Much of life in Scotland, and of the people we have been looking at earlier in this book, was about work, religion and wars. Few people had the time and money to indulge in lengthy frivolous pursuits such as walking for long distances. There are of course some exceptions such as John, the Water Poet who travelled Scotland penniless in the 16th century so that he could write a book on his experiences and historical figures like Martin Martin who travelled all over including St Kilda in the 17th century and Johnson and Boswell in the 18th but these are rare exceptions. There certainly were not enough people travelling for leisure for whom to justify building paths and roads.
However, in the 19th century, a section of the population acquired a degree of affluence that allowed them to pursue pastimes such as stalking and hill climbing that led to the building of a number of paths and tracks. The former were built by the estate owners for themselves and paying tenants while the latter were developed over time by enthusiastic walkers. It was during this period that large parts of the countryside started to be formally sectioned with the express intention of keeping thousands of acres completely private. Of course, deer parks had been bounded by dykes since the medieval period but it was the nineteenth century before ghillies were employed to patrol the boundaries. This is the time of John Buchan’s John McNab when the countryside is ruled by old Scottish families proud of their history and power, nouveau-riche keen to replicate that power and foreign seasonal tenants, such as the American Walter Winans who rented the land from Cannich to Kintail each summer in the 1880s and posted sentries to intercept travellers, who were used to having this level of privacy.
It was in this context of increasing privatisation of the land and conflict between landowners and access-takers that access societies began to spring up around the country. One, the Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in and Around Edinburgh was formed in 1845. A member of this group was John Balfour, a professor of botany at Edinburgh University who organised field trips for his students in the Highlands each summer. In 1847 he and his students were chased away down Glen Tilt by the Duke of Atholl and his Ghillies. Shortly afterwards the new society took the Duke to court and had the route vindicated as a right of way enabling unhindered transport along this route for the public ever since. This cemented the role of this group in protecting access rights throughout Scotland and, forty years later, it changed its name to the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society. Around this time Walter Smith led a party from the Society up Jock’s Road to install signposts and were turned away by a member of new money class, Duncan MacPherson. Again the cause was taken up by the Society but the costly litigation bankrupted both the Society and MacPherson.
More recently, the Duke of Atholl attempted to block access to the ancient Minigaig in the 1990s and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has given the public a right to access much of the countryside but access disputes still occur with sad regularity and the cost to fight these has never become affordable. Only the most daring local authorities take these fights on with commendable success for both Fife Council in Fife v Nisbetts and Stirling Council in Stirling v Snowie.
Much of this outdoor leisure activity was still being partaken by the wealthier sections of society and it wasn’t really until the 1930s when books such as those by Seton Gordon popularised getting outdoors to the masses. This was the period when heading into the Trossachs from Glasgow became a popular pastime with working class people, such a constant stream was there that a fire was kept at Craigallion on the way and was said to never go out as people heading north and south kept it going. This was a time when the Rev. A. E. Robertson, who had climbed all the Munros except Ben Wyvis by 1901, chaired the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society. Robertson was a minister from an affluent background and fitted the stereotype of old money in John McNab. He might have approved of the working class access boom but was less approving of the attitude of taking access – his approach to conflicts was to negotiate and publicise rather than fight. He published a pamphlet (a precursor to this book) titled Old tracks, cross-country routes and coffin roads in the North West Highlands in the Scottish Mountaineering Club journal and revived the signposting activity the Society had started in the 1880s – the Society is well known for their green signs with white lettering, which were the first path signs for specifically leisure purposes in the world. In this respect, Robertson was an important factor in getting ordinary people out and about