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



22 comments:

  1. Sounds like a good system set up to allow people to enjoy and explore the wild life/ areas.

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    1. Finding one of their signs on the hill has saved me from the embarrassment of going the wrong way more than once!

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  2. Sending this on to friends of mine. I'm sure they will find this interesting for trips they are planning...

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    1. ScotWays signs aren't just for outdoor enthusiasts. They can be found in the centre of Scotland's cities too, pointing the way to some interesting urban walks.

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  3. I love that the signs are in Gaelic as well as it gives an authentic and historic feel to the walk. I'd love to visit Scotland one day. :)

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    1. If you do you will find that road signs in the highlands and islands are also in both English and Gaelic.

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  4. LOL, glad you survived your unplanned night out, even if the stags kept you awake!

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    1. I have been very careful not to repeat that experience!

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  5. It certainly sounds like it was an adventure! I wish we had more public rights of way here in Canada - and better signage too!

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    1. In your case are road signs in both English and French?

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  6. Sounds like a wonderful way to insure that people will have access to nature as long as they behave themselves. Are their any safeguards in place for homeowners in case people don't behave while on their land?

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    1. Yes there are. The legislation (first introduced in 2003) grants public access to unused land (what has come to be known as 'wild land') but there are many exceptions - private gardens, outbuildings, the immediate area of occupied buildings and such and any damage to fences, etc. or disturbance to livestock can be pursued through the courts in the usual way. The legislation gives the right of access - not the right to commit mayhem!

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  7. It's interesting to see how things are done in different countries. Such beautiful land.

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    1. Scotland's public rights of access are jealously guarded by those who care about such things.

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  8. Learn something new every day! Nice to have that type of access to the lands.

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    1. We are indeed well catered for regarding access rights in Scotland.

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  9. I'm not a hiker, a swimmer, or a climber, but I enjoy reading experiences. Certainly you do not lead a boring life. In the U.S., there is the Appalachian trail. But as to rights... I do not know. Scotland is one of the two or three countries I do believe I'd enjoy visiting (if I were not an armchair lazybones).

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    1. Come and visit us anyway - we have armchairs here too you know! :)

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  10. Wow! The Public Rights Of Way is such a great idea. It seems like the people of Scotland generally enjoy walking and hiking out in the countryside. We should do that here in my native Mexico, too. Nice to come upon your blog!

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    1. Thank you for visiting. In Scotland there is a big culture of walking the hills known as 'Munros' (Scottish mountains over 3000 feet). There are 284 of them and many people have climbed them all - sometimes more than once!

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  11. Twice I've gotten lost in nature preserves; the trails were not well-marked. I eventually made my way out, but both times it was dusk and I was hoping I wouldn't have to spend the night (this was before cell phones were popular). It's encouraging that many places in the U.S. have people or groups trying to save natural areas for the public. But it's often a fight against corporations and businesses wanting the land.

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    1. Fortunately, Scotland isn't really big enough to get seriously lost in but at least we don't have the threat of big business moving in and taking over large areas - our legislation makes sure that only essential development is carried out.

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