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.

Start Quote

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.

Start Quote

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."


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Is it 2012 or 1912? It´s a naked body, we´ve all got them. Kids will not be shocked by him. This is a total waste of time and money. Do they think the streets will be flooded with nude ramblers if they let him go? It´s not something most of us would want to do, but I don´t really see how it is considered a crime requiring a prison term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    It appears that sadly this is all down to our culture - recently we saw people reacting to Kate Middleton sunbathing topless. We all need to stop being so horrified by the human body!

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Why not a compromise? Allow him his nakedness but away from schools, playgrounds etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Why is nature illegal?

    Do we have to stamp the "sex" label on the naked human body, as though it has no grace or dignity?

    I don't know if this is a leftover from the days when we covered table legs for fear they would inflame passion, or just that our minds have been corrupted by marketing/ads...

    If I didn't live so bloody far away I'd organise a welcome committee of naked folk :0)

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I suspect he may have mental problems. Not specifically because he walks around naked but rather because he keeps doing things that he knows will return him to prison. He probably can't cope with the real world rather than being out to 'prove a point'. I fail to see how his military background is relevant though (as per Nimrod). Unless it's mentally scarred him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    If he tried to walk anywhere near my daughters while naked, i fear I'd be the one that would end up in prison.
    What so offensive about nakedness? You weren't born clothed were you? Neither was your wife, or your daughters. We have a peculiar problem with victorian attitudes in this country.
    And as he's an ex serviceman,your more likely to end up in hospital than being arrested.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    An innocent five year old girl has been murdered and THIS is the topic for today!!

    Tells me everything I need to know

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Not sure why I admire him but I do

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    It is not right to show children your penis. That sums it up really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Quite apart from any laws which may be broken, in our society we wear clothes in public. To belong to a society requires a level of conformity. As adults, we have the mental process to understand if conformity is breached and approve or disapprove as we see fit.
    Children up to the age of 10 do not have that capability and must therefore be protected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    On the one hand we have a slightly eccentric chap who is rightly testing the rules and conventions of our society. On the other, unrestricted public nudity may be abused by perverts - if only as a confusion-causing defence in court.

    What's needed is an unambiguous, up-to-date definition of "public decency" that doesn't pander to extreme views or narrow minds from either side.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Why is a naked man so offensive to people? There are women who wear next to nothing on a night out, with only the smallest nod to covering themselves up. Why is this ok, but a block walking naked not?

    If he was going around waggling it around and making a point of it then yes he is breaching the peace. As far as I can tell he's keeping himself to himself and not bothering anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Isn't' the solution for a group of people to get together and follow him around mocking him? He might then get fed up with what is really selfish or self-centred behaviour?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Look, the solution is a simple one.
    Fly him and his rucksack to Greenland where he can wander around to his hearts content whilst frostbite removes his "offending" bits.
    Upon his return he can carry on as usual here in a totally "inoffensive" manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    You're not naked if you are wearing shoes or boots. I would have more sympathy for him if he wasn't picking and choosing what parts of nudism he adheres to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    What a old plonker!

  • Comment number 99.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    The man's nuts. Lock him up

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    "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."

    > This from a 'Human Rights lawyer'? What!!!?

    Surely you have to examine the premises of those who claim upset or alarm. Perhaps their world view represents emotional immaturity? I'm sure Religious fanatics will LOVE Mr. Scott!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    This is a rejection of the "other" society similar to that expressed by groups engaged in extremist religion, drugs, terrorism, fashion statements, etc. He will never change, and is at least harmless. Best ignored.


Page 44 of 49



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.