Helen Todd: the best coastline in the world?

A friend from Hungary once came to visit me in Scotland, and I was astonished to learn that this was the first time she had ever seen the sea, even though she was a teacher in her 30s.

We had a day out in Fife so I took her down to a beach and watched while she dipped her fingers in the water and then confirmed to herself with amazement that it really did taste of salt. For her, Lake Balaton was the largest tract of water she’d ever seen, she’d never gazed out across the sea at the distant horizon.

As an island nation we probably take our coastline for granted, so let’s spare a thought for those in land-locked countries who will never be able to take a walk along a windswept beach or rugged cliff tops, or to marvel at wild seascapes and jewelled offshore islands - at least, not without going to a neighbouring country.

A' Mhaighdean - one of the least accessible of the munros in northern Scotland
A' Mhaighdean - one of the remotest munros, in Fisherfield Forest

The Ramblers has fought long and hard to get a path established around the coast, to enable people to enjoy the coast without diversion or obstruction. We are now celebrating the 3rd year of the Wales Coast Path and recognising the economic benefits this had had for rural communities around Wales. In England, sections of an English Coastal Path are already being created on the ground, while commitments to the complete the rest have (thanks to vigorous campaigning) been made.

But what of Scotland? Ramblers members may want to look away now in case they get upset by this heresy, but Ramblers Scotland is not campaigning for a coastal path to be built around the entire Scottish coast. “Whyever not?” you ask.

Well, first of all, we’re certainly not against the idea of enabling people to walk the coast, but one of the main drivers for the English and Welsh coastal paths has been to secure rights of access to the coast. In Scotland we already have the statutory right to walk around the coast – and on most other land in Scotland – so that’s not a main factor in developing new paths.

Kinlochbervie, in the Highland region of Scotland
Kinlochbervie, in the Highlands

Secondly, we have a lot of coast! Where would you start to draw up a line for a path? According to Scottish Natural Heritage, Scotland’s coastline stretches for 11,800km. While the east coast is fairly straightforward, the west coast is a different matter, indented with long sea lochs. The coast of Argyll alone is over 3,700km and popularly believed to be longer than the coast of France.

We also have 94 permanently inhabited islands, and there are over 60 scheduled ferry services. Would you include some of these islands in a coastal path?

Thirdly, do we really want to see a constructed path running through some of the most wild and rugged landscapes in Britain? Even though it makes walking a more strenuous and challenging task, surely it’s part of the variety of our walking experience in Britain to have huge tracts of land where you make your own way and find the best route yourself?

The route up to Cape Wrath on the far north-west corner of Britain is a case in point. The last 10km lead from Sandwood Bay, which itself is 6km from a road but served by a good path, up to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, and forms the final stretch of the Cape Wrath Trail and the Scottish National Trail. Walkers find a route over the cliff tops through undulating, heathery bog, and across a couple of rivers which can be difficult in spate (and it does rain a lot up there!). You may see some footprints along the way but there’s no proper path – and that’s the way people like it!

Sandwood Bay, north-west coast of Scotland
The remote Sandwood Bay, on the far north-west coast of Scotland

In reality a lot of Scotland’s coast is already walkable on existing long distance routes. On the east, you can follow the Berwickshire Coastal Path which leads into the John Muir Way, the Round-the-Forth cycle path and then the Fife Coastal Path to Dundee. Further north there are stretches of Aberdeenshire Coastal Path and Moray Coastal Trail taking you almost as far as Inverness.

On the west, the Mull of Galloway Trail leads you to the Ayrshire Coastal Path. This will soon link into the Inverclyde Coastal Path which is under development with the involvement of Inverclyde Ramblers. As for islands, there’s a West Island Way around Bute, and Arran is encircled by a path. A plethora of community groups around the coast are looking into developing paths in their areas as a way of attracting visitors – the evidence is stacking up that paths are well worth the investment, as people like to go to places where they can enjoy a walk.

At Ramblers Scotland we have called for coastal protection zones to be established through the planning system, as exist in Scandinavian countries, with a presumption against new developments in these zones. These would act as buffers against erosion, support nature conservation and also ensure unimpeded access along the shore, and they might have helped protect Aberdeenshire’s fine coast from Donald Trump’s notorious golf development.

Moidart, near Fort William, Scotland
The remote Moidart, which lies to the west of Fort William

As for paths, we are always supportive of any initiatives to develop paths, especially given Scotland’s overall lack of paths when compared to England and Wales. But rather than a single coastal path, we are instead calling for a network of paths which enable people to walk around the coast. We feel the priority for the limited funding available for path development should really be for paths near to where people live, enabling them to walk from their front door to local schools, shops or other services on foot, as well as connecting up neighbouring settlements and leading into the wider countryside.

So if you do have a hankering to tick off Scotland’s entire coast with a very long walk, you can start anytime. But I’m afraid you won’t be the first one to do it – have a quick search of the internet and you’ll find plenty of people who have done just that, and apparently lived to tell the tale!

Helen Todd is the campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. Read more about Helen's adventures or tweet her @helenrambler.

Ruth Livingstone

Hmmm. I agree it might be impractical to create an entire round-Scotland Coast Path, but I do think more could be done to promote coastal walking in Scotland. For example, stretches of the south coast of Dumfries and Galloway are beautiful, but much of it is difficult to access for serious long-distance walkers. Similarly, yes, the Mull of Galloway Trail is great if you want to walk along the east coast of The Rhins, but much of the west coast remains inaccessible and hostile to walkers, with barbed wire, dangerous livestock in fields, and other hazards. I've just finished the lovely Ayrshire Coastal Path and I'm currently walking the Arran Coastal Way. Having a properly described path makes all the difference.