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Walk 24: Overtoun to Cochno

Kat joins two stalwarts of Scotland’s right to roam campaign, Nick Kempe and Bob Reid, on this section of her Green Belts walk where they find their way along the escarpment of the Kilpatrick Hills.

This walk had been in the planning since I had met Nick Kempe and Bob Reid at an event in 2023 in the Scottish Borders organised by ‘Right to Roam’, the campaign for an English right of access to the countryside. We were part of a group from Scotland who walked through a wood and over some fields to Scots Dyke, the wall built in 1552 to mark the border between England and Scotland. We were meeting up with the English Right to Roam Campaign on the border, to mark twenty years since the Scottish Land Reform Act. Nick and Bob had been key figures in the Scottish access campaign as members of the Scottish Access Forum. “I was the sensible local authority guy, who also happened to be head of planning – who could explain how things could happen practically” said Bob. Nick was on the board of Mountaineering Scotland, as was Bob, and both were passionate advocates for access.

Before we even had our boots on we were talking about access. Nick had recently had an interaction with a farmer.

 “It was quite near here,” said Nick, looking at the map, “I was heading up to have a look at the site for a windfarm and he stopped me.”

looking over Loch Bowie and the waterfowl on the Loch

It wasn’t long until I realised it was the same man I had encountered with my family on our Boxing Day walk. Nick said that eventually he decided to turn back. “It wasn’t a great route anyway.”  

In our case, we  didn’t really have a choice, our car was parked at Overtoun House, the other side of the farmer’s fields, with the alternative being a very long detour around busy roads. To cut a long story short, insistence prevailed in the end and we got past, walking up through a gorge woodland and scrabbling up a slope of mud and fallen leaves to get to fields further from the farm.

This had been pretty much the only negative interaction I had experienced on the walk thus far – apart from hostile signage. On the four occasions I’d met a farmer, they had been welcoming and helpful. There was the farmer who suggested we walk round the roads but when he found out we were up for a bit of scrambling down river banks and wading rivers, hacking through shrubbery and negotiating multiple fences and homicidal cattle, he explained a route through his land which included all these highlights. And there was the one that recommended we go straight up through the farm, omitting to tell us that there were cows on the loose absolutely everywhere.

setting off on what is marked as a path on the map

Neither Bob, nor Nick had been to the car park up at Overtoun and I explained that the Lang Craigs, which are now owned by the Woodland Trust and covered in regenerating woodland, have been my go-to place after work on a sunny evening ever since I discovered them fifteen years ago. It started as an escape:  I’d been looking for somewhere to go while one of my daughters was at a birthday party at a soft play centre in Milton, just outside Dunbarton. For those fortunate enough to be unacquainted with ‘soft play’ it usually consists of a three dimensional maze of netting, into which your small child will disappear, and then start screaming for mum or dad. When the parent has crawled on hands and knees past other people’s children, into the centre of the hellscape, they discover their child is perfectly happy again.

Socks and Slides has since closed, but it was deafeningly loud, and the only thing available in the cafe seemed to be bridies or chicken nuggets. I headed up the hill behind, leaving the daughter in the capable hands of friends who had decided to stay, and came upon the magic kingdom of the Lang Craigs.

Old pines grow from the base of the crags, wizened hawthorn sprout from ruined stone walls at the top. There’s a view of Loch Lomond from the top of the crags and the prospect that, if you kept walking north, you would reach the highland boundary fault and, beyond, the real mountains. It was so close to our home in Glasgow, yet so wild and beautiful. For someone who loves the uplands, but, due to the child-related commitments I had at that time, couldn’t get out very often, this was a haven of everything I love.

But it wasn’t up the crags and over the Kilpatricks we were heading, unfortunately,  No – this was a green belt walk and so it needed to follow the greenbelt. Since the line of the green belt only went up to the escarpment and the top field boundaries of the Kilpatricks, we would have to take a cross-country route.

I asked Bob how the decisions are made on where the borders of the green belt should be.

“The guidance says that they should follow natural boundaries, rivers, field boundaries, or roads, and not arbitrary lines like the middle of a field.” Presumably this was why the greenbelt didn’t extend up into the open country and fine walking at the top of the Kilpatricks. We’d just have to settle for pathless scrub as usual.

The task in the route planning was how to negotiate the quarries that sit between the A82 and the tops of the Kilpatricks at this point. There are at least two active quarries producing aggregate for roadstone, and several others that are past their productive lives but would still be a formidable barrier.

A map of the Forts marked on Canmore in the area

We started following a little path that was marked on the map. I thought it would take us round the base of the quarry and to a prominent hill fort, and then onward into the Kilpatricks. The quarries and the hill forts share an objective – the hard bassalt which has created the escarpment along the line of the Clyde.  There is a row of iron age hill forts along that route, two still standing proud despite the quarrying behind them. The landscape is littered with placenames indicating the forts of the past: Dumbuckhill, Dumbowie Farm. There is Dumbarton rock, a fort long before it became a castle, defended by the impenetrable cliffs which now boast some of the hardest rock climbs in Scotland. And our route was heading towards a place marked ‘Hill of Dun’.

The path we were on had been constructed to sit level amongst the steep scree and was a pleasant walk. However the path completely disappeared at an old gate set in the scree and we were left scrabbling about on uneven rocks balanced haphazardly on the steep slope, which was incredibly hard to stay upright on. Thank goodness for the many ash saplings that clung onto the slope as handholds. When the brambles started to get overwhelming we turned back and headed down the hill. “Are there going to be any paths on this walk?” asked Nick.

When the ground leveled out I started noticing the green spikes of bluebells They were everywhere, I couldn’t step without crushing a dozen leaves. And in patches, the broader, softer leaves of wild garlic.  

This would be the most incredible bluebell wood in May, I thought. But it was surrounded by a ferocious looking 6ft fence, with two rows of overhanging barbed wire, and we were the wrong side of it. Fortunately, as I always seem to find with fences, there was a way through. A section had come down, and you could see where local people were using it to get access to the wood.

After clambering over the remains of the fence, we walked along a track for a kilometre or so until we reached the entrance to a quarry. Lorries loaded with stone passed by every minute or so, and we marveled at how many lorries they must have to be able to keep up that rate of deliveries. At that point we emerged from the trees and looked over towards Dunglass castle (site of yet another fort) right on the shore of the Clyde. Beside the Castle there is an obelisk dedicated to the engineer Henry Bell, a pioneer of Steamships who built Europe’s first steamer which, 200 years ago, would have passed this very point three times a week taking passengers to Glasgow.  I had cycled through the site years before on the Sustrans bike path to Loch Lomond, when it was all rough grassland and scrub. The whole area was now a huge building site and the lorries were shuttling back and forth delivering aggregate for the construction.

We cut up a lane that took us into a lovely designed landscape with a pond and a waterfall and a rising path took us up the escarpment of the Kilpatrick’s, at last going in the direction I was wanting to go. Ancient overgrown hedgerows had formed into linear woodlands which led up to a beautiful outlook with cliffs behind and rising hills on either side.

“Green Belts are a weird fish” said Bob as we followed the old hedgerow. “They’re neither fish nor fowl. Everything, no matter what it is, every blade of grass is designated within a greenbelt”

In Aberdeen, while Head of Planning, Bob had set about rethinking Green Belts, firstly in terms of quality space for people and nature that should be retained forever as a Greenspace network, and secondly as other parts of the Green Belt which could be redesignated at a later date if there was a need for land for development.  

Hill of Dun was now to our right steeply rising and we were on a path that took us gently round the back of the hill. It was turning into a lovely walk. We headed down a valley and through a woodland where the boulders on the forest floor seemed to have been cleared to either side to allow for a track – it was too rocky still to allow any kind of vehicle a route through so whoever moved the stones must have done it simply for the walking. But from the moss on the rocks, it didn’t look like anyone had passed this way for a very long time.

Hill of Dun on the right and the Bassalt escarpment of the Kilpatricks on the left

At this point we needed to climb a fence to take us onward in the direction we needed to go and, as usual, I had forgotten my barbed wire climbing device (pipe insulation lined with apple juice cartons).

“Did you know that Norway banned barbed wire about 15 years ago?”, said Nick. He explained that it was part of their Animal Welfare act because of the damage it does to domestic animals and wildlife. I put my, now battered and pricked-all-over-with-holes, rucksack over the barbed wire and climbed over wondering how a barbed wire ban would go down in Scotland.

We walked through a field of young trees that had evidently been recently planted, Nick was looking at the tree guards carefully and how many of the trees were alive. Nick is a long-time campaigner on National Parks and creator of the much-read ‘Parkswatch’ blog, where he looks at the implementation of their policies on the ground and often calls out where things are going wrong. One of his recent blogs, had been related to the Brew Dog ‘Lost Forest’ planting just south of Aviemore in the Cairngorms National park, revealing the large proportion of planted trees that died and criticizing the grants given for planting in an area that was already experiencing natural regeneration.

We were getting close to the track that would take us easily down to Cochno and the end of our trip, but it was on the other side of a wide burn. It is one of the core paths that go from the settlements at the base of the Kilpatricks up to the hills.

A track had been created through the woods by moving boulders to each side

 As a campaigner and also as the first elected chair of the Scottish Access after the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2023, Bob became closely involved in the development of the concept of Core Paths, and in its delivery.

“The intention with core paths was that the council would take responsibility for keeping the core paths in good condition and maintaining them” said Bob. It gave a meaningful but manageable network that could be maintained and would link people  to their local countryside so everyone had access to paths close to their homes . The local authority has the powers to maintain a core path but not a duty to do so.  

The guidance drawn up for Local Authorities says: “Every local authority in Scotland is required … to draw up a plan for a system of paths (core paths) sufficient for the purposes of giving the public reasonable access throughout their area.”1 

Paths were consulted on in local communities, chosen from paths that locals used and in discussions with landowners. It took ten years for the core paths to be finalised, rather than the three years that were intended. I asked about why it’s so hard to find out where the core paths are: they aren’t on OS maps and each local authority records them differently. The Nature Scot map is very difficult to use as it doesn’t integrate with any mapping apps.

“The OS [ordnance survey] was supposed to put the core paths on their maps but they did not” said Bob, “To say that the OS can’t put an overlay of the paths on the OS maps is ludicrous”

Bob was evidently still extremely annoyed about the situation. I shared my experience that core paths I’d been on didn’t seem to be used or maintained. “if they were mapped then people would use them” said Bob

This was evidently unfinished business for Bob, and it was starting to become quite an urgent issue in my mind as well, given my experiences on the Green Belt walk. If these hard-won and agreed paths aren’t on maps how can we expect people to be using them regularly, for purposes envisaged in the Land Reform Act. No wonder many people get in their cars to head to the usual honeypots when they want to go for a walk on a sunny evening or weekend.

I remembered something that land reform campaigner and writer Andy Wightman had said at that Right to Roam gathering on the Scots Dyke. It was something I have found to be true in my own experiences, especially during this Green Belt walk.

In an interview with Channel 4 News he said:

“This was never about access to the mountains in Scotland. We had that. No-one was going to take that away. It was about giving confidence to the person living on the edge of Glasgow to be able to walk to the hill they could see a mile away2”    

If this Green Belt walk of mine has been anything, it has been a celebration of our rights of access. The right to walk from where most people live, in towns and cities, out into the countryside and beyond. Core paths were a vital part of the Land Reform Act, providing a network of paths people would feel comfortable and confident accessing, but the potential of this network seems never to have been achieved.

We were looking out for places to cross the burn and eventually came across a fallen tree which I crawled across. Nick and Bob followed, balancing elegantly. At the other side the difficulties started with a steep river bank topped by a fence with two rows of barbed wire. It had fallen over to offer an unclimbable barbed wire overhang. Tangled brambles complicated the issue. I set off upstream and managed to find a way through with difficulty, and I walked back along the right side of the fence to find Nick just emerging from the river bank after a bit of a struggle.

From there it was an easy walk through Cochno estate, owned by Glasgow University as their teaching farm, and to the car park

As we chatted and walked Nick and Bob were reminiscing about the days of their youths when they would go into the Cairngorms with Adam Watson, the eminent ecologist (“We called him Mr Cairngorms”), the conservationist and writer Dick Balharry, and Drenan Watson who founded Scottish environment LINK – the coalition of environmental charities (“no relative of the other Watson”– said Nick).

“I just had a bit of Déjà vu about those days, as we walked along.” said Bob. He explained how they would tell them about the ecology, the old guard of access pioneers, “Drenan had a story about every farm we passed”.

It was evidently a formative time for Nick and Bob. “The oldies would be boxing our ears” he said laughing. “I’m just wondering if that’s what you’re doing with us here”.

I wasn’t quite clear who was supposed to be boxing whose ears. But I decided not to ask.

  1. https://www.gov.scot/publications/part-1-land-reform-scotland-act-2003-guidance-local-authorities-national-park-authorities/pages/2/ ↩︎
  2. https://www.channel4.com/news/activists-call-for-england-to-join-scotland-in-right-to-roam-laws ↩︎

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