STEP by step, mile by mile, a secret Scotland is being revealed. It’s a Scotland with tracks leading back through history and right to your doorstep, but it’s a Scotland where few tread, because they don’t know how to enter this hidden world.

Now a new project is putting the routes into this “unseen” land on the map.

While Scotland’s world-class access rights allow us the right to roam over great swathes of our near-78,000 square kilometre land mass, we currently lack one thing that experts say could help more of us make better use of our great outdoors – a fully charted paths network covering all of the estimated 84,000km routes that are out there.

Walking charity Ramblers Scotland says that means most of us are missing out on thousands of miles of identifiable track that could open our country up to us, boost our mental and physical health and help cut vehicle emissions.

Paths, the body says, are “crucial facilitators of access” that provide a “stepping off point to enable people, particularly beginners, to make the most of our landscapes and our nature” and help them travel “by the most direct, safest or most pleasant route”.

Without a proper account of the ancient and modern walkways in our woods, hills and other areas, it says, we’re missing out on the chance to offer “internationally renowned opportunities for outdoor recreation and active leisure trips” and enable more of us to leave the car at home.

It’s not that none of the data exists, it’s that it’s never been brought together.

Local authorities hold details of the designated core paths in their areas – which total around 21km – while bodies including RSPB Scotland, ScotWays and Forestry and Land Scotland also hold particular lists, but there’s never been anything comprehensive.

Attempts to interest commercial mapping companies in this have failed, Ramblers Scotland says, because they judged there was “no business case” in undertaking the work.

Which is where the charity’s project Mapping Scotland’s Paths comes in.

For a year now it has been collating information on routes in a trial region spanning North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire and Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, as well as parts of Argyll and Bute and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

The work has revealed some startling gaps in the information that’s currently publicly available through Ordnance Survey maps.

For West Dunbartonshire alone, it’s uncovered a potential path network of more than 300 miles – more than double the length currently listed on OS charts. Routes missing from these include the way up 401m Duncolm Hill, the highest point in West Dunbartonshire and the Kilpatrick Hills.

That proves, according to the charity’s director Brendan Paddy, that the trial has “huge potential”.

The drive is now shifting to its next phase, which will see volunteers cover every track to verify donated data from 14 organisations as leaders attempt to extend it across the entire country – with the hopes of aiding the development of a free-to-use app that will encourage more Scots to lace their walking boots.

It’s estimated that two in five of us fail to meet recommended activity levels and that the project can play a “crucial role” in improving the nation’s health.

Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager, at Ramblers Scotland, says the information could also aid cyclists and horseriders. “We are not going to be able to do this ourselves,” she says, “but we are hoping we can demonstrate the potential and interest partners in the long-term.

“Scotland has fantastic access rights which apply to pretty much all land and inland water.

England and Wales don’t have that, but they do have a fantastic network of core paths which is really well promoted.

‘‘You try to find that in Scotland and they’re just not there. If you don’t already know where they are, it’s really difficult to know where to go. That means so many people go to the same places all the time.

“There was a feeling that there just weren’t very many paths in Scotland, but that’s not the case.”

SOME of the routes uncovered are, Todd says, “very historic”. She hopes the project will help future-proof these, protecting them from loss to development, vegetation or agriculture. However, she argues that the scheme also works in favour of landowners and managers by guiding the public to particular areas, away from ground that may be unsuitable for crossing for a range of reasons from safety to industry. That’s one of the reasons the trial region was selected – it’s in the proximity of heavily populated areas and there is “a lot of pressure on that land and a lot of potential for conflict”.

While high visitor numbers have long been a source of pressure in places like Balloch, Loch Lomondside, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated concerns about who goes where, with social-distancing rules still in place across Scotland.

A national guide, Todd argues, would be beneficial to this aspect of public health, offering alternatives to visitor hotspots that would allow people to “spread themselves around a bit more and ease numbers in honeypot areas”.

An app could also, it is suggested, allow people to feed data back to land managers and local authorities as they travel, reporting incidents of littering, flytipping, and even invasive plant species.

“There is a public interest in this,” Todd says. “We’re not doing this just to give ramblers more options, this is about people who are not that confident, showing what options there are in their local area and in places they don’t know well. A path gives confidence.

“We really hope this could change people’s relationship with the land. People just don’t know what’s on their doorstep. Putting signs up, showing where it goes and how long it’ll take, these are really small measures but they can have an important impact.”

Catherine Watt, a walk leader with Glasgow Ramblers, agrees. She’s one of the volunteers to have aided the project and says she’s still discovering new ways to get around her area after years of walking there.

“There’s a freshness about going somewhere new,” she says. “It gets your mind going and you see plants you haven’t seen before. You go somewhere high and you get these magnificent views.

“Experienced walkers will already know that some Scottish paths aren’t shown on printed maps, but it’s fascinating to learn just how many exist here on our doorstep. “We look forward to Ramblers Scotland making this data freely available to the public and I’m sure it’ll prompt many people – including me – to start planning new adventures on foot.”