Bill Jamieson: Resting place with a view

The design chosen for Inveruglas. Picture: Contributed
The design chosen for Inveruglas. Picture: Contributed
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Bill Jamieson sees much to be commended in a project to enhance roadside viewing platforms to make the most of our landscape, but wonders why it has taken so long to bear fruit

SCOTLAND’S scenery counts among our greatest assets. It is our signature on the face of the world and it is celebrated on every continent. So why do we not display it to best effect? And why has it taken more than three years to advance a simple project to enhance the views from our tourist routes?

Here is a story that captures the best of Scotland – and the worst. First, the good news. A proposal to transform our bog-standard unattended lay-bys with their overflowing waste bins and scattered litter is at last bearing fruit. The project comprises viewing platforms and viewpoints at the roadsides of our most scenic routes to enable travellers to stop and enjoy Scotland’s landscapes.

At long last. Our roadside “rest areas” have barely changed since the 1930s – a rough parking area, a waste bin that needs to be emptied and a dank concrete cludgie, not always open.

How come we let ourselves down when it comes to showing off Scotland at its best? Why have we put up with this utterly uninspiring and thoughtless approach for so long? Too often these lay-bys were an afterthought, grudgingly conceded, poorly executed and once provided, left to rot and decay.

They were the product of public works road engineers, men who looked as if they ate cement for breakfast and for whom lay-bys were a dispensable nuisance. Scotland is littered with these disgraces.

Now a competition for new ideas and designs brought forth no less than 90 submissions from young Scots architects. Many showed stunning imagination in concept and design. From this talent pool, three have been selected to enhance the visitor experience along some of our most popular scenic roads.

The pilot phase will see three installations in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park – at Inveruglas, the Falls of Falloch and Loch Lubnaig, sites chosen for their unique scenic qualities and their locations.

Building work is set to start early next year. A second competition will also be held for sites on tourist routes in other parts of Scotland. An exhibition with all the entries will be launched in February at the Lighthouse in Glasgow.

The project was the brainchild of Scots architect Peter Wilson. More than three years ago, he brought a team of young Norwegian architects to a conference in Scotland to showcase what they had achieved with a National Tourist Routes programme along that country’s most popular roads. I was pleased to chair this conference and to lend encouragement and support in The Scotsman. For here was a project that could bring immediate and positive benefit and at miniscule cost at a time when the public coffers were bare.

Now Peter’s initiative has the potential to achieve a national transformation.

The project has been championed by Fiona Logan, chief executive of the Loch Lomond National Park and Gordon Watson, the park’s planning supremo. It has won support from environment secretary Richard Lochhead, and finance (an initial £500,000) from finance secretary John Swinney. It has brought various supporting bodies alongside, including Transport Scotland and VisitScotland.

But the greatest impetus has now been provided by Scotland’s young architects. Around a dozen shortlisted designs displayed a wealth of innovative ideas and design that had to reconcile conflicting objectives: unobtrusive, but which enhanced a view; simplicity of design and execution, using natural and durable materials; and capable of bearing up to visitor wear and tear, including vandalism. Despite these requirements – arguably, because of them – the contestants were able to come up with ideas, many of which would be “go to” destinations in their own right.

And many of the project submissions merited roll-out across the length and breadth of highland and lowland Scotland. The winning designs include a timber stepped viewing platform and seating area that focuses on the panoramic views over Loch Lomond at Inveruglas; a sheltered space created by banked earth with views over Loch Lubnaig to Ben Ledi, and a woven steel shelter to amplify the sound of the Falls of Falloch.

The winners were Ruairidh Campbell Moir from the Isle of Lewis for his sheltered space at Loch Lubnaig (Ruairidh has just graduated from the University of Strathclyde School of initiative School of Architecture for his audio-fantastic woven steel shelter at the Falls of Falloch); and the team of Sean Edwards, Daniel Bär and Stéphane Toussaint for the Inveruglas viewing platform. All three work in the Glasgow office of Dualchas Architects of Glasgow and the Isle of Skye.

Lochhead said: “This is a great project to harness the skills and creativity of young architects and will ensure people can fully appreciate what our beautiful countryside has to offer. I would like to congratulate the young Scottish architects who will have their designs turned into reality.

“I hope that other people are encouraged to enter the second round of competition in the new year as this project is rolled out to different areas across Scotland.”

So, backslapping all round? Only up to a point. For this story raises several troubling questions about Scotland and how we go about things – or don’t as the case may be.

First, why has it taken so long – more than three years – for such an initiative to progress to the design stage? Remember that work has yet to begin and may take another summer visitor season to complete, taking the time from concept to completion to five years.

And second, why think so small? So far, only three projects have been approved, where dozens are needed to make a cumulative, signature impact. Lack of finance is hardly a plausible objection – the schemes approved range in cost from £150,000 to £50,000. In a country with a budget of more than £30 billion, this really is peanuts. And, spread across the country, they would have a cumulative impact on visitor attraction.

Of course, these projects, however small and unobtrusive they appear, are far from simple to execute. Those Scandinavian minimalist interventions may look easy to do. But they involve forethought, planning, traffic consequentials, road sight-line considerations, durability of design and materials among many considerations.

Why only now are we still learning the imperative of quality design at the concept stage? And why only now have we alighted on such a simple, practical idea? We have been blessed with unique and wonderful landscapes. They are a magnet for international tourism.

Given this breath-taking natural endowment, why have we been so slow on the uptake – and so slow to put it into effect? Enhancing the roadside view is an art for which we could – and should – be global leaders. So I hope very much that this is not the end of this excellent project, but the end of the beginning. We have miles to go before we sleep along our scenic routes.