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If you’re an adventure tourist, Scotland is one of the best countries in the world.
The nation has world-class hiking, countless peaks, excellent road trips, phenomenal cycle routes, ridiculously-welcoming locals and some of the most remote and rural landscapes in the whole of the UK.
But it has something even more incredible than all that other stuff put together, and it opens up the entire country to anyone and everyone who wants to explore it.
That thing is the so-called ‘right to roam’, a statutory right which allows you to explore (basically) every mountain, valley, loch, river, beach, shore, field and outdoor space in the entire nation. No matter who owns it, and no matter where it is, you can pretty much always explore it without question.
What is the Right to Roam in Scotland?
The ‘right to roam’ (or ‘freedom to roam’) is part of a legal act which allows the general public to access the vast majority of land in Scotland, immaterial of whether or not it’s privately owned (reference).
No matter how and why you want to explore it, the vast majority of Scotland’s outdoor landscape is open to anyone who wants to explore it.
It’s good news for campers, hikers, cyclists, dog walkers, horse riders and all other types of outdoor adventurers.
Want to hike in the mountains in the middle of nowhere? Or cycle along a rural road? Or wild camp in a valley? Or trek through private fields? In Scotland, you can do it all, thanks to the right to roam. The right to roam also applies to most bodies of water, so you can freely swim, canoe, kayak and paddle basically anywhere you like too.
Basically, the right to roam means that (as far as outdoor exercise is concerned), there’s very little ‘private’ land throughout the entirety of the country (even when the land actually is privately owned).
When and How Was the Right to Roam Created?
In 2003, the Scottish Land Reform Act changed the rights over owned land in Scotland. The Scottish government wanted to grant wider land access to the general public. They wanted residents, tourists and explorers to be able to access as much of Scotland’s nature and wildlife as they possibly can, no matter who legally owns that land.
Before 2003, roaming rights in Scotland on any piece of land were dictated by the person who owned that piece of land.
Sometimes, these owners were tolerant of roamers. Other times, they weren’t.
But this ruling changed all of that, taking decision-making away from landowners and instead putting it (usually) in the hands of the general public.
The right to roam is a massively libertarian concept, which prioritizes freedom, shared use and the concept of community. But that doesn’t mean Scotland is some sort of anarchic lawless land where you can go around doing whatever you want, as there are some general concepts which underpin the idea.
While the Land Reform Act dictates who can access and use outdoor land in Scotland, the Scottish Outdoor Access Code advises how they should use it (source).
The three key principles of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code are:
- Respect the interests of others.
- Care for the environment.
- Take responsibility for your own actions.
The first of these is (arguably) the most important, as respect is an integral, important part of the right to roam.
What Are the Rules of Respect?
The rules of respect aren’t really rules. It’s not even really a real term. It’s rather a set of concepts which underpin how Scottish land should be used and explored. It’s like the three key principles above, but in more detail, encouraging people to respect the areas they roam in. But it’s all basic common sense:
- Don’t leave trash behind
- Don’t make lots of noise
- Don’t gather in huge groups
- Don’t camp in one place for more than one or two nights
- And don’t do anything which might harm the local wildlife, people or landscape.
In short, be respectful.
You should also pay attention to what’s appropriate in certain areas. For example, don’t cycle along a no-cycling path. And always make sure your dogs are under control, especially around farmland and farm animals.
Generally, you should try to stay away from animals as much as you can, as they can be spooked by dogs, large groups, horses, bicycles, tents and fires. But if you’re walking in a small group, animals won’t mind.
As long as you’re respectful and considerate, local landowners (and everyone else) will be happy to have you around.
In lots of ways, the right to roam reflects the attitudes and personalities of Scottish people, who are friendly, warm and welcoming. Combine that with a ridiculously-liberating set of roaming rights and you’ve got a juicy little recipe for a travelers’ paradise.
Even the vast majority of Scottish landowners are in favor of the rules. In most countries, if you were to pop up a tent in a farmer’s land, that farmer would probably try to shoot you. Or beat you up. They’d at least unleash a sheepdog on you.
But in Scotland, things are a little different. Instead, they’ll come and say hello, ask how you’re doing and probably even offer you a cup of tea.
So How Much Land Can I Explore in Scotland?
Weirdly, around half of Scotland is owned by only around 500 people (source). And about 83% of the nation is privately owned. This means that before 2003, lots of the country was out of bounds for locals, travelers and all outdoor adventurers.
But that’s no longer the case, and you can now explore basically all of the nation’s wilderness.
And there’s lots of it. The population of Scotland clocks in at a measly 5.5 million, but the country measures in at 78,000 square kilometers. That’s a very small population density, meaning that lots of the country is very remote, and perfect for exploring.
In northern parts of the nation, you can drive for miles without seeing a single house. You can walk for hours without seeing another living being. Given how much remote rurality you can find in lots of Scotland, it’s perfect for wandering aimlessly and unrestricted.
Thanks to the right to roam, there’s endless land to explore.
What is Not Covered by the Right to Roam?
Mainly private property. For example, you can’t just walk into someone’s kitchen and demand a cup of coffee. Or walk into someone’s garden and start digging a hole. Farms also aren’t covered, but that’s a little more vague, so more on that later.
Aside from private property, there are a small few other exceptions too. Private places such as construction sites, quarries, school fields, airfields and pay-to-enter places are out of bounds, but that’s all pretty obvious.
You also can’t drive vehicles where you like. You can cycle, if you consider it appropriate, but you can’t ride a car or a motorbike or a jet or whatever.
Generally, common sense prevails. If you think it’s probably not okay, then it’s probably not okay. As long as you’re behaving responsibly and respectfully, you can usually do whatever you like.
Can I Walk Through Farms in Scotland?
Basically, yes, but it’s not quite that simple.
You don’t always have a legal right to walk in private farms in Scotland, but you’ll find that most farmers are pretty happy for you to walk through their land as long as you’re respectful. Some official walking trails go through farmland (and always have), so farmers are very welcoming and accustomed to walkers.
When official trails go through farms (and always have), you do have a legal right to enter.
Again, just make sure you’re acting respectfully and logically and you’ll probably be okay. But if you’re peering in farmers’ windows, disturbing their animals, riding a quad bike or letting your dog do a big dump on their land, that’s not okay.
Is Wild Camping in Scotland Part of the Right to Roam?
Yep, the right to roam in Scotland allows you to basically camp wherever you like.
Scotland is one of the best countries in the world for wild campers, and you can pitch up basically anywhere which isn’t a garden or a farm. And even in some of those places, people will let you.
If you want to camp very close to a home, farm or owned building, you might want to ask the owner’s permission. But in basically every other place, the rule is this: if you can see it, you can camp on it.
When camping, make sure you leave no trace behind of you being there. So don’t leave any waste or debris or charred ground. Leave the land exactly how you left it.
The only main exception to the ‘camp wherever you want rule’ is in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, where small parts of the park are permit-only wild camping. This ruling is in place to preserve the area, as it’s one of the most popular tourist hotspots in Scotland, and it attracts endless numbers of visitors every day. If they were all to camp in the park, the land might be ruined irreparably.
In these no-camp areas (which actually only make up around 4% of the park), you’ll see signs which read ‘Camping Management Zone,’ meaning you’re usually unable to wild camp there from March to September, unless you have a permit.
Here’s more information on the camping rules in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.
Are There Public Footpaths in Scotland?
Yes, there are public footpaths in Scotland, but the system is a little confusing, since things function a little differently there than in most other countries.
Basically, everywhere in Scotland is sort of a public footpath because of the right to roam. This means that, unlike in most other countries, there isn’t really a distinction between a public right of way and a place where you are just generally allowed to walk.
In other countries, it’s typically quite clear where you can walk or can’t walk, as there are signposts for legally accessible places, and ‘no entry’ signs (or whatever) for legally inaccessible places.
But that’s not the case in Scotland. Few paths are waymarked or signposted, and the vast majority of paths aren’t at all marked or signed on Ordnance Survey maps. So while the freedom is great, the navigation can sometimes be a little complicated.
That said, some of the popular walking trails, both short and long (such as the West Highland Way) are marked. This is especially the case in heavily-touristed areas.
But while some are marked and some aren’t, Scotland has some of the best hikes in the world.
Scotland has something a little different to public footpaths: Core Paths.
What Are the Core Paths in Scotland?
The Core Paths are basically a network of usable paths throughout Scotland.
But since you can basically walk wherever you want in Scotland, you’re probably confused by the need for Core Paths. I was too.
Core Paths exist to promote ease of use rather than the possibility of use. So while you can go walking, cycling, horse riding or whatever on basically any land in Scotland, Core Paths are a network of paths which are theoretically easy to use and readily accessible (rather than just open). These paths are accessible for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and whoever else might fancy roving along them.
These Core Paths can be anything. They might be dirt tracks, asphalt paths, minor roads, forestry tracks and anything else you can imagine. They’re largely signposted at junctions, stiles, gates and other significant points.
But, like I said earlier, this is a pretty new concept in Scotland. In lots of developed countries, walking paths, hiking routes, bridleways and cycle tracks have been well-waymarked for many years, but this is a pretty new concept in Scotland. So while Core Paths exist, lots of them are still in development.
Local councils and authorities have the power to maintain, promote and signpost these Core Paths, but they don’t have a legal obligation to do so. So while some are currently well-maintained, others are yet to be. And some probably never will be.
Here’s a big helpful map of all the existing Core Paths in Scotland. But remember, more will be developed in time, and the Core Paths network absolutely isn’t an exhaustive list of all the places you can explore in Scotland. Because like we keep saying, you can explore basically anywhere.
Right to Roam Top Tips and Facts
If you’re exploring Scotland, here are some other good-to-know tips and facts about the nation’s right to roam policy:
- Leave gates as they were. If a gate was closed when you found it, close it behind you. But if it was open when you found it, leave it open.
- If you see signs indicating that a section of land is being used for grouse hunting or deer stalking, don’t enter. These activities are undertaken to help preserve the environment, sometimes making small stretches of land temporarily unavailable or uncrossable.
- Usually, if you need to cross a fence or a boundary, you’ll find a gate or a stile. Don’t climb over any fences, walls or hedges unless you have no other option.
- If you’re pooping, do it away from water, and dig a small hole to bury it in. No-one wants to step in human poop on a hike.
- Norway, Finland, Estonia and Sweden have similar right to roam systems, making them equally-explorable. If you’re looking for other countries where you can freely roam without much restriction, they’re all great options.
If you like unfettered freedom, wandering aimlessly and feeling unrestricted, you’ll love Scotland. It’s one of the most welcoming nations in the world, it’s ridiculously accessible and it’s perfect for endless exploration.
Want to know more about Scotland? We’ve got guides on what Scotland is famous for, what you shouldn’t do while you’re there, and the answer to the famous question why are there no trees in Scotland? We even have city guides on Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got it on our site.
Paul is a handsome and hilarious travel writer and travel journalist from the UK. He’s hiked, hitchhiked and laughed his way through more than fifty countries, and he’s always looking for a new place to call home. Originally from Newcastle, he’s lived all over the UK, spent more than three years in Asia, and most recently lived in Vietnam. Here’s his website.