The history of Countryside Rangers

The History of Rangers in Scotland

The Scottish countryside has seen enormous changes in the last 200 years, a striking example of the global conflicts of growth, employment and population needs on the one hand; and aesthetics, recreation and conservation on the other.

In the 19th century the growing population of the industrialised Central Belt and England turned to the Highlands to find fresh air and open spaces.

Professor Christopher Smout points out this division:

* Three traditional uses of the land as a resource:

  1. for the community in terms of farming, forestry and fishing;
  2. for the private land-lord in terms of hunting, shooting and fishing;
  3. for industry, in terms of mining, quarrying and hydro-electricity schemes.

* Set against this are three ideas relating to the "green" or "romantic" ideal of the countryside:

  1. the land as an "invigorating obstacle course", for walkers, climbers, skiers and water-sports;
  2. as a place of tranquility;
  3. as a refuge for its wildlife.

These ideas led to conflict between the people who lived in rural areas and the "incomers". Sir Robert Cowan, once Chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, said in 1990: "People in the Highlands and Islands do not want or need to be told what developments can, or cannot, take place on their land by those often many miles removed from the physical reality". This is reflected not only in how the Highlander views Edinburgh or Glasgow, but also how Scotland views the authority of the London-based Government.

The need for new Countryside Protection

The clash of interests in the countryside came to a head in the early 1960s with growing pressures on the countryside. The long established Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) was the science-based government organisation, responsible for looking after designated fragile areas and wildlife, backed up by biological recording and scientific research. The NCC was not designed to be primarily concerned with receiving and advising visitors to the countryside. Part of the solution was the passing of the Countryside (Scotland) Act of 1967 which created the Countryside Commission for Scotland (CCS) to look at the needs of public access. From this Act emerged a new Ranger Service.

The Countryside Commission for Scotland 

In 1967 the CCS started with a clean sheet to develop responsible land management for public enjoyment, access, and recreation, and conservation based education in the countryside. The CCS was the "parent" of all Scottish Ranger Services, providing funding, policies, training and inspiration. Its headquarters were at Battleby, just north of Perth. At Battleby the CCS developed a fine practical display of outdoor, interpretive techniques and countryside furniture designs, to demonstrate a high standard of design, equipment and maintenance for use in public access areas.

In 1967, the CCS was looking for approaches for its new Ranger Service. John Foster, the first Director of the CCS, and Don Aldridge, Head of Interpretation, both had experience in the USA and the Peak District National Park in England. At the same time, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was creating Rangers. Its Director, Jamie Stormonth Darling, also had close connections with the USA Park system. The NTS and the CCS concluded that in both the USA and the Peak District, the separation of the roles of education and public management in those Ranger Services had led to poor Resource Management. They decided that in a new Scottish Ranger Service, each Ranger would be a "person of many parts" and therefore widely trained.

Where the first Ranger Services appeared 

The Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967 allowed for Ranger Services to be set up by local government and non-governmental organisations such as NTS. They would be eligible for grant-aid from CCS.

The essential requirement for local authorities was that they should have power to make "byelaws" over the land where Rangers worked. In some places there were only byelaws for the publicly-run picnic sites and road-side lay-bys, so Rangers had to use these areas as the base for their work.

For the private sector such as estate owners and charities, employers had to have ownership of, and provide access to, the land.

The first employers were National Trust for Scotland, East Renfrew and East Lothian Councils, and Forestry Commission also had some of their recreation rangers trained by CCS. Soon to join in were the new Regional Councils, particularly those with new Country Parks such as Strathclyde; Highlands and Islands Development Board (at Cairngorm) and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The designation of long distance paths (West Highland Way, Speyside Way and Southern Upland Way) and development of British Waterways canal resources led to more Ranger Services being employed.

What is Countryside?

In 1967 the CCS could only work in "designated countryside". This was defined in geographical terms, giving the CCS a remit over the whole of Scotland including the urban fringe. Thus only the centres of major towns and cities were excluded from having a Ranger Service. In practice, the type of countryside that Rangers worked over varied from Country Parks in central Scotland, to some wild hill-tops such as Ben Lawers. The definition of "designated countryside" was removed in 1991, allowing Ranger Services to work in urban areas, of which the Wester Hailes project is one example.

Scottish National Parks

In 1979 CCS produced ‘A Park System for Scotland’ proposing a hierarchy of parks:

  • Urban parks,
  • Urban-fringe Country Parks within a short drive of large urban centres,
  • Regional Park, an intermediate designation which came into existence in the Pentland Hills, Lomond Hills and Clyde-Muirshiel.
  • Special Parks was the highest tier of designation proposed, widely believed to be a politically preferable alternative name for National Parks, against which opposition among landowners and the House of Lords was immovable. No such parks were designated under this system.

In the absence of a more appropriate mechanism for cooperation, the councils in Stirling and Glasgow and Dumbarton promoted a Regional Park designation for Loch Lomond. When the new Scottish Parliament passed its first legislation, in 2000, to create National Parks, Loch Lomond Regional Park and areas in Argyll and the Trossachs became the first National Park north of the Border, in 2002. The Ranger Service from the Regional Park formed the nucleus of the much expanded and only National Park Service in Scotland.

Designation of the Cairngorms National Park followed in 2003, but with fifteen local authority and private Ranger Services already in existence, the Cairngorms National Park Authority adopted a enabling approach and chose coordinate but not to employ Rangers.

Scottish Land Reform 2003

Continuing a radical agenda, the Scottish Parliament swept away decades of uncertainty with a new presumption of access rights, provided these are exercised responsibly, with few exceptions. The new legislation gave rise to new roles for Access Officers, employed by local authorities and National Parks, and many authorities directed their Ranger Services to concentrate primarily on access issues, playing down their role in conservation and education.

Diversity or inconsistency?

Some of the above may help to explain the diversity within the Scottish Ranger service. In some areas you may find Rangers helping out with local schools’ environmental education topics, even training teachers, and in others they will be solely managing countryside access or spending time promoting good behaviour and working with Police to prevent irresponsible recreation. In many areas Ranger Services are under threat and being reduced in scope and size. In others they have been reorganised to work for a new countryside trust, with mixed results.

From an idealistic start, many Ranger Service providers are now struggling with a severe financial situation. This makes it easier to overlook the benefit provided by the broad skills of the Ranger Service and the occasions, for example, in 2001 when Rangers provided an essential service to land managers during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.