When I told my friends I was heading to the Outer Hebrides on holiday — escaping from London as soon as it was legal to do so — I thought they might be envious. Instead, a few were worried for my safety. ‘Just don’t say you’re from England,’ suggested one. Another encouraged me to ‘lay low’ with my fiancé when boarding the three-hour ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway. Dangerous times, they seemed to think, for anyone down south to head to the Highlands and islands.
I initially brushed off these concerns as confusion over Covid restrictions. Travel rules have changed so many times over the last year — not just nationally but locally. Each of the devolved administrations has often given different guidance. It’s understandable that not everyone would be up to date with the fact that people living in England can now legally go north of the border just for leisure.
When Scotland closed its border during the second wave, certain nationalist politicians were rather active in their pursuit of unwelcome English visitors. Ian Blackford, who leads the SNP team in Westminster, patrolled the border on Twitter. He challenged a photographer who had the temerity to post a picture of the northern lights, demanding to know his ‘valid reason’ for being in Scotland. The answer: he lived there. Protestors in Hazmat suits at one point gathered on the border, telling the English to stay out. It seems to be a regular theme on social media.
While restrictions on cross-border travel have gone, it seems the perception that the English are unwelcome in Scotland has lingered. It’s not so hard to see why. As the question of Scottish independence dominates the news agenda, there have been a series of incidents that don’t exactly scream ‘come to Scotland’. One SNP councillor reacted to the UK getting nil points at Eurovision by tweeting: ‘We hate the United Kingdom too.’
English tourists seeking a quiet break could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that fish and chips on the Cornish coast is a safer bet than a tour of the Highlands. This is starting to worry those who rely on their custom. David Shayer, who owns Aye Stay B&B in Inverness, put it to his local paper: ‘We feel caught up in a political climate which is affecting business.’ Bookings, he says, are down 40 per cent. ‘The sentiment is real that the English don’t feel welcome and are staying away and spending their money south of the border.’ There are other anecdotes about reservations being cancelled by people who say they’re worried about anti-English sentiment.
It’s not just Twitter trolls who are stirring things up. When one man recently asked online whether he should book a holiday to Scotland or opt for the Lake District due to ‘SNP anger’, he was offered advice by the Edinburgh Evening News journalist Helen Martin. Martin replied saying there was actually too much tourism in Scotland — and besides, the ‘majority want independence. So stay in England, Wales or abroad’. The BBC DJ Liz Kershaw previously made the mistake of saying she was looking forward to going to Scotland. ‘We are not England’s holiday park,’ replied Moira Shemilt, an SNP councillor for Livingston South. ‘Scotland isn’t a place where you go on your holidays!’
Those in Scotland’s hospitality industry take a rather different view — they are crying out for visitors. For all the talk of a staycation boom this summer, the Scottish Tourism Alliance says there is ‘an extremely slow start to accommodation bookings’ as of May. One survey showed around 62 per cent of rural hotels were half-empty this month. Edinburgh’s hotels had occupancy of just 19 per cent.
Which is odd, given the dearth of foreign destinations on the UK’s green list for international travel. Some argue that this is because the Scottish government’s roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions was announced after England’s and was less specific about the dates. ‘I’ve got colleagues talking to people south of the border who were not aware that Scotland was open,’ says Peter Moss, who runs Huntingtower Lodge in Fort William. ‘We need a really well thought out marketing campaign south of the border to show that we are open.’
Since international tourism is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, some estimate that Scotland needs seven million more holidaymakers within the United Kingdom to make up for the lack of foreigners. ‘There’s no politics in tourism,’ says Marc Crothall, the CEO of the Scottish Tourism Alliance. ‘The hospitality industry is very international in our make-up. There are very many English people in our industry.’
The truth is that for all of the noise online from a few troublemakers, there is little to suggest tourists would actually face much in the way of anti-English sentiment. Anyone breaching Covid guidance is likely to be given short shrift by locals (the same would be true for a Glaswegian who visited Inverness in lockdown), but the tourism industry is at pains to welcome visitors. My fiancé and I experienced this first-hand. When, for example, we mentioned to the Scottish tourism shop that we had lost a part of our Lewis chessmen set, they lent us a spare pawn.
There was an even kinder deed as we prepared to board the ferry. My fiancé somehow managed to lose the car keys in the car park with just an hour to go. As we panicked and sought help (so much for laying low), the CalMac ferry men calmly helped us to devise a back-up plan. Some locals got out of their cars to offer advice as the boarding started.
When we finally found the keys, it looked as if it might be too late. But a CalMac man ran ahead shouting ‘Stop the ferry!’ and we were given just enough time to board. Once we were in Stornoway, we were approached by people who came up not to ask what we were doing there but to check that this couple who had been so stressed out were still together and having a good stay.
Lots of countries boast about a warm welcome, but not many would stop the ferry for you. A great many hostels and restaurants in the Highlands have a lot riding on this summer. Those who ignore the politics of a loud and angry few and make the journey can expect a warmer welcome than ever.
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