A BREAK IN the Highlands, the Lakes or the Alps used to be about walking, climbing, canoeing, birdwatching, angling or maybe just finding a quiet sunny spot in which to relax. Not any more. Wild land (whatever that is) is no longer enough. There must be a "flagship visitor attraction" to pull in the visitors, deliver them to nearby retail opportunities and get them buying stuff.
Rheged is a Millennium Dome of a place on the fringes of the Lake District near Penrith. An Imax cinema, cafes, exhibitions and, yes, shops. I mention it because, when the Drumkinnon Tower element of the Lomond Shores mega-development lurched into operation in 2002, I was struck by the similarity of the design and décor to Rheged. And it had an Imax cinema, shops and cafes, exhibitions...
Lomond Shores has two other bits which have clear reasons for existing. The National Park Gateway Centre does exactly what it says on the lid, providing information and guidance for visitors to the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. And the Jenners-anchored Retail Crescent is there for shopping till you're dropping. That leaves Drumkinnon Tower. What is it for?
Well, if you flash some cash you can climb to the top of the building and get "spectacular views". But for nothing you can get views from the middle levels that aren't bad - or you can take a bus to Gartocharn, climb Tom Weir's old haunt of Duncryne, and get infinitely better views. Or you can pay to see the show with the much-ridiculed animatronic otter, or pay to see a film in the Imax.
Hmm. Is this what people come to Loch Lomond for? Apparently not. According to Scottish Enterprise, Drumkinnon Tower attracted 487,000 visitors during 2004, only 15% of whom paid the full whack. Fewer than half of those who visited Lomond Shores bothered even to enter Drumkinnon Tower.
In March 2004, when it became clear that Drumkinnon Tower was underperforming, Merlin Attractions Management Ltd was "introduced in an advisory role" by Scottish Enterprise Dunbartonshire (SED). Like President Kennedy's "military advisors" in Vietnam, it looks like Merlin are staying for the long haul. Scottish Enterprise confirmed in April 2005 that Merlin will be taking over Drumkinnon Tower on a commercial basis from 2006, and converting the lower half of the building into a freshwater aquarium. Dave Anderson, chief executive of SED, commented that "the large-format film theatre is not in itself a strong enough draw for visitors". Gerraway. So the building, having already cost £15m, is to receive another £3.4m in rebuilding costs from Scottish Enterprise, with Merlin thereafter paying rent on a 25-year lease.
It would have been nice to see some of this money hurled at the forlorn Maid of the Loch moored nearby. A commendable army of passionate volunteers still works to renovate her, but with the dopey Lottery funders ignoring applications from the Maid trust, no one really believes she will ever sail again. (And whilst on the subject of inactive loch steamers, check out http://www.lochtaysteam heritage.co.uk/ for another sorry tale.)
On 2 August, the Herald finally reported the Merlin takeover as a goer. But watch this space - both Advocates for Animals and Animal Concern are marshalling opposition to what they see as a new and unnecessary "zoo".
The big "visitor attractions", at least those where shopping is not the raison d'être, have tended to struggle. The problems at the Glasgow Science Centre are well-documented, the Big Idea Inventor Centre at Irvine has gone already, and the Archaeolink Archaeology Park near Insch has recently had to be taken over by the local council. If it closes before 2007, £2m of European funding will have to be repaid. Expect it to last until then, and close soon after.
There are two Rhegeds in the Grampian-Cairngorms area. One, the House of Bruar - plonked insensitively beside the Glen Bruar right-of-way - is booming because it is a 100% shopping facility. (Hamster-fur coats and all - Ed.) The other is our very own mountain Rheged, the Ptarmigan complex on Cairn Gorm. As predicted in TAC and elsewhere, the visitor assessments made by funicular operators CairnGorm Mountain proved to be over-optimistic, and they are agitating for the repeal of the closed system whereby funicular travellers must not leave the Ptarmigan. They promised they wouldn't do this, but then we always knew they would anyway.
The closed system will be scrapped, for sure. Anyway, the broad track that forms the main walking route from the car park to Cairn Gorm is, these days, even more of an eyesore than the funicular - I suspect most of the Ptarmigan's supplies are delivered using that rather than the trains.
On two recent visits to Cairn Gorm summit, I encountered a supposedly elusive snow bunting hopping around the cairn, begging for scraps. Perhaps the wildlife demographic is saying: "Bring on the tourists". Whatever doubts outdoor people and environmentalists have about the funicular - and I have many - the thing is there now, it's not going away, and passengers will, eventually, be let loose on the open hill. At least it's a relief to see that some of the flora and fauna are willing to adapt to living in a tourist honeypot.
Ed. - The end of the closed system for the funicular came a step closer with the early-September announcement that the 3500-acre Cairngorm estate is being put up for sale by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It includes the ski and railway areas, and the summit, and there is talk of either a community buyout or the whole caboodle being taken over by the national park authority. The proposed sale prompted Fergus Ewing MSP to make a comment that was startling in its openness: "Under no circumstances should it fall into the hands of any of the conservation bodies who fought tooth and nail against the funicular."
There has also been a development in the car park beside the funicular lower station. Making his first summer visit since 1982, Richard Webb noticed that drivers are being asked for a £1 donation to help fund environmental improvement. Given how much the northern corries have been systematically trashed by the authorities and big business over several decades, this seems a tad rich.
Oh, and come TAC67, one of TAC's resident artists will review the extraordinary goose-and-girders park-gateway structure currently being built on the A82 Stoneymollan roundabout at the foot of Loch Lomond.
TAC 66 Index