A Highland sporting estate owned by the billionaire family of Kate Middleton’s sister has been urged by politicians and a ramblers charity to stop trying to deter public access at a famous loch.
But the 10,000 acre estate, owned by Pippa Middleton Matthews’ family, has put up signs saying there is “no access” across the bridge at the loch’s eastern end, preventing the public’s use of a two-mile walking circuit.
The “repressive” signs have prompted local politicians to brand Glen Affric Estate’s actions as “ungenerous and imperious”, and Highland Council has been asked to resolve the access dispute.
Ramblers Scotland claimed that while the signs do not breach Scotland’s land access laws, the estate’s “mean spirited” decision means visitors must walk the entire 11-mile circuit, or turn back.
Walkers have urged the landowner to stop impeding public use of the bridge, or provide an alternative route.
Glen Affric Estate – which offers luxury holiday accommodation – previously claimed the bridge led walkers too close to its houses, and breached privacy.
Its view was backed by Highland Council, which defended the blocked route as “accurate and lawful”, and said access rights did not apply to the track on the north side of the bridge.
As part of The Ferret’s recent Scotland’s Secret Owners investigation, we discovered that David Matthews, Pippa Middleton Matthews’ father-in-law, owned the estate via a series of companies registered in offshore tax havens.
Matthews reportedly became the Laird of Glen Affric when he bought the estate for £7m in 2008. His son James – who married Middleton, the sister of the Princess of Wales, in 2017 – will inherit both the estate and title.
There is no suggestion Matthews or companies associated with him have broken tax laws, but tax campaigners warn that entities registered in tax havens contribute to global tax loss and poor financial transparency.
Walkers frustrated by ‘no access’ signs
The Ferret’s probe into the estate’s ownership prompted a Ramblers Scotland campaigner to highlight the estate’s use of “no access” signs on Twitter.
In response, other users shared their own experiences walking at Loch Affric.
One user, Stana Cepkova, said she and others were walking by the lochside in October before encountering a “no access” sign. Her group turned back after three miles “as we couldn’t commit walking the whole [11 miles]” she added.
The bridge leads to an area which is home to Glen Affric lodge and other high-end accommodation. The estate does not publicly advertise its prices for guests, but media reports have claimed rental costs span from £11,880 to £25,000.
The land reform expert and former MSP, Andy Wightman, said “it used to be no bother crossing the bridge”, long before new land access legislation was introduced. The conversion of Affric Lodge and associated buildings “to an exclusive resort type business has led to blocking off this route”, he claimed.
Others called on the estate to provide an alternative path.
Cameron McNeish, the renowned Scottish hiker and mountaineer, argued that “it would have been a simple task to create a managed path through this part of the estate, well away from the houses, to enable people to enjoy the shorter walk”.
The balance between public access rights and landowners’ rights to privacy and security was brought into the spotlight in 2006 when millionaire Stagecoach co-founder, Ann Gloag, won the right to exclude 12 acres of grounds around Kinfauns Castle from public access. This included four acres of woodland contested by Ramblers and Perth and Kinross Council.
The Ferret has previously revealed other high profile access disputes at Glen Lyon in Perthshire, and Ardnamurchan in the West Highlands, as well as more than 1,000 alleged obstructions to Scotland’s paths in recent years.
Calls to re-open the Glen Affric bridge
Ramblers Scotland urged Glen Affric estate to “re-consider and take a more community-spirited approach by reopening public access across this footbridge, which we know was regularly used by walkers in years gone by”.
“We have discussed the issue with the Highland Council too, as this route has great value for people looking to enjoy a loch-side walk, otherwise an 11-mile circuit is the only circular option,” said Helen Todd, the walking charity’s campaigns and policy manager.
“Regardless of whether there is a legal commitment upon the landowner to enable access, we hope that they will grasp the opportunity to improve the options for residents and visitors who are simply looking to enjoy a healthy day out in a beautiful place.”
Local MP Ian Blackford said: “I am disappointed to learn that yet another landowner has taken the repressive decision to block a well-used public access. As I understand it, such a move does not contravene the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, but it is certainly ungenerous and imperious.
“I would urge those responsible to think again about this decision. The days of wealthy landowners behaving in such a high-handed manner should be resigned to the past, where they belong.”
Rhoda Grant, Scottish Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands said she had written to Highland Council “asking them to investigate and resolve the situation.”
Ariane Burgess, the Scottish Greens MSP for the same region said: “The idea that wealthy individuals based out of tax havens could discourage the use of that right because they might have to see us out of their windows, rightly causes outrage across Scottish society.”
The Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays) said it had “not recorded a right of way running across the footbridge or passing the buildings and it appears that statutory access rights are unlikely to apply as the route passes so close to the houses.”
Highland Council said it “takes the view that the sign is accurate and lawful”. “The track on the north side of the bridge passes through the grounds of Affric Cottage where public access rights do not apply,” a spokesperson added. “Insufficient evidence emerged from a previous investigation to suggest that it was a public right of way.”
The Ferret attempted to contact Glen Affric Estate and James Matthews via his Eden Group company, but did not receive a response.