Having just returned from a lonely, wild and wonderful afternoon walking in the Monadhliath Hills
behind Kingussie village, I’ve got a renewed appreciation of how utterly lucky we are in Scotland to
not only have these wide open spaces, but also the means and the rights to access them.
Being a Kiwi, I’ve grown up with a similar attachment to the wilderness that the Scots have. We
have a lot in common (aside from a desire to forge an identity separate to our large neighbour’s…),
and I feel very much at home working in the Highlands. But something that Scotland does better
than New Zealand, and perhaps better than anyone in the world, is providing everyone with the
“right to roam” – the legislated access for all, to nearly every corner of the country.
A couple of nights ago I came back to Scotland on the sleeper train after a winter working as
a construction labourer in London (what a journey – falling asleep in one of the world’s most
cosmopolitan, truly global cities, and waking up in the middle of Western Europe’s greatest
wilderness), and have loved having strangers saying hello to me again, after a few months of
everyone (including me) assiduously avoiding eye contact on the Tube. It’s been great catching up
with friends and colleagues. (“Catching up” in London involves talking about all the other people
I’d caught up with recently, while “catching up” in Scotland involves hearing about recent winter
adventures in the hills.) But the few hours I’ve just spent wandering in the hills, and seeing nobody,
is what I’ve been missing the most.
England and Wales now have over a million acres of beautiful countryside that is free to access for
all, due to campaigning by groups such as the Ramblers’ Association. In New Zealand, nearly 30% of
its land area is “Crown Land”, managed by the Department of Conservation and freely accessed by
all. But in Scotland, outside of the towns and villages, there has always been a tradition of roaming
freely. In 2003, with the enactment of the Land Reform legislation, this tradition became a legal
right, so that everyone may responsibly enjoy any part of Scotland’s countryside and wilderness
It’s easy to take this right for granted, and it feels good to. Scotland’s beautiful coastline, lochs,
glens and mountains make us all feel better when we’re there, and it feels fair that we should all
have a chance to have our spirits lifted, and responsibly access these places no matter who owns
them. It’s only when one goes away that one is reminded how fortunate we are when we’re in
Scotland, how fantastic it is to plan an adventure without having to consider boundary lines, how
visionary it was to enshrine this tradition in law, and how it is a testament to good Scottish common
sense and a shared appreciation of this land, that recreational users and landowners can co-operate
to ensure it continues.
These photos are two of the “bothies” which I encountered within a couple of hours of Kingussie
High Street (and in time-honoured bothy tradition I’m not going to say exactly where they were!
). They, and the hundreds of others throughout Scotland, and the trails that one can follow to
reach them, are another testament to a Scottish tradition – volunteering. Where, in most other
parts of the world these sorts of resources are built and maintained with money collected as taxes,
in Scotland it is either the landowners themselves who are providing them for others, or it is the
volunteers from organisations such as the Mountain Bothy Association or the National Trust for
Scotland who have always accepted this responsibility. The Scots had been doing “The Big Society”
for decades before David Cameron told them to.
So it’s great to be back. I know that over the next few months, while I’m working, Scotland’s
magnificent scenery will continue to take my breath away. I’m already starting to plan my journeys
through its incredible, ancient, dynamic landscape, tracing my fingers along the rivers, ridges,
contours and coastlines on an OS map, knowing it’s all there to be explored. But it’s good to have
gone away to be reminded that it’s the people, and their relationship with the land, and their
realization of its societal value, that have made this possible for me.