One of the glories of England and Wales for walkers is the public rights-of-way network. Buy an Ordnance Survey map, and you are free to follow any of the pink or green dotted lines. Moreover, landowners are not permitted to obstruct these paths permanently; farmers may of course plough a field which has a public path across it, but must re-instate the path within a couple of weeks. Naturally, this doesn’t work perfectly; but you can plan a walk on the map and set out with reasonanble confidence.
As in so many ways, Scotland is a different country. Legally, we have the right to walk anywhere in Scotland, subject to a few commonsense limitations: not through a garden close to someone’s house, not across land where game shooting is in progress, and a few similar exceptions. This sounds wonderfully liberal compared to England where you may not walk anywhere on most land but must stick carefully to the right-of-way. But of course, the effect of this is often that you can walk nowhere. Since there are no paths, they are not marked on the maps; you enter a field with absolutely no guarantee that you can get out the other side. So either you stick to walks you have done before, or your walks are chancy affairs.
But things are changing. Fife (and I believe other counties too) are preparing maps of what are known as core paths, which may not have the same legal status as English or Welsh rights of way, but in practice will serve the same function: the owner or land agent will be obliged to keep them passable, and you can plan your walk and set out into the unknown.
Fife have put maps of the core paths by region, and an interactive map of the whole Kingdom of Fife, on their web-site. But I can’t take a website with me on a walk (at least with the technology I currently have). On a recent walk on the Lomond Hills with my St Andrews colleagues, I fell into conversation with an elderly couple who were bemoaning the fact that you couldn’t get copies of the core maps. Well, now you can: the council will supply you with an A3 book of maps with all the core paths marked.
The thing has some implementation problems. The website tells you the cost, but provides no payment facilities or even address to send a cheque, merely an email address. So I emailed, and a Council officer in Glenrothes told me where to send a cheque and who to make it out to.
I hoped that the book would arrive before the Easter weekend, so we could road-test it then. It didn’t, but with a combination of some route notes in the Scottish Coast-to-Coast guidebook and some faint dotted lines on the map, we walked from St Andrews to Cupar via Strathkinness, Blebo Craigs, Dura Den, and Ceres, taking in the lovely scenery in Dura Den, the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres, and what might be the only place from which it is possible to see both the Lomond Hills and the towers of St Andrews (the top of Clatto hill). The road through Dura Den was closed as the result of a flood a couple of years ago, when part of a house and half the road were washed away, but it was still passable on foot; the scenery in this gorge is absolutely outstanding. Ceres has a remarkable folk museum, and a long-running annual Highland Games (awarded to the town because of the townsfolk who went to fight for Robert Bruce at Bannockburn 700 years ago – very topical!) It turned out that most of our route (except for a busy road between Pitscottie and Ceres) was on core paths.
(Incidentally, Clatto Hill, and the high ground of Blebocraigs, are the reason why you can’t see the Lomond Hills from St Andrews or vice versa. The road there is precisely aligned, with the hills directly ahead and the town directly behind.)
The maps arrived right after Easter, while I was in London. The paths are shown superimposed on a faded-out version of the 1:25000 Ordnance Survey maps; they would be good enough to use for walking, though the A3-format book is a bit bulky to carry on a hike, so I will probably transfer the paths onto the regular OS maps. I was looking forward to going out and testing some of the paths on my return this weekend. But, sad to say, I put my back out just before catching the train north, so this will be a bit delayed.
Core paths include some walking on vergeless roads, which are too busy round here for such walks to be really pleasant. There are also some strange omissions; for example, Lade Braes in St Andrews is not a core path. But still this seems a positive move. In the prefatory material, the council spells out the key objectives of the core path network. Some of these seem a little quaint: for example, core paths should link educationally deprived areas with educational establishments. I can imagine the people of Burntisland setting off, Jude-the-Obscure fashion, for St Andrews to improve themselves with an education.