Exploding the ‘Skye is full’ myth

DAVID ROBINSON

Admittedly, I’m a bit grumpy at six o’clock in the morning, imbibing early-morning caffeine and peering bleary-eyed at the BBC news, but I’ve often wondered just how hard it honestly is to be a ‘travel correspondent’.

When the public require an ‘expert’ to tell them that flights cost more money during school holidays, lengthy airport security checks are testing but necessary, buying travel insurance is a good idea, and kids should wear sun cream in the blistering heat, they often wheel out Simon Calder. When not offering sage advice that anyone with two functioning neurons already knows, I assume Simon spends his days, nose to the grindstone, manfully globetrotting his way round various resorts and international eateries, and writing about it for the chattering classes in newspapers and up-market Sunday supplements. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Of course, I’m being unreasonable here. I have no idea what Simon Calder really does and it’s unfair of me to malign a professional by throwing out a few comments such as those above. Actually, Simon Calder is a well-respected journalist and is known for his integrity as “the man who pays his way” and refuses freebies – according to his ‘Independent’ biography, anyway. But why let facts and research get in the way of a good story?

Unfortunately, there are quite a few B&B and small business owners operating in the tourism sector on the Isle of Skye who feel that Mr Calder has recently erred on the side of the story. There is a feeling that Simon Calder’s 19th August piece in ‘The Independent’ was misleading, sloppy journalism – not to mention potentially damaging to businesses operating on the slimmest margins, dependant on the vagaries of the holidaying public.

Calder’s article ‘investigated’ what he called “Skye’s new ‘no reservation, no entry’ policy”. Except that he doesn’t. Bypassing what he claims were police check-points on the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh, turning away visitors who couldn’t demonstrate they had accommodation booked, Calder took “the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to the island from Mallaig” instead. Had Mr Calder ventured across the bridge, he would have found no such check-points.

Responding to rumours that they were turning visitors away, on 9th August the police tweeted: “We are not advising people not to come to Skye and not turning people away at the bridge – we love visitors and just want people to be prepared”.

It seems that BBC Scotland had inaccurately reported the “ban” on visitors, and that Mr Calder had simply repeated the inaccuracy. Other media sources jumped on the same bandwagon.

On 14th August, the ‘Daily Express’ headlined “Skye’s the LIMIT: Police issue travel WARNING as tourists turned away from Scottish island”. A closer reading reveals that tourists had been turned away not by the police, but by accommodation owners fully booked. In the article, the police were quoted as saying: “I would never advise people against visiting our beautiful island but I would ask people to use common sense before travelling without booking accommodation in advance if they intend to stay overnight.”

The disappointment from Skye residents to the BBC’s mistaken reporting was evident from the angry Twitter response following the police clarification. The inaccuracy of the story was exposed in the West Highland Free Press on 10th August, with the BBC apologising and withdrawing the claim 14 hours later. How then, was Mr Calder’s article allowed to proceed on 19th August? Come on, Simon; sloppy work!

The article goes on to try to convince readers that local residents are mainly curmudgeons who disapprove of intrusive visitors in campervans, or day-trippers on ferries from the mainland. Apparently “they descend like a plague of locusts on the Co-op”. Calder has this on good authority, from ‘Paul’ who lives just outside Portree.

As a regular Skye visitor for many years, I have always found the islanders to be particularly friendly – certainly more so than the average local or leisure industry employee in London, for example. I’m sure one can easily find a disgruntled local for a story, as one can anywhere, but I’ve found the people to be better represented by Findlay Nicol, who tweeted: “Skye is big enough for everyone and the people’s hearts are even bigger. Don’t miss any chance you get to go there.”

According to Mr Calder’s detective work, a more fortunate section of the local population are the “cash-rich B&B providers from the Mull of Kintyre to Butt of Lewis” who were “planning their winters in the Caribbean”.

One such couple moved to Skye seven years ago, to take over an existing B&B business, they alternated between their new venture and other jobs. Billy worked offshore, until the downturn in the oil industry made that impossible. Sarah drove to Glasgow every Sunday, to work in an office, living out of a small campervan — with their dog — to save money on accommodation.

Rotating B&B duties between themselves, over the last seven years they have borrowed and earned, scrimped and scraped, and can finally see a more flourishing business somewhere on the horizon. Sarah still works away most weeks, and they rarely spend a whole week together, but a brighter future is slowly coming into view.

“We’ve worked hard at the business,” said Billy. “Tonight for example, I’m sleeping on a camp-bed in the laundry room to maximise the space available for guests. We’re getting there, but it’s by no means a completed project yet.”

Sarah added: “Sure, for six months of the year, bookings are plentiful; but it’s a struggle for the rest of the year, and extremely intensive and hard work to maintain during the season.”

Asked about the ‘Caribbean holiday’ Mr Calder believes they should be booking about now, Sarah laughed and said: “Well, we are off to Cuba, but cycling and back-packing. I think Simon Calder is the only one likely to be sitting around a pool sipping pina colada, if that’s what you mean!”

Of course, there is a more serious side to all of this. Simon Calder’s article paints a less-than-rosy picture of Skye for visitors contemplating a visit – with grumpy residents, gridlocked roads and a nightmare lack of facilities. As Calder concludes: “tales of roadside discomfort may dampen demand next summer”. They certainly might if Mr Calder is believed.

There is indeed a discussion to be had about infrastructure investment to meet growing demand on Skye, but this is mostly a good problem to have. Skye is a wonderful, friendly and unmissable destination for UK and global travellers. Simply prepare as you would for any other holiday, book ahead, and apply common sense.

If potential visitors check their facts at least half as well as Simon Calder, they shouldn’t go too far wrong!

David Robinson is a history PhD student at the University of Nottingham, and a regular visitor to Skye