The Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout took place in 1932. It involved three coordinated groups of walkers ascending the peak of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in Derbyshire, England, in a symbolic act to protest the lack of access to open countryside for most people in England. At the plateau of Kinder Scout the trespassers were confronted by gamekeepers and there was some violence. Six walkers were arrested.

In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Estonia, the right to roam, or everyman’s right (allemannsrett in Norway) has been a long-standing norm over many hundreds of years, which was eventually codified into law. In other countries this has not been the case. In the UK, for example, access to land as a matter of right is piecemeal, and an idea that has had to be wrested from the principle of private land ownership. In Scotland, the Land Reform Act of 2003 gave rights similarly extensive to those in Scandinavia. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 in England and Wales, however, widely considered to have formally enshrined the rights which were won as a result of the Kinder Scout Trespass and other campaigning by the Ramblers’ Association, gave a much more limited public right of way, principally on downland, moorland, heathland and coastal land - agriculturally unproductive fragments, often inaccessible or too small to be meaningful.

Historically, a large portion of land in England was ‘common’ and people who lived locally had certain rights to use it, though there was a landowner. Individuals might also possess multiple small strips of land within a manor, but often at a distance from each other, and the piecemeal use of the land became a greater barrier to efficient farming practice, particularly in the 18th century with rapid advances in agricultural technology. The Inclosures Acts implemented from 1773 to the late 1800s, removing these common rights, made it much easier for landowners to take control of the land and displace tenant farmers, who then left the countryside to work in factories as part of the Industrial Revolution. No equivalent of the allemansrett remained, and until the 20th century and protests like Kinder Scout, the campaigning of the Ramblers’ Association, and the development of limited legal rights to the countryside, no urban dweller in England could be sure of the right to access rural space.

Now almost half of English land is owned by less than 0.001 percent of the population, or about 25,000 people.1 The figures for Scotland are similarly extreme.

We don’t tend to think much about this in daily life in the UK, familiar as we are with land being always privately owned (and always owned by someone else2), and most of us living in urban areas. The countryside is not somewhere people feel public ownership of in the way they do in Norway. It’s something to visit, but not contiguous with the town and the city. As MyVillages state in their introduction to The Rural:

‘The rural and the urban are interdependent, and the current dichotomy has always been false but was maintained because power could be gained from playing down and denying the actual relationship between city and countryside.’3

It is hard to talk about land rights in the UK without considering the Highland Clearances, a programme of land-clearing overseen by wealthy landowners and powerful clan leaders in the Scottish Highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tenant farmers were ‘cleared’ from the land to which they held ancient, but not formalised, rights to use clan lands.

First moved to crofting communities on the margins to harvest kelp, fish, or work in quarries, then shipped to the Americas in large numbers when poverty prevailed, the Celts of the highlands were replaced by many thousands of sheep, who provided larger profits to the landowners than farmers had. Despite the fact that this 150-year-long forced depopulation of the Highlands has resulted in a Scotland where just 432 people own half of the private land in the country (making Scotland the most inequitable country in the developed world for land ownership)4 its history only began to be written in the 1960s5. Much of what happened during the Clearances has passed unrecorded.
1. Rob Evans, ‘Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population’ in Guardian Online, 17 April 2019, Property section <> [Accessed 12 March 2020]

2. Land in England all ultimately belongs to the crown. In fact, in literal legal terms, one sixth of the globe belongs to the Queen.

3. MyVillages, ‘Introduction/Rural Art Is…’ in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Rural, ed. by MyVillages (Massachusetts: The MIT Press and Whitechapel Gallery, 2019) p12.

4. Kevin McKenna, ‘Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the West. Why?’ Guardian, 10 August 2013, Observer Scotland section <> [Accessed 16 February 2020].

5. The first book written on the Highland Clearances was by John Prebble, published in 1963.