Mountaineer and writer who fought for right to roam in Scotland

Born: January 2, 1933;

Died: October 2, 2018

MOUNTAINEER, author, campaigner and journalist Rennie McOwan, who has died aged 85, was one of the foundation blocks of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, the legislation that gave Scotland some of the most acclaimed access legislation in the world.

Today's generation of outdoor folk owe much to Mr McOwan's vision, dedication and campaigning skills. He had long argued that the traditional de facto access rights we had enjoyed in Scotland since time immemorial should be codified and legislated for.

Born in Menstrie near Stirling in 1933, his formative years were spent roaming and exploring the Ochils, a range of hills that were to be a personal inspiration for the rest of his life, a landscape that continually motivated, delighted and influenced him. His children’s novel, Light on Dumyat, brilliantly intertwined advice and instruction for young hillgoers with an exciting adventure story. This novel was inspired by and set in the Ochils.

Indeed, it was during an early excursion to these hills that Rennie McOwan first met resistance to what he believed was a fundamental right when a landowner blocked his progress and told him he couldn’t walk across his land. Protecting Scotland’s access rights became a major influence in his writings for the rest of his life.

After national service, he chose a career in journalism, beginning with the Stirling Journal before moving to The Scotsman where he became Scottish Desk Editor at the age of 23. With the encouragement of his editor, fellow outdoors enthusiast Sir Alistair Dunnet, Mr McOwan founded the Scotsman Mountaineering Club, which later became the respected Ptarmigan Club of Edinburgh.

Rennie McOwan’s first dealings with the National Trust for Scotland was when he left The Scotsman and became deputy press secretary of the charity, but he did not always agree with the way the trust was running its mountain properties, which included Glen Coe, Kintail and part of the Cairngorms. During this period his great friend the Rev Charles Eadie, minister of the Church of Holyrood in Stirling, introduced him to the work of the environmentalist and philanthropist Percy Unna.

Unna was a former president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and had contributed generously to the purchases of several mountain properties, which he presented to the NTS on the condition the land was held on behalf of the public and preserved for their use in a natural condition without unnecessary developments. These conditions were formulated in a set of principles to be known as the Unna Rules and Rennie McOwan became their most active champion.

Over a long number of years Rennie McOwan roamed far and wide throughout Scotland and had a particular fondness for the hills of the far north-west which he described as the “fey places.” He collected a huge number of Celtic folk tales and legends and stories of the supernatural, which he eventually published in the form of a book, The Magic Mountains.

During his mountain stravaigings, he began to notice more and more warnings about trespass and threats to access, a throwback to his earlier encounter with a landowner in the Ochils. The issue of access and the possible loss of Scotland’s traditional de facto right of access began to dominate his writings and during this period he greatly influenced people like Dave Morris, the Scottish director of the Ramblers Association who, along with the mountaineer and former civil servant Alan Blackshaw and others, successfully engaged in the battle to secure the legal right to roam in Scotland.

In 2003, The Land Reform Act (Scotland) enshrined freedom to roam in law as long as it was carried out responsibly and, with the recognition of Rennie McOwan’s great and insightful contribution to the new legislation, he succeeded me as president of Ramblers Scotland.

On a personal note I have always been indebted to Rennie McOwan for so willingly and generously sharing his immense knowledge of Scottish mountaineering, history, folklore and culture. He was a kind and extremely generous man by nature and his regular encouragement and inspiration to me, from my days as a young and wet-behind-the-ears journalist, were a much valued and appreciated contribution to any success I may have enjoyed as an outdoor writer and television presenter.

Rennie McOwan was a man-o-many-pairts and other than his love of hills and wild places he was deeply versed in works of Scottish literature, especially those of John Buchan and lesser known authors like Maurice Walsh. He also enjoyed a deep and lasting commitment to his Roman Catholic faith to which he converted from a Presbyterian upbringing. His Catholicism greatly influenced his career and he became the youngest editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer before taking on the inaugural role of communications director for the Catholic Church in Scotland in 1968.

Rennie McOwan will be remembered as an excellent journalist, mountaineer, historian, environmental campaigner and a true son of Scotland. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Stirling, the Outdoor Writer’s Guild’s Golden Eagle Award for access campaigning and outdoor writing and the Provost of Stirling’s Civic Award (Arts and Culture).

He is survived by his wife Agnes, his daughter Lesley, three sons, Michael, Tom and Niall and five grandchildren.