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 275.

    Re 250 -Do you really endorse exposing your young children to naked strangers whilst on holiday?

    Yes, I do. They will be about as traumatised as a puppy seeing a naked dog or a calf seeing a naked bull. Of course, if you teach them this is weird and offensive and they should be distressed, they may become traumatised, but why punish him for your own hang ups.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    This made me chortle, No doubt they will send him to the Britain where it will cost millions in Taxpayer money to hear his appeals at the court of Human Rights to ensure his were not broken. Kudos to you , Sir, the sooner people like you bankrupt this country and bring down the current dictatorship, the better. Also, as long as he isn't parading about in front of children, I don't see the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    There is nothing wrong with the naked body.
    People should be allowed to be naked if they so wish.
    Parents have a right to control what their children are 'exposed' to (forgive the pun).
    There are plenty of designated places in the UK where this fella could excercise his 'rights' to nudity without worrying about offending the delicate constitutions of the Daily Mail-reading knuckle-draggers...

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Doesn't that rucksac cause a little bit of chaffing? Clearly he's dedicated to his cause.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    firstly with rights go responsibilities, he has a responsibility to consider how his actions impinge upon others, there are lots of things which are not against the law but would cause great distress to other people. Show some consideration, you choose to walk naked I choose for my kids to expect to see people clothed in public. Go to a designated spot and we can both do what we want in comfort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    Any member of society whose behaviour negatively impacts on the community must expect consequences. Thankfully the judicial system does not rely on the views of those alleged to have offended to decide the law or its administration.
    The circumstances of his offending and responses to court disposals suggests an underlying mental health concern – one which Mr Gough might well be oblivious to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    I'm glad I don't associate with people moronic enough to find something as entirely natural as the naked human form so outrageous or vulgar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    This defiance is in the best traditions of British "up your's" to authority. By making an issue of it the Scottish authorities give us a glimpse of the authoritarian intolerant future of Scotland post independence. it is not a crime in England to be naked, unless linked to indecent behaviour.

    The 6 years of trying to stop him will only have made him more intransigent. Good on him!

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    In certain area of the Middle East even showing an uncovered arm is considered inappropriate/offensive, particularly for women... where do we draw the line? ...Surely the naked human body in itself should never be a cause of alarm and it is perhaps not so much the body as what is done with it that should be regulated?!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Kids will not be mentally scarred by this man, they look and giggle. Because that is what children do.

    However, anybody seen the effect of super models and the clothes they wear? My goodness, we have a generation of loose women who feel compelled to conform to that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    He's really shown the hypocrisy of our society and our ridiculous attitude towards nudity and sex. It’s ok for pop stars like Rhianna to dance provocatively in front of young children, but a middle aged man can't be naked because its offensive...Get a grip Britain

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Clothes: Won't he or Willy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    What's more likely to have a long term affect on our children, this guy walking past a playground, or the skinny, scantily clad, airbrushed and botoxed women they can see in magazines or on TV every day??

    Ridiculous to waste all those resources by taking him to court and imprisoning him. He isn't doing any harm to anybody.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    Oh dear. So now you can be arrested for having absolutley nothing? He's served 6 years of his live in prison - and his crime was, quite simply, being human 'BEING'.

    The people who keep wasting this insane amount of money persecuting him should be the ones locked up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    This is such a sad situation, a waste of his life (how many years in jail?), and a waste of taxpayers' money. Somebody needs the courage to really think outside of the box, and come up with a novel solution to end this vicious circle. How about giving him a job? Something where his survival skills can be put to good use? Tracking & monitoring Scotland's wild animals? Something in a remote setting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    2 Minutes ago
    I think your maths is off sorry. 1/0.000000014 = 71,428,572

    The global population is what 6-7 billion. Maybe you mean UK population?

    My maths is fine - my typing is flawed, it was meant to be a percentage, so multiply your number by 100 to get 7 billion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    I suspect lots of people ramble in the buff. Last year my friends and I were sunning ourselves by some rockpools in a remote part of southern France when a walker appeared from around the rocks, obviously not expecting to come full frontal before 4 women ... in his panic to get into his underpants, they went on back-to-front! He took them off again as soon as he thought we weren't looking ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    he just comes across as an attention seeking nobody with a vaccuous life and is having to resort to more extreme measures to get that attention.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Oh the British legal system,turn the other cheek to war crimes,corruption but if you actually show a cheek you spend 6 yrs in jail,just wonder what the cave men would make of that,obviously progress

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    We don't seem to have a problem with 'human rights' in getting this man put inside for simply waking around naked. Appalling example spiteful harrasment of an eccentric. Any judge worthy of the name would have thrown the case out as waste of time and money


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