High and dry: the tide’s coming in on our right to roam

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Written by Conal McGregor (he/him)

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

A few different places may spring to mind when one considers where the world’s best beach is. Perhaps Australia, Hawaii, or somewhere like the Maldives – these are the tropical names commonly in the mix. However, it’s a relatively little-known fact that the title belongs to a bit of coast in Scotland’s South-East, just under an hour’s drive from the capital. Admittedly, I may be using the word ‘fact’ in a somewhat generous sense. On the off chance that the Hawaiian Tourist Board gets wind of this piece, I’m required to say that this is not based on any official ranking and people are of course entitled to their own opinion. It just so happens that in this instance, any contrary opinion would be considered misguided, and incorrect.

Tyninghame beach is, quite probably, my favourite place in the entire world. The fact that anyone could go there and not come away with the same opinion sits uncomfortably with me. Now of course I admit I may be somewhat swayed by the fact that I’m local to the area and hold many memories of days spent there – sun, wind, and rain. It is now impossible for me to walk the rocky path from the car park to the wide sands without donning a pair of rose-tinted sunnies but honestly – it’s gorgeous.

However, it seems this bliss is not to last. I recently received a text from my mum saying that on her last visit to the beach, she’d found a sizeable section of the headland had been fenced off with barbed wire and signs put in place warning of CCTV. The section in question contains an old log cabin built in the 1960s by a local Earl, to supposedly remind his wife of her native Canada. In recent years, the site has been developed somewhat and it’s now a popular wedding venue. This is fine… a perfect place for such an occasion, but this latest development comes after a string of changes restricting its accessibility.

Firstly, parking charges were installed at the car park. Okay – extra funding for the ranger service involved in the upkeep of these natural sites – good. Then, the car park was altered so that anyone not parking within the fairly small, designated zone, but on the verge of the road leading to it, faces hefty fines. On a nice day (rare as they are), the car park will likely be full by around 11 am. Whereas previously others could still enjoy the expansive beach and the many woodland walks in the surrounding area with little hassle or damage to anyone or anything, now, numbers are unreasonably and unhelpfully limited. Furthermore, recent outrages in the local press about people camping at beaches in the area and the mess they leave behind has prompted a blanket ban on overnight stays at beach car parks. And now this … the fencing off of part of the area for private use only.

Of course, people can still take a path around and reach the beach by another route, but peering through the windows of the cabin at the old gnarled wooden floors and harsh stone fireplace was all part of the day out. It’s from this raised lookout that you get a view of the vast expanse of waves and dunes stretching away from you – it’s where you would get the pic for your Instagram story. Coming, as it does, on the back of a long line of restrictive changes, it is hard to see how it’s anything but another step in the gradual exclusion of most people from this – the best beach in the entire world.

Here in Scotland, our Outdoor Access Code – where we get our ‘Right to Roam’ – is one of the many progressive and world-leading bits of legislation we can be proud of, but the Covid-19 induced lockdown has brought about worrying threats to it. The influx of domestic tourists has undoubtedly led to a bit of irresponsible parking here, or a spot of unnecessary littering there, and these are of course issues that must be tackled accordingly. Any proliferation of such occurrences will cause damage to the valuable natural areas that surround us. Regardless, attempts to cut us off from swathes of our own country must be resisted from the outset. Citizens, all over the country, must feel a connection to the geographical territory they live in. This connection to land and space is at the apex of what it means to live in a community. It’s what leads to respect for the environment, to responsible practices, and I believe, to societal progress. If people feel no connection to wherever they live, they will likely have little desire to improve it.

Now, of course, one can argue that this isn’t really a priority. A few dog walkers with their noses out of joint aren’t really the biggest of issues facing Scotland right now, but as we are often told, restrictions of freedoms come slowly. I’m not suggesting that the new rules are the start of some authoritarian creep, destined to have us all in chains, but it could be part of a move that makes our country a worse place for all. In England for example – where the right to roam is not enshrined as in Scotland – plans are being brought forward by the current Conservative government to bring in substantial fines and prison sentences for those knowingly trespassing on private land (only about 8% of the land is publicly owned btw). Concerns have been raised that these rules will be used to persecute travelling communities, already some of the most discriminated against people in our country. The gradual locking of doors could push us further and further down this dangerous path. Of course, this is all done under the pretence of ‘preserving and protecting’ the land, but for whom? Too often, the answer is for the wealthy and privileged.

We all have a right to enjoy and connect with the place we call home. There should be no ownership requirement for this; no wealth qualification, and although we still enjoy excellent access laws, we should be wary. A restriction that is not resisted today is a restriction that is entrenched in tomorrow; we must all ensure that the door to our country stays open – sun, wind, or rain.


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