IN 2003, Paul and Helen Webster packed in their jobs and decided to head off on the adventure of a lifetime.

At the time, Paul worked in finance for the company now known as Aviva while Helen, as she puts it herself, “worked ­dealing with people complaining about councils”.

Fuelled by their passion for the outdoors, the couple took on a year-long, 4000-mile trek across the whole of Europe, walking from Spain to Turkey.

“It was a break from our conventional careers and I just remember thinking I really don’t want to go back,” Paul, now 49, told the Sunday National.

So they didn’t. Instead, the couple, who now live in Grantown-on-Spey, founded Walkhighlands.

The website serves as a free online guide and ­forum to more than 2500 walks on offer across ­Scotland with the couple recently launching an app to go alongside it all.

Chances are, you’ve found yourself browsing through its options while looking for a new route to explore.

As if that wasn’t enough, next month will see the publication of the couple’s latest book, Great Scottish Walks.

In an exclusive chat with the Sunday National, they spoke about how they came to create the website, the issues facing Scotland’s tourism sector and attempt to pick their favourite place to go hiking in Scotland.

Humble Beginnings

Both Paul and Helen can trace their love for the outdoors back to the early stages of their lives.

The latter explained: “I was always lucky enough to have friends and teachers that took us out.”

Paul adds he’s always had a passion for exploring, mapping and walking “since I was a kid”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was through an outdoor group that the pair first met.

The National:

Following the completion of their life-changing trek across a whole continent, Paul and Helen settled in Skye in 2005 and their idea for what would go on to become a vastly successful website snowballed.

“It was basically from talking to people there who weren’t clear about where they could walk that we got the idea for the website,” ­Helen explains.

“A lot of them were maybe from the continent or England and we just saw a gap in the market. You could say it was sort of accidental, so we started ­something and it just grew from there.

“We were lucky there wasn’t too much else out there at the time.”

As Paul explains, part of what was driving the ­couple was a desire to ensure people were aware of little-known areas of Scotland.

“We were meeting people in Skye at a time when we’d come to know it really well but visitors were ­focused on about four things that they had heard of.

“We wanted to get people off the beaten track and spread the load a ­little. Initially, we focused on Skye and then developed it across the whole of Scotland.”

Something for everyone

The Walkhighlands website, as Helen herself puts it, is effectively an ­old-fashioned walking guidebook but with “all the bells and whistles that the web allows you”.

Given the breadth of knowledge which is so instantly and easily accessible to anyone who visits the site, it’s easy to see how the couple hope it might help areas which have suffered with over-tourism.

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It’s a topic which seems to hold even greater relevance in the post-pandemic world with popular routes and ­tourist spots across Scotland blighted with ­issues.

The Sunday National has previously told of a number of issues facing residents who live on the NC500 while SNP MSP Kate Forbes has called for a new approach to handling rocketing numbers of visitors to the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

All this said though, there’s no denying the importance of tourism to Scotland’s economy and, crucially, Paul believes the website can help provide a solution.

By providing so much information, the co-founders hope that they might draw people away from otherwise popular spots to prevent thousands from ­descending on the same spot.

“That’s something that’s been one of our aims,” Paul explains.

“When Helen mentioned social media, I think that amplifies certain places. If somebody posts somewhere that’s busy like the Fairy Pools then you get more ­engagement and you’ll also get a lot of people unhappy about that.

“But the fact more people are ­responding means it goes to more people. That’s why we try to give a breadth of ­coverage rather than focus on one thing.”

He added: “When you talk about ­overtourism, I think walking can actually help to slow things down a bit. You can soak things up and meet the locals and take in the wildlife.

“I think the worst side of it is when ­people are just constantly hurrying around, taking pictures from one spot to the next.”

Helen explains how she recently walked the Southern Upland Way – a ­breathtaking, long-distance, coast-to-coast route, but that she only met two people in four days.

“That was at the height of summer,” she added.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s that ­Scotland is packed out in that sense. We’ve got the capacity it’s just that people haven’t discovered a lot of what we have to offer.”

Creating a community

Both the Walkhighlands website and app are free of charge – something that was at the heart of the project from the very beginning.

“We started this with very little money and making it free was always our bottom line.

“We’ve created a big community, ­people meet up and we’ve even heard stories of some getting married or finding their partner,” Helen explains.

As much as Paul and Helen might enjoy their long-distance walks, don’t be fooled into thinking they only cater to the most experienced adventurers.

Helen added: “I think it’s not just all about intense hillwalking and ­discovering that was a real eye-opener for us when we were setting the website up.

“We’re lucky we get to go to all of these places but there’s so many fantastic walks out there and we cater to everyone, even people who might just want to get the kids out for a couple of hours.”

Indeed, the website effectively helps to map out everything you might need to know ahead of your trip – from places to stay to all the necessary safety checks depending on where you’re heading.

Great Scottish Walks

Writing a book is nothing new to the couple, given that they’ve already written 20 guidebooks focusing on various regions of Scotland.

The focus is on the best long-distance walks spread across the country and, as Paul puts it, is intended to “inspire”.

“Everyone knows all about the West Highland Way but there’s loads more ­options than that. It aims to give you an idea of everything that’s available,” he says.

The book is made up of 26 different routes and goes from the relatively easy to the extreme.

Helen added: “I think the joy for us in doing long-distance is it might take you two days but you could spend one night in a B&B or a camp but you still feel you’ve had an adventure and you don’t end up thinking about anything else.

The National:

“You don’t even need to be a massive walker.”

The shortest route included in the book is the West Highland Way which ­stretches for around 151km from Milngavie on the edge of Glasgow to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis.

The longest, meanwhile, is something more akin to the couple’s journey across Europe – the Scottish National Trail.

Described as the “grandaddy of them all”, this 864-kilometre-long walking route runs the length of Scotland from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders to Cape Wrath in Sutherland.

The couple don’t want people to be put off by the term “long-distance” however, pointing out that it doesn’t necessarily mean living alone in the wilderness, sealing yourself off from the outside world.

They explain that some have got in touch to say that rather than take on the adventure in one go, they have instead completed the lengthier trails in stages.

“We had two women explain that they had taken eight years to do the Scottish National Trail because they did it all in stages,” Helen says.

“Others might come out of the military or retirement and have a bit more time so they take three months to do the whole thing.”

Picking a favourite

Given their vast experience, Paul and Helen understandably have to pause for thought when asked if there’s a standout area of Scotland where they love to go walking.

For a relatively small country, people really are spoilt for choice. When he comes to his decision, Paul admits that he is a “little biased” given where the couple are based.

He said: “I can’t help but think of our home because I think sometimes ­people don’t think the mountains are as ­beautiful in the Cairngorms but they are.

“There are hundreds of different routes and they all have so much variety in terms of the way you go about them so you can never exhaust it.”

Helen struggles to settle on an answer but says the weather is always a key ­factor for her.

“I’ll go where it’s sunny,” she says, laughing.

“I’m always chasing the good weather but I have to say I really like some of the islands. The Western Isles in particular and the Isle of Bute have all got a ­different character but I like that variety. We’re also lucky we can get to the ­Moray coast which I think is fairly ­unvisited. It’s got such nice scenery and nice little villages.”

Post-pandemic surge

Following such success with their current model, the couple’s plans are essentially to just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, they explain there was a surge in interest in walking during the pandemic given that there was little else to do.

Even when things started to open up again, people often still chose to meet outdoors which can only be considered a good thing for Walkhighlands.

“Website numbers have stayed much higher than it was prior to the pandemic which is a good thing,” Helen says.

“We’re seeing more younger people and a lot more women out either on their own or in groups which we didn’t see ­before as much.”

She added: “There’s always an ­ongoing issue with educating people, given the number of people accessing the outdoors, but I think here [the Cairngorms], we have good infrastructure when it comes to the basics.

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“Public transport is still a big issue ­because people can’t get to certain ­places and if you’re on a lower income, it’s ­harder because it’s expensive.”

In particular, the focus on putting ­accessibility at the heart of the business has proved particularly astute as people are forced to cut back amid the cost of ­living crisis.

Helen continued: “I think with this book we wanted to show how you can do long-distance routes pretty cheaply by ­either staying in a bothy or on a ­campsite.”

The new book will be released on October 5 and an updated guide to the Munros across Scotland is also due for release soon.

Whether it’s climbing the highest mountains, strolling on a white sandy beach or a bit of both, it doesn’t really matter.

Because either way, Walkhighlands will have you covered.