If you haven’t read “The Return of John McNab” by Scottish novelist and poet Andrew Greig, I suggest you dash off and find a copy. Once you’ve read it, go and read or reread John Buchan’s “John McNab“. Andrew Greig’s version is a romantic adventure story, a rollicking yarn, set in the Scottish Highlands. Three friends decide to renew the John McNab challenge of poaching grouse, salmon and deer from three Royal Estates in the Highlands. It’s exciting evocative reading with an underlying text to do with land ownership in Scotland: most of the land in the Scottish Highlands and Islands is divided into large estates, owned by a very small number of wealthy people.
The book was published in 2002 and it predates the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which put into statute the accepted “right to roam” in Scotland. It formalised the right to access most land and inland water including mountains, moorland, woods and forests, grassland, fields, rivers and lochs, coastal areas, most parks and open spaces, golf courses (to cross them); day and night, providing access is responsible and no damage is caused. I think poaching may count as damage. The legislation also requires access authorities to uphold access rights and it is supported by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code . A major part of the Land Reform Act was establishing the “Community Right to Buy” which has been exercised in a number of well-publicised cases, notably on the Island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides.
For us, this legislation meant that we did not need permission from landowners for our swim, and this was a huge bonus. It was a recurring refrain in the months beforehand: “Have you got permission?” Me: “We don’t need it”. It was a particular blessing because it would have been a lot of work to have tracked down all the landowners and, with salmon and trout fishing major activities in the area, we could not have guaranteed a welcome. In fact, my first contact with a local, seeking advice, was very off putting and unwelcoming in this regard, and I was indeed put off contacting too many people. As it turned out, the locals, including landowners and their staff, were extremely welcoming and accommodating, but that is another story! A similar undertaking in England or Wales would not have been nearly so easy to organise. The one thing we did need permission for was to put a motorised vehicle on the water – ie. the cover boat we planned to use on Loch Shin. As soon as we spoke to the angling club, we discovered that this wasn’t a problem either.
Having said this, we did plan with the knowledge that little or no angling takes place on a Sunday, and so this determined the date for our swim down the River Shin, an important salmon river at this time of year. We really had no desire to upset anyone! And again, as it turned out, the ghillies and their angler clients weren’t at all worried by our presence in the river. “Chase the fish down to us, would you!”
In between our two swims, we met with Iain Gray and Fiona O’Donnell, our MSP and MP respectively. We weren’t entirely sure what we were going to talk to them about but figured that our route had highlighted, for us at least, the importance of the Right of Access. This, then, was one of a number of issues which formed a very positive discussion. And last week Iain Gray tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament to congratulate us on our swim and to highlight the significance of the Scottish access legislation. We are all very taken with this because it has now been recorded in history that we have swum from the Atlantic coast of Scotland to the North Sea coast. How cool is that!