Council and walking charity enter legal battle with Highland estate 5

Council and walking charity enter legal battle with Highland estate

A walking charity and Highland Council have entered a court battle to stop a wealthy landowner from closing a “historic and important path” that locals claim has existed for generations.

Ramblers Scotland is joining the council in fighting to keep a path open in Donald Houston’s estate on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The charity estimates its legal costs could be up to £82,000 and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the fees.

Ramblers called the legal action “a last resort”. An online court hearing is scheduled for 2 February 2022.

The Ferret revealed in May that the former leader of Highland Council and fellow residents had accused Houston and his estate of breaching the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

A report compiled by locals said 17 locked gates were counted on paths between Glenborrodale to Acharacle on estate land in January 2020 and had not improved in the following months.

They claimed locked gates on paths long-featured on local maps, Google Maps and walking guides, and breached council planning and commercial forestry grant conditions, setting ”a dangerous precedent” for Scottish land rights.

A 2019 email passed to The Ferret showed that Houston threatened the council’s then-access officer with legal action unless he stated that right of way on the route did not exist.

Years later, the access row has been brought to the courtroom.

A sheriff court last week gave Ramblers permission to join the council in opposing a bid by Houston’s logging firm, Woodland Renewables. Houston aims to use section 28 of the land reform act to remove access rights from part of his estate.

As well as opposing Houston’s bid, the council aims to prove that a path that crosses the disputed area of the estate is a right of way, Ramblers Scotland said.

“If we don’t fight to save the route, it’ll be a significant blow to our hard-won access rights and walkers will be banned from parts of this beautiful trail forever,” said Ramblers director, Brendan Paddy.

The days of wealthy landowners behaving in this high-handed manner should be resigned to the past, where they belong.

Ian Blackford, local MP

“I hope that lovers of the outdoors will consider donating to support our work – and deliver a resounding message that people in Scotland believe our access rights are worth fighting for.”

Local resident Dr David Kime told The Ferret in May that Houston reported him and his wife for aggravated trespass in 2019 after walking the path, which they said they had enjoyed without issue for over 40 years.

The retired couple passed through a yard on the route containing biomass woodchip sheds, which the estate built in recent years to heat its properties.

Following police interviews and a report sent to the procurator fiscal, the Kimes faced no legal action. But Ramblers deemed the case “unprecedented and worrying”.

Houston has previously cited health and safety concerns as a reason for the need to restrict access. The landowner reportedly bought the 30,000 acre Ardnamurchan Estate, which makes up much of the peninsula, in 1996.

He also owns the Adelphi Distillery, built with the help of a £1.7m Scottish Government grant and was reportedly the second largest donor to the pro-union Better Together campaign.

Following The Ferret’s article, local MP Ian Blackford called on Houston to “think again” about his access restrictions. “The days of wealthy landowners behaving in this high-handed manner should be resigned to the past, where they belong,” he told the Oban Times in July.

Ardnamurchan Estates and Highland Council did not respond to requests for comment.

We updated this article on 6 July 2022 to clarify that Ramblers Scotland and Highland Council were opposing Donald Houston’s court bid to close the path, rather than initiating the court case themselves.

Photo Credit: Ramblers Scotland

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