Landowner has no wish to ‘snatch freedom’ from walkers

A Scottish landowner has said he is ‘mystified’ about what he believes is a politically motivated campaign of misinformation concerning his attitude to ramblers.

Donald Houston has managed a 27,000-acre estate for 25 years in the West Highlands, on behalf of his own company and others, including a registered local charity.

Although it is predominantly a working farm, the estate is advertised as ‘remote, timeless and beautiful’ with an ‘enviable reputation’ for its livestock, tourist accommodation and wildlife.

Mr Houston was commenting on recent articles which portrayed him as someone ready to ‘snatch freedom’ from people.

This followed the announcement that Mr Houston has sought a court order that the path through his working timber yard should be declared out of bounds for walkers due to the extreme danger they would face from industrial vehicles and large-scale wood cutting apparatus.

Ramblers Scotland and Highland Council will now oppose the bid by Mr Houston’s company, Woodland Renewables.

A spokesman for Mr Houston said: ‘Like the overwhelming majority of landowners in Scotland, Mr Houston respects, abides by and wholly supports the law in relation to people’s rights to enjoy a healthy walk.

‘The dispute over access at Ardnamuchan Estate is not an attempt to thwart the rights of the few ramblers who venture through our property from time to time.

‘As a working livestock farm that has diversified into tourism, Mr Houston welcomes visitors and walkers all year round. It is an effort to protect them and indeed the people who work in a thriving timber yard which directly employs six local people on the site itself, supports the jobs of an additional 20 people locally, has heavy goods vehicles going in and out on a regular basis and has heavy equipment operating in the open on the land.’

Mr Houston’s longstanding disagreement with Highland Council has seen him suggesting four alternative routes for walkers which they have not been prepared to accept or even consider to date.

A spokesman for Highland Council preivously said: ‘The council is opposing the application made under Section 28 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act2003.

‘It is the council’s intention to raise a separate action to have a route through the site that is subject to the Section28 application declared a Public Right of Way.’

The spokesman added: ‘The determination of some in Highland Council to force the yard to shut is beyond comprehension, as are the lengths to which they have gone, including providing grossly misleading information in a written reply to an MSP.

‘We still hope this matter will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. It is convenient for critics to create stereotypes of landowners as people who will use any excuse to block access rights. To suggest that the closure of a timber yard with the associated loss of jobs is a price worth paying so a small number of people can wander through a working business, when there are good alternative routes, beggars belief.

‘The support we have had from the locals who live and work here, and are bringing their families up in this area, is astounding. The majority of the families who have lived here for generations have all signed a petition in support of our position, which has been ignored by Highland Council.

‘The allegation that we have locked 17 gates is misleading and untrue. We are only too happy to admit and justify the fact that as a working farm we do sometimes lock gates – but this is not to stop people taking responsible access, it is to stop livestock getting into areas we don’t want them to be in or to keep deer out of newly planted forestry areas. It should also be noted by Ramblers Scotland that many of the wider gates, designed to prevent motor vehicles entering dangerous terrain, there are adjacent unlocked, pedestrian gates.

‘The West Highlands is not sustainable without visitors and tourists, and in order to enable them to enjoy their stay, access needs to be safe for them. In our case, that means that we need to close off less than 0.1% of the whole area to keep visitors away from dangerous machinery and equipment, and it also allows the people working on the farm to make a living.

‘On our estate we are doing everything we possibly can to create jobs, keep and bring back young families in the Highlands, reduce carbon, develop alternative energies, provide products for export and generate income into the Highlands, all of which tick every single box that governments around the world are advocating.’