Time For Action: Caithness Tourism Assets & Limitations

So, a slight diversion for today's blog post but given the growing concern and interest for the future of tourism in Caithness felt recently, I figured now might be a good time to share an essay I wrote last December while studying Tourism & Hospitality at UHI.

Hopefully it'll inspire more exploring, more learning and more stories of Caithness heritage, especially for the bairns - our local heroes of the future.  Whether you become discoverers for the day, finding a broch using google maps as your treasure map, or come face to face with a real Viking skeleton at the child (and adult!) friendly Viking exhibition currently on at The Art Gallery in Thurso Library... it doesn't take much to spark a little pride.  Have a read and feel free to leave a comment at the end - if you're still awake.  Thanks folkies, Lisa.

Although Caithness offers a wealth of dramatic landscapes, ‘undiscovered’ heritage and a warm welcome, its inaccessible archaeological sites and weakened modern culture discourage attraction of the 81% of national and international visitors who were captivated by Scotland’s scenery, landscape, history and culture last year (Visit Scotland, 2015).  By differentiating between Caithness and Orkney, I will consider the existing assets and limitations influencing the development of Caithness as a tourist destination and discuss its positioning within Butler’s TALC model (Butler, 2011).

Caithness specific tourism reports and visitor statistics are very limited, however, the industry’s economic importance becomes clear considering over £400 million was generated in the Highlands and Islands in 2013, directly employing 29,300 people across 2,200 businesses (HIE, 2016).  Conversely, Caithness has a relatively low percentage of industry employment due to 6.1% of the population working in accommodation and food services in comparison to 9.1% of the Highland region (Leader, 2016) and 9% in Orkney (HIE Voluntary Action Orkney, 2016).

Acknowledging Caithness as “one of the richest archaeological sites in Scotland” (Heald, 2010) becomes apparent when compared with the profitable heritage sites of neighbouring Orkney.  Brochs, for example, were huge circular towers built of stone over 2,000 years ago.  It has been reported that Caithness has more brochs than anywhere else in the world, however, with barely any being signposted, as many as 300 brochs remain hidden from view (Caithness Broch Centre, 2016).  Fig. No.1 conveys the volume of Caithness broch site records in comparison to Shetland and Orkney.

In order to appeal to more visitors and generate tourism growth, the county’s brochs and ancient treasures must be unveiled and celebrated.  Visit Scotland plan to shine a light on Scottish heritage through the ‘Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017’ (Visit Scotland, 2016) during which the majority of archaeological sites in Caithness will remain underground.

As well as being of a similar locality, Orkney acts strongly in comparison to Caithness due to the similar land surface areas, population sizes and numbers of archaeological sites (see Fig. No.2).

 Inspired By Caithness 
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  Sources:  Caithness population:           CITATION The13 \l 1033        (Highland Council, 2013)      ;  Orkney population:           CITATION NRS16 \l 1033        (NRS Scotland, 2016)      ;  Caithness square mileage:     CITATION Cai16 \l 1033      (Caithness.Org, 2016)    ;  Orkney square mileage        CITATION Sco16 \l 1033     (Scotland Info Guide, 2016)    ;  number of archaeology sites in Caithness    CITATION Can16 \l 1033      (Canmore, 2016)    ;  number of archaeology sites in Orkney        CITATION Can161 \l 1033     (Canmore, 2016)    .

Sources:  Caithness population: (Highland Council, 2013);  Orkney population: (NRS Scotland, 2016);  Caithness square mileage: (Caithness.Org, 2016);  Orkney square mileage (Scotland Info Guide, 2016);  number of archaeology sites in Caithness (Canmore, 2016);  number of archaeology sites in Orkney (Canmore, 2016).

The similarities illustrated in Fig. No.1 clearly identify an underlying potential within the heritage sites of Caithness which could flourish with the help of considerable investment and market research.  In 1990 the Highlands and Islands Development Board issued £202,000 toward tourism development in Caithness (HIDB, 1990), meanwhile Orkney received an injection of £783,000.  Alongside investment, new tourist facilites and extensive market research (carried out by Orkney’s independent tourism development programme), Orkney created the solid foundations required to grow as a lucrative tourist destination.  Today, “the island’s archaeology/history or the scenery/landscape” attracted the majortity of 142,000 national and international visitors who contributed £31 million to Orkney’s economy in 2013 (Visit Scotland, 2014).

Despite the natural assets deeply rooted in Caithness, its diluted culture is limiting the county’s potential towards tourism growth.  The development of historic resources are secondary to industrial advancement, pushing key tourism features further into the ground.  For example, the Caithness town of Thurso tripled in size between 1955 and 1971 as a direct result of Dounreay’s newly established nuclear power station (Dounreay, 2004).  Subsequently, the influx of incomers, a long term focus on nuclear industry development, and now, uncertainty with Dounreay’s closure on the horizon has weakened the Caithness culture, heritage and sense of pride.  To illustrate, Matarasso discusses Orkney’s strong heritage as a commodity, while describing weaknesses within the Highlands and Islands:

“There are also areas with natural and cultural assets that have seemed to lag behind… anyone familiar with the Highlands and Islands will be aware of boroughs whose cultural life has little resonance beyond the immediate community.” (Matarasso, 2012)

In order to regain cultural identity, Matarasso suggests communities apply ‘The Orkney Principles of cultural development’ framework (Matarasso, 2012).  Interestingly, a number of the principles highlight weaknesses often felt by Caithnessians, especially through lack of the ‘leadership with a clear vision’ principle outilined by HIE’s destination development strategy for Caithness published in 2011:

“As a matter of urgency therefore the destination must address the issues surrounding leadership and structure of its tourism industry…  Without an agreed leadership and structural model in place it will be impossible for the area and the different communities to start moving towards creating, adopting, and delivering strategic plans to grow the sector.” (HIE, 2011)

Additionally, Matarasso mentions the significance of responsive leadership:

“Public authorities and other institutions have a vital supportive role to play, but it is an enabling not a directing one…  they can foster a strong, independent and diverse cultural ecology that plays a central role in every aspect of local life.  Orkney shows what can be achieved, and how.  It remains an example that other communities can learn from, if not imitate.” (Matarasso, 2012)

By understanding Orkney’s strong cultural development and the steps taken to build a successful tourism industry, Caithness can learn from possible future challenges, consequences and implement feasable solutions accordingly.  Matarasso maintains the key lesson to be taken from Orkney can be found when locals work together with the results proving to be “creative, resilient and flexible” (Matarasso, 2012).

Butler’s TALC model describes the six stages of tourism development, with the last two stages offering opposing scenarios regulated by the level of investment and modernisation efforts made once the destination has reached stagnation.  In my opinion, Caithness falls into almost each category; firstly, exploration: aside from accommodation, food and drink services, tourist facilities are limited and the natural and cultural landscape largely underdeveloped; secondly, involvement: historically and presently, locals realise the county’s tourism potential and work towards improving facilites and accessibility through groups and charities such as the Wick Heritage Centre, Caithness Broch Project and Venture North; and lastly, development: a recent example can be found at John O’Groats where Natural Retreats recently built five star self catering accommodation, yet the surrounding buildings remain derelict and unsightly.  Small businesses in the county, varying in quality of service, often opperate independently with little encouragement from local authorities to encourage collaboration and joint objectives.  It is my view that this lack of “leadership with a clear vision” (Matarasso, 2012) is resulting in Caithness being trapped in a constant cycle of Butler’s TALC model without ever reaching tourism destination status as illustrated in Fig. No.2.

Fig. No.2 - Caithness Tourism Development Cycle: The result of weak vision and leadership with regard to Butler's TALC Model (Butler, 2011)

Although a number of factors have led to this restrained rotation of Butler’s TALC model (Butler, 2011) for Caithness, the value of culture and heritage development is openly demonstrated and celebrated in Orkney.  Caithness has been home to a broad range of cultures spanning thousands of years, yet dilution of modern culture has wounded its people’s sense of pride.  Perhaps Dounreay has accelorated a cultural identity collapse.  Perhaps a stronger leadership, bringing boosts of vision, enthusiasm and action is required in order to relish the exisiting tourism attraction potential.  Its as though the local pride and heritage of Caithness are mere plants surviving the winter; leaves and stalks may have wilted, but the roots underground remain alive, quietly awaiting a new spring.

Reference List

1.     Butler, R.W., 2011. Tourism Area Life Cycle. Oxford: Goodfellow Publishers Ltd Contemporary Tourism Reviews.

2.     Caithness Broch Centre, 2016. Online [Accessed 02 December 2016].

3.     Caithness.Org, 2016. Caithness Geography. Online [Accessed 02 December 2016].

4.     Canmore, 2016. Caithness Site Search. Online [Accessed 02 December 2016].

5.     Canmore, 2016. Orkney Site Search. Online [Accessed 02 December 2016].

6.     Canmore, 2016. Site Records Search. Online [Accessed 08 December 2016].

7.     Dounreay, 2004. The History and Achievements of UKAEA Dounreay. Online [Accessed 04 December 16].

8.     Heald, D.A., 2010. Heritage, Tourism and Economy in rural Scotland: Potential, barriers and the future. Online AOC Archaeology Group Available [Accessed 01 December 2016].

9.     HIDB, 1990. Highlands & Islands Development Board Annual Report. Online [Accessed 06 December 2016].

10.  HIE Voluntary Action Orkney, 2016. Sanday Development Plan. Online [Accessed 08 December 2016].

11.  HIE, 2011. A Framework for Destination Development Ambitious for Tourism Caithness and North Sutherland: Strategic Summary. Tourism Resources Company.

12.  HIE, 2016. Tourism Timeline. Online [Accessed 06 December 2016].

13.  Highland Council, 2013. Highland profile - key facts and figures. Online [Accessed 01 December 2016].

14.  Leader, 2016. Caithness Local Area Action Plan. Highland LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.

15.  Matarasso, F., 2012. Stories & Fables: Reflections on culture development in Orkney. Online [Accessed 03 December 2016].

16.  NRS Scotland, 2016. Orkney Islands Council Area - Demographic Factsheet. Online [Accessed 01 December 2-16].

17.  Scotland Info Guide, 2016. Online [Accessed 02 December 2016].

18.  Visit Scotland, 2014. Orkney Visitor Survey 2012/13. Online [Accessed 02 December 2016].

19.  Visit Scotland, 2015. Scotland Visitor Survey 2015. Online [Accessed 29 November 2016].

20.  Visit Scotland, 2016. About Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017. Online [Accessed 29 November 2016].