An outdoors for everyone
It’s 20 years since people in Scotland won the right to roam responsibly across almost all the nation’s land. We look at the benefits this groundbreaking legislation has brought for outdoor enthusiasts north of the border – and how to build on its success
Words: Helen Todd (Ramblers Scotland Campaigns and Policy Manager) and Danny Carden (Ramblers Scotland Communications and Engagement Manager)
About 130,000 walkers reach the summit of Ben Nevis each year, hoping for spectacular views across the Highlands, islands and Scotland's jagged west coast. As well as personal pride, there's a collective satisfaction in knowing we share a legal right to walk virtually everywhere we can see from Britain's highest point.
That's because 20 years ago, the new Scottish Parliament passed landmark legislation establishing a public right of access to nearly all the nation's land and inland water. The pioneering Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was the culmination of decades of campaigning by Ramblers Scotland, alongside others. Remarkably, there was cross-party support for the access legislation - a major achievement for the Scottish Parliament and all involved.
As the campaign for greater freedom to roam in England and Wales gains momentum, this anniversary offers a perfect opportunity to look at what Scottish access rights have delivered for walkers over the past two decades. As we consider the lessons learned and the challenges that remain, we also want to celebrate how this progressive law continues to inspire people to visit Scotland - and even move here.
A quick history lesson
Before 2003, access in Scotland had normally been based on 'custom and tradition'. Walkers generally wandered the countryside and hills wherever they liked, while respecting residents' privacy. However, a trend of landowners buying land to create their own private fiefdoms began to expose the limits of this system. Without the backing of law, there was no way of resolving issues or obstructions.
While rights of way existed in Scotland, they weren't legally protected in the same way as they are in England and Wales. Over time, many had become lost by being built upon, ploughed or planted over.
Without a protected network of paths, farmland in particular was difficult to navigate. This affected much of the Scottish population, 70% of whom live in the Central Belt across Scotland's 'waistline' from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
In the early 2000s, there was an appetite for land reform across Britain. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 led the way in England and Wales, but there was virtually no support in Scotland for an approach that focused on mapping areas where access rights applied. Instead, Scotland looked to Sweden and its 'Allemansratten': the right to roam freely in the countryside, provided you do so responsibly. This more closely matched the tradition and culture of access in Scotland.
The 2003 Act delivered the right to access nearly all land and inland water in Scotland, not just for walkers, but for cyclists, horse riders, swimmers, paddlers and campers, too. As the Scottish National Party's future environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, said in a Holyrood debate in 2003: 'There has long been a widely understood and accepted de facto right of access in Scotland. We are making that de facto right statutory because it was being challenged increasingly, often to the detriment of ordinary people.'
Access all areas
Perversely, it could be argued that everything and nothing changed for walkers in 2003. They continued to roam the vast majority of Scotland on foot to birdwatch, picnic or stargaze as they wished. The key difference is that, for the past 20 years, enjoying these things has been a legal right, supported by guidance on how to be responsible. Walkers can also feel more confident to leave paths if they wish, and combine their rambles with other outdoor activities such as mountain biking, wild swimming and climbing.
It could be argued that Scottish access rights - often colloquially referred to as the 'right to roam' - form part of the national identity. Indeed, VisitScotland champions these rights in its international marketing. This is perhaps no surprise, given that walking tourism is worth an estimated £1.26bn to the Scottish economy annually.
Some outdoorsy types have even moved to Scotland to enjoy its progressive land rights and amazing landscapes. Ramblers Scotland's communications manager Danny Carden (co-author of this feature) is among them.
'I grew up in Northern Ireland' he says, 'with few footpaths and only de facto access to forests and hills. I've also lived in England and enjoyed the remarkable path network there. But there was always something extra-special when I visited Scotland, and access was a huge factor in me moving here a decade ago. I love that Scottish access succeeds thanks to everyone collaborating for the greater good. People are justifiably proud of what we have, and determined to protect it for future generations.'
Code of conduct
The rights achieved through the act also brought responsibilities. The legislation didn't fully come into effect until 2005, with the publication of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and its three key principles:
- Respect the interests of others.
- Care for the environment.
- Take responsibility for your own actions.
The code includes guidance on everything from camping responsibly and crossing golf courses to avoiding wildfires and controlling dogs. It has largely stood the test of time, although additional guidance on specific issues has been published. If you fail to be responsible, you lose your rights under the act, so it's worth all walkers taking the time to understand the code.
The law of the land
Importantly, the code also sets out reciprocal responsibilities for land managers. For the first time, landowners were given a statutory duty to respect access on their land. This fundamentally changed the balance between public and private interests.
The code offers advice to land managers on how to address issues at hot spots, from creating signage and paths to helping people avoid sensitive habitats, and providing facilities such as toilets, litter bins and car parks. Some landowners opposed the new legislation, fearing it would lead to a rabble of ramblers descending en masse from cities to wreak havoc in the countryside.
It's true that we've seen sustained increases in the number of people walking - great news for the nation's health and rural economies. In the latest Scottish Household Survey, walking was the most common physical activity, with 82% of adults having enjoyed a recreational walk of at least 30 minutes in the past four weeks. Despite booming numbers outdoors, conflicts between visitors and land managers have been relatively rare.
When problems do arise, the act and code provide a framework to help find solutions, including local access forums and legal measures. These protect wildlife and allow land managers to continue their operations while respecting access on their land. In fact, many major Scottish landowner groups have actively supported Scottish access rights. There is no great clamour to turn back the clock, although there is a shared feeling that we need more investment in access infrastructure and education about the code. 'We must prioritise action to address the barriers and challenges that some still face in accessing the outdoors' says environment minister Mairi McAllan. 'No one should be prevented from benefiting because of their circumstances.'
Challenges & opportunities
There have been, and remain, occasional challenges to access in Scotland. Local and National Park authorities recorded close to 2,000 access issues in the past five years, including security guards deterring access to a peninsula, council signs being replaced with 'Private' signs, a fence barring the way to a mountain summit, and Girl Guides being denied access to an estate.
We've also seen press coverage about irresponsible wild camping, out-of-control dogs and inappropriate fires at Scotland's busiest outdoor hot spots. However, thanks to the act and the code, we have an agreed framework with which to tackle such issues. While there'll always be a minority determined to cause trouble, most people who act irresponsibly do so out of ignorance, not malice.
That's why we welcomed additional government investment in visitor management - especially in more ranger services - post-Covid-19. These have made a huge impact. Ramblers Scotland is also playing its part in educating young adults via the Out There Award and award-winning social media campaigns with Scottish Government partners.
While access rights allow walkers to go almost anywhere throughout Scotland, in practice most people need paths to enjoy good days out. We continue to campaign for investment in Scotland's paths. We're also checking path standards and logging trails through our Scottish Paths Map project.
One of the biggest challenges is common across Britain: austerity has meant a lack of investment in access. We estimate the number of access officers in Scottish local authorities and National Parks has nearly halved since 2005. Those that remain often have a wider remit and fewer colleagues.
The result is many obstructions aren't removed and determined anti-access landowners can get away with blocking paths and locking gates. Meanwhile, there's little support for landowners dealing with the pressures of high visitor numbers.
We must also recognise that access isn't available equally to everyone. It's true that walking is the most popular activity even in more deprived communities. But sadly those in the most affluent areas are still considerably more likely to walk (89%) than those in the most deprived areas (66%).
All of us need to make greater strides to break down barriers to access, and Ramblers Scotland takes this very seriously. We're building relationships with community organisations, lending our experience in providing group walks to help communities who feel excluded from the outdoors. Ramblers Scotland groups run more than 3,500 group walks a year, making the most of their access rights - and having a great time in the process.
Ramblers members were instrumental in the campaign 20 years ago, and our members support the ongoing success of Scottish access rights. It means we're able to stand up for access by challenging Network Rail over level-crossing closures in Dalwhinnie, or facing a landowner in Glenborrodale in court for severing a historic route.
Access has become a valued part of Scotland's identity. We're proud of the role we played in getting to this point - and determined to ensure even more people benefit from our world-class access in future.
What about England and Wales?
Words: Olly Hicks-Pattison (Senior Campaigns Officer at the Ramblers)
Access laws are a bit different in England and Wales. As well as our world-class footpath network, stretching more than 140,000 miles to all corners of the countries, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gave us the freedom to roam over mountain, moor, heath and downland.
After years of campaigning by the Ramblers and others, walkers gained new access to huge swathes of the countryside. The freedom to roam spread across two-thirds of the Yorkshire Dales and almost 90% of Northumberland. Visitors to Exmoor or the Peak District could freely roam across twice as much land as before. Its introduction was a big step forward in giving more people the opportunity to walk in nature.
But, right now, it only covers 8% of England and 22% of Wales. And it's not equally distributed. According to Ramblers research, residents of the most deprived areas in England and Wales typically have to travel 48% further to enjoy the freedom to roam and people from the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have to travel 73% further.
Now is the time to bring the benefits closer to millions of people. We're campaigning for the freedom to roam to be expanded to cover woodland, watersides and more grassland.
This would have a huge impact. Opening access to woodlands would more than double the coverage in England and, on average, give the most deprived groups in England and Wales access to the freedom to roam within a 20 minute walk of their front door.
We believe the outdoors should be for everyone. Expanding the freedom to roam can help make this a reality. Find out more here
You can find paths across Scotland using our Scottish Paths Map, the best-ever map of the nation’s trails.
Help us to expand the freedom to roam. It is one of the biggest things we can do to increase access to the outdoors for everyone.