The 2003 Act was supposed to enable greater freedoms for 'responsible' access to the countryside, but actually exercising this right in not always straightforward.
The principle is sound and the legislation reasonably clear. In a nutshell, it tells us that everyone has access to most land and water in Scotland for the purposes of recreation and although the term 'recreation' is not defined in law it is pretty obvious to most people what that means (please note that it does not include shooting stuff).
Of course there are some places where you can't exercise this right: peoples' gardens, for example. Military bases are also off limits unless you enjoy being chased by unsmiling men wearing camouflage and holding a big gun.
After that, it gets a bit fuzzy. I have copied here the text from the Scottish Outdoor Access Code that advises where access does not apply:
"Land on which there is a building or other structure or works, plant or fixed machinery, and land which forms the curtilage of a building or which forms a compound or other enclosure containing any structure, works, plant or fixed machinery. Examples of non-residential buildings and structures include: farm buildings and yards; animal and bird rearing pens; sports centres, pavilions and stands; club houses; factories; warehouses and storage areas; military bases and other installations; pipelines; chemical and other processing plants; canal locks and lifts; water treatment and sewage works; horticultural nurseries; and, fish farms and hatcheries." Full text.
So it would seem that a structure needs to have a boundary or some kind of enclosure if access is to be denied and that is not always the case. For example there are probably thousands of ruined houses and farms in Scotland dotting the countryside which could be defined as 'structures', yet are just collapsing heaps of stone.
Yet another section of the Code says you have right of access:
"on all other paths and tracks where these cross land on which access rights can be exercised;"
So I am guessing that you can walk a track that passes someone's farm or house, provided the track doesn't go through the boundary of that structure.
So when I was told that someone on a small estate in Western Scotland had started putting up signs near a track, issuing dire warnings to 'KEEP OUT!' I was naturally curious. It is not usual to see signs like this. It is un-Scottish and pretty damn rude into the bargain. I could perhaps have understood it if the people using the track were beer-swilling, drunken backpackers littering the countryside as they sang raucous ballads, but they weren't. They were just two inoffensive people...walking.
And this is one of the problems for people who genuinely want to get out and about in Scotland, because there are so many parcels of land owned by various estates and some of those estates have very clear ideas about who they want crossing their land, even when the law says they can. The tracks and roads that pass through them can be remote and it is no easy task to find one single map that will tell you anything really useful. I have often wished there was an OS map you could open that had a bright red legend that means "You can walk here without some miserable old fart shouting at you," it would make things so much easier.
But until the OS people get their act together, we will have to rely on rather more basic information.
And that is where the real fun part comes in if you decide to go 'off piste' in Scotland. Whereas in other parts of the UK you will find helpful little green signs pointing you from, say, Little Snoring to Great Dribbling and further pointing out that it is 3.4 miles to said destination, you are unlikely to find such in Scotland. Instead you may find what was once a farm track, or more likely one made by deer or possibly even badgers. It will likely be strewn with boulders the size of small hatchbacks, fallen trees and the sad corpse of a recently-deceased sheep. Even more pitfalls may await as you traverse this unknown land including, but not limited to, hidden pits, ditches in which you could hide an army battalion, sheer cliffs and hills that require crampons, a small team of Sherpas and a base-camp to ascend. Yet even when you reach the top of the climb and the little spots have stopped flashing before your eyes, your ordeal may not be over. And this is because of Scotland's love of fences.
Now I understand why farmers may need to keep some kind of boundary along their borders. They are helpful in keeping their animals in one spot; it marks the extent of their property etc, etc. But try as you might you will not find helpful stiles over which to continue your journey or little kissing-gates or indeed any of the things that will stop you being torn to small pieces by more barbed wire than Checkpoint Charlie.
Instead you may be forced to walk along its' length until you come to a handy log, rock or dead sheep which you can use as a step, over which you can, if you are very lucky, wobble precariously whilst trying to avoid groinal trauma. It really does take all the fun out of walking. It is not that the fences are particularly tall (apart from the ones designed to keep deer in which would be quite at home in Jurassic Park) it is just that they are always topped with barbed wire, which may be useful in keeping sheep in one spot but is always very taught, shiny, and above all spiky.
Having traversed this unwelcoming landscape you will at some point want to glance at your map because you have just noticed the huge dark clouds on the horizon. Here you will find a vague couple of lines that may be the track you were on but could also be a ditch or a hedge or possibly just a couple of squiggly lines the cartographer drew in because they were bored of drawing rocks. You look hopefully in the general direction of said squiggly lines and see nothing that looks even remotely like a track so you assume you must have left it in your attempt to find a way of getting over the fence whilst losing minimal blood. So you start back in the opposite direction, all the time keeping an eye on the approaching clouds.
But you are on the opposite side of the fence now and another glance at the map indicates an area ahead that bears the legend 'mud'. Of course this doesn't worry you at all. You have sturdy boots, watertight trousers and feel that a little bit of mud is not even going to slow you down.
You are, of course, wrong.
'Mud' is a relative term. It can include delicate and smooth minerals which come in a small bottle to be smeared on one's face or a very thin layer of material that sticks annoyingly to the bottom of one's shoe.
Scottish mud, and by this I mean the substance that lies in wait for the unwary traveller in the hills, has a life of its' own. It is akin to a breathing bog-monster that hangs around waiting to drag people to their doom. And you step in it, instantly disappearing up to your waist in brown ooze. So begins a battle in which your emotions will turn from wry amusement, as you attempt to remove a boot from the quagmire, to minor alarm as you find you can't, and finally to mild panic as the dark clouds that were on the horizon stop being on the horizon and appear above you.
In part two, our intrepid hillwalker finds new delights as the typically 'robust' Scottish weather descends.