Behind the lens at two of Scotland’s most popular places

If we explore Scotland through the lens of Instagram, how deeply are we experiencing it?

We decided, following several coffee-shop chats, to set off on a spring road trip to document some of the most popular places in the country — and to contrast them with the silence of similar scenes a few miles off the tourist track. This is how the project began, and the story of that journey is the one I’m going to share now.

‘To make a race of it is to reduce to the level of a game what is essentially an experience’

Before we went, we talked extensively on the subject — about how travel is changing, how social media reinforces bias in many ways, and about the behaviours we were seeing at iconic spots.

We both had some questions in our minds. Mine went a bit like this: Why are people actually visiting sites like Glenfinnan? (Is it for a photo, to tick it off their list, or something else?). Are the stops on a Scotland itinerary predetermined by Instagram, ‘best of’ guidebooks and movie cameos? And how is the countryside changing thanks to digital tourism? So Nicolas picked me up in Fife and we took the road north.

First stop, Glen Coe.

It’s therefore easy to understand why there’s a growing and steady stream of vehicles along this single-carriageway road, especially in summer. The parking areas too are becoming more crowded; Nicolas’s car bumped into potholes and weaved around vehicles on the grass verges of one of them. From the familiar white cottage, the Three Sisters’ ridges and the bridge to the second ivory house, there’s an irony in how the strategic position of the car parks — probably designed to let visitors sink into the splendour of the landscape, or for walkers heading higher — are now becoming temporary check-ins for photo-taking tourists.

The contrasts between vista and visitor are strange to see.

As we were about to leave the valley’s final car park, a group pulled up alongside in a people carrier. In brightly-coloured clothing, they were loud in the muted landscape, facing towards a lens which blinked several times before they shut the car doors and disappeared. It made me wonder. If this is increasingly the way in which we’re travelling, can we truly experience a place for what it is? Do we remember the sights, smells and sounds of where we stopped? Does going somewhere for a photo reduce the depth of an experience to pure consumption? I was beginning to worry that it probably did.

Second stop, Glenfinnan.

Once we finally got parked, avoiding the cone-lined roadside and church car park, we’d missed the steam train by ten minutes. A stream of people were already trickling down from the viewpoint, not seeming to notice signs for the adjacent Glenfinnan Monument, which was noticeably quieter than the crowds implied. We paused in the car park, watching tour buses and vehicles depart as soon as the last puff of smoke had evaporated.

And then, the most interesting moment — we got chatting to a local.

Despite the fact that the man never explicitly called it out, I couldn’t help make the connection between this story and social media. Surely somebody wouldn’t expend such effort just to store a bunch of images on their hard drive or in a physical photo album somewhere? It seemed to me, again, that some of the behaviour here must amount to a race for likes and retweets, whatever it took.

Last stop, Ardnamurchan.

Something I’ve noticed time and time again is this — my experience changes when I don’t follow the crowd. There are little preconceived notions of what a place should be; no rush to bag the same cliché on my camera roll as everyone else. The worn browns and greys of tarmac and peat are instead untouched, colourful bursts of gorse, ferns and bluebells. The crowds of the geotagged locations are but flocks of sheep or herds of deer, clustered atop a rugged outcrop. It’s impossible to scan Google maps for the next Instagrammable place because this is 4G-free Scotland. There are no distractions.

On the Ardnamurchan peninsula, that idea became quite clear to us after following a single track tarmac road to an island. The tide was in, slowly retreating, and we were unable to reach the ruined castle there for almost half an hour. We wandered, with no signal, waiting. Forget the instant gratification of our technological lives, where everything from meals to clothes to flights abroad are available at the touch of a few buttons. When was the last time you truly had to wait for something? I asked myself this, realising that despite and because of the delay, our day felt more special.

Not a single being, save a solitary sheep, was with us.

It’s probably worth knowing this — when I felt most in sync with Scotland, with myself, with pure peace, was when my phone was in the pocket of my jacket back up on the rocks and my camera was in the car.

The experience is not the photo; life shouldn’t be lived ‘for the gram’ — rather it’s being still, noticing delicate details from our surroundings, enjoying something for what it really is rather than what you can ‘curate’ from it that’s truly important. And I don’t believe we can reap the full benefits of the beauty of a place if we’re racing for likes, shares or the tick-box travel photo.

What do you think about how we travel now?

Originally published at on September 9, 2019.

I write about slower travel, social media and Scotland.

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