Battle of Glen Tilt was just the start of fight for access rights as ScotWays marks 175th anniversary
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Rumblings over roads around Edinburgh being blocked 175 years ago led to the formation of a new group which aimed to keep them open to the public – but the organisation soon found itself embroiled in a court case protecting access in the Highlands.
The battle of Glen Tilt, as it became known, began just two years after the formation of the Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in and around Edinburgh.
The story goes that an Edinburgh botanist, John Hutton Balfour, took a group of students on an excursion to Glen Tilt in August 1847, where upon he and seven of his understudies encountered the Duke of Athole, as he chose to spell his title.
After a protracted argument with the duke and his ghillies about the disputed right of way, the party effectively did a runner and jumped a stone wall to evade the landowner and his men, taking cover at a Blair Atholl inn.
But there was more than met the eye to this interrupted excursion. Six weeks before the trip took place, the association had specifically asked people to inform them if they had been stopped in the glen and Balfour was no stranger to stravaiging on ‘forbidden’ routes; the battle lines were already being drawn.
The new association, which is now known popularly as ScotWays and is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, funded the case through the legal system, though it wasn’t taken under its own name.
Richard Barron, chief operating officer of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays), explains: “The theory at the time was that you had to have some direct connection to the case and that point was raised by the duke’s side.
“But the court decided that the association could take the case in the public interest, so from our point of view that was probably the most important thing because it gave us the ability to fight for any case Scotland-wide on the public’s behalf.”
The Glen Tilt case did more than just protect an important right of way between Blair Atholl and Braemar – it paved the way for the association to protect those rights across the country, something it continues to do to this day.
“What’s really interesting about the Glen Tilt case is that the first bridge the association built, in 1886, was in Glen Tilt – with the duke’s permission,” Mr Barron said. “What I don’t know is if the dukeship had changed hands by then, if it was his son or something.”
There was a time when these passes through the Cairngorms and elsewhere were better used by the general population, including as drove roads, but societal changes led to them being used less frequently and becoming seen as playgrounds for the landowners.
Mr Barron explained: “When there were more people in the different parts of the Highlands, the passes were fine, because everybody was using them and everybody knew that was your way. But as you had the Clearances and the general population thinned out, followed by the change to motor transport, those glens started to fall out of use, then you got a few problems.”
Another court case – this time over the right of way along Jock’s Road in Glen Doll – was eventually won by the society in the House of Lords, though it almost bankrupted the organisation.
It came in the same year, 1885, as a deputation from the society headed into the Highlands to erect signposts through some of the major Cairngorms passes. Led by Walter Smith, the party walked from Forfar train station, placing signs which had been sent ahead by rail at Glen Doll, then Glen Tilt (southern end), Larig Ghru, Lairig an Laoigh, Glen Tilt (northern end) and Glen Tromie.
Probably the oldest surviving rights of way signs can still be seen today at Colylumbridge near Aviemore. It was originally installed by Walter Smith’s group in 1885 but the one in situ today is a replacement from the Royal Label Factory, Stratford upon Avon, which arrived at Aviemore in July 1925. It originally had black letters on a white background and cost £2.0.6d to make.
Signing rights of way continues to be a big part of ScotWays’ operation and today there are more than 3500 rights of way signs. Over the years the designs have changed, from the square corners of that Coylumbrudge sign pointing to ‘Braemar via the Lairig Ghru’ to square signs with inverted round corners, then post-war fingerpost signs.
These little green signs with white lettering are the most visible reminder we have of the society’s activities, but there is a lot more going on behind the scenes, despite it being a relatively small operation.
ScotWays produced the first catalogue of rights of way, combining its information with local authority files; it publishes law guides to access; maps and walking guides are produced including the Scottish Hill Tracks book, now in its seventh edition; and its Heritage Paths website gives readers a valuable insight into the history of many of our long-established rights of way, as well as details about their condition today.
Its stated aim is to uphold the public’s right of access, but why is an organisation focused on rights of way still relevant with today’s right to roam legislation?
Mr Barron explained that the right of access is a statutory right, which means it could in theory be removed by parliament, whereas rights of way are created under common law and cannot be rescinded.
“Now, the right of access is really good,” he said. “On the one hand you could say you don’t need rights of way because you’ve got that, but if the statutory right was stopped you would still need those rights of way.
“The other thing is, there are areas of land that are excluded [from the right of access] with rights of way going through them. So, you might have a farmyard where access rights don’t allow you to walk through it, but if the right of way goes through it you have the legal right to.
“So, where an area of land is excluded, the right of way is then the only legal way through, so that’s the really important one.”
ScotWays publishes leaflets with basic information about access rights, as well as its latest law guide, all of which are available on its website.
After 175 years of fighting for rights that are largely well established now, what does the future hold for the society?
“I don’t think the society is ever going to get to a point where it’s not needed,” Mr Barron said, “because every time something new is done to improve things, there’s always some ‘body’ needed to keep an eye on it effectively, and we’ve been doing that for longer than anybody.”
He admits he would personally like to see more cast-iron signs returning to routes but, most importantly, he wants the society to continue its core mission – to protect access rights.
“I would like to see us grow as an organisation, but we might always be a smaller cousin that doesn’t have the same public profile as the Ramblers or the SMC (Scottish Mountaineering Club) – but still retains that focus of being there, getting on with things, influencing and making the difference in upholding the public’s right of access.”
1845 Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in and around Edinburgh is formed
1847 First big court case starts – the battle for Glen Tilt
1848 The organisation changes its name to reflect its wider remit, calling itself the Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in Scotland
1884 The name is again changed, this time to the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society – becoming a limited company in order to protect members and office bearers from being liable for any legal costs
1885 The battle for Jock’s Road, Glen Doll, which almost bankrupted the society but also prompted a push to make local authorities responsible for rights of way
1885 First rights of way signs installed at Hawthornden near Edinburgh
1886 The society’s first bridge, the Bedford Memorial Bridge in Glen Tilt, was put up to help travellers get safely across the Tarf Water
1894 The Local Government (Scotland) Act gives councils a duty to protect rights of way
1898 The first edition of the society’s guide to access law is published
1946 Another name change – to the Scottish Rights of Way Society Ltd
1947 First edition of the Scottish Hill Tracks book is published
1982 Callert to Lairigmore court case settles on the steps of the Court of Session
1993 Catalogue of Rights of Way (CROW) created; it is the first national digital database of rights of way in the world
1999 The name becomes the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays)
2003 The Land Reform (Scotland) Act leads the way by giving a legal right of access to land and inland water
Scotways 175th anniversary challenge
To celebrate its 175th anniversary, ScotWays is launching a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Walter Smith and his deputation who travelled from Forfar through the Cairngorms passes putting up their signs in 1885.
People will be able to sign up to the virtual challenge – which starts on July 18 – to cover the 123-mile distance on any walking or cycling routes over a period of 86 days, allowing people to complete the challenge with a number of much shorter outings!
People will pay to enter the #ScotWaysStravaig and will be encouraged to try to raise £175 for the charity.
Keep an eye on www.scotways.com for details.