Public Access Rights in Scotland
For centuries, the public have had the right to roam the landscape in Scotland – a tradition linked to the freedom to wander at will known as ‘stravaiging’. This is significantly different to the access permitted in England and Wales, where – even under the new Right to Roam legislation – the public (on foot) have free access only to ‘open country’ (not woodland). In Scotland the public are free to wander anywhere, except in places where they are specifically excluded.
In order to regulate this access in Scotland, and bring codes of conduct in line with modern patterns of behaviour and ownership, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Executive (government) produced the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which included the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code
This common-sense code in many ways reflects the kind of principles enshrined in Country/Countryside Codes that apply in England and Wales. But it allows a wider set of freedoms, such as the right to ride bicycles and horses, and to light campfires.
While demanding on the one hand that Scottish landowners permit safe access to their land, the Code also demands that the public obey the principles of respect for the land, for nature and the countryside in their usage. With rights come responsibilities.
The public must in all situations observe three overriding principles of behaviour; they must:
- take responsibility for their own actions
- take care of the environment (i.e. protect wildlife, take away all their litter, not cause any pollution)
- respect other peoples’ interests, peace of mind and privacy (and that includes the owners’).
For their part, landowners must, above all, respect the public’s right to access.
Full details of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code are available online, at the following websites:
A website dedicated to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This basically has all you need to know on the subject, from the point of view of both the landowners (or ‘land managers’) and the public. It includes a downloadable 136-page booklet called ‘Scottish Outdoor Access Code’, and has the full text of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. It also has advice for land managers on their responsibilities and liabilities.
The website of Scottish Natural Heritage. If you go to the A to Z Index, under Access you will find a downloadable leaflet on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (‘Know the Code before you go’), plus the full text of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, and a four-page summary of the Access legislation.
Public Footpaths or Rights of Way
In England and Wales, public footpaths (or public rights of way) have been long established by tradition, signposting, formal recognition by local authorities, and publication on Ordnance Survey maps. The situation is quite different in Scotland, where such rights of way do not appear on maps, there is little signposting, and their status is often open to doubt. Basically, to establish a public right of way in Scotland, a path has to have been in proven use by the public for twenty years. To establish fully a right of way, the claim has to be ‘asserted’, then ‘vindicated’ through the courts. Hence most rights of way are simply ‘claimed’, and are often contested by landowners. A campaign to rectify this situation is currently under way, supported by a number of bodies, notably the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (Scotways). The intention is to increase the number of rights of way substantially; meanwhile, local authorities are developing a network of ‘Core Paths’, which will eventually appear on Ordnance Survey maps. This issue may concern woodland owners – if, for instance, their land includes a claimed right of way. Woodland owners may also like to consider contributing to the Core Paths campaign.
Scottish Woodland Access FAQs
Q: Who is allowed to enter my private woodland?
- Horse riders
Q: Who/what is not allowed to enter my woodland?
- Any other motorised vehicles except those used by a person with a disability
Q: If my woodland has got a river or coast, who can have access to it?
Q: Can people pick up berries and fruits in my woodland?
Yes, but not for commercial profit
Q: Can people picnic in my woodland?
Yes, provided that they take away all their rubbish.
Q: Can people light a fire in my woodland?
Yes, provided that:
(1) they keep it small and under control
(2) a prolonged dry period is not in course
Q: Can a dog go into my woodland?
Yes, on two conditions:
(1) During the bird breeding season (April-July), dogs must be kept under control or on a short lead so not to disturb the birds
(2) Dog owners must pick up any faeces located in public open place
Q: Is wild camping allowed in my woodland?
Yes, provided that:
(1) there is a small number of campers
(2) campers stay only two or three nights in one place
Q: Can people build huts?
Yes, provided they don’t cause any damage to plants and wildlife (e.g. they may use only dead branches, and cannot drive nails into live trees).
Q: Can people climb trees?
Yes, provided they don’t cause any damage to plants and wildlife.
Q: Are the public allowed to go shooting, hunting or fishing in my woodland?
No, these activities require the permission of the owner of the woodland. (See separate article on Fishing and Hunting Rights in Scottish Woodlands.)
Q: Are organised groups allowed in my woodland if pursuing a profit-making activity?
Yes, commercial ventures can use your land, provided that they are pursuing an activity that would be permissible under normal, non-commercial circumstances. These are usually categorised as recreational or relevant educational activities.
Q: Can I keep my gate locked?
Yes, if you have reasonable cause (such if there is a genuine likelihood that the woodland will be entered by motorised vehicles, or will be used for dumping, or it is essential for animal heath or safety).
Q: If I keep my gate locked, can people go over it?
Yes, but they should do so at the hinged end and take care not to damage it.
Q: Can I build a fence around my woodland?
Yes, if you have reasonable cause, and taking all reasonable precautions not to endanger people or animals, or to hinder their right of access.
Q: Can people go over my fence?
Yes, but they must try to avoid any damage by doing so near to a post.
Q: Can people go into my woodland if I am staying in it in my tent, caravan, or any other form of shelter that gives me privacy?
Yes, but they have to ensure that your privacy is respected and that your enjoyment of the place is not unreasonably disturbed, by leaving ‘sufficient adjacent land’.
Q: If I carry out land management operations, do I have to inform the public?
Yes, if carrying out an activity that might endanger the public or restrict access. All reasonable means to inform the public should be taken, such as putting up a sign at typical access points. If necessary, provide alternative routes past the work site.