Durness and Dornoch

There have been lot of talk recently about the “problem” of motorhomes in Dornoch and Durness, reported in the Northern Times  here and here.

Is there really a problem and if so, what is it?

Credit: Andy Strangeway

As I write this blog, I am in my motorhome in the Highlands, having recently spent one night outside Durness.  Usually, I travel to France and the rest of Europe…it is easier, cheaper, usually more fun and usually better weather.  But this year, I wanted to see the beautiful highlands and I was not disappointed – it is a fabulous place.  One of the things that struck me was just how many motorhomes visit Scotland.  It seemed to me that nearly a half of all vehicles on the road were visibly tourist related.  Nearly a third were motorhomes, of which nearly half bore foreign registration plates.  In England, a motorhome is still a relatively unusual sight on the roads and a foreign one is positively rare.

In the rest of Europe, the motorhome culture is very different to the UK.  In Europe, there is an acknowledgement that motorhomes are used in very different ways to caravans.  A large percentage of motorhomers never use campsites.  Not ever.  They don’t need to.  And having spent three of the last four years motorhoming in Europe, I can see why, so now I am a motorhomer who (almost) never uses campsites.  All I look for is somewhere to park.  Once a week, I need tap water and somewhere to empty my toilet waste, but apart from that, all I need is somewhere to park my self-contained motorhome.  Campsites in Scotland can charge up £20 to park a motorhome overnight, more if you have family with you, but what exactly are you getting for our money?  Not a lot, is the answer, for many motorhomers.

You see, most motorhomes are self-contained.  Most of the time, they only need somewhere to park.  They don’t need or want all the other things that a campsite provides and don’t really see why they should be forced to pay for them.  They have a point.

So, back to the problem…the increasing numbers of motorhomes using laybys and carparks is a problem and it is this:- the tourist industry in the UK is not meeting the needs of motorhomes.  I will say that again: the tourist industry in the UK is not meeting the needs of motorhomes.

In Europe, motorhomes are well catered for using Aires de Services or Stellenplatzen, collectively known as Motorhome Stopovers.  Wikipedia describes them perfectly:-

“These stopovers differ from campsites in that they are usually intended for a very short-term usage—usually one or two days—thus they provide very limited space for parking and limited facilities or at times no service at all. Some stopovers may provides services like campsites but these places generally will not provide much space around the vehicles as most campsites do. In most cases these places are usually located at the center of or at the edge of a town or a village and are convenient for visiting such places and generally do not have a management facility like a campsite. In addition, the majority of these place are free of charge”

So now we can see that the real problem is not the number of motorhomes as such, but that they are not used to being exploited for unwanted services.  Motorhomers are thought to spend £30+ per day…if Scotland tourism wants to keep that, then it needs to raise its game, because right now, we don’t feel very welcome.

Andy Strangeway has been battling for the last two years and has a lot to say about it on his blog.

Here at the Motorhome Touring Association, we believe that local councils have a responsibility to satisfy the needs and wishes of their residents and to provide an infrastructure which benefits all local traders, rather than a select few.  Local councils should be asking for their views, all of them, not just campsite owners.  And, in the context of motorhomes, they should be talking to motorhomers because if they are not made to feel unwelcome, they will take their money somwhere else.  The Motorhome Touring Association we can help local authorities understand the needs and expectations of modern motorhomers in ways that benefit everyone and to match them to local conditions.



If you are reading this, the chances are that you are either a motorhome owner or you are thinking of being motorhome owner and one thing that all motorhomers need is somewhere to stop for the night or possibly longer. There are as many ways to go motorhoming as there are motorhomers. Many like to spend a their annual holiday on one site, while others may spend months wandering the UK or the rest of Europe spending just a night or two in any one place.
Wilding, also known as wild camping, free camping or boondocking, is touring in your motorhome or campervan without using camp or caravan sites. Actually, wild camping is a bit of misnomer, but I will come to that in a minute.

There was a letter, from Martyn Ferguson, in the Summer edition of MMM lamenting Cornwall’s new attack on motorhomes. The council has restated its ban on overnight sleeping in all 240 of its car parks, and prohibited the overnight parking of motorhomes (but not, apparently for cars) in 17 of them. You can get it from the horse’s mouth at http://www.cornwall.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=33744. It pointed to 311 caravan parks, camping sites and holiday parks as alternatives.

This action seem to follow reports in 2012 when campsite owners in Cornwall were up in arms about 50 motorhomes “parked up in the afternoon, all camping free of charge” and that they were apparently “ruining their businesses”.

There are a couple of things to say about this. Firstly, were the motorhomes parked or camped? There is a difference which is recognised in Europe, but seemingly not in the UK.

A vehicle is deemed to be ‘camped’ when any of the following are taking place:
•Stabilisers are deployed
•Awning/sunshade is deployed
•Cooking equipment is deployed (fires, barbecues, stoves, etc.) outside of the vehicle.
•Furniture (tables, chairs, etc) are deployed
•Washing is hung out
•Drinking water containers are deployed outside
•Waste (solid or liquid) containers are deployed outside

On the other hand, broadly, ‘parking’ is taking place when nothing more than all four wheels are on the ground (there is a little bit more to it than that). Under Cornwall’s provisions, it would be legal to park a Luton van overnight, providing you don’t sleep in it. How would they know?

What about the claim the free campers are “ruining” local campsites? Well, that is probably not true either. The fact that 50 motorhomes were parked strongly suggests that local campsites are simply not meeting the needs of modern motorhomers. Modern motorhomes are fully self contained and only need parking with water & waste services (Camper Stops), unlike caravans which rely on campsites. In my own motorhome, when travelling alone, I can go two weeks without needing (or wanting) a campsite. Modern motorhome users often prefer to travel and stop for a day or two to visit a place of interest, while caravans will tend to park up at a campsite and use their car to visit places of interest.

Traditional caravan sites do not always fill the bill for overnight stays. Issues are pre-booking requirements, gates being locked to prevent late arrival or early departure, sloping pitches and leveling issues not found with caravans with a centre axle. Other recurring issues can be manicured grass pitches being chewed up by vehicles 2 to 5 times heavier than touring caravans, noise from on site entertainment and bar/restaurants. The money spent on using these sites goes only into the campsite operators pocket. Those who do not use sites spend their money in the local community bars/restaurants/take away outlets. benefiting a wider commercial group. There’s only a finite amount of money that is available to spend by the visitor.

It is different in most of the rest of western Europe. In France alone, there are over 3,000 Aires de Services, of which only a handful charge charge for parking. Almost all of these aires provide gray and black waste and refuse without making a charge. Fresh water is also available, often free and only occasionally costing more than €5.00. Some even provide electric hook up and on rare occasions, I have seen that provided without charge, too. The aires that do charge higher amounts tend to be in the coastal tourist resorts and the larger cities, but even so La Rochelle, the topmost tourist destination in France, does not charge for its two aires. I have become a regular visitor to the town and regularly see forty or fifty motorhomes parked. I was there for the Bastille Day celebrations last year and counted more than 500, none of which were charged.

Two years ago, I completed an epic trip up round Scandinavia, taking in more than 15 countries in 100 days. In that time, I used only one campsite, which was outside Prague, and charged €10 in total for the two nights I stayed in high season.

Looking at the web sites for caravan sites in the Marazion area suggested that I could expect to pay up to £42.00 (€49.00) for larger pitch with hookup…and that is assuming only two people and no dogs. I don’t think it compares very favourably with my Prague experience of €10.00 for two nights (also complete with hookup, free swimming pool and restaurant). Even the cheapest low season tent pitch with no electric is £14.00 (€16.00) per night. For the modern motorhomer, who really only needs somewhere to park, it is hard to see what what he actually getting for the money.

Cornwall Council may say that it wants“to support local businesses and encourage visitors to use the many high quality motorhome and camp sites throughout Cornwall”, but the high numbers of motorhomes avoiding campsites should be giving them the message that camp sites do not meet the needs of many modern motorhomers and that other businesses in Cornwall also deserve the council’s support. A sample of Caravan and Camping club members suggested that the typical spend of the carvanner, camper or motorhomer was £32.00 (in pubs, restaurants and attractions) per day which, when the site fee is added in, equates to a daily average spend of between £50 and £80.

The simple fact is that many motorhomer resent having to pay for facilities that they not only do not need, but actively don’t want. It is a stark comparison that just two nights on a Marazion campsite would pay for a ferry crossing to Dunkirk, after which a motorhomer can easily manage to avoid further site fees, spending his money instead in French shops

My expectation is that, after Corwall’s restating its ban, most motorhomers will take their money and run, although some may decide to stay. It is hard to estimate the impact on Cornwall’s tourist industy, but those 50 motorhomes reported to be parked near Marazion represent a possible loss to the local economy of between £2,500 and £4,000 per day. Business must be good if they can afford to throw that amount of money away.

My suspicion is that the council has listened too heavily to camp site owners and not enough to other local traders. This seemed to happen in Bexhill, recently, where prior to a trial prohibition of motorhomes, the council consulted “the Eergency Services, Rother District Council, the local Member, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association”. They did not consult local traders or any motorcaravan associations. And who was the “local member”, I wonder?

Unless the UK opens its eyes to the emerging motorhoming market and starts to address its needs, I suspect that it is going to be left behind. Not only that, they will not benefit from the huge motorhome industry in France, our closest neighbour. The Motor Caravan Tourism Association is an organisation that has set itself the onerous tast of trying to bring about an overdue change of culture in the UK by working with local authorities. national organisations like the National Trust and even supermarket chains in order work out solutions which benefit everyone. It is early days yet, but there is an energy and determination which holds a promise for the future.

After all, it works in Europe, why not in the UK as well?