Enjoying Edinburgh’s great outdoors – Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland

POSTED ON November 3, 2023 BY James Garry

This is 20th anniversary year of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003

Enjoying Edinburgh’s great outdoors – a guest blog by Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland

The subject of land reform tends to conjure up images of mountains, lochs and glens far away from our cities.  And yet land reform is equally relevant to places in and around Edinburgh, especially when it comes to public access and enjoying our parks and green spaces.

In this 20th anniversary year of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which established world class rights of access for everyone in Scotland provided we’re responsible, let’s look at the positive impact this legislation has made on our lives here in the city.

Many gains and a few concessions

First of all, the Scottish Parliament made it clear that access rights apply to the 62 golf courses in and around Edinburgh, apart from on the greens themselves. Of course there are responsibilities on how we enjoy these rights, such as avoiding any interference with play and following paths where they exist. But many golf courses continue to provide valued green space for local residents.  By contrast, the shared gardens of the New Town were not covered by the legislation.  These were seen as private gardens albeit separated from the house.  Yet it doesn’t stop residents from choosing to open up the gardens, as in St Andrew Square.

MSPs were also clear that everyone should have access rights – walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and paddlers. The only motorised vehicles included are those adapted for use by someone with a disability.  Prior to 2003, you may remember prominent ‘No Cycling’ signs in the Meadows and along Portobello Prom.  These have now gone, allowing the creation of a network of traffic-free paths for all to use.  Some of these paths were also designated as core paths, including some quieter pavements – good news for cyclists.

We feel that shared use paths are more equitable and inclusive, but of course there are still occasional problems to negotiate. Such as speeding cyclists, oblivious walkers using headphones, or dogs on long leads getting tangled with other path users. But the Act provides a range of measures to help deal with these issues, including the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This advises on responsibilities for both the public and for land managers, and is the basis for wording on any signage.  Likewise, the Act allows the council to create management rules on land they own and manage, to ensure behaviour is appropriate. This is why you shouldn’t see hikers wild camping in Princes Street Gardens.

Benefits of a green city – and the challenges our parks face

During the Covid pandemic, many of us realised how lucky we are to have so many lovely parks and green spaces in Edinburgh, including the Pentland Hills regional park.  Visits to the outdoors across Scotland increased during lockdown and, while numbers have dropped slightly since then, these places are still very busy. This is great for our health and wellbeing. Yet greater use also means wear and tear on the environment, along with litter and instances of irresponsible behaviour.

The Pentlands have been designated one of the Scottish Government’s national key visitor management hotspots.  Finding the funding to manage these places has been difficult. This is disappointing and short-sighted, given we know that walking tourism alone contributes over £1.26 billion to the Scottish economy each year.

Currently the biggest threat to access in Edinburgh isn’t selfish landowners or misbehaving members of the public.  It’s austerity. All local authorities are struggling to fund access management adequately, whether maintaining paths, removing obstructions or supporting landowners to manage pressures on their land.  Without proper support it’s all too easy for inappropriate ‘Keep Out’ signs to go up. The Local Access Forum in Edinburgh was set up to advise the council and yet hasn’t met for some time.  The council’s access officer post has been vacant for months.  Ranger services are also threatened, but they are at the front line in helping people to behave responsibly and educating future generations on how to behave outdoors.

The big gap in our city centre

There is, however, one place in Edinburgh where access rights don’t apply – and that’s Holyrood Park.  This is covered by royal parks legislation which was never reviewed following the 2003 Act. That’s why you’ll see cyclists prohibited from using most paths, climbers banned from spots like The Dassies, Great Quarry and Long Row, and all climbers at the 200-year-old quarry required to have a permit. Of course, climbers can’t actually get to the South Quarry these days anyway, because of the closure of the Radical Road – something that would have been illegal under the Land Reform Act without a proper process.  Along with the Cockburn Association and other organisations, Ramblers Scotland has been calling for this route to be reopened.  The Radical Road is an iconic route at the heart of our city, for both residents and visitors, and plays an important historic role for geologists too.  Yet the Land Reform Act would provide many tools for Historic Environment Scotland to manage these issues.

Perhaps it’s now time for MSPs to look out of their windows across to Holyrood Park and ask themselves why this huge park at the centre of our capital doesn’t abide by the same rules as every other landowner in Scotland?  Land reform is fundamental to helping us enjoy nature, and our green spaces help make Edinburgh such a great city to live in and visit.  Surely King Charles would agree – after all, he’s happy enough to welcome visitors to Balmoral, as many Munro-baggers on Lochnagar can testify!

Ramblers Scotland

Rambers Scotland  open the way for everyone to enjoy the simple pleasures of walking.  And we step up to protect access and the places we all love to wander.

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, but please book in advance: here

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