SCOTLAND'S great empty spaces are filling up. Research suggests our hills and glens have never been more popular, with 75% of Scots now venturing into the outdoors at least once each year. And this Easter holiday, many of us will take the opportunity to walk, climb, camp or simply relax among some of the world's most spectacular scenery.

We won't be the only ones, however. Around 14 million UK and overseas tourists are expected in Scotland this year and while they won't all venture into the countryside, our “awe-inspiring natural landmarks” are being heavily marketed by VisitScotland. And thanks partly to a weak pound and the so-called “Outlander Effect”, it’s no longer just hardy mountaineers, hikers and birdwatchers who are heading for the hills.

The allure of locations made famous by the time-travelling TV series as well as Hollywood movies, has brought unprecedented footfall to once secluded places, placing enormous pressure on delicate natural environments.

The big squeeze first made headlines in spring 2017, when James Bond fans were accused of littering a Glencoe beauty spot and damaging roadside verges. Inspired by the movie Skyfall, huge numbers had driven to the spot where Judi Dench's M and Daniel Craig's 007 had been filmed looking out over Glen Etive, so they could recreate the iconic shot on their phones.

Later that year, the Isle of Skye was in the spotlight following reports that tourists flocking to destinations featured in Outlander, such as the Fairy Pools and Quiraing landslip, were jamming single-track roads with camper vans and tour buses. Visitors were variously accused of dumping rubbish or relieving themselves in the open, and fears were expressed that the surrounding landscape was being damaged.

The publicity led America's CNN TV to list the island as a “destination to avoid”. Then came the BFG effect: an outbreak of Instagram-fuelled “stone-stacking” in Uig on Skye, where that movie was filmed. “Shocking” was how Blue Planet Society founder John Hourston described the cairn-building despoliation of this isolated place. “People are increasingly wanting to get into the wild,” he said, “but the wild is becoming less wild.”

Do wilderness-seekers risk destroying the very thing that they love? The Scottish Daily Mail certainly hinted as much during a recent report on an Ordnance Survey study of the UK's favourite hikes, which also listed the country's “least-walked” areas, including North Lewis. Deducing that North Lewis was therefore “the UK’s top destination for walkers in search of solitude”, the newspaper then jokingly warned readers not to tell anyone, “or it’ll be overrun".

The attraction of wild landscapes appears to be comparatively modern and it's hard to know how our rural-dwelling ancestors felt about places we now consider picturesque. Stumbling upon a pile of grey stone in some impossibly isolated spot, I’ve often lingered in what was once someone’s doorway, wondering what people saw when they stood there centuries ago: were they conscious of a beautiful landscape or did they simply see the land from which they eked a living?

For after all, much of what we now call “wilderness” was home to substantial human populations before being cleared to make way for more profitable sheep and deer and while Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Byron were rhapsodising over the Highlands' rugged beauty, many of the region’s former residents were being forced into congested cities to work in the kind of “dark satanic mills” referred to by their fellow bard, William Blake.

According to the environmental historian K Jan Oosthoek, those Romantic poets' veneration of dramatic landscapes was the root of our abiding passion for wild scenery.

But if wilderness-seeking was once the pursuit of a wealthy literati and the hunting-shooting set, by the first half of the 20th century, working-class urban Scots were reclaiming their place in the wilds. Some joined the Creagh Dhu mountaineering club, formed in 1929 by young men keen to escape the slums and dole queues of Depression-era Glasgow. Many urban children, including my own father, discovered the great outdoors through the scouting movement. (Raised in Glasgow's Springburn during the 1930s and 1940s, he traced his lifelong passion for what he called the "wilderness" back to a boyhood camping trip.)

And from 1935, the Ramblers' Association had been fighting for ordinary people's right to roam in places landowners preferred to keep private – a principle that was finally cemented in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, 2003.

With all this in mind, we should be wary of sneery attitudes towards the popularisation of rugged landscapes. And after all, spending time in the countryside is good for us. Japanese researchers at Chiba University have discovered that a walk in the woods causes bigger drops in blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels, than an urban stroll. And for many people, seclusion is a vital part of the appeal, as a 2017 review of the benefits of wild land commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage confirmed. It stressed the “personal wellbeing, mental and spiritual benefits”, adding that “the opportunity to experience ‘wildness’ is considered to be important for a healthy society, particularly in relation to the ‘restorative’ values of wild land for those seeking to ‘get away’ from their daily routines/lives”.

For how long, though, will our wild places feel unspoilt? The Devil's Pulpit in Finnich Glen near Killearn, once described as a "hidden gem", now draws 70,000 visitors a year thanks its profile in Outlander (as St Ninian’s or “Liar’s” Spring) and films such as The Eagle. The forthcoming Pokemon movie starring Ryan Reynolds, which was partly filmed there, is likely to attract still more scene-spotters. Yet the area is already buckling under the strain, with locals expressing concern about dangerous parking and Lomond Mountain Rescue Team reporting a "significant rise in call-outs" to visitors who have become stranded in the gorge. Now, plans are afoot to create bespoke tourism facilities including a 150-space car park, viewing platform and visitor centre.

Landowner David Young, who is behind the move, said the changes are needed "to safeguard the glen from the negative impact from the increase in footfall which has seen a deterioration in the area".

Inevitably, however, any such facilities will affect the place's character, which is presumably why Stirling Council planners have called for a landscape assessment before the proposal can be considered.

How, then, do we enable people to get out into the outdoors, while protecting the very quality that draws them there in the first place? The Herald on Sunday put that question to Mike Daniels, head of land management of The John Muir Trust – a conservation charity dedicated to protecting wild land, including in tourist hot-spots such as Skye, Ben Nevis and places close to “Scotland's Route 66”, the North Coast 500 trail.

“Scotland is a wonderful global destination,” he said, “and it's an accolade and an honour that people from all over the world want to come and see our beautiful scenery and landscapes and experience our culture and heritage.” He added that the trust recognises "the benefits to visitors and local communities of the amazing natural assets we have in Scotland in terms of our wild landscapes", and that tourism brings economic and employment benefits to "remote and fragile rural communities".

He warned, however, that: "As a country we run the risk of becoming victims of our own success – with increasing visitor numbers having the potential to impact on these amazing natural assets and create pressures and problems for local communities unless managed carefully.

“Negative impacts of increasing visitor numbers on sensitive landscapes and local communities are exacerbated by local government cuts to public toilets, bin collections and ranger services at the very time more resources are needed to ensure visitors and local communities have a pleasant and indeed world-class experience in what is a global tourism market."

He is concerned that tourism promotion and "destination marketing" don't appear to be linked to an overall strategy for managing the impact of increased visitor numbers. "Currently no-one is duty-bound to invest in the landscapes or infrastructure – such as paths – that make Scotland a global tourist destination." He called for greater investment in ranger services and direct support for the maintenance of upland paths. "If we want to retain our reputation and capitalise on it we need to spend more on looking after it."

He believes the Scottish Government, local authorities and agencies like VisitScotland need to work with local communities to meet those challenges, and that research is needed on best practice from around the world – including the viability of "tourist taxes" to help fund services and infrastructure.

He also thinks we can learn from Italy's "slow tourism" movement, which encourages people to spend more time experiencing the local culture within a single area rather than dashing around stopping off for quick selfies in popular locations, consuming energy and resources in the process.

I wonder if the film industry might be prevailed on to help promote a more responsible approach to tourism – perhaps as a condition of obtaining location rights in our countryside.

Meanwhile, with the summer holiday season approaching and yet more Scotland-set movies in the pipeline, we can only hope that more tourists follow the approach recommended by wilderness enthusiast Dan Richards in his new book, Outposts: A Journey To The Wild Ends Of The Earth. "The need to travel and explore for ourselves is deep within the human animal," he writes. "But one can go and leave no trace, go and do no harm. Travel slowly. Take it all in. Remember our place and duties of care."