Heritage Paths managed by ScotwaysAlthough rights of way have existed in one form or another for many centuries, for example as drove roads, the story of the Society may be traced back to 1845.  At that time landowners in Scotland were becoming increasingly jealous of their property and ordinary folk were being prevented from walking in the countryside. The citizens of Edinburgh, angry at these restrictions, called on their Lord Provost, Adam Black, to convene a public meeting at which a motion was passed which in effect called for a right of access to the countryside.

Following this meeting, the Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in and around Edinburgh was formed and, within two years, it was involved in one of the most celebrated cases in the history of access in Scotland. John Balfour, an ardent supporter of the newly founded Association and professor of botany at Edinburgh University, organised field studies for his students in the Highlands each summer. In 1847 he led a group from Braemar down Glen Tilt, where he met the Duke of Atholl and his ghillies barring the way. An acrimonious encounter ended only when Balfour and his students climbed over a dyke and ran off down the glen. The lengthy lawsuit which followed vindicated the right of way through Glen Tilt, and also established the Association’s role as defender of the public’s interests in such cases.

Forty years later the Association, by then renamed the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society, became involved in another famous legal battle. A party from the Society led by Walter Smith set out on an expedition through the Mounth and Cairngorm glens to signpost rights of way. In Glen Doll it was intercepted by the keepers of the landowner, Duncan Macpherson, and the subsequent lawsuit was only finally settled in the House of Lords. The ruling confirmed the status of Jock’s Road as a right of way, but it left both the Society and Macpherson virtually bankrupt, such was the cost of litigation.

At that time the Society had three MPs among its directors and, dismayed by the cost of the Jock’s Road case, they advocated a much simpler and less expensive procedure for the settlement of rights of way disputes as part of the Scotland Local Government Bill of 1894.  Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful and the cost and complexity of rights of way litigation has remained since then as a major obstacle to the resolution of disputes.  However, the subsequent Local Government (Scotland) Act 1894 did make local authorities responsible for rights of way matters, and the Society’s role was consequently diminished.

One of the three MP directors was James Bryce who, with the support of the Society, sponsored three Access to the Mountains (Scotland) Bills, but without success. Bryce had a breadth of vision which enabled him to recognise the importance of rights of way while at the same time he campaigned vigorously for freedom of access to the mountains. Probably he realised that the existence of rights of way through the Highland glens made it virtually impossible for landowners to exclude hill-climbers from their estates, where they could enjoy a considerable degree of freedom of access to the hills. Even Walter Winans, the wealthy American who in the 1880s rented the land from Cannich to Kintail each summer for stalking and posted sentries to intercept travellers, had to recognise this, as is recorded by Sir Hugh Munro in his SMC Journal writings.

In the early decades of the 20th Century, the Society was relatively inactive; it was involved in a dispute in Glen Tanar concerning the rights of cyclists on pedestrian rights of way, but the case was settled out of court and so did not provide a valid precedent for cyclists’ rights. Signposting of rights of way was carried on, but these efforts were lost in the Second World War when all signs that might help German invaders had to be removed.

During the 1930s the leading activist in the Society was its chairman, the Rev A.E.Robertson. After his completion of the Munros, he devoted much of his energy to walking the long-distance paths and tracks of the north-west highlands and his pamphlet on this subject, published in 1941, was an invaluable record of these routes before the hydro-electric engineers flooded many of the glens in the 1950s. From 1930 to 1934 Robertson carried on a long dispute with the owner of the Coulin estate in Torridon, who denied the existence of the age-old right of way across the Coulin Pass from Achnashellach to Kinlochewe. Robertson negotiated an alternative way that avoided the policies of Coulin Lodge, but the Forestry Commission subsequently overplanted this and the accepted route has reverted close to its original line.

Since 1945 many rights of way have been lost under densely planted forests and the rising waters of hydroelectric reservoirs, and promises to reinstate paths remain unfulfilled. In addition to these obvious effects, there has been a continuous gradual erosion of rights of way due to changing agricultural practices, building developments and the influx into Scotland of landowners who have no knowledge of or respect for our traditions of access. However, there can be no doubt that but for the work of the Society, the loss of rights would have been greater than has been the case, and its compilation of a Catalogue of Rights of Way, with the help of Scottish Natural Heritage, has created for the first time a national record of known routes. At the same time, the revival of the signposting work has provided clear evidence on the ground of the vast network of paths that are part of our heritage.

The new access legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in February 2003 has altered the scope of the Society’s remit and activities. The change of name to The Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays for short) makes clear the intention to be involved in access matters in general and not just rights of way as in the past. The Society will continue to co-operate with local authorities, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Paths For All Partnership, Ramblers Scotland and Mountaineering Scotland for the benefit of all people who want to enjoy walking, climbing and similar recreation in Scotland’s countryside.

175 years in 21 minutes

Join our Chief Operating Officer, Richard Barron, for a whistlestop tour of our history.  Presented as part of the National Library of Scotland online events series, it was recorded on 11 June 2020.