Achnahaird Bay in Coigach: the great expanse of machair to the left of the sands was home to the best campsite in Scotland, if not the world, until 2008, when the proprietors retired and the estate who own the land chose not to renew the lease. Over the years I spent many a happy weekend there, enjoying the view of the peaks of the northwest highlands: Suilven, Cul Mor and Cul Beag, Ben Mor Coigach and that most spectacular small peak, Stac Pollaidh. We paid the site a last visit in September 2008, climbing on the sea-cliffs of nearby Reiff by day and burning Scandanavian Candles among the dunes by night.
A new campsite, located near the pub on the other side of the peninsula at Altandhu, was promised for the 2009 season, but the credit crunch made the bankers hold back the necessary funds. A dubious decision given the 'stay-cation' mania that accompanied the crunch, and a cruel blow that kept a lot much needed money out of the local community. The lady in the Polbain Stores estimated that she was down about 6,000 pounds last year.
Construction of the new campsite is underway at present and it is forecast to be partially open by July or August this year. You can make out the considerable earthworks that are underway in the picture above, installing roads, leveling pitches, digging foundations for shower blocks.
It seems absurd to go to such lengths to carve a campsite into an unsuitable location when such a perfect site lies lonely and unused nearby on the machair at Achnahaird. This is a fine illustration of what is wrong with the land ownership situation in Scotland. One individual can make a decision that deprives the nation of one of its treasures, negatively impacting many thousands of people. Assynt and Coigach is one of Scotland's National Scenic Areas. I don't know precisely what this means, but I believe there are some planning restrictions involved. Would it be unreasonable to modify the relevant legislation such that there is a statutory obligation to provide minimalist drive-in campgrounds with established fire pits and composting toilets in our 40 National Scenic Areas?
It is true that under Access Legislation there is little that anyone could do to stop responsible wild camping at Achnahaird, so those who are willing to and capable of carrying their equipment will still be able to use the site for camping, as the archaeological record shows our ancestors have done for many thousands of years. However, much as I enjoy backpacking, I wish we had more campsites along the lines of those found on public lands in the US; spacious, established campsites with limited facilities that you can drive to, with a good distance between pitches. The private sector so often fails to provide adequate campground facilities; packing in too many tents or worse still, giving the best pitches over to static caravans and squeezing tents and campervans into squalid, viewless corners.
The new campsite may well avoid these pitfalls and prove to be a very nice site but it will not have the space for children to run about, the beach access, the fud-deterring absence of showers or, crucially, that outstanding panorama of the peaks of the northwest.