The Angry Corrie 51: Sep-Nov 2001

They might own the land, but they damn well don't own the access

SPRING AND EARLY SUMMER saw the foot and mouth / access crisis drift into a dangerous limbo. After a ropy start, the official advice from the Scottish Executive's Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) had become more and more pro-access, but several local councils chose to look the other way and heed paranoia and private interests rather than informed advice from above. Predictably, it was those local authorities with large landowning interests close to the council chamber which took this anti-democratic stance, eg Perth and Kinross, Stirling and, worst of all, Argyll and Bute. Semi-urban councils such as Clackmannanshire behaved much better.

Charities and agencies such as the National Trust for Scotland, the Woodland Trust and - saddest of all - the once mighty John Muir Trust showed their true colours, displaying a weakness of will accompanied by a smugness of tone that left them looking no better than reactionary old-style landowners. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

So, with no sign of the signs coming down even though 99% had no legal standing, it was left to ordinary hillgoers to get out and do some work. Quite aside from cluttering the countryside, each inappropriate sign had the potential to deter walkers, to erode the nation's physical and mental wellbeing, and to do yet more damage to the tourism and recreational land-use industries - and that's without even considering the basic access-rights side of things. (Illegal closures also provided a perfect screen for those eager to kill birds and bulldoze tracks - see page 2 for more on this.)

Roughly once a week during May and June, 12-25 folk gathered with the specific intention of making a visible, on-the-ground point by climbing any hill falsely portrayed as "closed". There were no formal rules, but "reclaiming" - as it became known - gradually evolved a few themes. The main path(s) tended to be taken on each hill, as the group wanted their presence to be noted as widely as possible and anyway it was on such routes that the signs lurked. Confrontation was not actively sought, but neither was it shirked. Violence was of course eschewed, and thankfully on the couple of occasions when land-manager aggression looked likely to spill into physical stuff, the estate vigilantes backed down when police and council involvement was mentioned. (If nothing else, these guys are scared shitless of losing their shotgun licenses.)

Inappropriate and inaccurate signs were removed wholesale, while accurate, official, genuinely advisory signs were left in place. We were clarifying the official message, not concocting our own. Tactics such as carrying - and using - cameras proved useful, as did noting number plates and asking names. Strength in numbers was a big factor: we were rarely fewer than a dozen, and this undoubtedly proved useful in edgy locations such as Cruachan or Auch. It's much easier to be brave and take deep-breath plunges when you're team-handed. Also important was being clued-up: we made a point of carrying not just the Comeback Code but also the latest Executive / veterinary service advice, as the dodgier estates had discovered that posting out-of-date information was a good way of deterring walkers.

The internet was vital to planning, both in terms of publicising events via websites (most notably and in allowing the core reclaimers - most of whom were wired up - to keep in touch and make late-stage planning changes. The web is at its best in subversive, stay-one-step-ahead situations such as this.

Reclaiming has proved useful and - at times - fun, providing a sense of purpose and camaraderie that enhances the normal pleasures of the hill. It's not what you'd want to do all the time - the hills are meant to be relaxing - but sometimes short-term sacrifices are needed to secure long-term freedoms. Anyone who hasn't as yet become involved but who is interested should feel encouraged to join the main team (contactable via TAC) or to start their own local group. As the official restrictions ease in northern England and Wales, there'll be scope for reclaiming there, too; it's at its most appropriate when a pro-access legal situation is being ignored by estates, farms and councils which decline to fulfil their egalitarian requirements. These folk cannot be allowed to take the law into their own hands.

The main Scottish group intends remaining on standby, with further FMD-related problems being targeted along with more general access hassles. The presence of a direct-action team might also prove necessary given the eventual strictures of the access bill and the onset of insufferably bureaucratic national parks. That's for the future, though. Here's a summary of what's happened thus far:

1 May: Dumyat

A low-key start: five folk strolling up Stirling's crag-lump from the Sheriffmuir road. Important in practical and symbolic terms however, as this was the day when the Executive's formal access relaxations began, in conjunction with the restarting of licensed livestock movements. Predictably, the local farmer had made no attempt to celebrate May Day by encouraging or even allowing access (not that it was his to allow or deny): two handpainted Keep Out signs were nailed to the main stiles. These we covered with "Hill Open" notices which quoted SEERAD advice. (They eventually vanished - but so too, a few days later, did the Keep Outs.)

Double standards were to become a theme of reclaiming events, and we had heard that the Dumyat farmer had given the local riding stables access while trying to keep walkers out. This was clearly the case: the path featured hoofmarks and pony-shite. Typically, weeks later, a path beside the same stables was found newly blocked with manure.

The wander itself was uneventful: the only encounters were with a couple of runners up from Stirling University and a man from Menstrie. All had heard of the gathering via the web. An unexpected bonus came when two blokes were met walking up, having seen the Hill Open signs.

So: a sunny day, a pleasant hilltop lunch - but all a bit eerie and nervous. Early May was a very strange time.

13 May: Ben Lawers

First of the major set pieces, and instructive in terms of how "agency management" of our hills might develop. The NTS runs much of the Lawers range and had been making great play about how "responsible" it was (see Trevor Croft's letter in TAC50). This responsibility extended to trying to keep land closed in direct contravention of guidelines from the Scottish Executive. So much for the Trust being "of the people".

We had publicised the gathering beforehand, including a brief mention on Radio Scotland, and when we arrived on a superb morning it was good to see the visitor centre hoaching with walkers' cars. Sadly however most people were heeding the "advice" that Meall nan Tarmachan was open but Lawers was still closed. Only a few days before, Tarmachan too had been "closed" (it never legally was), and the laybys had been taped off by the NTS - prompting a campaign by various reclaimers to snip the tapes and nab the signs any time they were even remotely in the vicinity.

Around 20 set off up the hill, and the warden stood by the gate in a charade of dissuasion. She seemed unable to handle the idea that, no, we didn't intend making any kind of formal statement, and no, we had no desire to engage in debate. Nor could she grasp that this mixed bag of walkers didn't constitute any organisation. "I represent the NTS," she pronounced, dutifully puffing out her chest. "Who do you represent?" She was simply (and truthfully) told that we were a bunch of people out for a walk, heeding Executive advice over and above that of the unelected Trust.

The warden spoke of the need to keep the hill closed due to "a perceived risk" - which sat oddly alongside the veterinary service guidelines that "the general public do not represent any kind of threat to livestock". There were complaints that the NTS only knew about the protest because it had been mentioned on the radio. We should have provided notification or asked for permission, it seemed. One walker was told that any NTS members present risked expulsion.

The NTS had "cleared" people to walk to 600m on the nature trail part of the estate, even though encouraging drivers into the area from who knows where surely increased the "perceived risk" factor much more than any on-hill wanderer could do. As it was, hardly any sheep were spotted all day (apart from the dozens dutifully traipsing up the mysteriously FMD-immune Tarmachan).

We again overlaid the closure signs above the nature trail, and again this emboldened walkers who might otherwise have turned back. The most curious aspect came courtesy of an NTS supporter - believed to be John Allen - who accompanied us to the stile at the top of the trail. Here he argued that walking to the upper limit of the approved part of the hill was "protest enough" - even though, as was pointed out, this was no protest at all, merely compliance.

Two days later the NTS backed down and removed its closure notices on the main routes - although its subsequent claim that the whole of Lawers was open was at odds with the "Go back the way you came" signage above Lawers village.

20 May: Ben Vorlich

This was a bit too quiet, really - especially as we had originally gathered for some Falloch Munros before discovering that signs there had been replaced by disinfectant and we would have been wasting our time in the activism sense. Reclaiming, we were learning, flipped the normal polarities of hill-going: you only went where the welcome would be frosty at best. So we headed east, where dissent quickly came from a muttering driver beside Loch Earn. It's up to yourselves, she said, but you'll be met higher up. The hill, however, was empty - at least in terms of bullish balliff types.

Two other parties set off alongside the dozen reclaimers, and looked to be gathering strength from our boldness. A shame, then, when they turned back at the last signed gate, having already passed - and ignored - two sets of DTPed discouragements. Conversely, it was good to meet a team higher up who had crossed from the notoriously sign-strewn Glen Ample. The warning that they might walk into "our" reception committee lower down was met with: "Good - we're game for a full and frank discussion". Excellent.

The outing ended with a roadside sign being amended. It had told of Ben Vorlich being closed on Executive advice, but we left a more truthful message: "SEERAD says open up".

27 May: Ben Cruachan

If Lawers was the most instructive outing, this was without doubt the most disturbing. Several reports had come in of a farm worker patrolling the roadside near Falls of Cruachan, threatening anyone who showed sign of tackling the big ridge above. Sure enough, no sooner had we parked when said vigilante came strolling along (was there a hint of a swagger?); his green boilersuit was, we assumed, intended to give off an air of officialdom.

Without preamble we were forcibly told that the hill was closed and we must leave. He clearly liked his work. Knowing the Executive guidlines, we tried to engage in discussion but ran into a sustained and well rehearsed tirade of abuse - the gist being that "it's people like you who are ruining this country", and "when we get independence we'll see what happens". Yawn. Unsurprisingly, several reclaimers objected to having their Scottishness thus besmirched, and it became a tad heated for a while. Fingers were jabbed, voices raised. As we knew from previous reports, the man objected to all non-locals, and by "independence" he meant not Scotland but just that particular bit of Argyll. (It's funny how many God's Own Countries there are. You'd think He'd make up His Mind.) When it was pointed out that everyone present was a Scottish resident and most were by-birth Scots, we simply received more abuse.

The reclaimers never wavered in their determination to go on the hill (clag down to 300m didn't come into the equation), but there were concerns about leaving cars where they could be trashed. So we slipped in mention of likely police involvement, and this seemed to stem the flow of cocky vitriol. The thing that really disarmed our friend in green however was being asked his name and who he worked for. This was pursued in the finest Paxman style, and eventually we learned he was one John Macdonald, in the employ of Castles farm.

There seems no doubt that the farm - which lies 6km from Falls of Cruachan and has extensive grazing rights - had appointed Macdonald to patrol this stretch of the A85 each day for several weeks to deter would-be walkers. It was inevitable that this would backfire (eg the previous weekend had seen him threaten an off-duty policeman), but this kind of stuff normally happens high on the hill, with no witnesses and where nothing can be proved even assuming the judiciary is to be trusted. It was only because Castles had told their man to patrol a main road beneath a major hill that his activities came quickly to light.

Macdonald eventually wandered off with a few parting pleasantries, and we went on the hill. Conditions were atrocious, but the annoyance-adrenalin factor fuelled us. The cars were intact when we returned: Macdonald would have been in the pub by then, regaling his mates with tales of scumbag incomers. Sighthill, eat your heart out.

So, a worthwhile day - and, as before, we were joined by a couple who would have gone elsewhere if left to face the threats alone. The incident was duly reported to the appropriate agencies - but while the Executive expressed concern, Argyll and Bute council didn't even acknowledge the email.

Oh, and there was a wonderful coda. John Macdonald might have railed against any non-Gael intruding on to "his" land, but it felt too good to be true when Andy Wightman, bless him, discovered that Castles Estate is owned by Dalriada Farms Ltd, 12 Lonsdale Gardens ... Tunbridge Wells.

3 June: Glen Lochay

Peace and tranquility compared with Cruachan. Again we had heard reports: of a keeper in a Land Rover guarding the road-head with a shotgun, barking orders at drivers to return whence they had come. A sign well below Kenknock had also been posted, suggesting that the public road now ended here.

What we actually found was a council ranger cheerily driving up the glen to check that all impediments to pedestrianism had been removed, the stop-buggering-about message finally having come through from Stirling Council the day before. Thus the 12-strong reclaiming crew encountered nothing worse than the grudging artefacts of reopening: a bucket of dip, a brush hanging from a nail, and a sign that referred to funeral pyres and - bizarrely - to the potential peril that walkers might inflict on their household pets. There was also a cloying query: "Is your walk really necessary?" - to which we dug out our biros and responded "Yes!".

Absence of hassle notwithstanding, it felt good to "reinhabit" the glen, and parties went north and south: one to Beinn Heasgarnich, the other to Meall Glas. Overall, the estate's concern could be assessed by their having allowed cattle to wander and defecate on the public road throughout the clampdown. Perhaps they were simply too busy keeping out walkers to attend to basic stock management.

6 June: Dumgoyne

The largest crowd thus far - around 25, including several from the east - turned up to clarify access on Glasgow's landmark hill. We went from the layby near the distillery and the only sign encountered was at the bottom of the track. The locals here were known to be friendly, and nothing was seen of the less amenable Sir Archie Edmonstone, who tends to offer a less than cheery word to "hikers", as he calls them.

It was a fine evening, so folk fanned out for Dumfoyne and Earl's Seat, and there was even time for an archaeological dig under Dumgoyne's "Millennium Stone".

9 June: Auch

The tenants at Auch - owned by the Wales-based Lord Trevor - had been dishing out verbals and blocking walkers, even on the right of way through to Glen Lyon. The place was festooned with signs - DTPed/laminated jobs produced by an ad hoc "ranger service" that was presumably just the keeper with a smarter jacket on. There were two main types of sign: straight bugger-off ones, and those deigning to detail which hills and glens were perhaps, maybe, you never know, open. (Legally, they all were.) The situation wasn't helped by the tourist office in Tyndrum stocking a supply of "ranger"-produced leaflets telling of the Auch hills being closed until at least the end of June. We complained to the council - and went in to nab the leaflets on display.

On parking in the layby on the pass south of Auch, there was immediate work to be done. The right of way signpost had been covered with a tightly-knotted bin liner which we removed even though this was really the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society's job. (Where were they during the crisis? Holding cheese and wine evenings?) The WHW meets the road here, and there was a sign-clutter - eg "Access to Glen Lyon through Auch Estate closed", with "closed" triple-underlined. Utter rubbish, and duly binned. The nimbyish way the WHW had been diverted was revealing: shoved up the hill into a more sheep-infested area where it was - presumably - someone else's land/problem. Oh, and we had a "drive-by shouting" from a shepherd in a pick-up. It's you lot who should catch foot and mouth, he cheerily offered as he pursued loose ewes along the A82.

The mood was nervous anticipation as we pre-ambled down to the Auch Gleann itself. We stayed bunched for the crucial stretch where other walkers had been hassled, and were only a few metres along the glen track when indecipherable yelling emerged from the house across the river. Two minutes later the farmer (who wouldn't give his name) appeared behind us in his Land Rover. Get off, he said, so we asked to see his council/veterinary risk assessment - at which he switched to the "It's you buggers who spread foot and mouth" routine. We took his picture and he revved-reversed away, red-faced in fury. Then, as in some computer game, a second adversary popped up: a younger man who drove the few metres from his cottage up the glen. He would have been quicker walking, or to have waited for us, but these guys love their 4x4s. "That's fine," he said with a smirk, "we've got you on the CCTV back at the bridge." He also said the hills were closed "by order of the local tourist office".

On we went, and beyond the hassle zone we split into three groups: the main party went to Beinn Mhanach while others tackled Beinn Dorain and Beinn nam Fuaran, then we regrouped prior to walking the Auch gauntlet at the end.

As so often, another crew tagged along (from the Blackrock Club in Fife - fair play to them), while a lone walker met later reported neither signs nor shouting. The feedback was good longer term, too: the north side of the Achallader hills has had an inexhaustible supply of signs, but the situation at Auch itself undoubtedly improved after this.

(Part of the trouble hereabouts is that the A82 weaves in and out of administrative areas and police regions. Auch falls under the lily-livered Argyll and Bute, Tyndrum is in Stirling, while the WHW is a Highland Council corridor. The place is a legislative sieve, and the estates know this.)

13 June: Pentlands

An evening wander from Flotterstone, with mainly new reclaimers: the closure of Edinburgh's "lungs" had made militants of moderate folk. This was further south than the previous meets, and a slightly different set of Executive guidelines applied, but the formal access ban had been lifted (despite fierce farmer opposition) the previous day. Absurdly, however, the ranger service had opted not to tell anyone about this - and so we were on a publicity walk, letting the world (or at least the Lothians) know that the hills were open.

There was an end-of-term feel to things: farmers who not long ago would have yelled abuse now cursed quietly in their kitchens, and the walkers ambling along the Turnhouse-Scald ridge swapped stories of recent hill days. Even the weather was good, perfect summer-evening balminess: dense cloud in some directions, dazzling sun in others. Two cuckoos looped along between telegraph poles as we wandered back, and things felt fairly normal again. Steady rain during the final few minutes seemed almost symbolic, however. It was a warning against complacency: this wasn't done yet.

8 July: Beinn Eunaich

The last of the formal gatherings, with a core team (some would say a crack unit) and a second visit to the Castles estate. The Glen Orchy and Inveraray roads were tidied in transit, and a couple of reclaimers stayed only for a short stroll before heading home via Loch Awe and elsewhere. Castles remained a serious place, though - recent reports of walkers returning to find car windows smashed were officially classed as routine break-ins, but we weren't so sure.

Most of the signs on the Stronmilchan loop had gone, and the main team climbed Beinn Eunaich without hindrance. The majority turned west for the other Munro, but two went east for Meall Copagach in thick cloud. This paid off: where the Lairig Dhoireann path met the main Glen Strae track, both gates were carrying bucket-lid signs: Hill/Footpath CLOSED. This was sneaky: the estate was erecting barricades 20 minutes' walk from the road. The signs were carried off as trophies - we'd got a result, as they say - and stories were duly swapped in the Drishaig tearoom.

A combination of lessening restrictions, FMD fatigue amongst activists and the onset of holidays meant that things inevitably became more fragmented after this. Guerrilla activity has continued, however, with cars and bicycles used for snatch-and-grab raids in areas as diverse as the Angus glens, the Trossachs, Drumochter and Glen Urquhart (where there is - or at least was - a profusion of photocopied council signs). The main problems now are in backwaters - Munro-less glens which tend to get ignored by the main hill-going population. Access law applies here just as it does on the bigger hills, and it's an indictment of our narrow horizons that we allow hassle to thrive in the less glamorous places.

Things have undoubtedly improved since reclaiming started back in May. The Executive's "presumption in favour of access" has filtered down to land managers and walkers alike (shaming the one group, emboldening the other), and the blackspots have shrunk to targetable proportions. The job is nowhere near finished, though: keepers still bawl folk out and signs still litter the landscape. As with FMD itself, the access blight can break out anywhere, at any time, and we need to be ready.

The Reclaimers

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