One of the great joys of owing a campervan or motorhome is being self-sufficient, able to park up and stay overnight away from the crowds. People often talk of ‘wild camping’ – camping for free and away from a formal, managed campsite. But what does the law in Scotland actually say about this ? What exactly is allowed ?
There’s widespread misinformation and misunderstanding on this topic unfortunately. This post is designed to help dispel some of the myths that still exist so visitors and locals know where they stand.
What’s the current situation?
As elsewhere in the UK and many other countries, informal ‘free camping’ is tolerated in many parts of Scotland. People in campervans and motorhomes park up in a remote spot away from houses, stay overnight, tidy up after themselves and then leave. So what’s the problem?
The difficulty is that signs of tension are now increasing in many locations. Largely this is due to pressure of numbers; there are many more motorhomes on the roads in particular and more vehicles camped on roadsides means that informal camping is much more visible than ever before.
The phenomenal success of the North Coast 500 route means that there are many camper vans and motorhomes looking to camp informally near fragile and remote rural communities. While there are some great campsites in North West Scotland in particular, the level of demand has exceeded the investment in camping, parking and waste disposal facilities, and increased investment is urgently needed. I’ve personally been annoyed to see people in large white motorhomes parked up beside the road in remote, treeless Highland locations creating an eyesore. You would think that people would have the common sense to hide these monstrous vehicles somewhere far less intrusive.
Certain Scottish islands (such as Colonsay and Tiree) now don’t allow campervans or motorhomes since they lack the infrastructure to cope. When I wanted to take my camper van to Colonsay a few years ago I was told that the clampdown was as a direct consequence of previous instances of littering and leaving human waste.
Other visitor hotspots such as at St Andrews’ West Beach have also introduced local byelaws preventing vehicles from camping overnight. Local residents are concerned at the number of vehicles parked overnight, creating a visual eyesore, sometimes blocking roads and entranceways, and putting pressure on public toilet facilities.
Finally, we’ve seen issues with irresponsible informal camping in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, which have escalated in recent years. This led (in March 2017) to the National Park Authority introducing temporary byelaws and a permit system (costing £3 per night) in order to camp in the new camping management zones between March and October each year. These camping management zones cover the most popular lochside locations (around 4% of the total Park area), and restrictions don’t apply outwith these zones. In Glen Etive too, the landowner has provided a designated campsite at the foot of the Glen beside Loch Etive to attempt to reduce littering from informal camping down the 12 mile length of the Glen.
While I’m not aware of any particular issues relating to camper van and motorhome owners acting irresponsibly or antisocially the measures introduced unfortunately don’t distinguish between the irresponsible few and the responsible majority. The police have always had the power to give fixed penalty notices to people camping irresponsibly (littering, adopting anti-social behaviour) and so there’s strong pressure on the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority to simply enforce these existing powers so that the anti-social minority don’t continue to restrict access for the responsible majority. (The police clearly need to reallocate resources for this to happen of course).
I’ve deliberately summarised some of the main tensions that are currently found in Scotland, particularly during the busier summer months. To many people this may seem strange since the popular view is that you can wild camp for free anywhere in Scotland, right?
Wrong. Let me try to clarify matters.
Myth 1 –You can ‘wild camp’ in Scotland in a camper van or motorhome
Many people are confused by what’s meant by ‘wild camping’. In fact, wild camping under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 is only allowed when camping on foot, bike or some other non-motorised form of transport. Scotland’s access legislation does not apply to motorised vehicles such as camper vans and motorhomes.
The Land Reform Act provides rights of access to most land and inland water, subject to responsible behaviour as defined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. According to the Code (my emphasis in bold):
Access rights extend to wild camping. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farms animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures. Take extra care to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting. If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by:
- taking away all your litter
- removing all traces of your tent pitch and any open fire (follow the guidance for lighting fires)
- not causing any pollution.
By definition, ‘wild camping’ takes place away from roads and settlements so parking up beside the road certainly isn’t wild camping! While the term ‘wild camping’ is popularly used by motorhomers they should really be talking about informal or free camping.
So don’t assume that Scotland’s world-leading land access legislation allows the right of responsible access for camper vans or motorhomes. It doesn’t apply to motorised vehicles.
Myth 2 – The law is different in Scotland compared with elsewhere in the UK
Building on the above, the Road Traffic Act applies equally throughout the UK – the rules are no different in Scotland.
Across the UK, however, you’re allowed to sleep in a vehicle in a layby if you are tired and you need to rest before continuing your journey. Whether you would want to if quite a different matter: laybys are often noisy, dangerous, dirty and not the kind of place you’d want to sleep except when all other options have been exhausted.
Myth 3 – There’s nothing wrong in camping informally for free
Broadly, I’d agree with this but with two very important caveats.
First, it’s essential that you camp responsibly. What’s not acceptable is behaviour that includes:
- causing pollution, including noise pollution (I’d also include the visual impact on the surrounding landscape and communities)
- damaging crops and/or disturbing farm animals
- using threatening behaviour.
Now I’m sure you’re a responsible camper and wouldn’t dream of doing such things. But have you stopped to consider the cumulative impact of informal camping? I’m sure we’ve all pulled into a scenic beauty spot off the road and thought it would be a great place to camp overnight. But if 100 other vehicles do that over the course of a year the cumulative effects of tyre tracks, dropped sweetie wrappers and surreptitious trips for the toilet in the middle of the night are surely going to have an impact. If you’ve ever camped informally this is an uncomfortable thought.
Second, an integral aspect of sustainable and responsible tourism involves contributing to the local economy. It’s all part of the experience of meeting new people and seeing new places, and a key reason why people come to Scotland. I personally take issue with some motorhome owners who have on-board toilets and showers (most camper vans aren’t large enough to have these) and who take the view that they can be self-sufficient for several days. While they can, should they?
Camping informally in local car parks or along scenic coastal roads may be appealing but ultimately deprives businesses in the ‘visitor economy’ of much-needed income. Owners of campsites, shops and cafes need to work all year round to survive and rely particularly on visitors during the summer months. Tourism is a vitally important part of Scotland’s rural economy and is essential if many rural communities are to survive and thrive.
Is it right that some people think it’s OK to camp informally for two nights before staying on a campsite on the third night to empty waste tanks and take a shower? At worst, there are cases of motorhomes driving on to campsites they haven’t even paid to stay at simply to empty waste tanks for free. I personally saw a motorhome camped just across the road from a campsite entrance a couple of weeks ago!
So what should I do if I’m a camper van or motorhome owner ?
By all means, camp informally but do this responsibly. A few years ago Big Tree Campervans teamed up with a few other campervan rental companies, as well as Scottish Natural Heritage and Visit Scotland to produce some simple, common sense guidelines about camping informally with campervans in Scotland:
Scotland is rightly proud of its access rights; however when you’re looking for places to ‘camp wild’ in a campervan or motorhome, it is important to bear in mind the following key points:
- Scottish access rights and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code don’t apply to motor vehicles.
- The Road Traffic Act 1988 states that you can drive a vehicle up to 15 yards off a public road for the purposes of parking, but this does not confer any right to park the vehicle. Most un-metalled roads, unfenced land and beaches are private property, and you don’t have the right to park unless it’s authorised by the landowner by verbal agreement or signage.
- In practice, informal off-road parking takes place in many parts of rural Scotland, often in well-established places, without causing undue concern.
- Some communities (eg Calgary Bay on Mull, and the whole island of Tiree) have established their own guidance for campervans and the use of designated overnight parking spaces… if you’re in such a place, follow the guidance!
Common Sense Guidance – Do:
- Use common sense and think whether the spot you have found is suitable for a vehicle.
- Think about the cumulative effect of camping in the ‘fantastic secret place which I’m sure no-one else has ever been’… it is very likely that others will use the same spot, not just you!
- Take great care to avoid the fragile ground/sensitive habitats, (eg wild flowers rich machair on the Western Isles) – never drive down to beaches or onto grass verges as it destroys the habitat.
- Avoid over-crowding. If another vehicle is parked in a secluded spot, try not to park right next to them and find your own spot elsewhere.
- Use only biodegradable detergents and drain kitchen waste water tanks in campsites at designated areas. If it has to be emptied in the wild, keep away from watercourses and be aware that animals will be attracted to the scent.
- Carry a trowel to bury any human waste* and urinate well away from open water, rivers and burns. Toilet paper should be bagged and taken away with you – not buried (animals dig it up).
- Do a full ‘litter-pick’ before you leave, taking all your rubbish, and any you found there already, and disposing of it properly when you’re back in ‘civilisation.’
- Support a sustainable tourism industry – buy groceries in local shops.
Common Sense Guidance – Don’t:
- Park in areas where signs state ‘No overnight parking’
- Park overnight within sight of people’s houses, even in car park bays.
- Block access tracks to estates and fields.
- Light BBQs or fires unless it is safe to do so, and you can supervise it properly. They should be fully extinguished when finished and no evidence left behind.
- Empty any chemical toilet waste anywhere other than at a designated chemical waste area. The majority of campsites have facilities for emptying a cassette toilet. Most public toilets are not suitable places to empty chemical toilet, as it upsets the sewage treatment process.
I think this is great advice and I’ve personally enjoyed low-impact (“stealth”) informal camping in my camper van on many occasions. However, I will never share details of good locations since I would be acting irresponsibly in actively promoting the overuse of such sites.
The current situation is certainly not ideal and often divides opinion. In a separate post I’ve made four constructive suggestions to improve things by:
- developing a network of aires in Scotland
- shutting down irresponsible motorhome ‘wild camping’ websites and forums
- obliging motorhome and campervan hire companies sign up to a code of practice that promotes responsible tourism among their hirers
- taking steps to raise awareness of the principles of responsible tourism.
By all means, enjoy Scotland’s outdoors. You can camp informally in many places where it’s tolerated but please act responsibly so everyone can continue to enjoy it in the future too.
Note: This post was re-written in January 2018 to bring it up to date and make the key points clearer