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Wild camping in the highlands and isolated Western Isles of Scotland

Image by Alan Anderson

Are you planning on wild camping in Scotland? If so, you might be wondering: Is wild camping in Scotland safe? Wild camping in Scotland is safe in many ways, but there are some risks that you need to prepare for. 

The most serious risks are:

  1. Exposure (getting too cold)
  2. Lyme disease from tick bites
  3. Poisoning from foraging 
  4. Getting injured in the mountains 

I recently spent three straight months wild camping and hiking in the highlands and isolated Western Isles of Scotland, so I’m in a pretty good position to answer any questions you might have. 

I’ll tell you everything I know about camping safely and legally in Scotland, but make sure to keep an eye on the news because you never know how things might change. (Just look at the last year!)

The Risks of Wild Camping in Scotland

Wild Animals - The Risks

In terms of wild animals, you don’t have much to worry about in Scotland. Human beings hunted dangerous predators to extinction, so there are no wolves or bears left to come knocking on your tent door. 

The only venomous snake is the adder, which is extremely shy. You’re unlikely to see an adder, let alone be bitten by one, but don’t test your luck by bothering one if it comes along. 

Mice and other small rodents can get into your tent vestibule and eat a hole in your backpack if they smell something tasty, so make sure you keep food in sealed containers. You might want to bring it into the tent, too.

What to Look Out For 

If you’re lucky, you might see basking sharks, porpoises, whales, golden eagles, and sea otters at the coast. Deer, hedgehogs, and badgers are common, and you can see puffins and kingfishers if you’re in the right place at the right time. 

When I was wild camping on Barra, I got to enjoy the sunrise from my tent and watch a pod of dolphins diving around the cliffs. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment!

Remember, all wild animals should be left in peace. If you see a seal pup on a beach, please don’t approach it. If you think an animal really needs your help in Scotland, you can call the SPCA animal helpline on 03000 999 999.

Midgies and Ticks

Midgies are extremely annoying in Scotland. Clouds of these tiny flies come around in the summer months, and they can make camping a horrible experience. 

When the midgies are around, you will need a tent with a good bug mesh for wild camping in Scotland, as well as a good bug repellant and a bug veil. I just left Scotland as the summer was arriving, and for a few nights, I was swallowing mouthfuls of midgies with every breath. 

Female midgies bite and some people get an itchy allergic reaction, but it’s going to be painful rather than deadly. 

Ticks

There are ticks in Scotland that carry Lyme disease, a serious and sometimes incurable illness. You should avoid long grass where they live and try not to wear shorts. Tuck your pants/trousers into long socks when possible (sexy, I know) and check yourself for ticks every day. 

If they have bitten you, you should remove them with a tick tool. Go to the doctor immediately if you have a rash or feel unwell after a tick bite, even if it has been a couple of weeks since the tick bit you. 

A tick rash often looks like a bullseye on a dartboard, so if you see anything like that, you want to get straight to a medical center before the disease progresses and becomes chronic.

The earlier Lyme is picked up on, the better your chances of a full recovery!

Weather 

The biggest threat to wild campers in Scotland is the climate. The country is famous for its changeable weather, so you need to come prepared with plenty of layers and proper sleeping equipment, even if the weather seems fine when you set off. 

Fog can be dangerous in the highlands, obstructing your view and causing a trip or fall from a cliff edge. 

When I was up near Thurso, I was hiking at a fair distance from the cliff edge when I saw an enormous hole in front of my feet. It dropped around 30 meters to the ocean below. My mum grew up in the town, and she knows local people who have died on the coastline there. 

So, keep your wits about you and do not underestimate how dangerous poor visibility can be. 

Make sure you bring an emergency foil blanket that you can wrap around yourself if you get too hot or cold. This saved my life during my Scotland trip when a sudden drop in temperature saw me going into thermal shock overnight. 

Like you would everywhere, tell someone where you are going wild camping and what time you plan on coming back. That way, they can call for help if you don’t check in at the arranged time.

If you get into trouble in the highlands, you should call the police on 999, and then ask for Scottish Mountain Rescue. 

Human Risk

Crime rates in Scotland are low, especially in the countryside. In three months of wild camping, I never felt threatened by anyone I met, and I was even invited into people’s homes to shower and have a cup of tea. 

Of course, you shouldn’t take any unnecessary risks. 

Don’t post where you’ll be camping online, especially if you’ll be alone. If you feel like something isn’t quite right, it’s more important to leave than to be polite and hang around. 

In Scotland, carrying weapons—including pepper spray—is illegal. You can carry a knife so long as it is less than three inches and folds up like a penknife, and you have a decent reason for having it.

For example, you won’t be arrested for taking a pocket knife camping with you, but you could be arrested for taking it to a football game.  

In the UK, you can legally get criminal marker spray, which disorientates any attacker and stains them bright red. It is not widely used, and you’re unlikely to need to protect yourself. But if you want to carry something to feel safer, this is pretty much the only legal thing that you can do. 

Foraging 

For many people, foraging is an important part of wild camping. But foraging is dangerous in any country if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s not something you should attempt without the advice of an experienced and trusted person. 

Here are seven of the most dangerous mushrooms in Scotland. Be sure to look them up to make sure you can recognize them:

  • Deadly webcap 
  • Death cap 
  • Destroying angel 
  • Funeral bell 
  • Fool's funnel 
  • Panther cap 
  • Angel's wings

I mean, the names couldn’t make it much clearer, could they?

I do enjoy foraging in Scotland for certain seaweeds, mushrooms, and wild plants.

Here is a safety tip that you can use when you go foraging with your experienced friend. 

When you think you’re 100% sure that a plant is safe to eat, rub it over your lips and then wait 24 hours to see if there is a reaction. After that, eat a tiny piece and then wait another 24 hours to see if you feel unwell. 

If you pass both these tests, as well as ask for the advice of an experienced friend, and check their advice against a foraging book or reputable website, you can safely consume the food. 

Right to Roam

The right to roam in Scotland is any wild camper’s dream. 

It means that so long as you avoid inflicting damage, stay respectfully away from people’s homes, and don’t disturb crops or livestock, you can access pretty much all the land and water. 

Cross over the border to England and you’ll find that 97% of land and water is forbidden to the public, so the Right to Roam is really special.

There are some exceptions as to where you can access, and for your safety, you mustn’t attempt to enter military land. Also, be sure to abide by any warnings. 

Respect and discretion are key here. Don’t go tearing branches off of trees to start fires on delicate grasslands like I saw a lot of people doing when I was in Scotland.

Due to the climate, it takes a huge amount of time for trees to get established in the highlands, and it’s illegal to hack branches off a tree because you want a fire. 

The only safe place to have a fire is at the beach, where there are no underground root systems that can spread a wildfire underground whilst you think you’ve put it out on the surface. 

Please note that there are restrictions to outdoor use due to COVID. These are constantly developing. To keep up to date with COVID rules in Scotland, head to the government website.

Livestock

The fact that you can roam across farmland doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. 

For example, if a farmer has posted a sign warning you of a dangerous bull, do not enter or camp in that field! A few people are killed by cows every year in the UK, usually because people are with their dogs and walk through fields when livestock have young that they want to protect. 

When possible, avoid going into a field with livestock. If you do have to cross the field, stay close to the fence where you can hop out. Always keep dogs on a lead, as livestock worrying is a crime in Scotland.

If you find yourself being charged by cows, now is the only time to let your dog go. They can escape through a smaller hole in the fence, and the cows tend to chase the dog rather than the person. 

Conclusion 

So, is wild camping in Scotland safe?

People are friendly, the wildlife isn’t too dangerous, and the law is on your side. So long as you are sensible, there’s really nothing for you to worry about!

Don’t go foraging if you don’t know what you’re doing, pack lots of warm and waterproof layers, and avoid cliff edges and steep ground if the visibility isn’t good. Remember to leave no trace and respect the land of the people that you are crossing.

Also, be vigilant about ticks because Lyme disease can stay with you for life. 

I hope you found this article helpful! If you’d like more information about wild camping in general, check out this article.

Take care, and I hope you get the chance to enjoy the beautiful Scottish landscapes. 

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Rachel

Rachel Horne

Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.


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