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Path network is 'Scotland's best visitor attraction' – how do we look after it properly?

By John Davidson

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The outdoors has experienced a significant boom in recent years, with more people getting out to enjoy our mountains and glens across the Highlands.

Walking is by far the most popular activity – and the most accessible – but creating and maintaining networks of paths, particularly in rural areas, is no easy task.

Duncan Bryden, the chairman of the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland (OATS), believes we need to have systems in place to maintain what he describes as "one of Scotland's best visitor attractions".

Duncan Bryden has called for a debate on how we fund the path network in rural areas. Picture: John Davidson
Duncan Bryden has called for a debate on how we fund the path network in rural areas. Picture: John Davidson

He said: “It’s a huge draw for people to come, whether you’re going up Munros or doing low-level walks through glens, you use this path network. We’ve got this fairly mixed bag of elements within that network – community paths, core paths, and so on.

"What we’ve tended to do in Scotland is have these big capital projects to fix hundreds of kilometres of path but then they tend to be left to their own devices.

"A lot of the routes use old railway lines that were built pretty well by the Victorians but if, say, a major bridge across the Spey collapses, there’s no money to repair it, and suddenly your major route, your visitor attraction, has a major hole in it.

"So there’s no real system, a lot of it is ad hoc in terms of funding."

Mr Bryden points out that, while there has been an increase in funding for so-called active travel measures, that tends to focus on routes around settlements for low carbon and health outcomes.

"In rural areas there’s less of that, particularly up Munros and in more scenic spots," he explains. "So if you add this lack of maintenance alongside the changing climate, you’ve got much higher intense rainfall creating bigger maintenance burdens.

"We’re also seeing the capacity exceeded at some of these dead-end roads that give access to the hills – car parking is limited, toilets are limited and the path infrastructure leading away from these places is under significant pressure.

"It’s fantastic to see and it’s what we want – it’s not malicious damage, it’s just wear and tear. But what we’re trying to do is look at mechanisms of how to deal with this."

OATS is keen to encourage participation and is adamant that they don't want people to pay for access. However, there is a sense that users could contribute to some of the costs of maintenance, alongside government funding.

An Teallach from Creag Rainich. Picture: John Davidson
An Teallach from Creag Rainich. Picture: John Davidson

It is focusing on the privately owned Munro of An Teallach, a dramatic and increasingly popular mountain in Wester Ross, because specific funding such as might be available in national parks or land owned by other non-governmental organisations is not available there.

A campaign called It’s Up To Us was launched in conjunction with Mountaineering Scotland in November, with a vision to use the funding model elsewhere in future.

Mr Bryden said: "Somewhere like An Teallach is not in a national park, there’s nobody really looking after what is seen as a mountaineer’s mountain – it’s a classic west coast, rocky, challenging mountain that’s seeing more and more activity on it.

"Understandably, the landowners are saying they haven’t got the resources, and they are not getting any direct benefit. We feel these areas are helping to drive the tourism industry and delivering a lot of wellbeing in terms of fitness and people’s mental health, and some resource needs to be put into that.

OATS chief executive Dougie Baird carrying out a path survey on An Teallach. Picture: OATS
OATS chief executive Dougie Baird carrying out a path survey on An Teallach. Picture: OATS

"This scheme is trying to target users to say, you’ve driven up from Glasgow, you’ve got £1000 worth of gear on your back and you’ve got quite an expensive car in the car park, and you’re using this infrastructure. How do we get a fiver or a tenner from you?

"If everybody chipped in a little bit – it’s absolutely not about paying for access, let’s make that crystal clear, it’s about a voluntary contribution to the upkeep of these places."

He also suggests money from carbon restoration projects in the uplands could be used to help provide money to improve access as a way of providing "public good" from major projects, and that some form of ring-fenced endowment fund could be set up.

"What we’re trying to do is get the debate going about this fantastic asset that allows everybody 24/7 access to our wonderful landscape and scenery, and ensure that it is at least adequately financed in some way.

"We’d then retain a legacy for future generations, because at the minute we’re maybe creating a bit of a liability."

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