So, long story short, I can walk wherever the hell I want in Scotland.
On second thought, perhaps I should lengthen this tale just a bit.
Jock’s Road is a historic drovers route across a section of the Scottish Highlands, connecting Braemar and Glen Doll (and on to Glen Clova). Back in the late 19th century a chap by the name of Duncan MacPherson – having made his fortune abroad – returned to Scotland and purchased the Glen Doll Estate. By all accounts MacPherson hastily set about attempting to block access to the estate, erecting fences and sending his gamekeepers out on patrol. John (Jock) Winter and other members of the Scottish Rights of Way Society were none too pleased and set out across the estate, putting up rights of way signs as they went. Winter’s party was stopped at some point by MacPherson’s gamekeepers, resulting in an epic battle which left hundreds of men dead or maimed. It is said that the White Water of the glen ran red with blood for a week after the battle.
Okay, I maybe embellished that last part a bit. What actually happened when MacPherson’s gamekeepers confronted Winter’s party? Both sides lawyered up. Sorry folks, this ain’t no Mel Gibson movie.
Winter and the Scottish Rights of Way Society eventually won, but the lengthy legal process left both the Society and MacPherson bankrupt. The salient point here is that the actions of Jock Winter and the Scottish Rights of Way Society directly led to the passage of the Scottish Rights of Way Act, which in turn was the precursor to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This is the part where I can (mostly) walk wherever the hell I want in Scotland – given that I do so responsibly – without fear of being shot at or otherwise attacked by a landowner.
If, like me, you are from the US of A, you might be feeling a bit dizzy, short of breath and sick to your stomach right now. Don’t worry, you’ve just had your mind blown. Physically you should be fine in a few minutes. Mentally, well, you may never be the same.
You see, in the US of A there is a much different notion of freedom, especially as it pertains to land. Americans believe wholeheartedly in the premise that the right to own private property – and do pretty much whatever you want on it or to it, including forcibly blocking access to others – is fundamental to a free society. Certain sensible restrictions have, however, crept in over the years in order to protect the public at large from unconscionable development. I mean, nobody wants a titty bar next to a school or a church, right? And we can’t have oil refineries or coal fired power plants being built next to neighbourhoods and schools – well, unless they are poor black or hispanic neighbourhoods and schools. America is still pretty cool with that.
Freedom…..pow pow, cough cough!
Scotland, on the other hand, only formally let go of feudalism in 2004. 2004! This meant that The Crown was the ultimate owner of all land and bodies of water (more so on paper than in practice during modern times), with a tiered system of superiors and vassals existing beneath it. While that system has been abolished, replaced by one of outright ownership, relatively few people (can afford to) actually own land in Scotland. For the most part land is divided into large tracts of private holdings, or estates, which are of course owned by wealthy individuals or families. Many such estates are even owned by foreigners, something of a sore point for native Scots.
In a strange way, Scotland’s long term love affair with feudalism and high property prices has shielded its countryside from the ravages of American style – and by this I mean cheap and trashy – commercialism and development. Now, that’s not to say that the Scottish countryside is all pristine wilderness, unsullied by the hands of man. Estates are managed more as natural resource commodities (farming, hunting, forestry, fisheries, etc.) rather than for biodiversity and conservation. The great Caledonian Forest, which once covered an estimated 3,700,000 acres, is 99% gone, and with it several species of plants and animals. To this day estate gamekeepers are known to illegally kill raptors, for no other reason than to protect an estates stocks of game birds for well-heeled paying customers.
But lets get back to the part where they can’t shoot me – legally anyway.
These days a car park just south of Braemar along the A93 marks the northern terminus of Jock’s Road. The track is signposted as a public right of way to Glen Clova, a gentle reminder of the
barbaric bloodbath arduous legal battle which helped establish our right to walk here. The land we (the wife and I) will be crossing is a part of the Invercauld Estate (and is also within the Cairngorms National Park, but that’s a tale for another day), owned by the Farquharson family. On the walkers gate is a welcome sign, reminding visitors of their rights and responsibilities, and how best to stay safe during deer stalking (hunting) season. It’s all so stoic, so polite, so civilised, so…so…British.
Freedom: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” That’s how the dictionary on my iMac defines freedom. How I choose to understand and interpret the concept long term is going to take me a while to suss out. I’ll also require many more days and nights out roaming the hills and glens; it’s by far when I do my best thinking. Good thing that here in Scotland, I can walk wherever the hell I want.
A few more images from Jock’s Road through Glen Callater.