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 175.

    One of the few who recognises that we dont even realise that rights, are a controll imposed on us by societys restrictions.
    Shame about the being naked to prove a point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    The problem is that if you make an exception for this guy, then perverts and flashers would try and argue they are legally entitled to be naked too.

    If he wants to be naked then he should go to a nudist camp.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    It's a context thing, isn't it? Naturists have special areas put aside where they can have privacy. Mr Gough is attempting to force his opinions on everyone. He obviously wore clothes before he got ON the flight, so his insistence on nudity is rather hypocritical. Personally, if I were the courts, I'd let him go and wander 'free' - but if he walks around by schools again, then do him as a flasher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    Many of you are ignorant.
    He has been arrested at least once for insisting on walking naked beside children's play areas where children are playing.
    When asked by parents to either put clothes on or take a different route he refused and therefore a complaint was made and he was arrested.
    He's not some liberty loving romantic, he insists on showing his naked body to children.
    That is a fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    When they next load him up into a van to take him from prison to court they should go via Hampshire and dump him outside the town he claims to live in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    As long as Gough's attitude is the only thing to harden then good luck to the guy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Whilst we're at it, how about arresting Prince Harry for his nude exploits in the US? Or the Duchess of Cambridge for having the audacity to bare her flesh in France?

    No? Thought not...

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

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

    Not where my children are or where other peoples children are.
    I;ll have him in a max security prison in general population then maybe he might learn a thing or two about putting on some clothes in public. Segregating him in prison was the wrong move

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Surly like a delinquent child the behaviour should just be ignored when he stops getting all the attention, free meals and free accommodation he will simply move on

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    @150 - quite right, the law is the law, and the law (definately in Engalnd/Wales and I think also in Scotland) is that nudity is NOT an offence, unless it is done with the intention of causing distress or harassment.

    In my opinion, if we had more relaxed approach to nudity then there would be less sex crimes as people wouldn't be so opressed by their bodies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Fascinating - the responses on this thread. I think this is one of those things that does not really matter. Yet some people can get really cross about it - my suspicion is that this says more about them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Keep him banged up for a few more months then in January drop him off on the north east coast up by Fraserburgh and see how long he lasts after the North Sea has done it's worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    50.David H
    "After all this time I am surprised that others have not joined in with him. I expect you get used to the cold after a while"

    With the price of fuel we're all going to have to get used to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Maybe he has "big feet" and all the men complaining just feel jealous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    It may be that those who are uncomfortable may have pathological hang-ups? He's not being sexually provocative, like we see so many while clubbing. To oppose his point, you're going to have to argue that simple nakedness is unnatural, but you can't. Or, that though it is natural, it makes you uncomfortable - but ask why? What's next, Scott telling naked Amazonians they're instigating offence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    To an extent I sympathize with Gough's claim. Nakedness isn't offensive in itself, not should it be.

    But walking naked past a school, or stripping off in a courtroom, is obvious and deliberate provocation. There are some circumstances in which nakedness is not appropriate and Gough seemingly will not accept that. Fine: next time, lock him up for 5 years, and save wasting money on trials.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    I bet the Marines made him wear uniform!

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Maybe he should go to the the other extreme and try to hike through France in a full bhurka?

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    I can't get why some people say being naked in public is natural, but defecating, burping, breaking wind, having sex or masturbating is not. I must be an odd guy then doing all of this time to time. And I'm very sad that I'm not alllowed to do any of this wherever and whenever I want to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    It must be interesting in court when he has to swear an oath with a hand on the bible


Page 41 of 49



  • Elderly manSuicide decline

    The number of old people killing themselves has fallen. Why?

  • Petrol pumpPumping up

    Why are petrol prices rising again?

  • Image of George from Tube CrushTube crush

    How London's male commuters set Chinese hearts racing

  • TricycleTreasure trove

    The lost property shop stuffed with diamonds, bikes... and a leg

  • Boris Nemtsov'I loved Nemtsov'

    A murder in an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance

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.