Wild Camping Law in Scotland

Wild Camping Law in Scotland

We’re lucky here in Scotland. Over 60% of the country is covered in mountains or wilderness, and most of it is relatively easily accessible. That’s perhaps the reason why the Scottish Government has gone out of their way to put in place laws which not only encourage wild camping, but protect the rights of anyone to camp pretty much wherever they feel like.

However, although access is free, we still need to be sensible. And the land does belong to someone, and is likely also to be someone’s place of work, perhaps even their home. So the law also puts in some checks to stop free access getting out of hand.

In all these checks are sensible and reasonable. I’ve put together the main points in this section to make it easy to get a quick overview of what we need to be thinking about when wild camping in scotland. For more in-depth information check out the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Guiding Principles for Wild Camping in Scotland

The law that covers wild camping draws on three principles throughout. These are:

  1. Respect the interests of other people.
  2. Care for the environment.
  3. Take responsibility for your own actions.

In terms of wild camping, this is a pretty light list. Here are some examples of how they should be applied:

  • If you’re accessing land, be aware of who else is using that land. If someone lives there, make sure you respect their privacy; don’t pitch up in their back garden. If someone works there, respect their need to make a living and don’t get in the way or interfere. For example, if there you’re on farm land, pass through quickly, quietly, being aware of what’s going on around you, be courteous, and leave it exactly as you found it. Close the gates! In short, the principle is “don’t be a d?ck”.*

  • The chance that you’ll have a large impact on the environment is pretty low, but you certainly can have a bad impact on the local environment if you’re not aware of what you’re doing. Rubbish is the easy one – don’t leave any. Not one scrap. That includes having a ‘fod plod’, a systematic scan of your campsite for rubbish and other bits left behind, just before you leave. Also be aware of the impact of fires, especially during dry periods (we do get some in Scotland.) I’ve covered cooking outdoors in more depth here, but essentially keep it small, keep it self contained, and get rid of the waste afterwards.*

  • Wild Campers tend to be big on taking responsibility for themselves. After all, the sport is all about putting yourself in an area where there are very few other people to help anyway. The thing to remember here is that mountains and wilderness areas are not risk-free parks. Bad stuff happens. Every year, usually in January, there is a news report here of fatalities in the mountains. Most years there are many of these. So when you’re planning and prepping to go wild camping, make sure you make you’re own mind up about the risks, have backup and contingency plans, and have the skills you need to get yourself out.*

Naturally there is a lot of interpretation needed for such high level principles. Part of the law caters for that. If for whatever reason someone objects, or if you find yourself on the wrong side of the police, the local sherrif will look frist to the code in deciding whether you’ve acted within the spirit of what parliament intended.

So what does the code and the law say about particular rights to wild camp in Scotland?

Wild Camping Access Rights in Scotland

Where can you go?

Here’s where the law says you can walk and camp. Not all of them are useful of course, but the list is fairly comprehensive:

  1. Mountains
  2. Moorland
  3. Woods and forests
  4. Grasslands
  5. Margins of fields.
  6. All paths and tracks, rivers and lochs.
  7. All of the coast, and most open spaces.

Where can’t you go?

Here’s where you can’t go:

  1. Houses, gardens, buildings and the land immediately around them.
  2. Fields which have crops growing in them.
  3. School playing fields and land.
  4. Sports fields, golf courses and recreation areas, but only if your access would stop someone else using them or get in the way. You can cross over them, but don’t hang about.
  5. Airfields, industrial areas, military bases, quarries. Basically the areas where it would feel really wrong to go anyway.
  6. Visitors attractions (sorry, no getting round the entrance fee by waving an act of parliament about.)

What can you do?

The list is so wide for this that you’re best to think along the lines of, “if it’s a sport, pastime, activity or event, then you’re fine.” So it doesn’t cover commercial activities as a standard. If you’re planning on making money from the access, take the time to study how to do it right as you’re also probably opening yourself up for other liabilities and responsibilities you need to be aware of.

What can’t you do?

When you’re on the land you can walk around it, camp, hike up it, swim through it, whatever. However, there are some things which you can’t just assume you can do. These are:

  1. Break other laws. E.g. poaching, dropping litter, polluting water, worrying livestock.
  2. Huntin’, shootin’ and fishin‘. These don’t come by default. Although you can do all three in various areas throughout Scotland, you need to arrange these separately.
  3. Drive across the land. So no 4×4 treks or quad bikes, although if it’s under muscle power (mountain bikes, canoes, that sort of thing) you’re ok.
  4. Take your dog with you, although you can if you keep it under proper control. In effect this means you’re responsible for everything your dog does, so if you wouldn’t jump on a stranger and lick their face, don’t let your dog do it either.