Naked Rambler: The UK's oddest legal stand-off

Naked rambler in Cornwall

Naked Rambler Stephen Gough has spent more than six years in Scottish prisons for refusing to put his clothes on. The authorities have made it clear they do not want him there but the rambler is sticking to his principles. The result is possibly the UK's oddest legal stand-off.

The Naked Rambler has been released from prison in Edinburgh after serving his latest sentence for public nudity.

Stephen Gough has 18 convictions and has been in prison almost without a break since May 2006.

His previous spells of freedom have often been as little as a few seconds, with arrest following his refusal to wear clothes on departure from prison.

The offences of which he has been convicted are breach of the peace and contempt of court, refusing to wear clothes in front of the sheriff.

He has twice walked naked from Land's End to John O'Groats - in 2003-04 and 2005-06 - typically wearing only boots, socks, a rucksack and perhaps hat.

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Human rights lawyer John Scott

The point Gough is trying to make has become an expensive one for the rest of us”

End Quote John Scott Human rights lawyer

In England, Gough had run-ins with the police, but the attitude in Scotland has consistently been tougher with police and courts mostly agreeing that being naked in public is fundamentally a breach of the peace.

Gough's attitude has also hardened, with the rambler refusing to wear clothes in court or after being arrested, leading to contempt of court convictions.

The authorities in Scotland are growing rather weary.

After his last conviction, the prosecution service issued a statement, the tone of which could be said to be exasperated.

The Crown Office, responsible for prosecutions in Scotland, pointed out that it and the police had done all they could to "prevent" Gough from offending. In order to break the "vicious circle" which sees Gough thrown back in prison as soon as he is released, police chiefs decided earlier this year on a different approach.

In July, Gough, a 53-year-old former marine from Eastleigh, Hampshire, was allowed to walk away from Perth prison without wearing clothes.

Ch Insp Andy McCann, of Tayside Police, says a decision was taken to allow Gough to go on his way and only arrest him if his behaviour was gratuitous. "We asked him to show a bit of consideration," McCann says.

But within three days, Gough was back in court after he walked naked past a children's playground in Fife.

Stephen Gough in 2011 Stephen Gough refuses to wear clothes in prison or in court

Adrian Cottam, procurator fiscal summary for the east of Scotland, says that despite repeated police requests, Gough has "intentionally caused shock and alarm to children and their parents".

At Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court, Sheriff James Williamson says Gough's "disregard for other members of the public, in particular children" shows "arrogance" and "self-indulgence". He also lost patience with Gough for his refusal to allow social workers to assess his mental health.

"When he did walk the length of the country he was variously ignored, celebrated and arrested," Ch Insp McCann says.

Police have a certain amount of discretion over whether to arrest a person for being naked in public, he adds, and if people just see Gough as an "oddity" it would be fine to allow him to carry on.

"It is about context and the alarm he is causing and his intention to cause alarm and whether his offences are flagrant and persistent."

Gough's second walk to John O'Groats ended in February 2006.

It took eight months because his trek was broken by spells in prison - but not even snow in the far north of Scotland could deter him from rambling naked.

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He is perceived to have been confrontational, intolerant and inconsiderate”

End Quote British Naturism on Gough's behaviour

In May of that year, on a flight from Southampton to Edinburgh to attend an Appeal Court hearing, Gough stripped off in the toilet and was arrested when the plane landed. He has been in prison pretty much since then, and has spent six years in segregation.

"He's had to be managed separately from other prisoners because he refuses to wear clothes," says Tom Fox, of the Scottish Prisons Service. "He is asked every day if he will put on clothes and he refuses."

Fox says it is a self-imposed segregation that causes difficulties for prison management, but prison rules say that clothes must be worn.

John Scott QC, chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, says the bill to keep Gough in prison for so long must have reached hundreds of thousands of pounds. It costs about £40,000 a prisoner a year, rising when an inmate is separated from others, and when he is repeatedly discharged and readmitted.

Other naked protests

  • In 1969, in Denmark, 300 individuals took part in a naked "wade-in" on a beach. As as result it is now permissible to be naked on all but two Danish beaches
  • The Freedom to be Yourself campaign, founded in 1999 by Vincent Bethell, have staged a series of nude demonstrations in the US and the UK
  • Peter Niehenke, founder of the German pro-naturist group Wald-FKK, has been fined several times for jogging naked
  • The German campaign Nacktwandern wants the right to go hiking in the nude
  • In Ukraine, the group Femen regularly holds naked demonstrations against sexism and sex tourism

"The point Gough is trying to make has become an expensive one for the rest of us," Scott says. "He has accrued the kind of prison sentence which people usually get for doing real harm and crimes of violence."

It is Gough's contention that to be naked in public is a fundamental freedom and that nakedness is an aspect of his personal autonomy.

"The human body isn't offensive," he told the Guardian in March 2012. "If that's what we're saying, as human beings, then it's not rational."

Gough says he is determined to make his way the length of the UK "without compromises". He took this view all the way to the Scottish appeal court, where it was rejected.

Scott, who is also a human rights lawyer, says being naked is "not generally accepted to be a human right".

"You can develop your own thinking on what a human right is but if that clashes with the rights of other people not to be upset or alarmed then you have a problem."

Andrew Welch, commercial manager of British Naturism, says Gough's behaviour has been "perceived to be confrontational, intolerant and inconsiderate".

But Welch agrees with the principle that it is not an offence to choose not to wear clothes. There is no evidence that nudity causes harm to anyone of any age, he says, and "body shame" results in widespread and often serious negative effects, mainly to children and young people.

"Nakedness is not illegal. A lot of this is about the application of the law," Welch says.

"Naturist people are law abiding but we would like to know what the law is. People in authority seem to let personal opinion overcome what the law says."

Naked rambler and friend in Cornwall

A number of Gough's convictions have been for contempt of court as he refuses to wear clothes in front of the sheriff. But the charge which gets him in front of the sheriff in the first place is breach of the peace.

Notable dates

  • Jan 2003: arrested in home town of Eastleigh, Hants
  • June: began Land's End to John O'Groats trek
  • Detained 13 times from June to August
  • In England, often quietly let out or released in another jurisdiction
  • Numerous arrests in Scotland in Duns, Selkirk and Inverness
  • 28 Nov: three-month sentence, but released from Inverness Prison due to time served and rearrested next day
  • 2005: two weeks in Edinburgh Prison and five months in Inverness Prison
  • May 2006: arrested on Southampton-Edinburgh flight, given three-month sentence
  • 25 Aug: seven-month sentence
  • 30 Nov 2007: three-month sentence for contempt of court (dating from Dec 2005)
  • 2008 - more arrests
  • 16 July 2009: 12-month sentence in Perth Prison
  • Feb 2010: 21-month sentence in Perth
  • Nov:sentenced to 15 months and 26 days
  • 25 Aug 2011: sentenced to 657 days
  • 13 Sept 2012: five-month sentence in Fife Prison, his 18th conviction

Criminal solicitor Grazia Robertson notes the flexibility of the offence. "You do not have to pass a new statute every time someone coughs in the wrong place," she says.

But just because "one little old lady is shocked" it is not enough to prove there has been a breach, she says.

On two occasions during his long history with the Scottish courts, Gough has been cleared by sheriffs.

In 2007, Sheriff Isobel Poole ruled there was insufficient evidence to show that his state of undress had caused alarm to members of the public. Gough had been arrested in the car park after being released from Saughton Prison in Edinburgh.

The sheriff decided there was no evidence of "actual alarm or disturbance", although she understood how such conduct could be considered unpleasant to passers-by.

If Gough maintains his insistence on public nudity, what can the Scottish legal system do?

One option - which the Crown Office says it has tried - is shipping him back to England.

On his release from Edinburgh prison in 2007, police officers offered to take Gough to an address of his choosing in Yorkshire. Although he originally agreed to go with them, he changed his mind and attempted to walk from the prison along the A71 and was arrested again.

Scott says the sooner a way is found to get Gough out of Scotland the better.

"It is a situation calling for a degree of compromise from the authorities but they can't be seen to be saying he can do whatever he wants. If it was decided to let him on his way naked, they would not be saying he has won. People are not going to copy him.

"The state needs to keep a sense of proportion because the harm he is causing is more offence and annoyance than damage to people and society. This could carry on until he is too ill to put on clothes. And that does not strike me as a sensible approach on behalf of the state."


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  • Comment number 135.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    We are born naked. In other cultures around the world clothes are not worn. Therefore it is a state of mind that says nudity is an offence. I would never reveal my self in public, mainly due to the state of my physique. Let him be, people are putting him in the same category as sexual offenders all because he is male. Would you moan if it was a woman? NO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    How sad that people find the human body so offensive. We can only blame religion for all this stupidity about the human body and the act of it being displayed. We should be free to show our bodies where we please and not have to cover up or risk prosecution. I am not a nudist or anything but just believe in basic freedoms. You don't have to look if you don't want to!

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Yeah, being naked is natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Going to the loo is natural too. If we follow this to its natural conclusion, are we all going to be walking around M&S naked and doing our business wherever we please?

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    It seems that the Scottish Court response is to simply try to offload the problem out of its jurisdiction, rather than tackle it. That doesn't help anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Please can we stick to the issue-

    Nature is not illegal, upsetting people can be, contempt of court and breach of the peace are.

    Is he causing offence? If so should he be jailed at vast expense? Is this a proportionate reaction?

    If he is totally ignored would he "go away" or find something more dangerous/media attention catching that really would be a problem?

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Looking at the figures of births in Europe, it would be a great idea to allow public sex as well on the streets. It is a natural way to have babies, exercising it publicly shouldn't be banned but encouraged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I empathise with Gough. People were born naked and all have either a penis or a vagina. As long as that genitalia isn't being used in a sexual manner I don't see the problem. I have a daughter and don't want her growing up afraid of the bits we cover up. That will just lead to her rebelling and being promiscuous in her teens. Gough though is moving beyond principle to purposefully antagonising

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    If the authorities realease him from prison knowing full well that he refuses to wear clothes then they are equally culpable

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Everyone knows that we only want to see beautiful people naked not ugly ones. That should be the law.... and if it is the eye of the beholder then where are all the fat models in fashion magazines. He should put shorts on. Urrg! I am having my lunch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I read recently that when he is released the police were not going to pursue him as they did before. . . . . . I also think they should just leave him to it. He is at least protesting 'peacefully' and if left to it, I think he will get bored and eventually give it up

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    How can he be offensive, if you turn you back for a minute he will be gone. He is walking to get to a destination, Why is he being arrested the second he leaves prison? Who has he offended in those seconds?
    Yes, there are levels of decency. I would say that if he had a poo on a playground then arrest him, otherwise it is the people who are offended that need to take a look at themselves, naked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    The way some of you idiot's describe this man is appalling, he is not a sexual predictor, or a "flasher"! Stop seeing this man as a pervert he is not the man is legally more than free to walk this country naked! What law has he broken? Can someone please clarify that?

    I'm offended by the treatment of women forced to wear a burka? Should they all be arrested too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    The problem is this society has been conditioned to accept nudity as something more to do with sex than anything. Every naturist is a dirty pervert until proven otherwise. Sad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Boorrrnnnnn frrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeee.

    Apparently wandering around naked is more offensive and criminal than sucking the blood out of a childs penis after he has been circumcised which is just a religious right.

    Keep rambling Mr Gough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    @92 The majority of the actions you list are also illegal in public, your point is?

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    People saying that for walking in front of children naked he should be locked up with no excusses? its one thing to walk around in the scud and another thing entirely to sexually abuse children. if he did THAT then he should be locked up, not for walking about naked..

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    John Scott can't be a very good human rights lawyer if he thinks there is a right "not to be upset or alarmed"...

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Maybe he's an oddball.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Put the loon in a nuthouse and have done with it.


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