Published 18th March 2023, 11:00

    IT'S 20 years since Scotland's world-leading access laws were introduced and everyone who enjoys the freedoms we have should be celebrating.

    The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 brought about radical changes to outdoor recreation rights, putting on a legal footing the freedom to roam which had been the tradition north of the border for many years.

    Compare and contrast to the situation in England, where a court recently ruled in favour of a landowner's whim to effectively ban wild camping over a huge area of Dartmoor.

    We shouldn't be complacent, however. There are still plenty of examples of locked gates and blocked paths, new high fences erected without crossing points and plenty of misleading – and in some cases, intimidating – signage.

    On the other hand, we should never forget our side of the bargain. There are still far too many instances of littering, dirty camping, toileting issues and disturbance and damage to land, livestock and wildlife.

    The Covid years exacerbated these problems with the massive surge of people taking to the outdoors as the only escape from the stir craziness of being shut indoors for months and the lack of opportunity for travel abroad. 

    Inevitably, it didn't take long for the backlash. While some of this was understandable and borne of frustration, there were those happy to use it as a smokescreen to try to skirt the access legislation and introduce their own restrictions.

    The sight of politicians of all shades celebrating the anniversary of our access laws was rather amusing considering their apparent day-to-day reluctance to address any of these issues when there isn't a photo opportunity available.

    The reality is that away from the spotlight, many of our chosen members regard the access question as an inconvenience, something to be tolerated rather than embraced. If they were serious about matters they would stop cosying up to the big landowners and take more affirmative action when it comes to grouse moors, the indiscriminate slaughter of mountain hares and the regular poisoning of birds of prey.

    It's easier to demonise those dropping a soft drinks can or a sandwich wrapper than enforcing the law properly or rigorously chasing fly-tippers and those guilty of massive environmental damage.

    One result of the pandemic pandemonium was sweeping restrictions being brought in on many minor roads to clamp down on rogue parking in passing places and on verges. No argument there, but the money spent on new no-stopping signage every few hundred metres may have been better spent in creating some decent lay-bys as a safer alternative.

    There has also been a growth in the number of parking machines springing up in traditional hillwalkers' car parks. This would not be a problem for most people if the fees meant there were toilet facilities provided and the heavily potholed surfaces were smoothed over. Instead, it's just another opportunistic money-making exercise.

    Even some of the language being used is worrying. A recent communication from the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park board referred to walkers as 'access takers'. Not only is that a derogatory and insulting term, it goes completely against the spirit of our access legislation. 

    It's not really a surprise given their track record in the use of corporate gobbledygook. And if there are 'access takers' then it follows they must also believe there are 'access givers' and that walkers should be grateful to their betters for being allowed to exercise their right to roam. 

    Our rights are constantly being prodded and tested. The John Muir Trust's stewardship of Quinag is currently being undermined by private interests looking for a hostile takeover; Glen Etive has been churned up for a hydro project that's more about opportunism than true value; our wild land map a victim of mission creep by wind farm developers looking to turn a quick profit. The list of trouble spots seems to grow longer every day.

    One constant running sore is in Glen Lyon, where the North Chesthill estate seems to have been at war for years with those looking to access the four Munros of the Carn Mairg horseshoe. There have been regular run-ins, threatening and abusive behaviour and signage that does not comply with access rights, yet the local council has appeared content to sit silently on the sidelines throughout. 

    At one point, the estate requested that anyone wanting to walk there should email them first. One person who did just that was then subjected to an online rant for having the temerity in trying to be reasonable. The latest move was to close off the small car park used by walkers, ostensibly for repairs but rather conveniently during the months when the estate would rather no one walked there.

    It would be nice to think that some of the back-slapping politicians may spot the danger signs to our world-class rights before it's too late, but I'm not holding my breath.