Scotland gained what many call its "Right to Roam" legislation with the passing by the Scottish Parliament of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This gives statutory access rights to most land and inland water in Scotland. The rights under the Act must be exercised responsibly by respecting people's safety, privacy and livelihoods; and with regard to Scotland's environment.
The Scottish Government agency, Scottish National Heritage, has set up the excellent Outdoor Access Scotland Website. This gives detailed advice for everyone involved in Outdoor Access, whether as countryside users, recreation managers, or land managers. It includes advice on an activity by activity basis, and makes available as a pdf file the 136 page Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
You can think of this as an outdoors equivalent to the "Highway Code". It is based on the underlying legislation and has been approved by Scottish Ministers and Parliament, and while it is not itself legally enforceable, it is taken as a reference point for deciding if those involved in any dispute about access have acted responsibly. Ignore it and you could find yourself in trouble. The rest of this page highlights the key features in the Outdoor Access Code, but if you are planning unusual activities we'd recommend you look at the much more detailed guidance on the Outdoor Access Scotland Website and in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code itself.
Everyone, irrespective of age or ability, has access rights, but they only apply if exercised responsibly. Access rights apply to hills, mountains and moorland; woods and forests; most urban and country parks and other managed open spaces; rivers, lochs, canals and reservoirs; riverbanks, loch shores, beaches and coastline; land in which crops have not been sown; on the margins of fields where crops are growing or have been sown; grassland, including grass being grown as a crop if it is below about 8 inches or 20cm in height; fields containing horses, cattle or other farm animals; local authority designated core paths, and other paths crossing land to which access rights apply; grass sports or playing fields so long as they are not in use, and inland water used for recreational purposes, so long as those recreational purposes are not interfered with; golf courses (excluding greens), but only to cross them, and only if games of golf are not interfered with; and, finally (and here we quote the code) "on, through or over bridges, tunnels, causeways, launching sites, groynes, weirs, boulder weirs, embankments of canals and similar waterways, fences, walls or anything designed to facilitate access (such as gates or stiles)".
Access rights can be exercised on the land, or above or below it (i.e. in the air or in caves). They also apply at any time of day or night. However, the Code highlights the particular care that must be taken if exercising access rights at night to avoid causing concern to residents or livestock.
All these access rights come with responsibilities. The first is to act with "courtesy, consideration and awareness", taking care to respect the interests of other people living, working, or enjoying the area in question. The second is to care for the environment, leaving the land as you find it and avoiding damage to gates, walls etc. The third is to take responsibility for your own actions: to act with care for your own safety and the safety of others in the knowledge that the outdoors is not a risk-free environment.
Access rights include access for recreational purposes, some educational purposes, and some commercial activities. Recreational purposes are not legally defined, but can be taken to include pastimes such as painting, sightseeing and photography; social activities like picnics, playing, paddling, sledging, flying a kite or walking the dog; active pursuits such as walking, cycling, horse riding, climbing, orienteering, skiing, caving, canoeing, swimming, sailing, diving, above ground sports and wild camping; and participation in organised events involving recreational activities.
Educational activities are included within access rights where they are intended to further someone's understanding of natural or cultural heritage: e.g. an educational visit to look at geology, wildlife, landscape or flora and fauna. Commercial activities are included within access rights where they involve an activity that could be carried out under access rights on a non-commercial basis. Permitted commercial activities would include mountain guides taking clients up a mountain; a professional canoe or sailing instructor with a group of students; or a professional writer or photographer taking notes about, or photographs of, the natural or cultural heritage.
So far, this has been very much a catalogue of things you can do. It helps greatly if those intending to visit Scotland's outdoors also understand the limitations, both in terms of areas excluded from access rights and activities not included within access rights.
Access rights do not apply to land on which there is a house, caravan or tent which gives its occupants privacy or shelter plus enough of the surrounding area to ensure that occupants' privacy and enjoyment is not unreasonably disturbed; gardens set aside for the enjoyment of residents of a specific area (especially in the larger cities); land containing a building, works, plant or machinery, plus any enclosed surrounding area or compound, such as a farmyard, oil refinery, military base, sports centre, fish farm, or animal pen; land in which crops are growing or have been sown; grass sports pitches when in use; artificial sports pitches; golf greens, cricket squares, bowling greens, tennis courts and the like; school grounds and playing fields; visitor attractions where an admission charge is made; building or demolition sites; railways or airports; quarries; or land excluded from access rights by specific by-laws.
Access rights do not extend to any activity that would normally be unlawful or criminal; or to hunting, shooting and fishing; to motorised activities such as motorcycling, off-road driving, flying microlights, operating powered watercraft and powered models (though access rights do apply to people with a disability using a vehicle or vessel adapted for their use); to being responsible for a dog not under proper control (and "proper control" is defined in detail in the access code); or to access for the purpose of taking away for commercial use anything in or on the land or water (berries, mushrooms, gravel etc.).
Existing public rights of way (including existing vehicular rights of way) are unaffected by the 2003 legislation and continue to exist, as do public rights on the foreshore and in tidal waters.