The great outdoors is for us all not just lairds
The National, by Lesley Riddoch
Perth to Kintyre via Loch Earn for the ferry over to Islay – one of my favourite drives in Scotland and one of the most maddening. Crammed into the couple of yards between the A85 and the loch, scores of Scots enjoy a summer’s day fishing, camping and cooking over a campfire. My beef isn’t with them – not for a second.
It’s with the untapped resource of empty forest across the road, which would be filled with discreet, modest, wooden weekend huts in any other country at our latitude – except here. Thanks to the unaffordability ad unavailability of land for a wee butt n ben, Scots know they must enjoy nature the hard way – or not at all. So they spend weekends on the hard, cold shoulder of Scotland’s loch-side routes. Such behaviour attracts criticism. Some “wild campers” drink. They leave litter. Others bring generators to watch flat screen TVs. They don’t ask for forgiveness or permission – they just enjoy the tiny margins of Scotland that are available to them. And they are part of a long tradition.
According to Eric Simpson in Going on Holiday the first climbing clubs in the Victorian era were middle class and exclusive. Workers’ hiking and cycling clubs were quite separate. Glasgow shop workers usually worked until late on Saturdays and were lucky to catch the last bus to Loch Lomond. There, many lived rough – finding shelter in caves or under overhanging boulders. Howffs were made using old tarpaulins for roofing material and the campfire was a comradely expression of freedom and a practical necessity.
“We carried no tents, said Jock Nimlin, one of the working class pioneers. “Some of us carried no blankets or sleeping bags.
It hardly seemed worthwhile as we had so little time for sleep.”
Nimlin and his fellow “Mountain Men” were hardy in the extreme. After getting from Glasgow to Balloch on Friday they rowed up Loch Lomond to Tarbert, slept in a cave, rose the next day to climb the Arrochar Alps. They did the same on Sunday, rowed back down the loch and walked backed to Glasgow having generally missed the last bus. Nimlin and other working class climbers used caves, bothies, self-built rooms beneath road bridges and even hollowed out trees for overnight stays and were apparently contemptuous of those using youth hostels or indoor accommodation.
Were they making a virtue of necessity? Or did they assume that asking for permission to camp might only result in humiliating rejection? Perhaps the terrible living conditions in Glasgow before council housing bred a self-reliance which depended on never asking for help – especially from perceived “class enemies” such as landowners and authorities.
Whatever the reason, this comfort-averse outlook made Scottish hill-walking a physically demanding and very male endeavour. By contrast the Norwegian determination to have a place to stay in nature – made possible by the absence of feudal landowners and more general availability of land – encouraged whole families to experience the Great Outdoors together. Perhaps this explains why hut owners are perfectly normal in one of the world’s most equal societies, yet regarded as rather eccentric here in Scotland. Our country contains enough land to accommodate tens of thousands of people in huts, cabins, mountain cottages and seaside shacks. So why don’t Scottish landowners sell small patches of land for modest holiday homes? Why don’t Scots demand them?
All of this goes through my head, each time I drive past Loch Earn. But at least “wild camping” is grudgingly tolerated there. Not so on the eastern shores of Loch Lomond. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Board banned wild camping in 2011 between the road and loch shore around Balmaha after complaints of incidents including serious violence by some campers.
According to former Ramblers Scotland boss, Dave Morris, the Park Authority then used a bye-law under the National Parks Act of 2000 to create the wild camping ban – thought to be the first in Scotland – so any camper prosecuted gets a criminal record. They could have used the Land Reform Act 2003, which limits access in sensitive areas (like the Open Golf tournament) because it doesn’t criminalise miscreants. Or called the police.
But now the Park wants to extend the wild camping ban – which was meant to be a one-off, to include new areas including Loch Venachar where the Park Convener happens to live.
Why punish everyone for the bad behaviour of a very few? Why can’t Police Scotland tackle truly criminal acts with existing legislation? And why can’t the authorities see a ban will just reinforce the age-old feeling that nature in Scotland is always out of bounds.
It’s time for the Scottish Government to listen to sportscotland, Ramblers Scotland, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the Scottish Canoe Association and groups representing sailors and anglers who oppose the ban, refuse to approve these bye laws and tell park authorities to build more camp sites with toilets and water supplies.
Land reform is around the corner and – at long last – Scotland should be our land, enjoyed by the many not the few.