How Scotland can create a network of world-class walking routes – Jonny Hughes

Scotland’s network of walking routes – both Highland and Lowland – could be so much better and that would boost the tourism industry and help get Scots out into the great outdoors, writes Jonny Hughes.

A group of walkers head along the West Highland Way near Ben Nevis. (Picture: Robert Perry)

As a nation, it seems we are getting out in the countryside more than we did a decade ago. Visits to the outdoors is one of the Scottish Government’s 81 national performance indicators, measured by the proportion of adults making one or more trips a week. Back in 2006, this indicator stood at 44 per cent but in recent years it has crept up to a slightly healthier 52 per cent.

But, in comparison to some European countries, we are still way down the rankings. How might we go about getting more people into the great outdoors regularly? One way might be to invest in a bigger and better network of walking trails, accessible to different abilities and needs.

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There is no doubt that, in the past 30 years, paths in Scotland have improved. Scottish Natural Heritage reports there are now 29 long-distance routes, branded as Scotland’s Great Trails, which total 2,913km. That sounds impressive but Switzerland, a country half the size, has 6,000km of interconnected routes, including 67 that are fully accessible.

Other European countries have similar set-ups with clear branding, way marking, well-designed information, books, maps and details of accommodation on route. By contrast, such information can be difficult to track down in Scotland, especially in areas off the beaten trail.

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Cash-strapped local authorities have struggled to make the necessary investment in the estimated 20,000km of core paths and, as a result, these have largely failed to deliver their potential since being introduced with fanfare under the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act.

Less than five per cent of core paths are new and many of them remain paths to nowhere. Crucially, core paths don’t appear in a consistent way on Ordnance Survey maps as is the case in England and Wales. The pattern of red dotted lines on OS maps south of the border adds up to a phenomenal 225,000km and connects almost every hamlet, village and town by foot. A couple of summers ago, I walked 130 miles with my family following these friendly red lines across Surrey and Kent. Only once, or perhaps twice, did we lose the trail.

But while England and Wales have their public footpaths, Scotland has ‘proper’ hills and a right to roam enshrined in law. The freedom to wander and camp anywhere in our mountain landscapes unhindered is, for many, one of the reasons quality of life in Scotland is so exceptional. Yet walking through the lowlands can be just as rewarding as scaling yet another Munro. The lowlands contain a wealth of historic heritage and a wider variety of natural habitats than many denuded Highland hillsides.

Two areas of investment could yet unlock Scotland’s potential to be a leader in the provision of world-class walking routes. First is for the Scottish Government to ensure a high-quality, interconnected core path network that links both lowland and upland communities is put in place within a decade. It may never rival the famous red dotted lines of England’s shires, but it could and should be so much better than what we have now. Second, we desperately need some pit stops. Norway has over 500 well-equipped, warm and safe public cabins connected by excellent paths. In Scotland, we have around 100 almost comically romantic, but extremely basic, mountain bothies. If hillwalkers could walk from cabin to cabin they would stay longer in the Highlands, spend more money in the local economy and have deeper, richer experiences traversing Scotland’s spectacular landscapes.

Jonny Hughes, Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive, is on Twitter @Jonny Ecology