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Unique working and funding partnerships on The Isle of Skye come to fruition

OATS is now at the forefront of developing partnership solutions to find new sources of income for the conservation of upland and lowland paths and surrounding habitats, and sustainable public access at popular trail heads.

The Fairy Pools Car Park and Toilets

After years of serious tourism congestion on the Isle of Skye, primarily caused by a lack of basic tourist infrastructure around remote visitor hotspots, an innovative collaboration between the Minginish Community Hall Association (MCHA) and OATS began in 2017.

The partnership was set up to develop, build and manage essential car parking and public toilets for the hugely popular Fairy Pools at the foot of the Black Cuillins near Glenbrittle. The rise in visitor numbers at the site has been astonishing, from an already unsustainable 80,000 in 2016/17 to more than 180,000 in 2019.

MCHA used the new Community Asset Transfer mechanism to acquire the site from Forestry and Land Scotland and now leases it to OATS. Both organisations have raised funds for the new facility, and the car-park is now complete, with the toilets close to completion.

Funds were raised for the Fairy Pools Project from a range of sources. For phase one, the car park, OATS raised almost £376,000: £200,000 LEADER cash, £100,000 from Highland Council, £50,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and £25,597 from OATS’ own funds. £341,000 has been raised through the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund (RTIF) for phase two, the toilet block. The building work is not yet complete and the balance of funds required to finish the project will be provided by OATS.

Work began in 2019 and was on schedule to be completed in May 2020, despite the challenges of building an off-grid sewage system and processing tank with sufficient capacity for 200,000 annual visitors! Coronavirus has halted the final stages of the build but OATS hopes to have fully operational toilets by July 2020.

The facility now funds full-time jobs for two members of staff and rent to MCHA, whilst also providing the cash to cover costs including unforeseen overspend on the toilets project as a direct result of the exponential increase in visitor numbers. Surplus revenue from parking fees will pay for further conservation and access projects on the island and elsewhere in Scotland.

OATS believes this collaborative model is a major development in partnerships with communities to address the chronic lack of tourist infrastructure in remote rural areas, while providing funds for conservation and community objectives, and could be a model for future projects.

The Skye Iconic Sites Project

In 2018 OATS teamed up with Skye Connect (Skye’s destination management organisation), Staffin Trust and Minginish Community Hall Association, Highland Council, Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate (theprincipal landowner), to form The Skye Iconic Sites Projectinitiative (SISP).

This informal collaborative alliance aims to improve visitor experience and achieve sustainable management of remote but popular locations on Skye which are suffering as a result of the huge growth of tourism at the island’s iconic landmarks.

With a lack of infrastructure these hotspots, their access roads and mountain paths have been overwhelmed and damaged. SISP aims to tackle the problem head-on, through improved and more inclusive parking and trail access, repairing and upgrading infrastructure, and habitat restoration. This will be combined with joined-up work on interpretation, promotion and marketing within the wider context of Skye as a visitor destination.

The SISP partners are aiming to start work on three of the major sites on the island – The Fairy Pools (repairs and upgrades to path infrastructure, together with habitat
restoration), The Old Man of Storr and The Quiraing.

Out of SISP sprang the Old Man of Storr Project

A recent project with strong involvement from OATS, born indirectly from the SISP initiative, has been the renovation of 600m of the existing path to the Old Man of Storr. The most famous walk on the Island is also the busiest, with visitor numbers rising from 20,000 to 340,000 in recent years.

The walk uses the same 1.6km path up and down, starting at the car park. Increased visitor footfall and high levels of rainfall have severely damaged the sensitive vegetation and soft peat surface, with erosion scars 60m wide. With the original path no longer clearly defined, visitors choose from a range of routes, causing further damage and braiding.

Work began on site at the end of February, but it was closed in early March as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. When it is reopened the work should be finished in four to five months.

The Highland Council-led project is funded to the tune of £250,000 through VisitScotland’s Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund (RTIF), with match funding from Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate (SGRIPD). OATS has designed the path works and is managing the contract.