Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The sporting life

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Greg Alexander present his recent paper, "The Sporting Life: Democratic Culture and the Historical Origins of the Scottish Right to Roam", at a workshop here in Tel Aviv. To me the article is a model for the way recent environmental laws can be better understood by placing them in a socio-political historical context that extends beyond modern "environmentalism" narrowly construed; in this case hundreds of years of debate over land reform and the secular transfer of power from the Scottish landed gentry to the working classes. The abstract:

File:James Bryce Vanity Fair 25 February 1893.jpg
Henry Charles Seppings-Wright,
Privy Councillor, Professor and Politician
(caricature of James Bryce, Vanity Fair 25 Feb. 1893).
Bryce, a scholar, politician, and diplomat,
was a key figure in the movement to provide
public access to the Scottish Highlands.
In 2003, the Scottish Parliament enacted the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which, among other reforms, grants to "everyone" a right to access virtually all land in Scotland for a wide variety of purposes, including recreation, educational activities, and even some commercial or for-profit activities. Legal recognition of this broad-ranging "right to roam" comes after more than a century of debate over the public’s right to access privately-owned land in the Scottish Highlands. This paper is the first historical account of the origins of the remarkable Scottish right to roam. It sets the debate over the right to roam with a clash between two different visions of the sporting life: One, older, rooted in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, viewed the sporting life as one of hunting, aided by the use of modern technology — rifles and such — and much older technology in the form of dogs and horses. The other vision is of more recent vintage. It is a vision of contact with nature through walking, hiking, and similar forms of unmediated interaction with nature. Curiously, both visions of the sporting life claimed the mantle of preservation and conservation. The paper argues that the culture of unmediated contact with nature ultimately prevailed as a democratic culture became more entrenched in both politics and society.


  1. Interesting! I could not envisage this happening in New Zealand, where landowners tend to be fiercely protective of their private property rights. Ironically, some argue that this stems from many of the early settlers in New Zealand coming from Scotland and Ireland, where they were excluded from owning land or forced off the land they farmed http://envirohistorynz.com/2011/08/28/the-kingdom-of-taranaki-is-there-truth-behind-the-epithet/

    1. It seems that the causal argument could have gone either way. If people are protective of private rights, we can attribute it to a history of being excluded, and if they are more inclusive, we can attribute it to the same history. Claims about causation are often difficult to substantiate.