Forget Kinder Scout, it all started in Edinburgh.
POSTED ON November 29, 2023 BY James Garry
Why I think Edinburgh should be considered the birthplace of the outdoor access movement
Kinder Scout provides a fine viewpoint in the Peak District and, as the site of the “Kinder Scout Mass Trespass” in 1932, is often cited as the birth place of the outdoor access movement. I’d suggest that is wrong and in fact a far better contender for the title is Edinburgh.
1932? Pah! Edinburgh’s first recorded access dispute was in 1226, involving access to a Millpond and Dam in Restalrig. As was often the case then, the church resolved the problem.
By 1844, there were rumblings in the Edinburgh City Chambers about paths being blocked and there being nobody doing anything about it. Lord Provost Adam Black was concerned that local landowners were encroaching on public roads and other people would be doing the same unless something was done to stop them. He called for a public meeting to address the matter.
On 3 April 1845, that public meeting took place in the Saloon of the Royal Hotel in Princes Street where the Mercure Edinburgh City Princes Street Hotel now stands, curiously enough opposite where Adam Black’s statue now stands.
It unanimously approved Adam Black’s recommendation for an “Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Roadway in and Around Edinburgh” with the purpose “… to preserve or recover for the public use such legal rights of way as are in danger of being interrupted or of being permanently lost to the public in consequent of interruptions already in existence.” That organisation still exists though now known as ScotWays.
What was the first case dealt with by the new Association? No, not the Radical Road, it was misleading signs on Corstorphine Hill.
In 1847, John Hutton Balfour, professor of botany at Edinburgh University, and a group of students visited Glen Tilt, Perthshire. The sixth Duke of Atholl did not take kindly to people in ‘his’ glen and his men challenged Balfour’s party. The story goes that they jumped a wall, ran down the Glen to Blair Atholl pursued by the Duke’s men and relaxed in a pub, supposedly guarded by the Duke’s men to stop them heading back up the Glen.
Balfour returned to Edinburgh and persuaded the Association to take up the cause. The subsequent court case went to the House of Lords and the Association won.
1884 saw a reinvigorated and renamed Society – the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society – setting up a sub-committee to inspect the path through Hawthornden near Bonnyrigg and those crossing the Pentland Hills.
This led to our first signposts going up, possibly the first rights of way signs in Scotland. Roslin Glen to Polton was the first to be signed with five posts in May 1885. These were quickly followed by thirty signs along the various cross-Pentlands paths.
There are no pictures of those early signs and it is thanks to the diary of ScotWays stalwart Walter Smith that we know they were cast iron with red letters on a dark background.
The colours soon changed to white letters on a black background and until World War 2, signs were square and bolted centrally to a post. You can still find three of them in the Pentland Hills. After World War 2 the design changed to a pointing finger style with white letters on a green background.
After the Pentland passes, ScotWays headed to the Cairngorms and installed a sign at the head of Glen Doll, Angus. That precipitated a huge legal case after the owner tried to block the right of way. The case went to the House of Lords with the Society winning at all levels.
It all but bankrupted the Society, which pushed for local authorities to be responsible for rights of way. This happened in 1894 and in 1898 the Society produced its first law guide on rights of way, the first in Scotland.
The 1884 sub-committee also produced our first guidebook: The Pentland Hills; Paths and Passes of 1885. Once the routes were signed, the Society sent every landowner through whose land a route passed a copy of the Pentlands guide book. In the back of the guide is a map of the Pentland Hills paths produced by John Bartholomew from the cartographic Bartholomew family who were big supporters of the Society. Subsequent editions of the map included the position of our signposts and it went on to be published in its own right long after the guide book stopped being published. That map was the first map that highlighted public rights of way in Scotland.
And all that happened long before Kinder Scout and is why I think Edinburgh should be considered the birthplace of the outdoor access movement.
Guest blog written by Richard Barron, Chief Operating Officer, ScotWays.
Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays)
24 Annandale Street, Edinburgh EH7 4AN
tel: 0131 558 1222
The Radical Road- Past, Present and Future?
Booking is now open for the free free public meeting to discuss the history and use of the Radical Road . This will be chaired by Rob Edwards, journalist and broadcaster, and is organised by the Edinburgh Geological Society, Ramblers Scotland, The Cockburn Association, Mountaineering Scotland and ScotWays. Historic Environment Scotland have been invited to attend.
Free, please book in advance: here