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

A company managed by JK Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter series, has been accused of blocking access to routes on forestry estates in the Scottish Borders.

Walkers and mountain bikers complain that the firm has made navigating a historic six-mile right-of-way challenging.

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

Thistlelane’s representatives denied that the right-to-roam law had been broken.
Scottish Woodlands, the agents, acknowledged that discussions with community organizations and access officers about “problems” were underway.

According to walkers and community groups, Rowling’s business allegedly installed no-access signs at gates on the Captain’s Road trail, stopped efforts to erect way-markers, threatened to lock gates, and even planted trees over the route.

“We can’t now walk or cycle the original Captain’s Road due to forestry,” said Paul Collins, a mountain bike enthusiast who lives in the Yarrow Valley. “They keep raising concerns about using the adjoining forestry road as an alternative route.”

“We’ve reached the point where we can no longer follow the Captain’s Road due to landowners’ actions.”

Mr. Collins said adjacent Glentress forestry businesses were opening up large swaths of land for walkers and mountain bikers, but this small right-of-way over the hills above St Mary’s Loch appeared to be locked down.

JK Rowling’s spouse, Dr. Neil Murray, is the only director of Thistlelane Ltd, which describes the author by her married name of Joanne Kathleen Murray as the person with significant control (holding at least three-quarters of the shares).

One of the first metalled roads connecting the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys was the Captain’s Road, which combines two droving inns, Tibbie Shiel’s and Tushielaw.

It was named after a Napier, a Napoleonic War commander who acquired and cultivated the same hills in the early 1800s.

It gradually grew overgrown after the arrival of modern-surfaced roadways in the early twentieth century.

The Captain’s Road began to be used more frequently as a path up into the hills from the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys as rambling and off-road biking became increasingly popular.

With public and grant money from the local government and other organizations, a missing link was re-established in 2019.

Around 30 walkers crossed the six-mile route on the first day, and many more hikers and bikers followed in their footsteps during the following months.

However, during the Covid epidemic, “no access” signs were posted.

Gordon Harrison, a former head of the Ettrick and Yarrow Community Council, was involved in the initial negotiations with landowners while the Captain’s Road was being re-established.

“The Captain’s Road has been around for a long time, and when the community chose to mark it and resurface a part, the conversations with landowners were positive,” he said.

“We wanted to encourage people to come to the area and walk or cycle the route between Tushielaw and St Mary’s Loch, which offers some wonderful views,” said the group.

“Something has happened, and I’m not sure what it is, but more recently, there have been continuous impediments to discourage people from utilizing the route,” Mr. Harrison continued.

“The latest is them planting saplings across the right-of-way with no other paths – those saplings will swiftly grow into enormous trees, making walking or cycling impossible.”

Frank Garton also significantly influenced the initiative to re-establish the lost part of the Captain’s Road.

“We’ve reached the point where you can’t utilize the right-of-way, and we’re not authorized to publish any alternate routes,” he said.

“The entire initiative, including all grant and public financing, to connect the two trails was a waste of time.”

Access officers from Scottish Borders Council are currently negotiating with Thistlelane’s agents, Scottish Woodlands, about right-of-way issues.

The agents and community leaders will meet on the ground for a site inspection in the following days.

Scottish Woodlands’ Charlotte Cavey-Wilcox denied that access rights had been violated.

“We’re working closely with Scottish Forestry, Scottish Borders Council, and the Ettrick and Yarrow Community Development Company to attempt to resolve the difficulties,” she said.

“Under Scottish legislation and the rules of the Scottish Outdoor Access code, public members have a right to responsible access, and these rights have not been curtailed within Shepherdscleuch Forest.”

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