Kellan on ten years of right to roam legislation…
Walk is the magazine of the Ramblers Association. This is Kellan’s 2013 opinion piece on ten years of right to roam legislation:
WALK MAGAZINE OPINION PIECE
On 23 January 2003 as the longest debate in the history of the Scottish parliament ended the chamber erupted in noise. MSPs cheered and banged their desks as Sir David Steel, presiding officer declared the vote in favour of the Land Reform Act. For the first time the public were to have a legal right of access to the countryside and rural communities the power to buy the land they lived on.
During the debate Tory MSPs condemned the proposed legislation as class warfare. The Daily Mail called it a Robert Mugabe style ‘land grab’ but the prevailing mood was captured by Gaelic speaking MSP Alasdair Morrison when he silenced the chamber with the words Tha latha an uachdarain seachad. Tha e criochnaiche. The landowners’ day is over. It is done.
Scotland’s parliament meets in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s mountain in the city. The issues debated in 2003 would have been familiar to Victorian pioneers of the new sport of hillwalking – people like the early Scottish mountaineer Caleb George Cash. In 1899 Caleb published a list of 20 mountains visible from Arthur’s Seat, including Ben Lomond and Lochnagar. Hugh Munro had published his list of Scottish mountains over 3000 feet eight years earlier. During the 20th century Munro’s list became famous while Caleb and his list were all but forgotten. The remarkable Caleb George Cash (1857-1917) was a teacher, musician, geographer, archaeologist and nature conservationist. His life and work are one theme of my recently published book Caleb’s List.
One of the hills on Caleb’s list is Beinn a’ Ghlo which rises to the east of Glen Tilt, scene of one of the earliest access disputes. Gaelic poetry and stories record that for centuries people walked where they liked in their glens and hills. But during the 19th century wealthy landowners attempted to bar access to the countryside. In 1847 a professor of botany and a group of students found their way blocked by the Duke of Atholl and his ghillies. The ensuing confrontation became known as the Battle of Glen Tilt. Hard to believe today but some early mountaineers like Hugh Munro sometimes climbed the hills at night in order to avoid disturbing landowners! In the 1890s Caleb recognised the importance of Scotland’s wonderful natural heritage and became involved in a campaign to gain unrestricted access to the Cairngorms, the so called Battle for Rothiemurchus.
From a personal perspective I feel a great debt of gratitude to those early access campaigners. The freedom to walk anywhere has been hugely important in my life which changed forever when I was diagnosed with AIDS related cancer at the age of 33. To live with a long term chronic medical condition you need a coping strategy. Mine is keeping fit and getting out into the countryside. One day in 2008 I was browsing in my local library. In an old guidebook I came across Caleb’s list of mountains visible from Arthur’s Seat. The list intrigued me. I’d been looking for a challenge … maybe this was it, maybe I could climb the mountains visible from Arthur’s Seat.
And I did it! I climbed the 20 hills on Caleb’s list. Along the way I discovered the healing power of wild land and the therapeutic effect the Scottish landscape has on the human psyche. Long term survivors of HIV/AIDS tend to be prone to suffering from anxiety and depression. For me the freedom to roam the hills helps keep these demons at bay. Ticking off the hills I dubbed the Arthurs helped me regain my self-esteem and led me to write Caleb’s List, a guide to climbing the mountains visible from Arthur’s Seat. My self-confidence received a massive boost in 2012 when Caleb’s List was accepted for publication by Scottish publishers Luath Press.
The historic 2003 Land Reform Act gave people the freedom to walk anywhere but the legislation was also intended to bring about a significant change in the pattern of land ownership in Scotland. This has not happened. Though some Scottish mountains are owned by charitable organisations like the John Muir Trust with a remit to repair damage and restore biodiversity, the majority of our hills remain in private hands and vulnerable to economic pressures. Too often too many deer, inappropriately sited wind farms and bulldozed tracks degrade and disfigure the landscape. In Scotland, a country defined by its bens and glens, it is still possible, just as it was in Caleb’s day, for a wealthy individual to buy a Scottish mountain. In many European countries the agricultural land on the lower slopes of the mountains is in private hands but the mountain peaks themselves – an important national asset – are owned by the government.
In the 1960s the poet Norman MacCaig wandered the remote hills and corries of Sutherland in the far north-west of Scotland. The rugged beauty of the scenery inspired MacCaig to write some lines that for me go straight to the heart of the debate on future land reform;
Who owns this landscape?-
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Who possesses this landscape?-
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?