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Nature / Isles-wide footpath from Unst to Sumburgh would provide ‘spectacular experience’

The Shetland Way, however, will not receive funding from the proposed islands deal

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THERE are hopes that a long distance walking route from Sumburgh to Unst could be created in a bid to attract more visitors to Shetland as well as encourage locals to don the hiking boots.

The ambitious idea for the ‘Shetland Way’ has been coined by VisitScotland, Shetland Islands Council and Scottish Natural Heritage.

There were hopes that the project could have attracted significant funding from the islands deal proposed by the UK and Scottish governments which would aim to drive growth in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

VisitScotland’s island manager for Shetland Steve Mathieson, however, said the project is not suitable for islands deal funding at this time – with the partners involved now looking at other ways of potentially taking it forward.

Possible funding streams could include the Scottish Government’s rural tourism infrastructure, which recently awarded £300,000 for the construction of an elevated board walk, the provision of toilets and a sheltered interpretation point at Hermaness in Unst.

The idea behind the Shetland Way is to develop the UK’s most northerly long distance walking route, which would run around 79 miles from north to south along the spine of Shetland.

It could use existing core paths and tracks and sections of old roads in addition to some new paths and walkways.

The 96-mile West Highland Way from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William for instance is hugely popular with walkers, bringing a boost to the local economy as a result, and it is thought that Shetland’s landscape could work for a similar project.

Mathieson said it would “link the islands’ considerable natural, cultural and community assets and enhancing Shetland’s reputation for world class visitor experiences”.

“The main aim of developing a long-distance walking route is to attract more visitors, encourage them to stay longer and see more of Shetland,” he explained.

“As evidenced by all research, including the 2013 and 2017 Island Visitor Surveys, the main attraction for visitors to Shetland is the landscape and the main activity is walking.

“This proposal would combine the two and provide visitors and residents alike with the opportunity for a spectacular, healthy, eco-friendly experience.”

The route could encompass the entire length of the Shetland mainland, as well as Yell and Unst, from Sumburgh Head to Hermaness.

It would utilise visitor hubs along its length to divide it into daily walkable sections and give access to attractions, accommodation, facilities and shops.

Although based on a linear spine route running north-south, there would be additional routes incorporating all the inhabited isles.

Proposed large wind farm developments could add an extra twist to plans for a long footpath, especially in the central mainland, but Mathieson said that Viking Energy was aware of the project and was willing to cater for paths and public access.

Mathieson, however, stressed that the Shetland Way project was just a plan at present, while if funding was secured then it could be created in stages.

Jarlshof could become part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site – but there will no funding from the proposed islands deal. Photo: Historic Environment Scotland

Shetland Amenity Trust chief executive Mat Roberts, meanwhile, said this week that the organisation had its own proposal for the islands deal turned down.

He said the trust looked for support for plans to have Jarlshof, Mousa and Old Scatness become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Negotiations on an islands deal have been ongoing for a number of years as government looks to extend growth deals already established in certain cities and regions to the Scottish islands.

Shetland Islands Council’s development director Neil Grant updated councillors on Monday on the progress of the discussions as Shetland’s contribution to the proposals nears completion.

Chief executive Maggie Sandison previously said that ten projects which could generate more than 600 jobs through increased productivity and economic growth would be identified by the council.

Grant told members of the policy and resources committee on Monday that projects have been mooted in areas like decommissioning, the Knab redevelopment, aquaculture and the future of the oil and gas industry.

The islands deal negotiations involve the chief executives and development directors of the Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils, who undertake a video conference every month.

In Shetland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and NHS Shetland are members of the project board and are “key partners” in developing the proposals.

“Like many island and remote communities across the world, our three Islands face a demographic challenge that threatens the long-term sustainability of our economies and communities,” Grant wrote in a report for councillors.

“But we also have access to a unique range of assets and economic opportunities – our ‘Islands Advantage’.

“The argument is made through the deal that, with the right level of growth deal investment, this advantage can be leveraged to achieve the step change necessary to change our demographic trajectory, transform our economies and enhance the significant contribution our Islands make to the economic, cultural and international reputation of Scotland and the United Kingdom.”

The Scottish Government said: “The islands growth deal will unlock investment and drive inclusive growth across Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

“The deal will form the basis of the next phase of the islands’ collaboration which will build on the successful ‘Our Islands Our Future’ campaign they commenced in 2013.

“The island councils are currently working with partners to revise proposals and which are expected to be submitted for discussion and scrutiny to the Scottish and UK Governments shortly.”