One of the best things, if not the best thing, about growing up in the Highlands of Scotland was the incredible landscape and countryside at my doorstep. From dramatic mountains where you could spot wild deer grazing as you hiked, to getting huge lochs (lakes) all to yourself to go swimming and enjoy.
The countryside is beautiful and vast, and unlike England to our south, there’s so few people in Scotland and the Highlands that if you want complete remoteness – and to get away from it all – there are places you can hike/walk and not see a soul for days.
One of my favorite things to do when I was younger – as well as when I return to Scotland for a few weeks every year – is to wild camp. That way you can really see and experience the countryside. From hiking a mountain, to camping by a river or lochside, and then swimming at dawn the next day knowing you may be the only person to swim there for weeks, months, or even years. Simply put, wild camping in Scotland is one of the best ways to see this country.
However location, location, location is what matters, and some of the easier to get walking routes and beaches will always have locals and tourists alike.
But there are places to camp, and walking routes, that will keep you busy for days and you will be the only person using them – they just have to be found first. Some of those routes are called drovers’ roads, and I’ve written about them before – you can read my guide to finding Scotland’s hidden hiking paths by clicking here.
One of the most recent trips I took was on one of these roads. I spent three days hiking, camping by a river one night, and then on a mountain side the next, with just stags roaming beside to keep us company. It was an incredible camping experience, where I drank water from fresh streams, and got to witness some of Scotland’s most breathtaking scenery, and all without having to share it with anyone else.
By now I hope you’ve been convinced to try wild camping in Scotland. So let’s get to the reason you’re allowed to – Scotland’s Right to Roam – and what that means for your wild camping in Scotland holiday.
The Right to Roam, and why it matters:
Every country grants rights to it’s citizens. Some are basic – the rights to have an ID, hospital care, a school education etc. In Scotland a new ‘right’ was added around 15 years ago – the right, or freedom, to roam.
Essentially this law gave Scottish people, and by extension tourists, the freedom to access, visit, walk, hike, and roam the land and water throughout the country. Much of Scotland’s remote and incredible countryside remains in the hands of landowners that were given land during political deals over the past centuries – many of these landowners don’t even live in Scotland. The ‘Right to Roam’ act was a way of letting the people of Scotland experience their country, without anyone saying they were forbidden from doing so.
So if you see a mountain that looks like it could be an incredible hike, or you notice a shimmering loch on a hot summer’s day (they sometimes happen in Scotland!) and are desperate to go for a dip – well you can! No one can stop you.
Of course there are limits. The right to roam gives access to most of Scotland’s land and inland water – as long as it does not encroach on someone’s privacy and private land (if that land isn’t owned by a large landowner that is). So someone’s back yard is clearly not included in the right to roam act, neither is a private swimming pool! Or indeed if you can see a house, and a fence that circles land surrounding that house, then you don’t just go trudging through it.
At the right to roam’s core is the concept of being reasonable. For example, if there is a private house with a fence around it and the garden, are you able to walk around that fence and still reach where you’re going? If so, walk around it, don’t just go through it.
However if there’s a building, but the land attached to it is massive and cannot be easily walked around to get to your destination (be that mountain, loch, river, the sea, you name it!) then clearly it is reasonable to climb the fence and walk through it. In fact many big landowners provide stiles (wooden planks that help walkers hop over fences) so that people can easily get in and out of their land, and without damaging infrastructure. The main thing is to be reasonable around people’s privacy.
To help a little more, here’s a list of what the right to roam doesn’t give you access to, and therefore what you should avoid:
Where you must avoid:
- Walking in and going through buildings (one exception would be bothies – small mountain and rural huts that can be used by walkers and hikers – see a list of bothies and where they are by clicking here).
- Land clearly attached to a building (private garden, backyard).
- Sports fields when they’re being used.
- Schools and school land when school is in session.
- Building sites.
- Working quarries (disused quarries are fine, but be extremely cautious and stick to known and safe paths).
So what does this mean for Wild Camping?
The reality of Scotland’s rural areas is that they’re vast and often hard to get to. Therefore it’s reasonable to expect walkers and hikers to want to camp if they want to enjoy the countryside fully. In Scotland wild camping is therefore completely legal (unlike England or Wales) but there are general rules to abide by.
Those rules come under what is called the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, a set of outdoor “laws” to abide by that sets out how individuals should act while enjoying the right to roam in Scotland.
The rules around wild camping in Scotland:
- “Leave no trace” – is the main component of the Access Code. In essence feel free to wild camp, but make sure the land looks exactly as it did before you were there. That doesn’t just mean removing litter. For example if boulders and rocks were moved to create a fire or seating place, put them back. Have a trowel to be able to bury your poo (!) and any loo roll, and make sure it’s buried well.
- On lighting fires, the rules show a preference to stoves, but open fires are allowed: “Wherever possible, use a stove rather than light an open fire. If you do wish to light an open fire, keep it small, under control and supervised.”
- But if that fire goes out of control or becomes a public “nuisance” (this is a little vague, but lighting a fire just outside someone’s cottage might be a good example), you could be liable for a fine and a police conviction.
- You cannot cut down trees to use for your fire or stove, or rip off branches from living organisms. Use only dead wood.
- When going to the toilet it must be done far from any water sources to avoid contamination – rivers, lochs etc.
- The right to access/roam means you can canoe, sail, hike, cycle, walk, horse-ride. But you can’t drive a vehicle with a motor over the land, go hunting or fishing (though you can buy a fishing permit from some local councils for certain lochs).
Tips for wild camping in Scotland:
- Don’t wild camp in the same place for longer than a night if it’s a popular hiking route – it may arouse suspicion if staying for days or longer. If you’re very remote – stay as long as you like. You will probably run out of food before you see someone anyway!
- It’s always best to camp away from buildings, both residential and farm. Although you have the “right to roam” and therefore wild camp, the odd grumpy local exists and if they look out their window and see someone – or a group – camping nearby, you might find your relaxing countryside evening is spent arguing that “right” to roam.
- Keep an eye out for cow and sheep poop – if there’s a lot, then that perfect camping spot you’ve found may end up being a sheep congregation at 6am in the morning.
- There are many different water sources in Scotland, but try and make sure you pinpoint a few on your route before leaving. Take plenty of water, but remember to top up at any streams you find – the water is fine to drink in Scotland, actually it’s really fresh and tasty (as far as water goes!).
- Make sure your tent is midge-proof – this is very important. These small blood-sucking flies (much smaller than mosquitos) come in swarms of thousands and your tent must not have holes in it that are big enough to let them through. A mosquito-proof tent is not a midge-proof tent – I can’t emphasize that enough!