The right to roam and the right to read – should we use civil disobedience

I have spent a splendid week in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of the University of Stirling where I was one of the first staff. Before the celebrations we spent 4 days in the mountains in which there is now an official Right to roam. This contrasts strongly with the lack of a right to read.
Shortly after I moved to Stirling I went to climb Ben Vorlich by a footpath marked as public by the Scottish Rights of Way Society. Half way up I was met by a gamekeepr with a gun who threw me off the land – my rights were less powerful than possession of the land and the gun. Now, by contrast, I found well managed access – the landowners have a “Hillphones” system where you can ring to find out where stalking is taking place and which alternative routes are open. There are welcome notices explaining the purpose and methods of the farm and its land, and offering a code of conduct of mutual value.
How did this change come about? By a change of heart of landowners? In part, certainly – as communication becomes universal we listen to more arguments and appreciate different points of view. But also through legislation. Driven by the vision of our parliamentarians? Not really. Driven much more by a major act of civil disobedience, the Mass trespass of Kinder Scout. From WP:

[Kinder Scout] is a popular hiking location and the Pennine Way crosses Kinder Scout and the moors to the North. This has resulted in the erosion of the underlying peat, prompting work by Derbyshire County Council and the Peak District National Park to repair it. The plateau was also the target of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, which resulted in a UK-wide rethink of access to public footpaths. From the National Park’s inception, a large area of the high moorland north of Edale was designated as ‘Open Country‘. Eventually, in 2003, the “right to roam” on uncultivated land was enshrined into law, and this area of open country has been significantly extended.


The mass trespass of Kinder Scout was a notable act of willful trespass by ramblers. It was undertaken at Kinder Scout, in the Peak District of England, on 24 April 1932, to highlight weaknesses in English law of the time. This denied walkers in England or Wales access to areas of open country, and to public footpaths which, in previous ages (and today), formed public rights of way. Political and conservation activist Benny Rothman was one of the principal leaders.
A commemorative plaque now marks the start of the trespass at Bowden Bridge quarry near Hayfield (which is now a popular area for ramblers). This was unveiled in April 1982 by an aged Benny Rothman during a rally to mark the 50th anniversary. The trespass proceeded via William Clough to the plateau of Kinder Scout, where there were violent scuffles with gamekeepers. The ramblers were able to reach their destination and meet with another group. On the return, five ramblers were arrested, with another detained earlier. Trespass was not, and still is not, a criminal offence in any part of Britain, but some would receive jail sentences of two to six months for offences relating to violence against the keepers.
The mass trespass had a far-reaching impact, some of which is still playing out today. Eventually, changes in the law would allow all citizens access to public footpaths, regardless of whether they crossed private land. This culminated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which legislates a limited right to roam over scheduled access land (see Open Country).

PMR: The land rights of the nineteenth century are similar to our current copyright laws. These latter are complex, counterproductive and generate widespread. frustration and hostility. For example when I talk with a librarian colleague they tell me that I cannot photocopy an 85 year-old scientific paper because it might violate copyright. The British LIbrary appears to have a universal system where it is easier to copyright everything rather than tackle the copyright problem head-on. I never use Internlibrary Loans because of their stupidity in the Internet age, but an ex-colleague at Stirling told me she had just got an electronic ILL. She could only read it once – after that it would self-destruct – mission impossible.
Will librarians try to help us break this cycle of impotence rather than kowtowing to it. If not I suspect that coordinated or uncoordinated civil disobedience will become widespread. I’d prefer it to be coordinated.
And please, please, don’t wait 70 years until the law is changed.

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