Rights of access differ across all the countries and crown dependencies that make up the British Islands. Scotland, with its awe-inspiring scenery and truly breathtaking wilderness, has the most permissive, with far broader freedom to hike and camp than its neighbours. These rights are preserved in the Land Reform Act 2003. It is understood, however, that the hiker and camper that utilises and benefits from the Act does so with the responsibility and respect outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
All Scottish Islands are part of Scotland and not crown dependencies and therefore follow the same laws and codes.
This post is written with by-foot travel for the purposes of recreation in mind. There are different allowances and restrictions for bicycles, horse riders, motorised vehicles and alternative purposes. There are also seperate expectations for landowners within the same leglisation that will be quoted, but those are not relevant here. Please look at the resources at the bottom of the page for further clarity.
The Right to Roam is an ancient custom that continues, interpreted in different ways, throughout much of Europe. In Scotland, the Right to Roam gives permission for full access on the majority of land and inland water, regardless of whether it is publicly or privately owned, for the purposes of recreation. The exceptions to this are:
- Houses and other residences, and sufficient space around them to enable privacy for the residents. This normally extends to their private gardens and other structures on the grounds.
- Land where crops are growing. You can exercise access rights on field margins. Grass is not treated as a crop unless it is silage or hay.
- Land next to and used by a school.
- Places, such as visitor attractions, which charge for entry.
- Land on which building or engineering works are being carried out, or which is being used for mineral working or quarrying.
- Land developed and in use for a particular recreational purpose, where the exercise of access rights would interfere with this use.
- Land set out for a particular recreational purpose or as a sport or playing field, but only when it is being used for that purpose and exercise of the rights would interfere with the use. However, rights never apply to specially prepared sports surfaces golf greens, tennis courts or bowling greens
These exceptions are for both safety and privacy. Whilst the ‘sufficient space’ surrounding a dwelling to maintain privacy is not specified, it is expected that most will act reasonably and non-intrusively as part of the Access Code. However, if the owner of a dwelling is a person with a particular public profile or additional security concerns the exact amount of land can be set. Whilst these are a very small number of cases, it is beneficial to research estate lands before crossing.
To assist the public in knowing what is reasonable, the Access Rights rely on a large system of recorded core paths that are public rights of way. The concept of Public Rights of Way as recognised in England are not the same. Whilst in England Public Rights of Way are defined, signposted paths that cross both public and private land, in Scotland pretty much all ‘ways’ are rightfully public as long as they are more or less defined routes used as a thoroughfare between two public places or other rights of way. There is no one place in which they are all recorded together that the public can view, and not all routes that could be recorded as a Public Right of Way are yet. It is up to the reasonable interpretation of the hiker to understand the distinction, rather than being defined for them. There is therefore no signposting, nor are they marked on Ordnance Survey maps.
This all sounds far more ominous and confusing than it is; if you are crossing land as part of your hike to access another publically accessible area, and there is an unintrusive and reasonably defined way to cross it, it is reasonable to assume that it can be defined as a right of way. If crossing it would mean you would trample crop fields, or if you’re jumping a fence to get it, then it is reasonable to assume that it cannot.
In all places, landowners are allowed to place access guidance in order to protect vulnerable areas of the land, or undertake management or maintenance of it.
Access rights extend to camping and wildcamping is legal throughout Scotland (apart from select areas of Loch Lomond, where a permit is required). You may camp wherever those rights apply.
Not all camping is wildcamping. There are guides in general for wildcamping:
- Wildcamping is lightweight camping, usually to an area accessed on foot and where all provisions are carried.
- It is done solo or in small groups
- Set up camp only as it starts to get dark and break camp as early as possible.
- Only camp in one place for one night (two at the most)
- Guidance is followed for lighting fires and burying waste. No trace nor impact should be left.
For your own safety, it is advisable not to camp in fields of cows or other animals. For the privacy of the landowner, if you wish to camp close to a dwelling, seek their permission. Do not camp on crops or in areas that guidance has marked as fragile or undergoing maintenance or where ground birds are nesting. Where possible, be unintrusive and don’t camp right on a path.
Be aware that whilst you feel that your time camping was only fleeting, the landowner may have to deal with cumulative effects from many campers. Therefore perform all your responsibilities thoroughly to avoid contention and to respect both the land and the owner.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code
This freedom to roam is a two way street. Whilst a landowner is expected to allow access and maintain the area and route, the walking roamer is expected to execute personal responsibility for their use, and act with respect and awareness towards the land, landowner, and fellow roamers.
Whilst the Access Code is thorough, it cannot specifically cover all potential situations and therefore it expects those benefiting from the Right to Roam and the Land Reform Act to abide by three basic principles:
Respect the interests of other people
Act with courtesy and consideration for the safety, enjoyment and livelihood of others. This would cover, for instance, that you would not remove anything from the land for commercial purposes or profit, nor should you be trampling on crops or picking fruit from private land. Your dog, should you have a dog, should be under your control. You also should not be playing music so others can hear.
Care for the environment
Look after the places you visit and enjoy and leave no impact. Whilst no littering is an obvious part of this, it extends to any damaging interference with the environment. There are strongly recommended practices to lighting fires (if you must light one at all), and burying human waste. Where there is notice of nesting ground birds, do not cross that area. Where there is a clearly defined path, do not stray from it without good reason as the surrounding area might well be ecologically fragile or be an environment that takes a long time to recover from damage or impact. Straying might also interfere with irrigation and propagate erosion.
Take responsibility for your own actions
The risk of your actions while roaming is your own. If you are swimming in a lake, or wish to venture close to a cliff edge, or camp in a field of cows, you aren’t going to be able to sue if things go wrong. The responsibility is yours. Understanding the risks of your roaming is yours to undertake and accept.
You can print a leaflet of the Outdoor Access Code here