One of the things I love about Scotland is their “freedom to roam” code, though I would be lying to you if I said that I am totally comfortable with it. The very idea that it is acceptable to trespass on someone’s private property uninvited is just so foreign and so contrary to our laws here in the United States. I can never quite get over the feeling that I may be an interloper, an unwanted guest who might get asked to leave whenever I wander off a public path. Of course, that’s simply not true!
In 2003, Scotland’s Land Reform Act was initiated, allowing everyone “rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly” (http://scotways.com). Per Scotways, this basically boils down to three things: respecting the interests of other people, caring for the environment, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. Of course, there are a some restrictions that hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts must abide by. For example, the land next to and used by a school, fields where crops are growing, or a person’s most immediate personal space (like their backyard or garden) are off limits. But restrictions aside, the beauty of this act is that is allows individuals the freedom to explore Scotland’s vast, wild, and remarkable landscape and unmaintained historical sites completely undeterred. And in a country with over 30,000 square miles of land and a population of only about 5.5 million (most living in the cities), that means you might never see another person while you roam!
A perfect example of a time when Mr. C and I benefited from this access right was when we visited Croft Moraig Stone Circle near Aberfeldy. The prehistoric site happens to occupy a farmer’s field, but because of Scotland’s code, we were permitted to park our car in an unmarked area on the side of the road and walk onto the property without fear of reproach. We were simply reminded by the farmer’s sign to shut the gate, which we were all too happy to do.
Scotland is not the only country with such a code. In fact, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Austria are just a few examples of other nations that also allow for the freedom to roam. Though I love and thoroughly appreciate having this unfettered access when I travel, I grapple with what my reaction would be if we enacted such a practice here in the U.S. Let’s face it. We Americans are overall quite a kind and generous lot, but many of us also strongly believe in a person’s right to privacy and in the right of consent. I know…it’s a conundrum – I want it both ways.
Regardless, as a visitor to Scotland, being granted permission to venture beyond roads and other public access points to off-the-beaten-path places and to be allowed to fully experience the wild, natural, and untamed beauty of the land is both a joy and an enormous privilege. I hope one day you can experience this freedom too.
Just don’t forget to shut the gate.