JK Rowling firm in row over right-to-roam access

By David Knox
BBC Scotland Selkirk

  • Published
J.K. Rowling attends "Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore" World Premiere at The Royal Festival Hall on March 29, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
JK Rowling owns Thistlelane Ltd, which has two big forestry estates in the Borders

A firm controlled by Harry Potter author JK Rowling has been accused of preventing access to paths on forestry estates in the Scottish Borders.

Walkers and mountain-bikers claim that navigating a historical six-mile right-of-way has been hampered by the firm.

Thistlelane Ltd owns the 290-hectare Sheperdscleuh estate as well as the 306-hectare Wardlaw estate.

Agents for Thistlelane rejected accusations that right-to-roam legislation had been breached.

Image caption,
Ramblers enjoying the views from the Captain's Road before the access problems

The agents, Scottish Woodlands, confirmed that talks were ongoing with community groups and access officers over "issues".

Walkers and community leaders claim Rowling's company erected no-access signs at gates on the trail known as Captain's Road, blocked efforts to erect way-markers, threatened to lock gates, and even planted trees across the route.

Mountain bike enthusiast Paul Collins, who lives in the Yarrow Valley, said "We can't now walk or cycle the original Captain's Road because of forestry, and they keep raising concerns about using the nearby forestry road as an alternative route.

"We're now at the stage where we can't follow the Captain's Road because of the action of the landowners."

Mr Collins said forestry companies at nearby Glentress were opening up great swathes of land for walkers and mountain bikers but this small right-of-way over the hills above St Mary's Loch appeared to have been closed down.

Image caption,
No access signs have been put on gates along the route

Thistlelane Ltd is under the sole directorship of JK Rowling's husband, Dr Neil Murray, and lists the person with significant control - having at least three-quarters of the shares - as the author by her married name of Joanne Kathleen Murray.

The Captain's Road, which links two droving inns, Tibbie Shiel's and Tushielaw, was one of the earliest metalled roads connecting the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys.

It is named after a Napoleonic War captain, called Napier, who bought and farmed the same hills in the early 19th Century.

Image caption,
Gordon Harrison at a section of the route for planting

Following the arrival of modern-surfaced roads in the early 20th Century, it gradually became overgrown.

With the growth in popularity of rambling and off-road biking the Captain's Road began to be used more regularly as a way up into the hills from the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys.

In 2019 a missing link was re-established, with public and grant funding from the local authority and other organisations.

The opening saw around 30 walkers cross the six-mile route - and over the following months many more hikers and bikers followed in their footsteps across the scenic pass.

But during the Covid pandemic "no access" signs appeared.

Gordon Harrison, who is a former chair of the Ettrick and Yarrow Community Council, took part in the original negotiations with landowners when re-establishing sections of the Captain's Road.

He said: "The Captain's Road has been there for a long time and when the community decided to signpost it and resurface a section, the discussions with landowners were favourable.

Image caption,
A lengthy section of the route through a peat bog has been ‘mounded’ for saplings

"We wanted to encourage people to visit the area and either walk or cycle the route between Tushielaw and St Mary's Loch - there are some spectacular views."

But Mr Harrison added: "Something has happened and I don't know what, but more recently there has been continuous hurdles put up to prevent people using the route.

"The latest is them planting saplings across the right-of-way and not offering any alternative routes - those saplings will quickly become large trees and it will be impossible to walk or cycle through there."

Frank Garton was also heavily involved with the project to re-establish the lost section of the Captain's Road.

He said: "We are now at the stage where you can't use the right-of-way and we are not allowed to sign-post any alternative routes.

"The entire project to connect the two paths, as well as all the grant and public funding, has been a waste of time."

Image caption,
The right-of-way as identified by Scottish Borders Council

Scottish Borders Council's access officers are currently in negotiations with Thistlelane's agents, Scottish Woodlands, about the right-of-way issues.

A site visit is also due to take place between the agents and community leaders in the coming days.

Charlotte Cavey-Wilcox, from Scottish Woodlands, denied that access rights had been breached.

She said: "We are currently liaising closely with Scottish Forestry, Scottish Borders Council and the Ettrick and Yarrow Community Development Company to try and resolve the issues.

"Members of the public have a right to responsible access under Scottish legislation and the terms of the Scottish Outdoor Access code and these rights have not been restricted within Shepherdscleuch Forest."

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