Islanders hope £600k trail is the way to boost Hebrides economy

THEY have rugged coastlines, golden beaches, daunting hills and the inspiring machair. Now the first official trail to link the glories of the Outer Hebrides is being created to attract more tourists to the island chain.

The £600,000 Hebridean Way, will run from Vatersay just south of Barra, through South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, and Harris, finishing at the Butt of Lewis, the northern-most point of the islands – a 203 mile walk.

The Way has long been an ambition of the Western Isles council, which has finally secured European funding and investment from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to help finance the initiative. Staff tasked with overseeing the project will begin work in September with landowners to turn the vision into reality.

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A council spokesman said: “The aim is to develop an integrated walk and cycle route running through the Outer Hebrides to attract more visitors to the islands, complement existing outdoor based initiatives, boost capacity within the accommodation sector and to expose the significant Hebridean nature-based assets to a new audience of visitors.”

Dr Peter Clarke, chair of the Gatliff Trust, which runs a network of crofters’ hostels across the Western Isles, said: “The real pleasure of the walk will be travelling through one of the most stunningly beautiful wilderness areas in the United Kingdom. All around you is a live Gaelic culture and very friendly communities.

“Everywhere you look, you see something engaging or picturesque, whether it’s the hills of Harris, Beinn Mhòr on South Uist, or the cliffs in Barra. Pretty much every step of the way is memorable.

“I’ve been trying to persuade the council to establish a long-distance walking route since 1988, but for 25 years nothing has been done,” he explained. “I’m delighted to hear about the plans.”

Clarke, who has published his own route through the length of the islands, recommends walkers should set aside three weeks for the trip, although others have completed it in a fortnight.

“Negotiations will have to be carried out with the likes of Ministry of Defence, which operates the rocket range on South Uist, although elsewhere I would imagine people would be very supportive. Some of my route follows roads, which was out of expedience, but it may be that new trails have to be created.”

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The scheme has secured £230,000 from the European Regional Development, with the same amount pledged by the council. SNH, meanwhile, has committed £120,000 towards the route, which it is hoped will be completed in two years’ time.

Helen Todd, development officer for Ramblers Scotland, the walkers’ lobby group, said: “The variety of scenery, the fantastic landscapes, along with the culture and the heritage means this sounds like a great trail. This would be one of the most remote routes in Scotland, and anything that gets the public heading to the Outer Hebrides is great. A lot of the great trails in Scotland have come from community initiatives, not top down approaches, because local people realise how much money comes into their area via hotels, cafes and pubs through walkers.”

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A spokesman for SNH said: “We are lucky in Scotland to have so many long distance routes running through some of our finest landscapes. This walk and cycle route is no exception and we very much welcome the development of more trails to help people enjoy the outdoors. This path network will help attract more visitors to the Outer Hebrides archipelago.”