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.

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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 235.

    @ 195. seront
    He might think it is OK but most do not otherwise it would be legal.


    In this case you are incorrect. Nudity in public is not illegal he is breaking no laws.
    The reason he is arrested is because some people can't mind their own business and insist they are 'alarmed or distressed' by the sight of a naked body

    Who's weirder??

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    This a lovely point of inflection, where neo-liberalism consumes itself.

    By defending this chaps 'rights' whilst being willfully blind to the precedent it would set, is quite remarkable.

    This naval gazing whilst watching large amount of public money being wasted is one reason why Britain is in such a poor infrastructural state

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    204. Good wheeze! Let's force him to chose between his principles & death from hypothermia. Because that's a proportionate response to a bloke who is a very irritating but harmless eccentric. Of course, being that he has voluntarily spent 6 years in prison on a point of principle, there's a finite chance that he'd rather freeze to death than put clothes on, but hey, who cares, win win, right?

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    Oh dear, I usually only comment on sporting matters on the Beeb website but this waste of bandwidth has got my goat.
    There are laws we don't agree with, such as speed limits on certain roads where you find yourself saying 'hey, this should be a 60, not 40mph?!' Yet we adhere to these laws to avoid anarchy. Hopefully what's-his-face will read this on the prison PC and take this notion on board....

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    @146 qb1337

    I'm very sorry to tell you this, but "to be subjected to the unnecessary sight of nudism" is not a Right you have.

    Only when it is necessary nudism, can you then have a right not to be subjected to it.

    You have my pity though that you are so uncomfortable with human beings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Why is nudity automatically sexualised? In many tribal cultures the adults are naked in front of the children without any suggestion of sexualisation. It is completely ridiculous that we are forced by law to cover our bodies, and differently depending on our gender - men can show their nipples but women can't? I think he's a bit of a hero.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Being an avid hiker myself, I have met other walkers all over the world who prefer to walk 'undressed', mostly men. But, in all cases, they kept their boots on… If you do meet a chap 'swinging in the wind', look at his 'tackle' and laugh out loud; it upsets them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    I've been naked on beaches in several European countries and see nothing wrong with it. But it strikes me that this guy is just deliberately trying to shock and offend. And when he's doing that outside schools then there should be serious concerns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Yes, God forbid that innocent children should see a naked person. Dear me, they might think that the human body is great and natural and nothing to be ashamed of, and then where would we be?

    P.S. - I'm not a naturist and this guy is barking wanting to ramble naked in England, of all countries! Talk about freezing your sphericals off!

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    201. Ray Norman

    I suggested that Mr Gough needs psychiatric help not because of his liking for being naked, but because of his unreasonably confrontational attitude that results in him being permanently imprisoned.

    So lighten up yourself ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    Must get a bit chilly don't you think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    People appear to be having great difficulty with the difference between "naked" and "sexual", not to mention transferring their own prudish embarrassment onto their children. Your children would most likely just laugh, until you taught them that being naked was perverted of course.

    You probably don't want to know what I used to type this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    I think the most interesting aspect of this case is the way Scotland tried to deport him to England.

    We should do the same with the thousands of Scottish drunks we have to put up with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    I'd like to hear more about the 'human rights' argument of nudity- he may have something there. Being naked cannot be illegal because being naked is a default position: how we would be without other human activity. Similar to banning facial hair maybe. Surely causing breaching the peace requires behavior. To breach the peace you must do something. He is breaching the peace by not doing something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    If he chooses to walk across Scotland, or anywhere in the UK. why can't he. Personally I would not, not because I feel it is wrong but because of the weather and midges ! If he was a in a little known tribe in a rain forest there would be people saying " we must not interfere with their traditions" And honestly is anyone offended by him ? It is far more offensive that some people live in poverty

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    There is but a simple solution. The Peruvian indians I believe wore a scrap of material to protect the sexual organ from natural inclements and dangers, and from young curious eyes. Perhaps this man could follow their example, and continue on his way out of Scotland. Unless he has previous convictions for sexual abuse, why label him as a pervert? Grin and ignore his idiocyncrosis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    @ 211 - Come on, this guy is definitely (at least partly) doing it for the attention.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.


    Anyone who is not completely naive will know that if they walk around naked in public, there is a high chance that other people will be caused alarm or distress - anyone who has been convicted 18 times for public nudity should definitely know this! Therefore, if an adult deliberately walks around in public with no clothes on, there has to be an element of "intent". Offence proved!

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Is it illegal to walk naked in public in this country? – For yes, + for no.

    Answer to follow…

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    If he is being provocative or harassing people in a naked state, then we have sexual harassment laws. There is a difference between choosing not to wear clothes and flaunting your naked body at someone just to wind them up or intimate them. So it's about context and evidence.

    That said, If the government says that it is illegal to be naked, then they should provide clothes for free.


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