Using a sheath knife for jobs such as whittling wood is part of the Scout tradition alongside knot tying, map reading and other age-old outdoor skills. However, a new Scouting guide warns that anyone found in possession of a blade more than three inches long could receive a criminal record rather than a merit badge.
The Outdoor Adventure Manual, which has been created by the Scout Association, states that the knife is the “key item of kit for the great outdoors – essential for fire lighting, rope work and preparing food”.
It adds: “However, legally you’re not allowed to carry a knife in a public place without lawful authority or a reasonable excuse.”
It cautions that Scouts should think twice before using knives, even when they are on an authorised camping expedition, stating: “Although a campsite may technically be private property, even if owned by a district or county, it’s considered public property because of its use. A knife should only be carried when you know there’s a job it’ll be needed for.”
The manual, which also explores other traditional Scouting skills such as tracking, campfire cookery and first aid, cautions that any member who is unable to justify carrying a knife faces strict penalties. It states: “It is simply not worth running the risk of being caught with a knife that exceeds the stated limit. The police are unlikely to accept your explanation that you are ‘simply using a knife in the outdoors’. An adult caught carrying an illegal knife in public currently faces a maximum fine of £5,000 and four years in prison.”
The age limit for buying knives was raised from 16 to 18 in Scotland in 2004 as part of a crackdown on knife crime, which means that shops now require a licence to sell non-domestic knives. The book insists it is now “essential” for all Scouts to be aware of the law and advises: “In general, it’s an offence to carry a knife in a public place without good reason or lawful authority – a good reason is a chef on his way to work carrying his own knives.
“However, it isn’t illegal to carry a foldable, non-locking knife – like a Swiss army knife – in public so long as the blade is shorter than three inches (7.62cm).”
The Scottish Scout Council stressed it fully supported efforts to tackle knife crime. A spokeswoman said: “Scouts should never carry any non-domestic knives if aged under 18 and any knives of any kind if under 16.
“Knives should be appropriate to the activity and should never be an illegal type, such as a lock knife (in which the blade stays open). Our advice to members is: be trained, be safe and observe the law.”
Outdoor skills experts said they were concerned by the prospect of young people being prevented from learning knife skills by an overzealous enforcement of the law.
Patrick McGlinchey, the founder and chief instructor of Backwoods Survival School, said: “With knife use comes knife safety. You show people how to use a knife safely and it gives them responsibility.
“Why deprive Scouts of essential knowledge and skills? It’s a crazy world we live in, unfortunately.”
The Glasgow-based instructor added: “They can issue them with penknives, but those little knives are dangerous because of the folding blade, which can easily clasp shut on their fingers when they close it. There is actually more danger in that than in using a sheath knife.”
Gavin Mitchell, a trainer with Bushcraft Scotland, claimed it is important for youngsters to be taught to use knives responsibly in a supervised environment.
He said: “It would be a shame if young people lost the opportunity to learn a valuable skill. Sooner or later everyone needs to learn how to use a knife, even just to chop vegetables.”
Scottish Conservative Chief Whip John Lamont said: “These guidelines seem way over the top.
“For more than a century, Scouts have used tools, including a knife, without any problems to survive in the outdoors. Sadly, it appears as if the Scout Association has fallen victim to the current trend of taking health and safety legislation to the extreme.”
Despite having to adjust to meet 21st-century health and safety standards, the Scouting movement has grown its British membership from 450,000 to more than 525,000, including almost 50,000 in Scotland, over the past 12 years. This represents an increase of nearly 17 per cent.
It also claims to be attracting more girl recruits than the female-only Guides.
The first Scout troop in the world was the 1st Glasgow, registered in 1908.
The movement was developed by the Boer War veteran Lord Baden-Powell, to encourage members to fulfil their full physical, intellectual and social potential by working in teams.