Scots trek steps up to join US trail

THEY are thousands of miles apart on different continents and also run through landscapes that appear to be very different.

• For hikers on Ben Nevis the wilds of Canada with its native moose must seem a world away, but both locations are to be part of the International Appalachian Trail.

But millions of years of separate histories are to be wiped out as Scotland's most famous long-distance walk – the West Highland Way – and a globally renowned hiking route along the eastern mountains of North America are joined together once more.

Scotland's ancient Caledonian peaks and the Appalachians of the eastern United States and Canada were once part of the same great range which also stretched across Greenland and as far south as Morocco. The 96-mile West Highland Way on Scotland's west coast will this week be named as the first European addition to the International Appalachian Trail (IAT).

The move to reconnect them through a hiking trail is expected to deliver a major boost to the economy. There are 40 million hikers in the US and many will be keen to walk an international route.

Although the West Highland Way, which stretches from Milngavie to Fort William, will be the first official section – the route will be marked with IAT signs – coastal footpaths further south in Ayrshire and further north towards Cape Wrath will eventually be included.

The union has been developed by the Edinburgh-based British Geological Survey (BGS), which wants to acknowledge the rich heritage shared by the two regions.

Around one billion years ago, Scotland and the north-east of what is now the US and Canada existed as close neighbours on the supercontinent of Rodinia.

They parted approximately 50 million years ago when the tectonic plates under the Earth's surface moved apart and the Atlantic Ocean was created.

The idea of reuniting mountain ranges in Scotland and North America first came to BGS manager Hugh Barron seven years ago.

Having arranged meetings with IAT officials, and welcomed them to Scotland last year, he said he was delighted at the deal.

Barron, the 51-year-old surveys manager at BGS, said: "As well as our cultural links, Scotland shares an older geological heritage with this region.

"We have been close neighbours on ancient continents, shared in the building of the Caledonian-Appalachian mountain chain, and only recently, in geological terms, separated by the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean.

"We are now in the process of restoring these ancient links by celebrating our common geological heritage through long-distance walking routes."

Barron said there were lots of similarities between the two trails, perhaps unsurprisingly, given their common origins. "In Newfoundland, in particular, some parts are strikingly similar," he said. He suggested the historic trail should perhaps be renamed to take account of its latest addition.

"We did make a suggestion that the trail be renamed the International Appalachian Caledonian Way, but it may be too early for that at this stage," he said.

"In the longer term, however, I think that kind of recognition would be worthwhile."

The Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,178 miles from Georgia to Maine, was made famous by Bill Bryson in his book A Walk In The Woods. The IAT then runs across the Canadian border to Newfoundland.

IAT organisers also want to connect it those nations such as Ireland and Greenland which once formed part of the ancient mountain range.

President of the IAT Paul Wylezol explained: "We are very excited to have the West Highland Way on board and would love to see other Scottish trails such as the Ayrshire Coastal Path link-up with the renowned brand to provide opportunities for friendly ties between Scotland and North America and help renew and expand cultural links.

"IAT trails help expand local adventure tourism industries, and in particular to create employment and business opportunities in rural areas, including accommodation, transportation, guiding and interpretation, and retail sales, including local arts and crafts.

"The long-term goal of the IAT is to locate sections of the IAT in all the countries or regions that were once part of the ancient Caledonian – Appalachian Mountain range, from East Greenland to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Norway, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco."

Walking group Ramblers Scotland welcomed the move to link the two trails.

A spokeswoman said: "The link is not taking anything away from the West Highland Way. In fact, it's only adding to it. Anything that gives people that extra information in terms of the geology, history, and culture of a trail is a very good thing. People like the idea of walking on land that linked to somewhere like North America. The geology they share is important."

Manager of the West Highland Way Gordon Forrester said: "We are very proud to be the first European member of the IAT. We aim to build on shared cultural heritage and our love of the great outdoors.

"If we can work together to increase interest and inspire even more people to rekindle their connections with the countryside it will have a positive impact."

A spokesman for VisitScotland said: "We are delighted to hear that the West Highland Way, one of the most scenic walks in the world, has been named as the first European chapter of the IAT. "This will further enhance Scotland's growing reputation as the adventure capital of Europe."

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