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"Promoting Access to the Scottish Countryside" by Alastair Lawson - Meeting of 30th November 2005

Mr. Alastair Lawson of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Societyd

Mr. Alastair Lawson of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society.

© John G. Fender 2011

Alastair Lawson began his interesting talk by giving a brief history of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society. The Society was founded in 1845 in Edinburgh and was initially set up to protect the rights of citizens to walk on the land.

The Society assists people with problems in accessing the countryside, provides legal advice and assistance at no cost and will help anyone who needs assistance. It also provides tourist information on walks and places to go to in the countryside.

Looking at the history of why the Society was founded, Mr. Lawson pointed out that some 50,000 years ago there was no one in Scotland as it was in the throes of an ice age. Subsequently, with climate change, the ice melted and the country was covered with vegetation. At this time the UK was still joined to mainland Europe although it was not long before it became an island.

By this time there was a tiny population and people could go where they wanted and perhaps the only limits were those caused by geographical features, and perhaps arguments with the neighbours. By about 7,500 years ago, people had begun to create paths leading from settlements to places where there was food and by this time the various tribes had laid claim to their territories. Further development led to early fields and the Romans laid out their road network during the period of occupation. By around 1500, the Stuarts were on the throne and it was necessary to bring some organization to society and the rights of the public to travel in the country were established. The basic rights were to be able to travel freely to the nearest markets to buy and sell goods. The King however reserved some rights, such as those relating to military roads. It was common for some routes to be used only for specific events, such as funerals. An example of this is Coffin Road in the Pentland Hills.

Lord Stair began to set out the legal principles of Scots Law in the early 1700's and by this time also saw the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. After the 1715 rebellion, General Wade was employed to build a network of military roads in the Highlands, linking barracks so that there could be no further trouble. Prior to the building of these roads, it was virtually impossible to take a wheeled vehicle north of Perth as what roads that existed could be classed as "seasonal". In winter they became nothing more than a muddy track. The building of general Wade's network of roads changed travel patterns, as people would take the shortest rout to one of the new roads, then use it for their journey. This led to the establishment of main routes and lesser routes. By 1800, following the efforts of general Wade and later Thomas Telford and John McAdam, stagecoaches linked all of the main cities all year round, using firm roads. The public could simply book their seats and travel, not unlike today bus journeys.

The coming of the canals during the Industrial Revolution had little impact on people's travel as the canals were used mainly for transporting raw materials and finished goods. Similarly, the railways fulfilled a similar function, although passenger services commenced at an early stage. The canals and railways "straightened out" travel and companies had to secure private Acts of Parliament in order to build canals or railways. As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, people left the land seeking paid employment and this meant that formers had to adopt new methods of farming.

Traditionally farmers employed large numbers of people to work on their land and look after their livestock and crops. However, with fewer people available, farmers took to fencing off fields to keep livestock in and people out of their crops. And this meant that it was no longer to walk around in the countryside without impedance. In 1845 Provost Adam Black of Edinburgh and his friends were in the habit of taking a stroll in the country around Edinburgh, but with more fences and fields, he felt that something had to be done otherwise the right to walk freely in the country would be lost. He founded "Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in and around Edinburgh" with the aim of preserving the right to continue to use public rights of way.

In 1847 the Society involved in what has become known as the "Battle of Glen Tilt". A botany party from Edinburgh University, led by their professor was walking from Braemar to Blair Athol, examining the flora on the way. When the party reached the River Tilt, having covered a considerable distance, they were met the Duke of Athol and his Estate staff who blocked the way, resulting in the professor and students climbing a dyke and running off down the Glen. The matter was then brought before the courts. The Duke of Athol protested that the Society should not be involved. The case went all the way to the House of Lords on appeal. The Lords decided that a right of way linked two public places following a defined line and if it had been used by the public without seeking (and getting) consent for over 20 years, it would continue to be a public right of way. This meant that the Duke of Athol lost his case.

Another significant case was in 1887 in Glen Doll, where one Duncan MacPherson bought some land. He contended that it was "his" and he did not like walkers crossing "his" land. He refused to a party of Society members on a signposting exercise to cross his land along an old right of way and again the courts became involved, the case eventually reaching the House of Lords. This time the decision established that where a route was used seasonally and by very few people it was still a right of way.

In 1884, the "Access to Mountains Bill" was introduced to Parliament by James Bryce, but this was unsuccessful. In 1894 the Local Government (Scotland) Act gave powers to local authorities to defend rights of way, but these powers were discretionary but today are binding on councils. The definition of a right of way is that owners have the right of ownership but the public have the right to use it. Where no right of way exists, under the Counrtryside (Scotland) Act, these can be created, usually by agreement with all parties involved. An example of this is the creation of the West Highland Way.

The Society is active in a number of areas. It provides signposts marking footpaths and rights of way as well as maintaining the National Catalogue of Rights of Way. The Society also provides legal advice on rights of ways and publishes books and guides to the countryside. Now, with the introduction of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 people have clearly defined rights of access to land, but access is allowed provided people act responsibly. The Society has changed it's name to the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (Scotways for short) to reflect its role in preserving not only rights of way bus also access to the countryside. Full details of the society and it's activities can be found on their website,

Report by John Fender.


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