On the 13th of January this year, the right to wild camp in Dartmoor National Park — which allowed campers, school trips, and nature enthusiasts alike to sleep under the stars — was overturned in a High Court ruling. For almost 40 years, Dartmoor was a safe haven for nature lovers in England, and up until this year it was the last place in the whole of England and Wales where one could spend their night in the wild, unimpeded. The inequality of land access and ownership are old stories within England - a recent study found that half the land in the entire country is owned by just 1% of the population - and yet old boundaries continue to be maintained and walls constantly rebuilt. Despite constant pressure and discussion, land access has seen remarkably little reform in the last two hundred years. These archaic measures mean that connection with nature, and the opportunity to grow this connection, is broken and lost. Lewis Winks, environmentalist and activist unequivocally states that, “if we want to build a sustainable relationship with nature, we need to improve access to nature.” It is this relationship, this connection with nature, which will allow us to grow our understanding, appreciation, and awe for the living world and ultimately, reveal the collective responsibility we bear to protect it.
Waking up at 4:30am, I lazily rolled out of bed. Thermals first, then shorts, jacket, socks, and shoes last — anticipating spending the next week in the same pair, I wasn’t in a rush to squeeze them on. I packed up, just made it in time to Euston train station and found Ryan, my roommate for the week, already waiting for me on the platform. We climbed aboard and settled in for the long journey up to Scotland. I spent the trip gazing out the window and taking in the changing scenery — Northern England shaking off its winter coat and slowly growing into the new clothes of spring. Change trains in Edinburgh, short ride to Glasgow, and an even shorter one to the small village of Milngavie. As we exited the single platform train station we turned left and walked past a large rock mural which said, in large, emboldened writing, “The Official Start of the West Highland Way.”
The 1967 Countryside Act in Scotland gave the power, and indeed responsibility, to the Countryside Commission of Scotland (CCS), to form and maintain Long Distance Routes (LDR’s) across the country. After more than 10 years of plotting, surveying and planning, in 1980, the CCS opened its first ever LDR, the West Highland Way. It is a 155 kilometre route which takes travellers North from Milngavie, just outside of Glasgow, to the base of Ben Nevis in Fort William, the tallest mountain in the UK. It is one of the most popular and most resourced hiking paths in the country and, although almost the entire route crosses over ‘private land,’ more than 40,000 people complete The Way every year. It is one of the most open and accessible walking routes in the entire world.
By the time we started past the small plinth in the centre of town and hit The Way it was already midday. The first couple of kilometres out of Milngavie traverse an ancient woodland that is pristine and protected. In typical Scottish fashion, we walked through sun, rain, wind, and even snow – on just the first day. Our map's proposed stop for the first night was Dryman, a quaint Scottish farm town. However, we pushed on into the pine forest beyond it. A large, grey cloud bank which had been ominously shadowing us for the last few kilometres finally broke loose, and our tired steps quickened. We found a lovely little cove in the trees and broke camp in the pouring rain.
The Scotland Land Reform Act of 2003, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, created a series of policies commonly known as the ‘Right to Roam.’ This right allows anyone to pass through, enjoy, and, importantly, camp and stay, in almost all of the privately owned wild spaces in the country. The Right provides something in ever-shortening supply: access to Nature. Scotland is one of many countries throughout the world who employ this right. It is, therefore, no surprise that of all the countries within the British Isles, it is Scotland who have been at the forefront of Climate Change mitigation and policy reform. With the recent Dartmoor High court ruling attempting to remove the final shred of ‘Right to Roam’ access in England and Wales, it seems more important than ever to fight for, defend, and reconnect to this, our nature.
... it seems more important than ever to fight for, defend, and reconnect to this, our nature
Waking up on a soft, mossy mattress, with the sun streaming through the avenues of the pine and blackbirds signalling the traffic of the morning, is not an experience I will ever take for granted. The start of our second day on The Way wound slowly through the forest and climbed ever so gently through some farms, finally revealing Connich Hill. Upon reaching the summit we were joined by many groups, families, and even small children who had made the climb up the north side from Balmaha just for the view. We wound our way down the other side and just before coming into Balmaha, we went through a beautiful grove of old pine trees. The steps were long and the path was surrounded by a floor of ferns unfolding towards the warming mid-morning rays.
The Right to Roam Campaign, an organisation advocating for greater access to land in England and Wales, has stated that these Rights come with a very serious responsibility too. The Rights are, “contingent on adhering to a strict set of responsibilities. These are simple, basic codes of how to behave in the countryside… [and] when children grow up in these countries, experiencing nature and learning the code in practical terms, these codes become second nature, part of a wider understanding of how humans should interact with nature.” Seeing children being introduced to such a beautiful space, I couldn’t help but feel excited about the prospects of its future.
The Way next comes onto the shores of the Loch and starts tracing its edge all the way around. We were aiming to reach the Rowchoish Bothy, about half-way round the loch, and finally made it as the sun was setting. There was a French couple already holed up in it, but we had no problem finding a little corner of the floor to lay down our mats. Later on, another slightly older Polish man and two Dutch girls joined the little home, filling our floor for the night. These three would end up walking with us for almost the entire rest of The Way, and we came to know them well, bonding over the simplicity of sharing; sharing food, shelter, the path, and a love for such wild spaces. But that night, we sat around — strangers — making dinners, rubbing feet and all laughing about the serendipity of a trail that had brought us all together. Afterwards, everyone slowly made their way inside our ancient little stone house to brace against the cool of the night.
“The humble bothy is unassuming and unpretentious (high luxury it is not). While many bothies offer little more than four stone walls and a roof, to a weary and weather-beaten hiker they hold all the appeal of an oasis in the desert… To be classed as a bothy it needs to provide basic shelter, to be left unlocked, to be open to anyone and be free to use.” This is how Anna Richards, writing for adventure magazine, Mpora, describes a Bothy. It seems almost strange that the only requirement for being given free shelter and rest in a place so wild and beautiful - is that you share it.
The following day, the path continued along the Loch all the way to the other side. This was possibly the most technical section of The Way. Due to the sheer, rocky slope coming off the Loch, it was a difficult and tiresome stretch – a real ankle’s graveyard for any misplaced foot. We passed the infamous Rob Roy’s cave, named after the 18th-century Scottish outlaw and folk hero, and stopped for lunch at Beinglas Farm. The next half of the day joined back onto the main A82 and hugged the road as it slowly climbed up towards the small town of Crianlarich. Just before the town, however, The Way took us left and straight into the heart of the magical Ewich Forest. We were eager to break camp, but pushed on until we found the perfect mossy platform nestled between two trees, and set up our tent whilst taking in the final rays streaming through our neighbourhood of pines.
The next morning, we exited the forest to a crisp, clear day, and made our way past St. Fillan’s Priory, a 13th century priory endowed by Robert the Bruce attached to a Celtic graveyard which dates back to the 8th century. The Way then climbs through the small town of Tyndrum and into a valley, joining the old 1930s drove road, which was once Scotland’s main artery to the North. Bogs dotted with sheep cover the lower slopes of the mountains which all seep into the many unseen streams. The flora changes as the slopes climb, getting rockier and harsher until a white blanket is pulled over them and snow tipped mountains protrude into the sky. The Way follows the path of the water through the valley. It meanders along, hugging the streams of the Alt Coire Chailein as it flows into the Alt Kinglass. It then winds down and over as the Alt Kinglass joins the River Orchy, over the bridge, up the hill, and ultimately gives you a glorious view of the River flowing into Loch Tulla. The Way then ripples down the hill and into the Inveroran Hotel. We decided to push on as we saw a small forest on the banks of the other side of the Loch and broke camp next to a beautiful stream in the cooling twilight.
The next morning was a cold, grey sunrise, which seemed the only appropriate way to set out across the moors. The land, the path, the clouds, the air itself seemed heavy with the dense particles of the boggy ground rising to meet us. The Way carried us across the moor, over the mount and down into the fabled valley of Glencoe. We then made our way across the main A82 road to the King’s House and got the full view of Buachaille Etive Mor – possibly the most iconic peak in Scotland. Its sharp point rises up from the moor almost like a pyramid, only much older. Its colour changes as it rises — turning from black, to brown, to grey, to white — and the whole valley opens up to raise the mountain sharply from its centre. The Way hugs the road for a little bit, offering more and more views of the famous mountain, and then takes a sharp, 90 degree turn right, and takes you up the aptly-named Devil’s Staircase. The path is long, steep, and windy, and we passed many hikers bottlenecking on the slope. Finally reaching the top, it then begins a long, slow and painful descent all the way down into the town of Kinlochleven, our stop for the night.
On the final day, The Way leaves Kinlochleven, has a fairly steep initial climb through a small Birch woodland, and then comes out into a vast, wide valley called the Lairig Mor pass. The sun, who had decided to join us for the last day, was a welcome companion. A swift breeze at our backs carried us along past young forests and old Highland ruins. The history of this land is certainly not a peaceful one. Every road, every path, even on this sunny day, is touched by the long shadows of the of violence, bloodshed, struggle, and labour that they have carried. And yet, the ability to freely walk these paths, to share them, in all their imperfection, seems to wash away some of this darkness and replace it with a responsibility – if not for the people who once walked these hills, then for the hills themselves.
...the ability to freely walk these paths, to share them, in all their imperfection, seems to wash away some of this darkness and replace it with a responsibility – if not for the people who once walked these hills, then for the hills themselves.
The last 10 kilometres work their way up through a coniferous forest which spits you out onto a well-worn jeep track. As you reach the peak of this track and start the descent, the forest opens out like an old archway. Right in front of you, looming, monolithic, and ancient, stands the massive, rounded frame of Ben Nevis. The mountain feels at once far away and ominously close. The Way then zigzags down into the Glen Nevis valley, the mountain growing to your right with every step you take. The path comes out onto the road and hugs the river around the corner and through the centre of the town. It finishes at the end of the main street, under a small archway, with a simple red line on the road and a sore-footed statue to mark its conclusion.
We looked down the street we had just come from, busy and bustling with life. Outside a pub we met some other Wayers, each with their own stories of the path and the journeys through which they had found themselves in this remote corner of Scotland.
On the 31st of July, after months of campaigning, the Court of Appeal panel made a decision on the Right to Roam in Dartmoor. The entire case hinged on an interpretation of the law which established whether camping could be regarded as “open-air recreation”. Lawyers for the Dartmoor National Park Authority argued that, “gazing at the stars before waking to the sound of the morning chorus was certainly open-air recreation”, and the court agreed. The right to camp in Dartmoor was reinstated. Following the decision, Robert Macfarlane, writer, activist and full-time walker, wrote, “Dartmoor looked like it might be [the last of its species] in England; the final relic of a long-lost openness, pinched out of existence. Instead it’s the beginning of vast, progressive change, towards a transformed, free, fair, inclusive and responsible right of access to land and nature...”
After a few drinks with our new old friends, we went and bought a bottle of ‘Ben Nevis’ whiskey from the shop, strolled down to a bench by the Loch and reminisced on the past week. We spoke about our futures, our fortunes, and the surreal way in which the path had opened up new ways of seeing for us. Finally, sitting in silence under the shadow of the mountain, we toasted the incredible Way that had granted us passage and the generations of people who have fought to protect it.
Liam Furniss is a South African freelance writer who has just finished a Masters in Literature and Arts through Kellogg College.
He has a passion for sustainability and the environment, particularly with regards to travel, and any other time is taken up by coffee, rugby and live music - in no particular order.
All photos taken by the author.