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Off road camping – can we cut out the confusion?

viewpointCHARLES INGRAM lives in a makeshift campsite on the verge of the A9 near Bruar in Highland Perthshire.

The 70-year old former garage owner has endured three winters here, first of all living in his Mercedes car before migrating into a family sized tent. In the past year his little camp has morphed into a permanent encampment with at least three tents pitched alongside the car.

A sign on the car windscreen proclaims a message about bent cops murdering his mother and it’s clear Ingram has various issues with society but whatever the reasons for his decision to live on the edge of a busy trunk road, the fact is that he has not been moved on by the authorities. EDITOR’S NOTE: Since publication of this article, Mr Ingram has been removed by Transport Scotland.

In many ways Ingram personifies a problem that is manifesting itself in Scotland at the moment – what exactly is the legal situation regarding camping by the side of the road, either in a tent or in a motorhome or campervan?

Under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 it is very clear that wild camping is permitted on “unenclosed land” or “wherever access rights apply” if carried out responsibly, while Scottish Natural Heritage, in their guidance to land and recreational managers say Scottish access rights apply (only) to non-motorised recreation and do not therefore extend to activities that are entirely based on the use of a vehicle, such as sleeping in cars, camper vans or caravans.

At the moment we have the ludicrous situation of the West Harris Trust in the Western Isles welcoming campervanners and motorhome users but asking them to pay a voluntary £5 for using a lay-by with no facilities, while the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park is pulling out all the stops to make such overnight camping a criminal offence in certain lochside areas of the Park.


Like many people who follow this website I walk, cycle and I use a campervan. The first two disciplines often involve camping, whether I’m backpacking or cycle touring, and the campervan allows me to visit areas where I walk or bike without the need for carrying a tent.

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Let me discuss the campervan situation first. As I’ve suggested, and I should say my understanding of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act is diminishing by the day, staying overnight in a campervan (or indeed a car) in a lay-by is not covered in the Land Reform legislation.

However, three years ago a Yorkshireman by the name of Andy Strangeway challenged Transport Scotland and Highland Council over the legality of the No Overnight Parking signs that adorn many highland lay-bys.

After discussions with the police it became quite clear that these signs have no legal standing.

Black on yellow ‘No Parking Overnight’ signs are not covered by a traffic regulation order. It would appear that non-prescribed signs such as this require special approval from the Scottish Ministers but there is no record of any such authorisation being given.

An enforceable prohibition of parking would require an appropriate Traffic Regulation Order with signs and lines that comply with the Traffic Signs regulations and General Directions.

Eventually it was agreed that although the signs were erected with good intentions in an attempt to encourage responsible use of the lay-bys, the proper processes were not followed to prohibit overnight parking. There is no Traffic Order in place nor is there any evidence that non-prescribed signs were approved by Scottish Ministers.

Since lay-bys were originally created to give drivers a break from driving I find it difficult to accept that you can’t sleep in your car or van if you want to, but what if you take a tent from the boot of your car and pitch it by the side of the road?

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The Land Reform Act appears to be fairly clear. The access legislation, including the sections on ‘wild camping’ are for people travelling on foot, on bike or on horseback. Also, the Outdoor Access Code suggests that wild camping should be carried out “well away from buildings, roads or historic structures.”

However, it would appear that in most areas this type of “car camping” has been tolerated as “informal camping”. Climbers and keen hillwalkers will often arrive in an area late at night, sleep in their car or in a bivvy bag close beside it and head for the hill at daybreak.

Indeed, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland offers the following advice regarding informal camping;

“Although camping beside a road is not wild camping, it does take place and is lawful. Following a few simple guidelines can reduce any impacts, but whenever practicable the preference should be to use an official campsite with sanitation facilities. Should you wish to camp near houses, ask nearby residents before pitching. An area of intensively managed ground around a building is called “curtilage” in the Code, and access rights do not apply in such places. Remember vehicles have a great impact on vegetation; park on hard ground or on a safe tarmac area, not passing places on single track roads. It is better to walk to your car than drive to your tent. Sites that are at risk of being overused are better avoided. Congregational roadside camping can cause significant problems, especially take particular care with toilet hygiene. If you are just looking for a place for a few hours sleep, then pitch late, leave early, be unobtrusive and leave the site in as good condition as you found it, or better.”

Despite that good advice I recently came across a Forestry Commission sign on the north shore of Loch Awe near the village of Ford which stated quite clearly that while wild camping is legal, taking a tent from a car and sleeping in it beside the car is not.

According to this sign I could camp legally if I arrived on a bike, but had I arrived in a car I couldn’t. Obviously the FC has its own interpretation of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act.

But it’s the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park board that has really created a situation that could very well see the public’s access rights curtailed in the future.

Because of the unsocial behaviour of what appears to be predominantly fishermen, the Board wants to introduce bylaws that will make it illegal to camp either in a tent or in a vehicle on certain lochside areas within the National Park at certain times of the year.

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The pros and cons of this have been fully documented elsewhere and the proposals are now with the Scottish Government (and it’s my guess they will be approved) but already other land owning organisations and land managers are making enquiries about similar bye-laws for their own areas.

I’ve little doubt that what the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park is proposing is the thin end of a wedge that will grossly erode the hard-won and long-argued access rights of Scotland’s public.

But here’s an interesting scenario? What if I’m driving along the side of say Loch Lubnaig and I feel very tired. I stop to close my eyes for a few minutes but a National Park ranger drives up alongside me and moves me on. I then drive a few miles along the road before sleep overcomes me and I crash into another vehicle. Who is responsible?

The current situation in Scotland regarding camping is extremely confusing and I hope the Scottish Government, while reviewing Land Reform in Scotland, will act sensibly and strengthen the access and wild camping provisions of the 2003 Act.

I also hope they throw the LL&T park proposals back to Balloch with the proviso, at least, that if the park insists on banning wild camping then the least they can do, the very least, is create a number of reasonably priced official camp sites before enforcing any draconian bye-laws.

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And finally a word on camp sites. I use a lot of camp sites and settling down for the night in an official site is normally my first choice when I’m using my campervan, but many of these sites close at the end of September and some of them are ludicrously expensive. It’s currently £23 a night to pitch a one person tent in the Forestry Commission’s Glenmore Camp site in the Cairngorms. That’s simply unacceptable and merely encourages people to wild camp.

I would urge the Scottish Government to turn down the LL&T National Park proposals then amend the Scottish Access Code to make it perfectly clear that wild camping in Scotland is a cherished right. The current state of confusion doesn’t benefit anyone and will continue to cause controversy and argument well into the future, to no-ones’ benefit.




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