‘It’s remarkable how, in just a few hundred years, the way we see the Highlands can change entirely…’
‘Today we walk through them, cycle over them, climb them, explore them — and photograph them, over and over again. This landscape no longer repels people with its harsh, unknowable obscurity. Instead it attracts them in their millions from all over the world’ — from Scotland From The Sky by James Crawford
I love this quote. I found it tucked within the text of a photo-heavy library book, glossy with aerial images of the beautiful country I’m lucky enough to call home: Scotland. And, in a coincidence only books can serve up, these lines perfectly summarised how the way we travel in Scotland has changed — just as I was about to start collating my own research following a trip to the Highlands.
What is this project, and how has it come about?
You may remember me writing about taking a step back from blogging and being online, following an intense year of weekday work and side projects in 2017, which moving house allowed me to pause. Despite picking up my phone much less, it doesn’t mean I’ve been blind to the effects social media is having on the wider world — and especially Scotland. I work in Edinburgh (as a social media professional, funnily enough) and adventure around the country at the weekends, and can’t help but feel the way we are travelling has changed irrevocably thanks to Instagram and other social networks.
I wanted to explore this more. I thought, reflected, wrote and spent less time online. I read, mostly travel writing and snippets of Scottish books, and occasional articles on (un)sustainable tourism. I realised that I had many questions and that, despite these not being fully formed or even with a definitive answer on the horizon, they deserved more investigation.
That was around the time that Nicolas first got in touch.
He had read my blog on Dunkeld, published last autumn, and the changes I’d documented there (clue: a lot of photographers). We arranged to meet at the start of this year, and that initial discussion over coffee only raised more questions. How could we both allow our ideas space to grow, and create something that told the story of what we were seeing more widely?
We agreed to go on a two-day trip in the height of spring to document some of Scotland’s iconic and lesser-known locations, and explore from the ground how exactly travel and our behaviour in landscapes was changing thanks to online expectations. Before we set off in Nicolas’s car — he runs an eco-chauffeuring business in his Tesla — I scrawled some questions in a small notebook.
I wanted to investigate how Scotland and social media intersect.
What does it mean that we curate our lives — especially travel — for broadcast on social media? Does this behaviour change, influence or filter the way that we therefore see and experience Scotland and its landscapes?
In this new and seemingly apparent race for retweets and likes, are we turning travel into one big quest for social media content? Is it a race over an experience? Are we commodifying our experiences to game the algorithms? How then does this recast how we feel about our own memories if they are solely ‘for the gram’?
On that point — are the stops on a Scotland itinerary predetermined? And how has Scotland been changed by digital tourism and its screen presence, especially in the age of Outlander and Outlaw King?
Another quote from a book I was reading raises the question about how the online could more generally be affecting our relationship with the outdoors: ‘More and more of us live more and more separately from contact with nature… We are literally losing touch, becoming disembodied, more than in any previous historical period’ (Robert MacFarlane’s introduction to The Living Mountain).
Are we prioritising social media engagement over the environment? And how is social media changing how we interact with landscapes more generally? And after all those questions…
What is the point, or the desired outcome, of this project?
Honestly, a lot of the questions I pose here won’t have definitive answers (not the black-and-white ones that a polarised political landscape seems to demand nowadays, anyway). Instead I hope that by exploring the issues and raising these questions, which may sometimes be rhetorical, it will generate more conversation and awareness around how our behaviour — and world — is changing.
Ultimately, though, I’m also seeing this as a very personal activity. As I mentioned, these conflicting thoughts have been circling my head for a good few months now. I feel at arm’s length from social media, perhaps because of my nine-to-five career in the industry, or maybe because I can see first-hand the effect it’s having on our behaviour both online and offline. Writing through these thoughts is a way for me to begin to understand my contradictions in this space: my love of photography and storytelling, yet the concern I have of contributing to the crowds at popular places; an appreciation of travel, but a desire to do this slowly, sustainably and without commodifying my experiences; my attraction to the benefits of social media platforms and the connection they allow to people all over the planet, whilst also being pessimistic of how they are altering our behaviours and contributing to wider social and environmental issues (sometimes without us even really realising).
Over the next few weeks or months — I’ll write when the mood takes me! — the next few blog posts on here will explore some of these questions, suggest ways in which we can be more mindful of how we use social media especially when travelling, and ask you for your feedback and opinions to better inform mine (because no one person has all the answers).