficult to identify that the locals are poised on an improbable structure – where balance is everything.

Future proposals for ongoing problems are numerous, and there are many calling for a tourist tax to be implemented. And this is often the case; whenever an issue reoccurs many will turn blindly and reach for the neoliberal yardstick to take measure of the solution. It ignores the larger picture: that there are no straight lines on the island, and the volume of visitors to Skye is just not sustainable. The brazen attempt to throw money at the issue falls short of finding a pragmatic solution to the myriad of compounding problems associated with mass tourism.

The Highland Council estimated that there were over 660,000 visitors to the Isle of Skye in 2017(3) – on an island where there are only 10,000 permanent residents.

Airbnb has over 500 listings across the island – where there are only 5000 homes on Skye.

With landlords turning to short-term leases, for short-term profits, local MSP, Katie Forbes, reiterates the reality of rural poverty and homelessness in the Hebridean Islands.

This model of tourism, uncharted and untested, is having an adverse effect on Skye. It threatens its very existence. When communities are repeatedly hollowed out, replaced with transient travellers, the very reason for coming there becomes an inverted idea. Culture and tradition lose all meaning, and over time are reduced to the superfluous, as gimmicky tat. The very essence of a place, plundered by wave after wave of tourism, is eventually washed away, eroded by a mindless sea. And, just like the standing stones, their story folds over time until it finally becomes arbitrary and meaningless.

Autumn storms roll in, and uncertainty clouds residents here on the Isle of Skye. Where equilibrium and balance are everything, there is desperate need to realign priorities before another busier season ensues.

Liam McGuckin

Photograph – Gill Brown


(1) New York Times – Saving Scotland’s Heritage from the Rising Seas,
(2) Hitrans – Study Identifies Costs of Trailing a Skye – Glasgow/Edinburgh air service,
(3) The Highland Council -Spotlight on Skye’s tourism challenges, para 4

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