A path through the woods passes a monument to CTR Wilson, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and meteorologist, born in the nearby village of Glencorse. Wilson invented the cloud chamber and, as I take the gorse-lined trail that heads towards the cloud-cloaked summit of Castlelaw Hill, I can’t help feeling envious of the surroundings in which he grew up.
The Pentland Hills, south-west of Edinburgh, are swathed in a muted wash of autumnal heather and afford a view over the steely L-shaped waters of Glencorse reservoir. So far, so gently rugged and tranquil, but there’s a sign ahead that warns of impending dangers: “Military Range Keep Out When Red Flags Flying; Warning Troops Training; Danger. Do not touch any Military debris – it may explode or harm you.”
We’ve reached the edge of the Castlelaw firing range. At the base is a cluster of army huts and a few soldiers criss-crossing the area. The warning signs and the army’s presence are a little off-putting, especially if, like me, you are not a local and unused to the day-to-day activities of troops in your backyard. However, I am accompanied by Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager for Ramblers Scotland, and she knows the drill. Earlier in the day she checked the website that provides firing range notices for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It’s not a live firing day.
“See there,” she says, pointing to a pole in the middle distance. “That’s the flagpole where the red flag would fly if live firing was taking place. At night there’s a red warning light.” This means we have the go ahead to climb through the first of the wire perimeter fences that run around the firing range. I’m anxious as I lift the wire. It feels like trespassing and there are men with access to guns a few metres away, but they don’t give us a second look. We climb through and continue up the ridge skirting the range.
As of April this year, the MoD owned 225,800 hectares of land and foreshore in the UK: that’s almost the size of Dorset. In addition, it also has rights to a further 206,000 hectares. This land used for training troops includes scenic uplands and coastal areas – perfect for walking and exploring if you know how to deal with the potential risks.
The Ramblers has recently teamed up with the MoD to highlight a series of walks across its land and educate hikers into accessing these relatively hidden parts of the country safely. One of the areas is Castlelaw Hill in the Pentland Hills regional park, which is popular with hikers, mountain bikers and fell runners, and just a half-hour bus ride from Edinburgh city centre. It’s also home to Castlelaw firing ranges, so there are times when this peaceful part of the world – where deer graze, black grouse nest and lizards dart among rocks – is alive to the sound of bullets ricocheting off the red scree slopes.
None of this activity is mutually exclusive. The map of the area shows two rings around the firing range. The range is in the inner circle and we are walking in its outer one. On firing days you cannot walk in this area at all and must circumvent the hill using another path.
“You can generally hear a lot of gunfire,” says Helen. “It can sound a bit alarming, but while it’s confined to the range this outer area is a kind of safety zone, absorbing stray bullets and keeping walkers out of the line of fire.”
The history of military activity is evident across the UK landscape. From Roman roads, such as Ermine Street, to the ramparts of bronze-age hill forts, the countryside has been shaped through the need of its inhabitants to defend themselves against attackers. In the early 19th century, the military began to occupy and acquire large swathes of land, such as Salisbury Plain, Catterick in Yorkshire and Otterburn in Northumberland, training areas which came into their own in the run up to the first and second world wars. But there is another side to the MoD’s ownership and stewardship of land, one which has protected it from development and allowed wildlife to thrive.
Some 170 MoD sites are designated as either a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) or an area of special scientific interest (ASSI). This means that those deployed on a site for defence purposes also have a duty to conserve its wildlife. Salisbury Plain, for example, the largest area of chalk grassland in north-west Europe, supports species of rare butterflies, including the marsh fritillary, adonis blue and brown hairstreak, while Castlemartin tank firing range in Pembrokeshire has one of the highest concentrations of seabirds in the county and supports around a dozen breeding pairs of chough – a shy species now extinct in most of England.
While areas like Salisbury Plain remain closed to the public for much of the year, the MoD is in favour of public access and encourages people to enjoy the land it operates on. Helen has circumvented the ranges here so often it feels like second nature and she outlines the dos and don’ts of walking on military land. The surrounding area is also used for dry training and it’s important to keep clear of military manoeuvres, watch out for discarded ammunition or debris and be alert to the possibility of sudden explosions.
The MoD does not release figures for injuries caused to civilians on its land, but there have been incidents. In 2017 a number of people were injured at Castlemartin firing range when live firing days were wrongly advertised. Such incidents are, however, rare. More common are occasions when civilians have been injured by entering land at prohibited times.
From the top of the hill we are rewarded with an expansive view across Lothian to Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. And to the north-west, the Highlands are visible in the distance. “Far out in the lowlands Edinburgh shows herself, a great smoke on clear days and spreading her suburbs about her for miles; the Castle rises darkly in the midst and close by, Arthur’s Seat makes a bold figure in the landscape,” is how Robert Louis Stevenson described the city in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes. The smoke is long gone but otherwise the view is still as he described it.
We descend on the other side of the firing range, joining a track that leads to Dreghorn barracks on the outskirts of the Scottish capital. This stretch between the village of Flotterstone, south of the hill, and the barracks is a dry training area and also a good track for mountain bikers. A friend who rides here told me it’s not unusual to find troops patrolling and on one occasion he slipped into the bushes for a call of nature only to find a clutch of cadets taking cover.
It’s quiet as we walk down to Castlelaw iron-age hill fort. Three concentric rings of ramparts and ditches surround its hill and underground is an earth house, or souterrain, a long curving stone passage typically found along the eastern coast of Scotland. Their purpose is unclear but archaeologists believe they might have been used to store grain or as a space for performing religious and ceremonial rituals. Whatever their exact purpose, the presence of the souterrain shows that even thousands of years ago strategic defensive sites were home both to military activity and civilian life. The Ramblers new partnership with the MoD aims to ensure this diversity of use continues.
• Accommodation was provided by Courtyard by Marriott in Edinburgh (rooms from £59 B&B). The 101A bus leaves from Edinburgh bus station to Flotterstone Inn at the foot of Castelaw ranges. More information on MoD walks at ramblers.org.uk
Five more walks on MoD land
Braunton Burrows, Devon
This is one of the largest sand dune systems in the UK (approximately 1,000 hectares) in the North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is home to an abundance of flowers, plants and wildlife. Braunton Burrows played an important role in the second world war, when troops destined for the Normandy landings practised their skills across the burrows and beyond. It continues to be a practice site for beach landings and realistic desert driving conditions. Walks here are along the beach, with views to Westward Ho! and Lundy Island.
The Castlemartin range covers about 2,390 hectares on the west coast of Pembrokeshire and the military’s presence has meant it hasn’t been intensively farmed, allowing wildlife to flourish. It is home to some fine limestone coastal scenery – in the Pembrokeshire Coastal national park – and despite being a live range there are accessible trails taking in the arches and pillars of Stack Rocks, the remote stone chapel at Saint Govan’s Head and pretty Bosherston village – popular with climbers.
Thorney Island, Chichester Harbour, West Sussex
When an RAF aircraft crashed on Thorney in 1936 it alerted the war office to the island’s potential as an airfield – one which then saw active service during the second world war. The permitted path goes around the shore with a small deviation owing to the 11th-century St Nicholas’s Church. Here, tombstones commemorate the deaths of allied servicemen and 21 Luftwaffe pilots shot down in the area.
The Otterburn ranges cover 90 square miles of the Northumberland national park and comprise some of the most remote upland areas in the UK. Walk through moorland, along ancient ridgeways and past the grass-covered remains of the Roman fort of Chew Green. Wildlife flourishes here and there’s a chance you may see wild goats, or even the rare courtship ritual of male black grouse, known as a lek.
Imber Range Perimeter Path, Salisbury Plain
A few days are needed to walk the 30-mile path that circumvents this vast military training area, one which is important for its flower-rich, butterfly-filled grassland and concentrations of bronze age and neolithic burial sights. Inside the range is the village of Imber – evacuated in 1943 as part of the war effort and kept for military use ever since. The MoD allows access for a few days each year, usually around Christmas, Easter and August.