Wild camping on Isle of Skye
Unless you're on the run, camping on your own in remotest Scotland is an acquired taste. But a recent law change is introducing more and more people to the middle of nowhere. Andrew Spooner pitches up
Sunday 14 May 2006
Adarkening sky is promising rain. I survey the distant hills and wonder if I'll make it before the heavens open. With a heavy rucksack on my back and a boggy stretch of Scottish landscape still to cross, I suck in a deep breath and plough on. Alone, in this isolated part of the Isle of Skye, I'm about to get my first taste of an activity known to devotees simply as "wild camping".
For years, climbers and walkers have pitched their tents in some of Britain's most remote and beautiful locations: in forests, woodlands and highlands.
But in Scotland the legal rights of these adventurers has, until recently, been unclear. Wild camping, essentially the act of pitching a tent wherever you feel like it, has often been deemed to contravene Scotland's Trespass Act of 1865, which makes it an offence to camp without the landowner's consent.
Last spring, however, following years of confusing legislation, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act came into force, guaranteeing the public's right to camp in any wilderness area and enshrining the concept of wild camping in Scottish law.
To clarify the new act, the government also published the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, a set of practical guidelines to advise wild campers on appropriate conduct. All of which effectively now makes Scotland a huge public campsite.
With the act celebrating its first birthday, some of those with interests in the debate, including landowners, climbers and walkers, have yet to be made fully aware of the new legislation.
"More education regarding rights to camp and the code needs to take place," says Kevin Howett, National Officer for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, "but the Land Reform Act has certainly cleared up a lot of grey areas. We now know where we can camp lawfully and thanks to the code, what's expected of us when we do."
The rules contained within the code's pages are common sense. No camping on fields containing livestock, for example, or always ensuring your toilet is at least 30 metres from running water. If all this sounds like an invitation to hordes of ramblers to descend on pristine wilderness, it's worth pointing out that traipsing for miles in the wet across a muddy bog is not everyone's idea of fun. Neither is setting up camp alone in secluded woodland, unless you're a special forces soldier or a fugitive.
My home for the next few days lies in a copse four miles from the nearest road. The walk in is as messy as it is arduous and each footfall is met with thick mud, punctuated only by the occasional deep stream.
The copse itself rests on an elevated section of land overlooking a thin loch and getting there involves a steep climb.
Upon arrival, there's no hot water or electricity, no shops or room service and no mobile phone reception. Nor is there a bed - and I have to dig my own toilet.
With rain imminent, it's time to observe one of the basic rules of survival - find shelter. Or, in my case, pitch a tent. It's well worth the effort and the front of my new home unzips to reveal a stunning view of the loch with high, frosted mountains in the distance.
I unpack the rest of my kit, brew a strong cup of tea and break open the chocolate biscuits. Apart from my own munching and slurping, all I can hear is the wind in the trees and chirping of birds. My body may be feeling the exertion of getting here but the view lifts the spirits. As the Scottish mountaineer and writer W H Murray once wrote: "There is a pleasure in camping in the mountains inexplicable to the unbeliever, but will at once be apparent to anyone of imagination."
For those of us who live in overpopulated towns or cities, the idea that Britain still has vast tracts of genuine wilderness seems unlikely. Our island nation is, surely, a smog-filled concrete bowl; if you really want to get away from it all you need to jump on a plane.
Yet travel just a few hours and it's relatively easy to find your own slice of Scotland. While locations such as Glencoe and Ben Nevis have, inevitably, become popular with wild campers, there remain tens of thousands of square miles out there still to be explored.
The Isle of Skye, for instance, has, in the Cuillins, arguably the most spectacular mountain range in Britain, as well as fine meadowland and an imposing coastline.
Wherever you choose, the basic tools for survival are roughly the same: an Ordnance Survey map; all-weather clothing; rucksack; and strong boots. You'll also need a good tent, preferably one that's lightweight and easy to assemble, and a well-chosen sleeping bag. Down-filled bags can be tricky to dry once wet but are otherwise warmer and lighter than synthetic ones.
Nearby berry bushes excepted, your menu boils down to what you're strong enough to carry. I've opted mainly for dried produce as well as a big supply of sausages; it's impossible to beat the sound and smell of them frying when camping. Unless you're happy with cold food, you might want to think about a gas cooker, a few basic utensils and a torch - a hands-free headlamp is particularly useful. A good water filter will also give you the option of drinking from dirty puddles.
My first evening is spent sheltering from a heavy rainstorm but my tent is designed to withstand far worse. Thankfully, the next morning brings spring sunshine and I bounce out of my sleeping bag ready for anything. By which I mean sausages. After a hearty plateful, I start the day by plotting a route to the nearby coast.
There are plenty of small, sandy beaches on Skye and if my map reading proves correct, there should be one just three miles from my camp, so I throw a few supplies in my rucksack and head off.
Scottish weather may not be noted for its sunshine but even with a stiff breeze I have to strip down to my T-shirt to stay cool. Under a cloudless blue sky, I soon find a view across turquoise seas to the Cuillins and recline on my own personal stretch of coast. The next few days are spent walking through deserted woodlands and over soaring hills. At night, the lack of light pollution reveals a canopy of stars. You might call it the cool of the wild.
For more information on wild camping contact the Mountaineering Council of Scotland: mountaineering-scotland.org.uk. For the full Scottish Outdoor Access Code: outdooraccess-scotland.com. Andrew Spooner was using a Fortress 23 tent and Hightail 900 sleeping bag from The North Face range. Prices from £300 and £270 respectively. Stockists: 01539 738 882; thenorthface.com
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