The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 introduced a new right of access to most land and inland water in Scotland. This meant that the public has a right of non-motorised access to most land in Scotland, dependent on responsible behaviour. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code website covers responsible behaviour for both the public and land managers, with useful links and information including contact lists for specific route enquiries.

This makes it legal for any non-motorised user (e.g. cyclists and horse-riders) to use any path, provided they do so responsibly*, regardless of whether the route had traditionally been recognised as only a walking route. The term 'footpath' can create a misleading impression that, for example, cyclists and horse-riders would not be allowed to use the route, as would be the case in England and Wales. Thus, using the term 'path' is more inclusive and reduces the likelihood of confusion.

This doesn’t mean that every path must have the capacity to accommodate all types of use. There will always be practical reasons why some paths will be unsuitable for some users e.g. narrow bridges or gates, steep gradients, rough surfaces, stiles.OS maps in Scotland don’t show many rights of way, and there is no publicly-available source showing the entire path network. Paths and tracks are marked simply as physical features on OS maps. Given there is a general right of access, it’s reasonable to assume they are usable by the public, though this does not apply to certain places such as farmyards and military ranges. (If a route goes through a farmyard the public can only use it if it is a right of way or a core path).

Core paths are a significant resource for Slow Ways route plotters and users.Every local authority in Scotland has been required to draw up a Core Paths Plan which identifies a network of ‘core paths’ sufficient for providing access to their area. They have a similar status to rights of way in that they cannot be closed or diverted without a legal process.  As core paths have been identified and designated in the last 15 years they should be reliable and usable, and many will be signposted.  

NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) has a national map with links to all local authority Core Paths Plans which may contain more detail. Keep in mind the amount of development activity in urban/peri-urban areas, which means that even local authority plans may not be entirely current.

A national Catalogue of Rights of Way is maintained by Scotways (The Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society). It’s more a body of evidence and a legal resource than a ‘definitive map’ of paths and requires a membership fee or pay per item to look into the status of a route.

As with the rest of the UK, the National Cycle Network provides a reliable source of routes available for walking as well as cycling. 

There are numerous local path networks promoted online by community groups, and the following nationally promoted routes are useful reference points:

*The stress is on responsible use. For example, in some instances it would be considered irresponsible to ride (either a horse or a bike) over a fragile surface during wet weather, when to do so would cause significant damage. Neither would it be responsible cycle in a dangerous manner that could cause alarm or injury to another person.

Tips from an outdoor access professional for plotting and using Slow Ways routes in Scotland

  • Core Paths Plans are a reliable source of routes; check individual plans on local authority websites in case of recent amendments;
  • few Rights of Way are shown on OS maps in Scotland, but access rights apply to most land. You can plot a route on any path, track or road shown as a feature on an OS map, with the following caveats:
  • not through a farmyard unless it’s a right of way or core path 
  • not across a military range
  • not across a private garden (in large country estates, not close to the house, unless it’s a Right of Way or core path)
  • not through growing crops (in arable land plot a route on tracks or field margins)
  • not over golf greens, though a route on a path or track over a golf course is permitted (with an expectation not to disrupt play)
  • not through the curtilage of (i.e. immediately adjacent to) a building or structure, unless it’s a Right of Way or core path
  • avoid plotting routes across sports pitches as they are out of bounds when in use
  • access rights apply to sites designated for nature conservation, but these might be affected by seasonal restrictions so only plot routes on Rights of Way and core paths in these areas
  • for safety reasons, avoid plotting routes through enclosed fields regularly used for livestock grazing, unless there is a Right of Way or core path
  • Land managers can temporarily ‘close’ undesignated paths and tracks for certain land management purposes (e.g. timber harvesting, crop spraying, outdoor events) but they should always provide an alternative route, so this shouldn’t affect a route you are plotting.
  • Avoid plotting routes that rely on private rail crossings (e.g. accommodation crossings for farmers) as Network Rail has stated that these are unsafe for public use. (While this position is a matter of dispute, it could be seen as irresponsible to promote their use by the public until the matter is resolved).

General tips

  • Neither mapping nor satellite images will be completely up to date, so use two sources of information where possible.
  • If there is no path or track shown on an OS map, or no core path available, use Google satellite imagery to plot a route using worn desire lines and field margins, always ensuring the route uses existing gates and gaps.
  • Routes plotted by the public on openstreetmap.org may be useful for cross-referencing, but not as a primary source given they may simply reflect a random line an individual has taken in the field with no visible or physical reference points on the ground.