ENTHUSIASTS trying to develop the most northern long-distance walking route in the UK claim they are being hampered by a lack of support from two key public bodies.

The North Highland Way would link John O' Groats in the east to Cape Wrath in the west, but those behind it say they had been expecting more help from Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Tina Irving, who operates Brought Bay Ltd, which helps promote the far north of Scotland, said: "The ultimate aim is to develop a route akin to the South West Path and the Welsh Coastal Path and we have begun to waymark it.

"But we haven't received the financial backing from the council or HIE we had hoped for. We really need their help to promote and develop the route and can't understand why they are not more enthusiastic given the boost it would give to the far-north economy."

A long-distance walking route in the north was first mooted in 1992 by the Caithness Waybaggers, a group that formed specifically to pursue the project.

The original idea had been to start at Dunbeath harbour on the east coast. The route was then to have gone inland with stops at Altnabreac railway station, Westerdale, Halkirk and Thurso before finishing at John O' Groats - a total of 60 miles.

Concerns from land owners and farmers, problems with paths and accommodation and lack of support meant the idea was abandoned. However, it was reborn, this time to link two renowned locations on Scotland's north coast, which would provide a walk of 180 miles.

Ms Irving said the plan was also to link it with the Cape Wrath Trail, which opened in January 2013, and the Moray Firth Trail.

She said the route had been identified on the Walking World website for walking community, but there was still considerable work to be done on tasks such as a feasibility study, landowner consultation, business plan and market studies.

She said that in the meantime the Friends of the North Highland Way group had been formed as a means of raising money from those using the route, which would be invested in promotional efforts.

A Highland Council spokeswoman said the local authority had been approached by Brough Bay Ltd in late 2013 about the possible establishment of a North Highland Way.

She said: "In particular they wished to ascertain whether the council would fund the company to undertake development work on such a route, as they were unable to continue undertaking the level of work that would be required if this was purely on a voluntary basis.

"Although unable to assist in terms of providing direct funding to an individual company, the council did recognise that the idea had great potential for the area so agreed to explore other options."

Work was commissioned to gauge local support and there had been support from community councils for the concept to be examined further. However, the spokeswoman said none of several attempts to bring all the community representatives together had been successful and there had been indications that most were not willing to be part of a group to lead the project at this time.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for HIE said "Supporting tourism in Caithness and Sutherland is a priority for HIE, We have held informal discussions regarding the North Highland Way but have not received any formal application for assistance.

"Any application would be considered against our usual eligibility criteria."