The Land Reform Act 2003 gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly. These rights are sometimes referred to as 'freedom to roam'.
When Scottish legislation on public ‘freedom to roam’ changed in 2003, it marked the moment that the hills, valleys, moors and waters of Scotland became open to anyone who wanted to explore them. Made for purposes of both recreation and education, as well as to give the public rights to make overland journeys, the Act was at once a nod to ancient traditions and an outlook to the future.
As a result, riders in search of adventure now have more access to nature in Scotland than they do anywhere else in the UK, as well as the scenery to accompany it.
Here, Bikepacking Scotland founder and Apidura Ambassador Markus Stitz guides us through Scotland’s ‘Freedom to Roam’ Act, and what it means for bikepackers and adventure cyclists, with his Ten Things You Need to Know.
What is it?
Most land in Scotland is owned by very few people, so the Scottish Access Rights basically give you the right to access that land in Scotland for recreational and educational purposes, be it cycling, running, walking or pitching a tent. There are only a few exclusions, like the curtilage of buildings and farmyards, quarries, railway property and airfields. There are three key principles that are very important to mention: You have to respect the interests of other people, care for the environment and take responsibility for your own actions.
How was it created?
The history of access rights in Scotland goes as far back as the 1890’s. There were a few legislative efforts that failed, mainly due to the fact that such legislation would not have passed land-owning interests in the House of Lords in Westminster. In Scotland, the Access Forum was established in 1994 to debate and resolve access issues at a national level. It was the work of that forum and the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 that helped to lay the foundations. On 23 January 2003, Scottish Parliament passed legislation that fundamentally changed the balance between public and private interests over much of the land and water of Scotland, and this came into force in February 2005, creating the modern framework of Scottish access rights.
Why was it created?
Simple: because the people wanted better access to the land for recreational purposes, and their ambition had been given hope by the framework set up in the 90’s to provide a means to debate and lobby for it.
How does it affect bikepackers?
It basically forms the foundation of any bikepacking activity in Scotland. Without such generous land access, bikepacking in its current form would be restrained to a network of paths like in England and Wales, and any wild camping would be illegal. We would not be able to use the amazing network of heritage paths we have here. On a more personal note Bikepacking Scotland wouldn’t exist, as the land access is the key to developing new routes in Scotland.
What are the rules of respect?
The rules are very simple, and it is of utmost importance to play by them. You have to respect the interests of other people, care for the environment and take responsibility for your own actions. The Outdoor Access Code also gives guidance for users, for example for cycling it states that if you are cycling off-path, particularly in winter, to avoid going onto wet, boggy or soft ground, and churning up the surface. This should be common sense anyway. In regards to wild camping, bikepackers should avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or livestock, and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures. Leaving no trace is also essential; taking away all litter, removing all traces and not causing any pollution.
Are there different levels of access?
No, access is the same across Scotland, except where by-laws have been introduced. Due to largely unsocial behaviour around Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, seasonal by-laws were introduced in March 2017. It means that camping in certain areas of the National Park is now only permitted in designated sites and with a permit. This was highly controversial, but only applies from March to September. During the deerstalking season, from August to February, it is recommended to stick to the paths, and good practice is to call the estates to find out about any stalking activities in advance of venturing out
What about land with crops or animals on it?
When you need to cross a field with crops, avoid any damage by using paths or tracks. If they don’t exist, using the perimeters of the field is advised. If the perimeter is narrow or has been planted, then avoid causing unnecessary damage by keeping close to the edge in single file. If the ground is unsown, then you can go across.
If you head through fields with farm animals, bear in mind that some animals, particularly cows with calves, but also horses, pigs and farmed deer, can react aggressively towards people. Before entering a field, check to see what alternatives there are. If you are in a field of farm animals, keep a safe distance and watch them carefully
What about doing ‘the business’?
There is of course guidance for that too! ‘Go’ at least 30 metres from any body of water. Toilet paper and sanitary items should be carried out as they can take a long time to breakdown, and animals may dig them up. Avoid going within 50 metres of paths or 200 metres of huts, bothies and crags, and never in caves. Dig a 15 cm hole in the soil and bury your excrement, ideally with a trowel. Dig into the soil through any snow, as this will melt at some stage. If digging a hole is absolutely impossible, then spread your excrement thinly or arrange rocks such that air can circulate. Avoid just putting a rock on top as it slows decomposition.
Do many other countries share similar rights?
Scotland was looking towards the Scandinavian countries when the new access legislation was drafted. Norway, for example, has very similar access rights to Scotland, however their origins are slightly different. While people in Scotland were only recently given the right to access the countryside, the legislation in Norway is entrenched. The right to roam, the so called ‘allemannsretten’ is a traditional right from ancient times, and from 1957 it has also been part of the Norwegian Outdoor Recreation Act. It ensures that everybody gets to experience nature, even in larger privately owned areas.
Where to find out more
The best place to go to is on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website. All the information necessary is there, and it is worthwhile checking up before any bikepacking trip.
Also, this article by former Ramblers of Scotland President, Cameron McNeish, gives you a great idea about how the rights came about.