Know Before You Go: Scotland’s Right to Roam

by Keith Savage · 8 comments

Roaming across Rannoch Moor

In the dear old United States, where I’m from and live, on the edge of any wild area you’re more likely to see a ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign than a trail head welcoming you to explore. Drive down country lanes from Appalachia to the Rockies and the enduring memory might just be the parade of blaze orange ‘NO TRESPASSING,’ ‘NO HUNTING,’ ‘POSTED,’ ‘TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED,’ etc. signs nailed onto trees every few miles. It’s an unfortunate shroud to wrap our beautiful places in, a consequence of our litigious society and overblown fears of liability and the ill intentions of our neighbors (a poor commentary on ourselves if there ever was one). There are literally reams of arcane law codes defining the consequences of trespassing on private property for each state, from misdemeanors and felonies to fines and imprisonment. My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I write.

But that’s the end of my treatise on trespassing in the United States. I present it up front as a counterpoint: Residents and visitors have no freedom to travel across private property. You might be surrounded by gorgeous northern countryside, but if you cross a crotchety property owner, well, things could go south quick.

On the other hand, there’s Scotland.

Residents and visitors to Scotland have the right to access most land and inland water including mountains, moorland, woods and forests, grassland, fields, rivers and lochs, coastal areas, most parks and open spaces, golf courses (to cross them), day and night, providing you do so responsibly. You can also undertake pastimes, family and social activities, horse riding, walking, cycling, climbing and wild camping.

Think about that for a second. You can do all those things irrespective of the property owner’s wishes, and by baking it into law it contributes more to a sense of stewardship than ownership, and that’s a philosophy I can get behind.

The above rights come from the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, part of The Land Reform Act of 2003, and it all boils down to treating the land with respect and using common sense. This right is colloquially known as Scotland’s ‘right to roam,’ and it is an integral part of enjoying a trip to Scotland that often gets lost in the crush of planning. I recommend that anyone going to Scotland read the Scottish Outdoor Access Code so they understand the freedoms and parameters of this glorious act.

Now I don’t want to put too rosy of a sheen on Scotland’s land management — Scotland is not a socialist nirvana. According to some, Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the west. In fact, half of Scotland is owned by just 500 people, many of them not even Scottish. Can you imagine America’s draconian land access scheme in Scotland where the land is owned by so few? A visit to Scotland would involve appreciating the finer details of pavement and fencing. Beyond access rights, the Land Reform Act also included provisions for a community’s right to buy land when it is put up for sale and crofters to purchase the land they work even if said land isn’t for sale. I can’t say how these latter two parts of the act have functioned in the last 13 years but in them you can see the Scottish government’s attempt to begin balancing land ownership.

We can assume that something like the Land Reform Act needed to happen in Scotland — the country is far too beautiful to cordon it off and tourism dollars too important — and yet I’m still impressed the Scottish government was functional enough to pass an act that chips away at feudal law. My first visit to Scotland happened just a month before this act was passed. I wasn’t aware of it or really what difference it would make, but now I see that it plays a huge role in my enjoyment of traveling around Scotland. It brings back wanderlust, exploration, serendipity, and a bit of magic.

The thought of a ‘right to roam’ bill in the United States makes me cringe. Land ownership is in the hands of millions of citizens — hands that often clutch guns — and without a sister bill that introduces sensible and restrictive gun ownership I fear the road is long to a right to roam. In the meantime, enjoy Scotland’s freedom from garish signage and get roaming!

Jim SimpsonNo Gravatar April 14, 2016 at 11:36 AM

I am a property owner in North Carolina USA and am adjacent to a large state park and many other acres of so called “game land”. In season, you can hear the sounds of high power hunting rifles daily. I often cringe over the possibility that a slug could inadvertently find me or my cattle and buildings. As to unwelcome visitors, we make strong efforts to thwart three and four wheeler gas powered vehicles from racing through and destroying our woods. We have our access points aptly posted with hardened fencing, locked gates, commercial signs and game cameras. We want to avoid loss of privacy, vehicular damage to the forest and close in firearm discharges. Our property is also transected by a Federally protected river. We have hardened those locations that could otherwise provide summer recreation to strangers spilling into our stretch of river, trashing the area with cans, bottles, wrappers, abandoned clothing, and evidence of unmentionables. We traveled in Scotland for three weeks on an individual tour, last May. I thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance in the wild, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I was trespassing on occasion, so I tried to stay on the beaten path for my own psychological comfort. Scotland’s culture accommodates visitors, as you wrote, but we will never see similar accommodations in the US. Remember, the US was settled not too long ago by fiercely independent and courageous individuals who settled lands and, by law, had to make claims to lands and work them to be able to keep them. The system worked for our ancestors as they struggled to survive and start new lives (including thousands from Scotland), but it has left a residual legacy of independence, privacy, and isolation in many, many areas. It is what it is, and we are grateful for our privacy laws. We are also grateful that the few folks who own Scotland land welcome us warmly for visits to our places of ancestral origin.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Well said, Jim. I’m also a landowner up here in Wisconsin, and though we may have different points of view in that respect we can agree on our shared appreciation of Scotland.

Neil MackeyNo Gravatar April 13, 2016 at 11:08 PM

Greetings, Keith! Hope this finds you hale and hearty…

Don’t know if I ever checked back with you after our three-weeker last August…thanks to your help and suggestions, and few route changes, we….had…a…BLAST!! 1,250 miles in the rental car (they upgraded us for free from a UK-spec gas Ford Focus to a 2-series BMW turbodiesel…better mileage and with diesel running $7/gallon USD, cheaper too!) turned it in with no damage (whew!) but will admit that both of the front rims were slightly more ‘polished’ than when we picked the car up! 🙂

Lows: None, except time just went by too quick!
Highs: Edradour whisky, Irn Bru, The Jacobite ride, the Tattoo performance and, an unexpected surprise…the Kelpies! They REALLY struck a chord with us, especially if you know the backstory behind the ‘models’ for the two horse heads

Already laying plans for our next trip…what do you know about Sutherland? That’s home to Clan Mackay and we’re thinking of exploring that area next. Perhaps Inverness up to Thurso and then over to the West Coast…will contact you for specifics via the “pay for advice” mehtod but just curious if you’ve spend much time up in that area. Not quite the “cachet” of the Highlands and other areas in Scotland, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in its own way…



P.S. For anyone else reading this, DO consider working with Keith on your Scotland travel plans. He knows his stuff!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 14, 2016 at 8:15 AM

Hi Neil,

Great to hear from you! Sounds like had an absolutely fantastic trip, and I couldn’t be happier to hear that. Looks like you did your fair share of roaming, too. Irn Brü, really?

I know a bit about Sutherland, but not as much as I’d like to. That’s why my next trip — just over a month away — focuses on the northern highlands including Wester Ross, Sutherland, and Caithness. It’s going to be fantastic and I will have plenty of recent rock-solid advice to provide by June. Look up the North Coast 500 to whet your appetite.

Thanks for checking back, Neil, love hearing tales from the road!

Jeanette HillisNo Gravatar April 13, 2016 at 4:48 PM

Keith you have made my dreams of Scotland even more exciting with the words wanderlust ,exploration,serendipity,and Magic —all words I love to describe our travels thank you

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 13, 2016 at 5:57 PM

You will not be disappointed.

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