Lesley Riddoch: How wooden huts could save our summer holidays

A summer break in this country can be so expensive that getting back to basics may be the only answer, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Popular view of Fishing hut (rorbuer) in Hamnoy, Norway with Lilandstinden mountain peak as the background during sunrise.
Popular view of Fishing hut (rorbuer) in Hamnoy, Norway with Lilandstinden mountain peak as the background during sunrise.

Is Edinburgh in danger of killing the golden goose by pricing artists out of appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe? £500 for an overnight hotel stay is an eye-watering sum. But prices are high right across Scotland. Even in June a popular booking site had no hotel or bed and breakfast availability in the Oban and Lorn area for the entire week. A trip to Eigg earlier this month found only a couple of B&Bs for £70-£100 in the Mallaig-Arisaig area and “No vacancy” signs outside every camp/caravan site. Luckily, I stayed with friends whose summer months are now busy and sociable with cost-cutting visits from friends and family. When they travel elsewhere in Scotland, they do the same. It’s a great way to live and travel – if you have a wheen of like-minded, far-flung acquaintances with plenty of space. But if you don’t, the novel combination of brilliant summer weather and high staycationing demand from the rest of Britain creates a problem. Put simply, Scotland is fast becoming an impossibly expensive holiday location for folk actually living here.

The collapse in sterling since Brexit means a £100 bed and breakfast is less daunting for Europeans who also plan ahead. But Scots, prompted to explore their own country at the last minute by prolonged good weather and the relatively higher costs of foreign travel, are finding day trips or wild camping are the only “holidays” they can afford.

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It doesn’t have to be like this.

Across northern Europe and the world’s wooded latitudes, wooden weekend huts have traditionally come to the rescue, removing locals from the commercial holiday market and offering the possibility of long, leisurely stays during the summer, extended family reunions at Easter and sanity-restoring breaks every weekend throughout the year.

Norway has the world’s highest GDP and the highest rate of hut ownership, with one basic wooden hut for every ten Norwegians. In 2006, there were 429,093 holiday homes in Norway, of which the vast majority (398,884) were huts rather than converted farmhouses (30,209) in a population of 4.6 million. A further 55,000 holiday homes were owned by Norwegians abroad. That’s one hytte (hut) per 11 Norwegians (roughly one per extended family) for year-round relaxation, connection with nature, exercise, escape from city pressures and strengthening family ties. Few huts have running water (thanks to freezing winters) although some have electricity and most are custom-built with wood-burning stoves. They are close enough to reach every weekend (usually within 25 miles and one hour’s drive) and the hytte habit is a marker of wealth, not poverty. Norway is one of the world’s most equal societies, and since second homes are generally modest purpose-built huts, not family homes from the local housing stock, ownership isn’t regarded as elitist, greedy or wasteful. A smart system called boplikt has created two separate housing markets by designating huts as temporary and family homes as permanent dwellings. Houses in each category cannot have a change of use. Thus family houses in remote areas cannot be bought or used as second homes.

In 1991 there was also one cabin per 12 Swedes, one per 18 Finns and one per 33 Danes, along with widespread cabin ownership in Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain plus America, Canada and New Zealand.

Scotland has the lowest rate of hut ownership in northern Europe. In 2000 only 630 huts remained in Scotland – most without rights of tenancy or improvement. Since then hundreds have been evicted, although Carbeth hutters raised almost £2 million to achieve a land buyout in 2013.

The ease of buying small plots of land from farmers meant ordinary Norwegians have had a mainstream hut culture since the 1960s. They also own more boats and caravans than Scots and use DNT mountain huts for mountain walking holidays.

In Sweden, the state awarded grants for hut building, fearing workers with newly acquired holiday rights in the 1920s might otherwise spend their spare time drinking. But in Scotland early hut-building efforts fizzled out. The biggest problem was landowner resistance, blocking the establishment of individual and community hut sites in picturesque locations. Large-scale forestry ownership shut people out of woods, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 made a presumption against “urban” development in the countryside and precarious hutting leases deterred Scotland’s middle class from acquiring the hutting habit.

Does it matter? Well, the absence of a secure, personal connection with the countryside has generated indifference and even a self-harming hostility to the outdoors among many urban dwellers. Is it a coincidence that Scots have the lowest rate of hut ownership in Europe and the highest rate of problem drinking? If urban Scots can’t physically escape the mounting pressures of life, is it any wonder they seek out “chemical” release instead? The majority of Glasgow pupils aren’t sure that eggs come from hens – is lack of connection with nature to blame?

Of course, Scotland does have “posh” second homes – just not basic, low-impact huts. Prince Albert’s construction of Balmoral Castle in 1856 started the trend for wealthy Britons to acquire land and summer houses for “hunting, shooting and fishing” in Highland Scotland, just as locals were being cleared. That’s why second homes are regarded as the preserve of a wealthy elite and a threat to the sustainability of Scotland’s remote and rural communities. In Norway, by contrast, hut ownership is viewed as a ubiquitous, classless and unproblematic way of keeping city dwellers in touch with nature and offering relaxation all year round rather than an overpriced annual fortnight. In a relatively empty landscape like Scotland there is more than enough land to accommodate people in all sorts of huts and cabins in woodland and at the sea or lochside. So why won’t Scottish landowners sell small patches of land? Why don’t Scots ask? Why does the law still fail to protect hutters against summary eviction?

Of course, not everyone wants a basic, back-to-nature, wooden hut. But thousands do. And unless working families find the land and encouragement to take up hutting, holidays here will continue to be a greater luxury than a package holiday abroad and unemployed Scots will remain walled up in city estates without hope of escape. Maybe that’s a bigger social problem than the prices facing artists at the Edinburgh Fringe?