Although its landscapes are world class Scotland's tourism offering is sometimes criticised for being somewhat basic. Deputy Business Editor Mark Latham examines the case for setting up hut trails in Scotland.

From the Alps to Patagonia and from Scandinavia to New Zealand, the concept of going on a hut-to-hut hike in the summer months is so popular that it has evolved its own verb, to go “hutting”. But Scotland is one of the few mountainous countries in the world not to have a network of high altitude mountain huts.

In Norway alone there are 519 trekking huts, while in the Alps and Pyrenees thousands of mountain refuges allow passing walkers to drop by for lunch, a Schnapps, afternoon tea or a comfortable overnight stay where showers and even saunas are available.

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By contrast Scotland’s 80 more Spartan mountain bothies provide neither food, running water, heating nor fuel and appeal to a more self-reliant type of walker.

Now Ramblers Scotland has made a call for the setting up of hut trails in its “Manifesto for a Walking Scotland” to be published in the run-up to next May’s Holyrood elections.

Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland told the Sunday Herald that the creation of a pilot hut trail somewhere in Scotland would be “a great idea which we’d love to see developed where communities are willing". 

The association says that, although Scotland has a rich history of hill walkers using bothies, “for many people these rough shelters are not appropriate and don’t offer the facilities they require”.

“We are looking to learn from good practice in countries like Norway and New Zealand, where long-distance routes have developed along with simple huts for people to stay in at low cost.”

“We are keen to work with partners to develop such trails in Scotland which will encourage greater uptake of our long-distance route network and also encourage greater economic benefits to be gained by local communities.”

Ramblers Scotland is also calling for the creation of a Scottish Paths Fund as it believes there is an “urgent need” to expand and improve the country’s path network and that the Scottish government needs to recognise the benefits to the environment, tourism, communities and public health from good walking infrastructure.

The call for a debate about hut trails has been welcomed by Neil Lapping, the founder of Glasgow-based Macs Adventure, a £7 million turnover travel company which brings thousands of walkers to Scotland each year and also organises adventure holidays abroad.

Lapping believes that the creation of a hut trail in Scotland would be a massive boost for the country’s tourist industry. His company organises package trekking trips in the Alps and in Iceland which use mountain huts and Lapping thinks it is a missed commercial opportunity that Scotland is unable to offer hut trails to visitors considering coming here.

“The more we are able to get people to the wild places the better,” he said. “Everyone I know who has experienced Norwegian huts raves about them: it’s a fantastic system. Having huts along a trail makes wild places a lot more accessible for people and actually minimises the environmental damage.”

Lapping said that he would love to take clients on organised multi-day walks in Cape Wrath and Caithness but the limited accommodation in the area makes the idea a non-starter.

The only way of doing a multi-day hike there, he said, would be to carry a heavy backpack with tents, cooking equipment and sufficient food for several days.

“I don’t think our wild places should only be accessible to a mountaineering elite who are prepared to carry 20-kilo backpacks,” he said.

“If I was able to offer my business partners in France and other countries hut-to-hut treks in Scotland they would put it in their brochures tomorrow.

“A lot of our clients are fifty plus: it’s a wealthy demographic and a booming market. They are looking for unique wild experiences but are not interested in coming here to go camping.”

But not everyone is enamoured of the idea of bringing hut trails to Scotland. Paul Webster of the walking website Walkhighlands believes that huts are appropriate in vast mountain landscapes like the Alps where they blend into their surroundings more readily.

“If we were to build huts and tracks in the Cairngorms they would stand out more and it would diminish the landscape,” he said. “A lot of people come to Scotland because it offers something different. If we had huts at high altitude it could make Scotland less attractive.” 

Nevertheless, Webster admits that many of Scotland’s long-distance trails – mostly built at low altitudes and designed to accommodate cyclists and horse riders as much as walkers – are compromise routes that do not appeal to those wanting to walk in the wildest and most remote places.

“On the Continent or Scandinavia the tendency is to go on long-distance walks from place to place staying in huts,” he said. “Perhaps because the weather is less predictable people in Scotland are more likely to do a series of day walks while based in hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation.”

David Gordon of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland told the Sunday Herald that the council “cautiously welcomes” the idea of creating a chain of huts linked by walking trails but said that the locations of huts would be key to their acceptability.

“We would like to see sustainable businesses created that make the most of Scotland's mountains as places for recreation and leisure, provided it does not diminish their wild qualities,” he said.

The reasons for the relative scarcity of paths in Scotland are largely historical. For centuries vast swathes of Scotland’s land, even entire valleys, have been – and continue to be – held as estates, owned by aristocrats for the purposes of deer stalking or grouse shooting.

Since devolution, the Scottish Parliament has introduced a right of access over land, created two national parks and legislation to shake up land use and ownership is on the way.

Despite the building of some new upland paths in the new Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs national parks, comparing an ordnance survey map of the Highlands with a map of the mountain areas of Switzerland, Norway or Italy reveals the relative lack of footpaths in Scotland which are are often historic drovers or stalkers trails.

As they were not originally designed for walkers they often – with the exception of the paths up the best known Munros – do not go to the summits that most walkers want to reach. Other paths simply peter out half way up a hill while waymarking is haphazard to non-existent.

The lack of joined-up thinking is largely because, unlike in other countries, there is no national authority to identify, build and maintain trekking routes.

Legislation introduced in the early noughties required local authorities to identify "core path networks" but these have so far been used to create small community paths rather than upland or long-distance treks.

Funding for trekking paths, often provided by the state elsewhere, is in Scotland largely dependent on charities with limited budgets such as the John Muir Trust or Sustrans. National lottery funds have also been tapped for some recent projects.

While other countries were developing footpath networks as early as the nineteenth century it was not until 1980 that Scotland got its first long-distance path, with the opening of the West Highland Way. Since then a further 25 long-distance routes have been opened but, compared with those abroad, the Scottish ones have deliberately been routed close to settlements and existing overnight accommodation providers which limits their appeal to those seeking something wilder.

For most of its 96 miles the West Highland Way rarely strays far from the A82 road between Glasgow and Fort William. By contrast, the hutting trails in Scandinavia and the alpine countries often cross glacier systems allowing trekkers to access some of the world’s wildest places while staying overnight in huts perched on mountain tops.

SCOTLAND'S BOTHIES

Although Scotland has over 80 bothies, they are not really comparable with the alpine hut system as they are far smaller (typically old estate cottages with overnight places for between half a dozen and twenty people) and are unmanned.

They are also, for tourists, harder to find as, unlike the mapping authorities of other countries, the Ordnance Survey does not indicate bothies on its maps.

Neil Stewart of the Mountain Bothies Association, which was set up in 1965, describes the Scottish bothy experience as “camping without a tent”. One of the attractions is that bothies are free to use, but visitors are expected to bring their own food, stove, fuel, sleeping bag and mattress.

A multi-day bothy-to-bothy trek would be possible along the Cape Wrath Trail in northern Scotland, but camping would be necessary for some nights as there is not enough accommodation en route, he says.

The fact that bothies cannot be reserved in advance, might be full upon arrival or be closed for the stalking season, means that the MBA advises trekkers to bring along a tent in case. This contrasts with alpine huts which, because of the remote terrain, guarantee an overnight stay to anyone who arrives.

HUTTING IN NORWAY

Den Norske Turistforening, Norway’s trekking association, operates 519 mountain and forest huts across the country and maintains 20,000km of trail networks, of which 7,000 are pisted for cross-country skiing over the winter.

DNT was founded in 1868 with the aim of “helping and developing tourism in Norway” and today has more than 280,000 members in Norway and abroad. Some of the association’s earliest members were Scottish mountaineers who pioneered routes up Norway’s highest mountains.

Some of the huts are staffed and others are designated as “self-service” huts where provisions of dry and tinned food and fuel can be consumed with payment being made through payment boxes. Those without cash can simply leave their credit card numbers. Bedding is provided in both staffed and unstaffed huts.

Anders Gjengedal of the DNT says that the honesty system is rarely abused. “The whole system is built on trust,” he says. “The great thing about our network of huts and trails is that people can do a multi-day hike and only have to carry a small four-kilo knapsack as everything you need is provided in the huts.”

“Without the cabin and trail network most of Norway’s wild places would not be accessible for most people. I don’t think so many people would come to our national parks if there was no hutting trail.”

Gjengedal believes that huts – many of which are powered by solar panels or other green energy sources – are better for the environment than the alternative of having hundreds of campers polluting water courses and leaving litter behind while maintaining footpaths to a high standard prevents erosion of hillsides.

Many of Norway’s national parks – such as Jotunheimen, Rondane or Hardangervidda – can be explored over two-week treks, staying in a different hut each night.

Other well known hut-to-hut treks in Europe include the Langmannalaugar route in Iceland, the Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt, the Stubai Glacier Way in Austria and the Tour of the Vanoise National Park in France.