I didn’t know how to break the news to them. The seals, I mean. There are a lot of them, hauled out on the shingle. I see them most days when I walk past with the dog. They wave their flippers, knowing I’m harmless and keep my distance.
Of course, not every visitor leaves them to their tidal tranquillity. Some want to get far too close. A few even manage to make them lollop into the waves. That’s a shame when the seals are trying to rest. But tourists can be thoughtless.
I thought I’d better tell my sea-going flippered friends about the latest driving route. It’s called North East 250 and I’m hoping that it’ll bring a lot of traffic to the Newcastle area. Wait, though, it’s Scotland they mean. It’s a circular route. And it goes past where the seals haul out, as well as going past my front door.
Apparently, North East 250 is modestly claiming to be (and I quote the website) ‘the ultimate road trip to the heart of Scotland’. Funny, I always thought that was Perthshire, but I suppose ‘the ultimate road trip that also includes bleak and intensively farmed parts of east Scotland that nobody finds very inspiring’ wasn’t going to cut it. (I mean, have you seen that section from Hatton into Peterhead? I used to drive it a lot.)
‘Guys, guys,’ I announced to the hauled-out pinnipeds, ‘make the most of the quiet shore. You’re going to have petrolheads and Audiots galore taking a wee break and hustling you into the water soon.’
A big grey seal belched herring vapour and scratched himself with a sandy flipper before replying.
‘Could it be worse than peak season last year? Bad enough getting a bit of shut-eye then with all those visitors in unsuitable footwear trying to park practically on top of us. They wouldn’t even walk from the car park.’
‘Yes, it will be worse next year,’ I responded. ‘North East 250 is a driving route you see. For drivers. It’s not really for sensitive, fluffy-bunny, nature-loving souls like us. Take a look at the website. There’s a picture of some toff posing in a Morgan. That’s the market. Fast cars, big fuel consumption. Vroom-vroom. Careering around uncrowded roads. That sort of thing.’
I pointed an accusing finger at the seal, proclaiming ‘And your problem is, that if the petrolheads are actually following North East 250, then they can see you from the road. Cue severe braking, sometimes a u-turn; then they jump out as close to you as possible, snap a pic or two, jump back in and roar off...all that happens already.’
The big grey seal looked thoughtful for a moment before responding with a shrug of his shoulders. (A gesture that’s quite difficult to see in a seal.)
‘I don’t know why you’re sounding so hurt and self-righteous. You’ve spent half your life writing itineraries and promoting routes all over Scotland. In fact, you’re still at it.’
‘I know, I know. But this one’s different. It’s my own back-yard. Actually, front-yard, but you know what I mean. We’re campaigning for speed restrictions through the village as it is, and that’s before the increase in traffic this route will bring, if they promote it properly.’
The seal eyed the incoming tide, where several of his colleagues were already bobbing around.
‘Well, we’ll just have to haul off somewhere else I suppose if its gets much busier.’
I pleaded with him. ‘But you can’t do that. You’re part of the ‘bounteous wildlife’ drivers are promised. It definitely says there’s bounteous wildlife.’
I showed him my phone and a few sample pages such as...
‘Look, it’s here on the new website. Along with a whole lot of pages that have random Latin words on them as they haven’t got the copy yet. That’s how I know it’s a new website.’
The seal looked singularly unimpressed by my knowledge of how websites work. At length, he spoke again.
‘Like I said, you’re in no position to criticise. Taste of your own medicine. We’ll just disappear to some offshore rocks. I like Craigenroan beside Buckie. It means the seal rocks’.
‘Look', I replied, 'don’t get smart with me. That’s the sort of fact I know already. Comes with the job. And, by the way, when I wrote itineraries for clients, we just had to promote the attractions and features en route. As if the visitors somehow just wafted themselves round them. But these days, it’s all about driving. That’s promoted as fun.’
He was turning towards the waves now. Over his shoulder I heard his parting words:
‘Well, that’s marketing for you. And tourism. Promote the quiet and unspoiled places, so you can spoil ‘em. It’s good for business.’
I trudged sadly home. I knew he was right. I had played my part. He could, for instance, have pointed to a popular page on must-see-scotland where I have written up a drive to Skye. Skye is bursting at the seams for most of the year. I’m in no position to criticise.
Oh well, what could I sell to the North East 250 drivers passing my front door? I think hand-knitted seals might do well.
North Coast 500
The most successful example of a driving route in Scotland is North Coast 500. It is successful in the sense that this promotion has put £ several million (figures vary) into the pockets of shop owners, attractions, accommodation and activity operators in the north of Scotland.
The price has been filth and littering along the route, damage to verges and road surfaces, parking issues, poor driving behaviour and a 45% increase in accidents and speeding offences on the route.
The route takes in some of the least spoilt parts of Scotland’s natural environment.