THE freedom of the open road - with Scotland's stunning scenery on all sides - is one of the main attractions of a holiday at home.

Only, the roads aren't as 'open' as they used to be and the natural attractions popularised by Outlander, James Bond and Braveheart aren't as 'free'.

Instead, campervans clutter the roadsides, tents and fires are left abandoned across the countryside and the scale of litter and waste has reached an all time high.

The issue of so-called 'dirty camping' is not new - it has been getting steadily worse for years - but residents in the Highlands have noticed a definite increase during the pandemic due to more tourists choosing a staycation.

And, with the publication of VisitScotland's Navigating the New Normal report this week predicting that visitors will head for more remote locations and eschew big cities and events due to Covid fears, it's an issue that looks likely to get even worse.

It is a particular problem in the idyllic beauty spot of Applecross, in Wester Ross, where residents counted about 70 camping units - motorhomes, caravans or tents - in the bay area one evening in late summer. Some are calling for legislation on camping in Scotland's beauty spots.

Judith Fish, who has run the Applecross Inn for more than 30 years, said she had '100 per cent' noticed an increase in tourists during the pandemic.

"There are a huge amount of people who are very respectful of the area and have been coming here for years," she said. "It's a minority who cause the problems. The issue is the infrastructure. We need better toilets, better waste disposal and recycling."

She said the tourists were bringing money into the area and it needed to be spent on facilities for them.

"We need more government funding for local communities," she added. "We have a community company that runs the public toilets. Young girls from the village are cleaning them. The facilities are just not big enough and it shouldn't be down to the community."

Neil Fuller, who runs The Durness Bus company in Sutherland has complained of camping, fires, toilet waste and vehicles parked on verges.

He Tweeted Nicola Sturgeon and said the village was being 'swamped'. North West Highlands Geopark co-ordinator Dr Laura Hamlet said there was an urgent need for community-led destination management planning. She called for visitors to be better educated and said campers should only use official sites.

Sango Sands Oasis campsite owner James Keith said people were trashing the Durness site.

"Police need to be given powers to move them on, it's totally out of hand," he said. "The Scottish Government needs to gets its act together."

Hugh Morrison, a councillor who represents north, west and central Sutherland, suggested a range of measures including more police, rangers with enforcement powers, extra toilets and camping facilities.

"There were more camper vans and motor homes on the route last month than there was in August," said Mr Morrison, who runs the Smoo Cave Hotel at Durness.

"Unfortunately some of the occupants have not behaved that well. In fact there have been cases of wild toileting even in the centre of our village."

Anne Widdop, a businesswoman who lives in Arisaig, founded the Scottish Tourism Action Group (STAG) in response to the problem of dirty camping.

STAG has called for a national programme of action to deal with issues caused by communities being “woefully under-served” in key areas including facilities for campervans, wild camping, car parking and public toilets.

It says the lack of infrastructure for visitors is having “a massive environmental impact” across Scotland, including litter and human waste pollution, destruction of the environment and damage from campfires.

Anne said: "In the first weekend of the lockdown there were 42 tents on the beach here, cheek by jowl. On another occasion, people came down with a marquee, lights, batteries, seats. Their way of 'cleaning up' was to put it all in the middle of the beach and set fire to it."

STAG has published a Green Paper for discussion and aims to send the final document to the Scottish Government by the end of 2020.

It points out the discrepancy between the £87 million spent in 2018-2019 in marketing Scottish tourism, and just £6 million was available through the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to improve services.

The group want' tens of millions of pounds' to be spent over three to five years, initially on infrastructure, an education campaign to combat the 'current ignorance' of the Outdoor Access Code and a review of the Land Reform Act. That could include enforcing local bylaws to protect the worst affected areas and outlawing camping and lighting fires in environmentally sensitive areas.

The report also suggests free trunk road aires - or stopover points - providing toilets, picnic facilities and waste collection on main trunk roads - and wild camping licensing.

It also mooted adopting the Loch Lomond ranger system nationwide and a real time tourist hot spot map on social media so people could avoid crowded areas.

Anne suggested a simple, short term fix for Arisaig could be the local council passing a bylaw to prevent overnight parking on the road next to the beach.

"A lot of the problem here would go away then," she said. "Most of the people on the beach are 'car campers' - they are not wild campers in the true sense. They don't want to walk far."

She said people across Scotland were supporting her campaign. "There needs to be a properly funded programme of work across Scotland," she said. "We need to get the issue up the government's priority chain. It's a national problem."

Mountaineering Scotland has called for greater enforcement of legislation to tackle the problem. It also wants to see a public information campaign to educate people about their responsibilities as well as their rights.

Access and conservation officer Davie Black said: "Hotspots for dirty camping are usually known to local authorities.

"There is already legislation covering anti-social activity. What we need is coordination of resources to enforce it."

Stuart Younie, chief executive of Mountaineering Scotland, added: "We have enlightened legislation that allows people the freedom to camp and at the same time provides for tackling anti-social behaviour where it is required - although we acknowledge that the police and local authorities don't have the resources to monitor every hill and glen.

"Mountaineering Scotland does what it can to promote responsible behaviour. We think greater emphasis should be placed on government agencies, councils and national organisations working together with communities to develop local management solutions. We know where the pressure spots are."

VisitScotland chief executive Malcom Roughead said they were working with NatureScot, the two national park organisations and other groups to tackle waste management issues.

“Part of it is dispersal, getting people to travel to other parts of Scotland,” he added. “It is also more about education than introducing restrictions.

“Many people were experiencing camping or motor homing for the first time and were not aware of how to conduct themselves. Equally we need to make sure the resources and amenities are available.

“If bins are overflowing, it’s not because people didn’t want to dispose of their rubbish, it’s that the facilities were not adequate.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said it was aware of STAG’s paper and was working with a range of organisations to address issues.

“We are aware of a number of incidents of littering, anti-social behaviour and damage to our natural environment since lockdown restrictions began to ease and are clear that this behaviour is completely unacceptable, and disrespectful to local communities," he said. "The Tourism Secretary recently met with local authorities, Police Scotland and other representatives to discuss possible solutions to anti-social camping and we are considering what further action can be taken on a national scale.

“We are separately working with COSLA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Zero Waste Scotland to address a number of waste issues, and have increased fixed penalties from £50 to £80 for littering.

“While it is for councils to take decisions on the provision of community safety activities and countryside rangers to establish a fund to specifically to address these issues, we would encourage them to record incidents using available systems so the issue can be effectively addressed at a local and national level."