Scotland’s John Muir figure to retire

viewpointAT the end of September one of Scotland’s best known environmental campaigners will retire from his post as director of Ramblers Scotland.

To be honest I’m not terribly sure if that is his title anymore. A few years ago, in a fit of Londoncentricism and not a little pique, the Ramblers CEO at the time, one Tom Franklin, decimated the Ramblers Scottish and Welsh offices in a so-called cost-cutting operation.

The Scottish budget was drastically reduced and Ramblers Scotland office personnel was cut from seven to one and a half and the director’s salary halved.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind, and as a Vice President of Ramblers Scotland I said so at the time, that such draconian action wasn’t about money – the following year the organisation made a million pounds profit – but was more about getting rid of the very effective and successful Dave Morris.

As far as Tom Franklin was concerned there was only room in the charity for one figurehead. The thought of having a maverick and hugely successful director in Scotland was just too much for the self-publicist Franklin, who incidentally moved on to a better paid job shortly after the debacle.

Dave Morris

Dave Morris

Franklin simply couldn’t bear to think there was someone in the Ramblers bigger than he was and he badly misjudged Dave Morris’ tenacity, a resolve that had made him, to quote someone else, a Colossus of the Scottish access movement.

With such opposition from within your own organisation, most of us would have succumbed, especially if you happened to be going through a tracheostomy and your daughter had just been diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Indeed I remember suggesting to Dave at the time that perhaps he should take early retirement and concentrate on his health, but like Tom Franklin I had seriously underestimated Dave’s determination.

Sadly Dave’s daughter Esme passed away last year at the very young age of 18, but Dave has treated the tracheostomy like any other challenge he has been faced with. He walks, climbs and skis regularly and reached 20,000ft on Ama Dablam, the highest anyone has ever gone with an artificial voicebox. On that expedition his son Calum (16) summited the Nepalese peak with guide Sandy Allan.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dave Morris on various environmental campaigns since the late seventies when he worked as a regional officer for the Nature Conservancy Council and then Scottish Natural Heritage. I also served two three-year terms as President of Ramblers Scotland.

It was during the Lurchers’ Gully affair, the proposal to extend ski facilities right across the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, that I first worked alongside Dave and I must admit to having been a little awed by his professionalism, his ability to think out of the box, and his sheer determination.

Conservationists won that campaign, and Dave Morris masterminded it.

Dave (centre) discussing walking with Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie MSP and Benedict Southworth

Dave (centre) discussing walking with Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie MSP and Benedict Southworth

Dave was also central to the victory in the Lingerbay Quarry campaign on Harris and he also masterminded the whole campaign for access in Scotland prior to the publication of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. That was the legislation passed by the fledgling Scottish Parliament that gave Scotland the finest access legislation in the world.

Despite politician’s promises to give something to Scotland’s people in the early years of the Parliament it wasn’t an easy campaign. Some politicians and other access organisations made life extremely difficult, particularly the late Sam Galbraith and the Scottish Rights of Way Society.

Dave, working very closely with Alan Blackshaw, based much of the access argument on the fact that Scotland had no law of trespass. He argued that freedom to roam was the de facto position and should simply be codified.

The Scottish Rights of Way Society, no doubt anxious to preserve the status of rights of way, repeatedly argued that there certainly was a law of trespass in Scotland. In effect their argument didn’t change much, but it was a constant irritant and was picked up and frequently used as ammunition by the Tory opposition.

The late Sam Galbraith MSP, all round good guy and former climber, uncharacteristically, didn’t help the cause either. Together with his Lib/Dem colleague Jim Wallace he produced draft legislation that was simply a landowners’ charter. It was simply horrendous and certainly didn’t reflect the mood of the parliament. He also took the opportunity to try and publicly humiliate Dave at a press meeting when Dave had the temerity to question the poorly constructed draft legislation.

But at this point in the debate something happened to effectively turn things in our favour. Foot and mouth disease spread across the UK. At first walkers and ramblers got the blame, then Scotland’s Rural Affairs Minister Ross Finnie told everyone to stay at home – don’t go into the countryside.

From the outset Dave Morris was convinced, on good authority, that humans did not spread this disease, but it was only when Scotland’s tourism industry began to bitterly complain that their members were going bust that Ross Finnie changed tact overnight and actively encouraged people to go back to the countryside.

The Scottish Government’s treatment of the epidemic was, in short, a complete shambles, but a shambles with a silver lining. With thousands of people being encouraged to visit Scotland’s hills and glens Scottish lairds refused to take down their No Access signs. They seemed to rather like the notion of the great unwashed being banned from the hills and they were determined to continue stopping the public from taking rightful access.

Dave (right) meeting then transport Minister, Stewart Stevenson

Dave (right) meeting then transport Minister, Stewart Stevenson

Eventually Jim Wallace, (Sam Galbraith had by now retired due to ill-health) under a lot of pressure from some of his fellow Lib Dems, notably Mike Rumbles, decided the landowners had “shot themselves in the foot” and binned the draft legislation. The parliament produced a new draft which, after some negotiaton, resulted in the superb access legislation we can now boast of in Scotland.

I have no doubt the supreme architects of that legislation were the late Alan Blackshaw, whose superb historical research and political experience as a top civil servant added much to the campaign, and Dave Morris of Ramblers Scotland.

In 2007 Dave lost an acrimonious access battle with Stagecoach tycoon Ann Gloag when she argued that her wealth and social standing necessitated a high fence around her castle in Perthshire for protection from the public.

She won her case but Roseanna Cunningham, the local MSP, put down emergency questions on the case at Holyrood. “If the Queen doesn’t require fences at Balmoral, I’m not entirely clear why they’re needed at Kinfauns. I hope we’re not going to sit by and watch this (access legislation) being eroded,” she said.
Fortunately, in another case shortly afterwards, another sheriff interpreted the legislation rather differently when he threw out multi-millionaire Euan Snowie’s assertion that he could prohibit the public from his Boquhan Estate near Stirling.

Dave (left) meeting with Paul Lister of Alladale Estate and Dick Balharry

Dave (left) meeting with Paul Lister of Alladale Estate and Dick Balharry

In 2003 I stood down after a first term as President of Ramblers Scotland. In my address at that year’s AGM I suggested that if the continual degradation of our mountains and wild areas was to be halted, then we needed to raise up a leader of the calibre of John Muir, a preacher of the highest order, a wild land evangelist with the ability to light fires in the hearts of our most urban-minded politicians, a wild-country champion who could lift up the eyes of an uncaring public and show them that in wildness lies the hope of the world.

I then suggested that Dave Morris was the closest person we had to a John Muir figure. I still believe that.

Dave has done more than anyone else I know to protect Scottish landscapes and wildlife and I hope he can enjoy an active retirement walking and travelling with his partner Anne. Having said that, somehow I doubt if we’ve heard the last of him.

Link: Ramblers Scotland

Enjoyed this article or find Walkhighlands useful?

Please consider setting up a direct debit donation to support the continued maintenance and updates to Walkhighlands.

Share on 


You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.