For hikers and cyclists anxious to discover the great outdoors amid glorious coastal scenery, a route across the rugged roof of mainland Scotland may sound hard to beat. 

Setting off from remote Duncansby Head at the very north eastern tip of the mainland, the North Highland Way would steer them further north to Dunnet Head, and then clinging to the Sutherland coastline all the way to Cape Wrath. 

With crashing waves, towering cliffs, abundant wildlife and miles of unspoiled moorland, the 115-miles route could be a rival to the West Highland Way, which every year attracts 85,000 people. 

But instead of tapping into soaring eco-tourism and a shift towards “slow travel” on foot and bike, it appears the development of a proper North Highland Way has hit a dead end. 

Almost three decades since the idea was first suggested, the plan to create an east-west passage for hikers, cyclists and horse riders, appears to be stuttering to a halt, hampered by both a lack of funds and a fully formed group to take it forward. 
According to tour guide business owner Tina Irving, a former secretary of Dunnet Head Educational Trust in Caithness and supporter of the North Highland Way plans, hopes to secure financial support from Highland Council and Highlands and Island Enterprise (HIE) to create infrastructure to support the walk, have fallen flat.

HeraldScotland:

The failure of the idea to get off the ground is particularly galling, she adds, in the wake of HIE’s multimillion pounds support for a satellite launch site on peatland on the Moine Peninsula near Tongue.

HIE approved up to £17.3 million in funding towards designing and building Space Hub Sutherland, of which it is contributing £9.8m. 

Dubbed “the British Cape Canaveral”, proposals for the hub, approved by Highland Council on Friday, (26 JUNE) attracted 457 objections, with concerns over the environmental impact and potential risks to human health

Rocket launches are to be limited to 12 a year due to concerns over plastic and metal debris falling into the sea during rocket launches. Those 12 launches would result in an estimated five tonnes of carbon fibre reinforced plastic and seven tonnes of metal alloy being dumped. 

“People’s voices have not been heard and green issues have not been looked at,” said Ms Irving, who runs tour company Let’s Go North.

“This is sustainable, environmental tourism but it’s not been given a chance. However there’s going to be a space hub. 

“It would be interesting to find out why HIE backs the Sutherland Space Hub but not the North Highland Way’s walking, cycling and horse riding route.”

Determined walkers can tackle a route from Duncansby Head to Cape Wrath, but it involves trekking across grassy paths, sheep trails, shoreland and road, and using GPS directions.

A more structured Highland route, with proper paths, signposts and links to accommodation and local services, was suggested in 1992 by local group, the Caithness Waybaggers, formed specifically to push forward the idea of the path. 

Its suggestion of a 60-mile path from Dunbeath Harbour, taking in Altnabreac railway station, Westerdale, Halkirk and Thurso before finishing at John O’ Groats, ran into problems with farmers and landowners, and raised questions over accommodation and services for path users.

However, the idea was revived in 2008 when plans for the longer route crossing east to west appeared to gather support from Highland Council and businesses. 
Again, however, hopes for funding collapsed. 

Yet another attempt for financial support was made six years later and a consultation process was carried out by Highland Council with community councils and dozens of businesses along the proposed path. 

Once again, however, the plans flopped. 

According to Ms Irving, the project is being consistently derailed by requirements from public bodies for feasibility studies and a business plan, which she maintains are too costly and difficult to achieve. among small communities dotted along a sparsely populated route spanning the northern tip of mainland Scotland. 

“The idea was that this could be a multi-use route for horses and cyclists as well as walkers,” added Ms Irving. “There could be lots of business benefits.” 

“I have walked stages of it, and the area is stunning, the wildlife alone is incredible.

“But it needs money to pay for signs and to create proper paths. Another issue is that some stretches, such as at Dounreay, are complicated and a route would have to be made to take people off the road.”

If it were to be established, the North Highland Way would take in views over the Pentland Firth towards Orkney, and pass the Castle of Mey and tiny Fresgoe Harbour in Reay, overlooking Sandside Bay in Caithness. 

A spokesman for Highland Council said: “We have consistently said we are happy with the concept but due to other pressures the council is not in a position to take a lead on it or fund it. 

“However we would be happy to see it developed as a community-led project as has been the case with other routes such as the South Loch Ness Trail, the John o’ Groats Trail and others elsewhere in Scotland.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for HIE said: “We are always interested in proposals to develop the region’s economy and have had informal discussions with Tina Irving regarding her ideas for the North Highland Way. 

“We have been clear with her that HIE’s assistance is discretionary and we would be happy to consider a business case should it be presented to us and considered a strategic priority.”