Wild Camping - in one form or another - has been an aspect of life in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland for centuries. Perhaps its earliest recognisable form came with the increase in popularity of the feileadh mor, or great kilt, in the 1500s. This was an eminently practical piece of clothing that could also double as groundsheet and sleeping bag at night. Generations of clansmen on the move literally lived in their kilts, as clothing by day and shelter by night, over centuries of inter-clan cattle stealing and feuding: and later as the highly organised droving trade saw large numbers of black cattle being moved by clansmen to markets in central and southern Scotland.
While inns, and later hotels, did start to appear, the quality of some of the establishments recorded by early tourists was often poor enough to make a night under the stars seem a relatively attractive option. In more recent times, the explosion of interest from the 1930s in Scotland's outdoors by working people unable to afford hotels led to a major resurgence in interest in - and the practice of - wild camping, whether under canvas; in informal natural shelters or "howffs"; or in barns that over decades evolved into bunkhouses. The same era, for the same reason, saw the foundation of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association.
In the latter half of the 1900s, wild camping continued to be a feature of the outdoors in Scotland. It was never an entirely comfortable occupation for some, however, because of its ambiguous legal position: a section in the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865 could be argued to make it an offence to camp on land without the consent of the owner or occupier. Any uncertainties were removed when the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 came into effect in 2005 and included wild camping in the list of activities for which access rights applied.
But the 2003 Act also emphasised that the rights it granted only applied if exercised responsibly. The best guide to responsible wild camping has been prepared by the The Mountaineering Council of Scotland and anyone considering wild camping in Scotland should read their guidance, of which the next few paragraphs are a summary.
Best practice in wild camping covers a number of different elements. Responsible behaviour includes keeping groups small; being as unobtrusive as possible; choosing a site that avoids the need to dig drainage channels; replacing any stones or rocks you move; carrying out all litter, including litter you find on arrival; avoiding overused areas; and keeping noise to a minimum, for the benefit of wildlife as well as any people in the area.
Vegetation should be safeguarded by avoiding camping for more than three nights in any one location, and campers should remember that vegetation is more sensitive and takes longer to regenerate at higher altitudes. Fires can be a risk at any time of year, especially on peaty ground and in grass, and dead wood can be an important habitat: lighting fires should therefore be avoided. The edges of rivers, streams and lochs are important to many birds and animals, and camping should be avoided too close to them. Food scraps attract scavengers, and should therefore be carried out rather than buried.
Books can be - and have been - written about the fine art of managing human waste in the outdoors. The basics are to ensure that you dispose of your waste in a way that ensures that other people and animals won't come into contact with it; that it cannot pollute water courses; and that visual pollution and smell are avoided. Golden rules include avoiding watercourses by at least 30m; paths by at least 50m; and huts and the bases of crags by at least 200m.
Ideal disposal involves burial in a narrow hole in soil at least 20cm deep. Coverage by a rock or, especially, burial in snow is not recommended: sooner or later the snow will melt. The toilet paper you use should be biodegradable: and while it should ideally be burned after use, this must be balanced against the fire risk. Female sanitary items should always be carried out in a secure container. Urination is best done in the open, away from structures, rocks, the base of crags and well away from watercourses.
A recent innovation in the Cairngorms has been the request that those intending to camp in the area carry out their waste in light, rigid biodegradable plastic screw top bottles freely available from ranger bases. These can be deposited on leaving the area in a purpose built "poo chute" leading to a treatment plant constructed near the Cairngorm Ski Area car park.