Saturday, 25 June 2016

ScotWays shows us the way

You can't get lost on Scotland's hills

Well, actually you can - and I'm speaking from personal experience here! Mind you, I wasn't so much ''lost'' more ''not quite sure of my precise location''. I knew to within less than a kilometre where I was but that sort of accuracy simply isn't sufficient to find a bothy I'd never been to before in an area I wasn't familiar with in misty, near-dark conditions.

I may have been unfamiliar with the area but that doesn't mean I didn't know where I was going. You see, in Scotland there exists a whole network of ''Public Rights of Way'' - paths and tracks which the public (that's you and me) have a legal right to follow at any time of the year and no-one not even a stroppy farmer, landlord or gamekeeper has the right to tell you to ''get off my land'' and almost all of them are signposted by an organisation dedicated to the preservation of public access to the countryside.

For many, many years there has been an implied (historic) right of access to Scotland's wild land but this ''right'' was dependent on the local laird/landlord/farmer turning a blind eye to those walking on ''his'' land. This situation led to court battles over access to what the landowners regarded as ''their'' land whilst the people viewed them more as custodians of a public resource and in the middle of the nineteenth century this came to a head with a series of court cases over public access to the countryside.

This public outcry led to the establishment of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society now known simply as ScotWays. They have their headquarters in Edinburgh and ever since 1845 have been working to protect and develop access to the Scottish countryside for everyone. They are most familiar to most people by the presence of their green and white direction signs, which can be found all over Scotland from urban walkways to wild hill paths, pointing the way to what is usually a ''public right of way'' path, track or bridleway.

There are about 7000 recorded rights of way in Scotland and below is a selection of ScotWays signposts from a recent hillwalking trip I took to the Isle of Skye, accompanied by my Wingman

A collage of ScotWays ''right of way'' direction signposts

As you can see, in the Scottish highlands and islands, the signs are in both English and Gaelic - Gaelic name at the top with the English translation below - and these particular examples can be found at the beginning of paths (all of them public rights of way) leading into the hills on Skye and you have the legal right to walk along these paths at any time of the year. The only time a path can be legally blocked by a landowner is to facilitate essential activities (often relating to farms - lambing time for example) in which case the landowner must provide or allow a suitable alternative route.

These public rights of way do not compromise the rights which we have to access unused wild land (upland hill country for example, ie: Scotland's Munros and other mountains) or most inland waterways or coastal waters. With this ''freedom to roam'' comes the responsibility to use it wisely and not interfere with essential activities being carried out by landowners and to follow any diversions which are put in place.

We in Scotland are very lucky in that we have the legal right to go virtually anywhere in Scotland's wild places we wish provided we do so in a responsible manner and to this end there is a Scottish Outdoor Access Code which everyone who goes to the wild lands of Scotland (or indeed anywhere) should be aware of and should follow.

ScotWays, which is a registered charity, is only one of several organisations which work towards maintaining and improving public access to what might otherwise be ''forbidden territory'' for the public but, thanks to their ubiquitous green and white direction signs they are one of the better known ones!

A red deer stag roaring on a Scottish hillside
CC0 image from Pixabay
PS: As it happens I didn't find that bothy before total darkness forced an unplanned overnight bivvy in the warm and comforting embrace (not!) of a plastic survival bag (which is nothing more than an oversized rubbish bin liner!) on a damp and dismal hillside with rutting stags roaring in my eardrums and ensuring I didn't get any sleep (it was September - the middle of the red deer rut in Scotland).

And yes, I was following a public right of way signposted by ScotWays at the time but not even one of ScotWays green and white signposts can mitigate for the ''thumb in bum - mind in neutral'' attitude I displayed on that particular occasion. That'll teach me to waste time by wandering off the path and stopping for too many photographs!

Photo collage by the author