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 215.

    Yes,he's an odd-ball but otherwise he seems harmless. Maybe just best to ignore him.
    Rather more alarming is the level of illiteracy displayed by a lot of enthusiastic contributors!

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    The point being missed here is that he insists on exposing himself in populated areas. If HE can be allowed to expose himself, why wouldn't some sex pervert. A law is there for a reason !!. If he agreed to confine his urge to be naked only on his rambles in certain secluded areas, Surely no-one would object to that...

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    a. This geezer strikes me as a classic asocial loner who has become institutionalised by his experiences in the Marines & the penal system. BUT it is not illegal to be a misfit. b. He's protesting a principle: Many acts are offensive (shouting, inconsiderate drivers, drive-by bass cowboys rattling windows), but not illegal. Someone marching around starkers is shameless, but hardly offensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Have you seen the hat he is wearing?

    He should certainly be arrested for that, if nothing else.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    I know society is used to clothes being "decent", but it is OK for women to dress them selves up looking like prostitutes, purposely making them selves look like "sex" which is surely more offensive than someone just being "natural"?

    This guy just wants freedom from clothes, not to offend, whereas women who dress like that are looking to be noticed for it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    46. mister smith "99.99999999999999999999999999999999999%
    A quick maths lesson for you Mr Smith, we write 99.999%r, the 'r' standing for recurring.
    A further maths lesson for both of you - 1 person is 0.000000014 of the global popualtion. The bit that is excluded from Mr Smith's percentage is about 1mm of one person's single hair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    normal-thinker.............................I would probably describe Mr Gough as many things but "pervert" isn't one of them. Can't see how this is going to stop if Mr Gough continues but I think his friends should sit him down and say enough is enough, you've made your point,now put your bloody clothes on! Maybe a job at Cap d'Agde would be good for him.Please offer him one. He's a good chap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    6 years - 6 YEARS - in prison for harmless eccentricity? What a disgrace. Now this shouts out that the law is an ASS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    who is he one....

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    No doubt if this person were female there would be no complaints.

    Men wouldn't give two hoots and women would say she was expressing some sort of feminine right and men mustn't look at her and objectify her as she has a right to be exactly how she wants to be without it having anything to do with sex.

    and as we all know it's only men that are deviant and perverse, NOT

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Here comes the controversy. Embarrassment and shock to the naked human body is a creation of the Christian religion. Doesn't anybody find it amusing how hypocritical that religion is when God intended us all to be naked, but sinners then covered themselves up?

    Why don't Christians follow the intentions of the God they revere? Why must they turn their back on his rules as Adam and Eve did?

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Turn down the heating in his Scottish prison, that would soon make him put some clothes on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    I wonder what has happened to this man? I say that, as when I recently saw a picture of him with his ex-wife and children - he looked handsome, intelligent and a really nice guy. Something has traumatised this man, maybe it's PTSD or something? Maybe, he didn't handle his divorce too well? Something has turned this guy from a family man, into what he is today, surely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    187 Terry B.

    "To torcher a man such as Stephen who just desires the freedom to walk naked across our land by incinerating him in solitary-confinement ..."
    Your comment made me laugh out loud, I hope you were being ironic, but I suspect you weren't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    I once got beaten up by a Scottish fisherman for wearing a kaftan in a pub. CH405 thinks he needs psychiatric help - does that extend to African women who go about bare-breasted? Different isn't wrong! 90 years ago people would have been outraged if you went out in public without a hat. Many places won't let you in without a strip of cloth around your neck. Lighten up!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    There's "making a point".....

    and there's "being a martyr" (but you really need a serious cause and supporters for that).....

    and then there's "cutting off nose to spite face"

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Nakedness cannot be considered a crime. Those people offended by this admittedly eccentric character, should perhaps consider if they are not the people in need of changing their attitudes and hang ups. We were all born naked. Clothing is always a personal choice. I remember when some prudish people wanted to ban mini skirts and hot pants. If you are too easily offended, the problem is yours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    I dare any of you to walk naked for a mile. This guy clearly has bigger cojones than the majority of people in this country. Go for it ... change perceptions ... be yourself ... inspire people .. do something - don't complain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Just leave him alone - there's not an automatic right to be offended. This annoys me: "The point Gough is trying to make has become an expensive one for the rest of us", you could turn that around and say "that the point the legal system are trying to make is an expensive one for the rest of us".

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Gough is an exhibitionist who is play acting, Scotland (currently) his stage, the shocked public his audience and the police and judges his involuntary acting company for his productions. The cost of his productions kindly met by the Scottish prison service who are gracious enough to provide him with his own room. The Edinburgh fringe could not put on a better production.


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