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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  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I reckon most of the people supporting him on here would be horrified if it was their brother/sister/son/daughter/wife/father/mother doing it to this extent. They'd fear for their mental health. It's all well and good calling it 'natural' but it's not the behaviour of a sane individual. I'm not suggesting what he is doing is a heinous crime but neither is it an example of legitimate protest imo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Good luck to him. Ironic that when he appears in court he is naked but the judge is in a gown and wig, so who is the kinky one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    giovanna wrote:
    "Commit him to an asylum for the mentally deranged as he is obviously stark raving mad. Let him out, clothed, when he recognises that it is wrong to expose himself to children"

    By your same logic, every mother who has given birth naturally has exposed themselves to their child and is stark raving mad.

    Or maybe you are?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    So far then, it has cost at least a quarter of a million pounds (not including the costs and time of arresting and trying him) - what an outrageous waste of money.

    Considering no real harm has ever been done, couldn't the state just let him get on with it and divert that money to something far more useful?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Stephen Gough is an idiot! - to lose 6 years of his life (so far) and to miss out on his children growing up, for such a trivial, irrelevant principal. I say "Grow up. Get your priorities right and don't be such an arrogant, stubborn fool". No wonder he refuses to be assessed - he may have a mental issue! He is certainly not normal - he is even condemned by the British Naturist Society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    The law is the law, whether you agree with it or not. Laws on nudity have existed for a very long time in this country and are based on the fact that most people in society do not want to see others walking around in public naked! If Mr Gough has a problem with the law, might I suggest that he goes to a country where nudity is acceptable - or perhaps a desert island where no one else can see him??

  • Comment number 149.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I quite admire Stephen Gough though i wouldn't consider rambling naked myself, i just can't afford the shrinkage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    137. 4PetesSake
    How many people supporting him on here think it is OK to walk around naked in front of your family and relatives even in your own home.

    I do for one!....there is absolutely nothing wrong with being naked. A more open and accepting attitude of our naked form might stop so many people having unhealthy hang-ups about their body image

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Most emotionally & intellectually mature people understand that the "rights" of people to practice a certain lifestyle is only viable when they don't infringe upon the "rights" of others. In this case, not to be subjected to the unnecessary sight of nudism.
    Also, clothes exist because they're practical. Choosing not to wear them isn't some "statement" about being one with nature. It's just stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    46. mister smith "99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999%A quick maths lesson for you Mr Smith, we write 99.999%r, the 'r' standing for recurring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    If the naked rambler was a woman - would that make a difference to you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    If I was on duty and happened across him, out of interest I'd probably have a bit of banter with him, find out what he's up to, what drives him, where he's going - and then bid him good luck.

    However, if I received formal complaints then I MAY have to act.

    No definites. Just maybe.

    There are far more important things in life to worry about than having to incarcerate men like Mr Gough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Just let him walk about naked for goodness sake, it's only a willy.

  • Comment number 141.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Tough one. I see both sides of the argument as perfectly valid. Gough feels he has a human right to walk naked but then I don't think it is acceptable if he walks past a school or place where children are gathered for instance. The adult body is also sexualised (ie post-pubic) and therefore it's generally accepted that the adult body should be clothed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    What a complete waste of public money... who's in charge here?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    UK law on public nudity is odd. As a photographer I can legally photograph someone naked in public but the law make provision for anyone to complain to have me and the model prosecuted for obsenity on the ground they felt offended. "Naked bike ride" is allowed but as long as the police is notified so they can enforce controlling the event.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    This man has no consideration for other people and has a warped and perverted mind. How many people supporting him on here think it is OK to walk around naked in front of your family and relatives even in your own home. He wears other items of clothing such as a shoes and socks, surely he must have enough sense to see that all he needs to do now, is to cover up one other small part of his anotomy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Oh come on, we come into the world naked, is that offensive? At what point does it become offensive? I'm not a naturist but I don't believe that the human body in any way should be offensive. Take breast feeding for example, some people find that offensive.

    People can find offense in anything. I find eggs offensive but would I want to ban them?


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