The short version of this story tells of an eccentric rambler who, attempting to walk from Land’s End in the far south-west of England to John O’ Groats in the far north-west of Scotland, keeps getting jailed in Scotland for refusing to wear clothes.
The slightly longer version illuminates the story of Stephen Gough, or the ‘Naked Rambler’ as he has come to be known – a former Royal Marine whose conviction has gradually made him into something of a ‘career nudist’. Gough had already successfully completed the 1,200 mile (1,900km) route twice wearing nothing but socks, boots and a rucksack: in 2003-4, when he was arrested multiple times but each time released almost immediately; and again in 2005-6 accompanied by his then girlfriend Melanie Roberts when he was arrested in Scotland and spent 3 months in prison in Edinburgh before being released to complete the walk (naked of course).
In May 2006 Gough was arrested at Edinburgh airport after undressing on a flight from Southampton to Edinburgh and in August 2006 he was given a 7 month jail sentence. On 18 December 2008 he was convicted of breach of the peace and jailed for 12 months. In July 2009, standing in the dock naked, Gough was jailed for another 12 months for breach of the peace, plus 4 months for refusing to dress for the trial. On 8th February 2010 he was convicted of breach of the peace and contempt of court again and sentenced to 21 months imprisonment. Having served half his sentence, on 25th November 2010 he was found guilty of breach of the peace, having been arrested less than a minute after his release, trying to walk naked from the gates of Perth Prison and sentenced to 15 months and 26 days. On 24th August 2011, Gough received his sternest sentence yet: 657 days in prison after having been arrested again on being released from Perth Prison.
At the time of writing, Steve Gough has spent most of the past five years in prison, much of it reportedly in solitary confinement. Gough can be said to have been the architect of his own misery – he’s had no shortage of opportunities to put on a pair of pants and walk free from court or prison. However, in light of the fact that a man has spent five years in solitary confinement for nothing more than refusing to cover up, some reflection might be in order. The role of the judiciary is presumably to ‘protect’ conservative or vulnerable elements of society who might find Gough’s appearance on footpaths and roadsides disturbing… Yes, ‘disturbing’. Gough has never threatened anyone, nor does he flaunt his nakedness in order to shock or upset. Neither his motives nor appearance are sexual, and for every person who finds Gough’s appearance ‘disturbing’, there are surely many more who find it thought-provoking and refreshing (as well as amusing).
When on 9th April 2007 Gough was cleared of charges related to his refusal to dress upon being released from prison in Edinburgh, the ruling judge, Isobel Poole, found that there was no evidence of “actual alarm or disturbance”, adding “I can understand this conduct could be considered unpleasant to passers-by had there been any but there is a lack of evidence to that effect.” He was however still jailed for contempt of court.
At his trial in July 2009, Gough was castigated for having cost the taxpayer “many hundreds of thousands of pounds”, though for him the costs seem far greater. He’s reportedly spent much of his five years of incarceration in solitary confinement. A photograph taken of Steven Gough as he was released from Perth prison last month (seconds before being re-arrested by police) is of a harrowed, gaunt man who bears little resemblance to those taken in 2005 of a healthy and determined Gough has he walked the trail in 2005.
This isn’t a plea to ‘raise awareness’ of the plight of the Naked Rambler. Steven Gough is stubborn, most probably benign, definitely determined, and probably saying something very important. While Gough – a man with distinctive beliefs about walking in the open air – refuses to ‘cover up’, Muslim women in France find themselves banned from doing just that. While neither Gough nor French Muslim women are a danger to anyone by virtue of their mode of dress (or lack thereof), social climates of intolerance towards them are justified and fuelled by governments who seek their erasure from ‘free’ society through the use of violence in the form of threatened and real incarceration. For continuing to contest this intolerance and violence at the expense of the freedom he so obviously enjoys, the Naked Rambler demands our attention.