We quit our jobs to share Scotland’s walking routes

Helen and Paul
Helen and Paul Webster set up Walkhighlands in 2006 [BBC]

Paul Webster was only 29 when he and his wife Helen decided to quit their jobs and "change everything".

"It was very young for a mid-life crisis," says Paul, who is originally from Grimsby.

The couple spent a year on a 4,000 mile walking holiday across Europe and decided they wanted to find a way to share their love of the outdoors with as many people as possible.

And for almost two decades, they have run what is thought to be the UK's busiest walkers' website, Walkhighlands.

Helen, 53, and Paul, now 50, live in the Cairngorm National Park but when I met them they were in central Scotland to check the walking route at Callander Crags, above the small town of Callander.

This is just one of more than 2,200 routes - from family walks to challenging hills - on their website and app.

The walk winds its way through woods full of birdsong and emerging flowers, surrounded by hills and with a loch in the distance.

They have given it a 'two boot rating' - a way of showing the difficulty of any walk.

There are also maps and very detailed descriptions of all the routes, down to individual gates and stiles - this is about giving people confidence to get outdoors.

The couple say they have noticed a difference in who is taking to the hills in recent years, especially since the pandemic.

"You're seeing a lot more younger people out in the hills and in the countryside more generally," says Helen, who is originally from Devon.

"A lot of women, a lot of groups that perhaps didn't have families that took them out to the countryside.

"It really feels like a lot of barriers have been broken down and because of the cost of living crisis, people are looking for activities that'll be cheap," she says.

Paul and Helen founded Walkhighlands in 2006 from their bedroom, with £50 of start-up cash.

Now each month they say something like 600,000 people use the website and app.

The service has always been free and the couple are determined it remains so.

They feel that while keen walkers might be prepared to pay for information like this, for others it would be a "huge barrier".

The couple, who also write guide books, said users had donated money to allow the website to continue.

“When we first started out our focus was that local businesses could advertise on the site but more recently it’s been more important to us that people have understood what we’re trying to do and have been willing to donate money to keep us going," Paul said.

“We quite like that rather than thinking what would be a good business decision to make we can think what would people really like, what would serve walkers best and then the money can look after itself.”

For the first 10 years, Paul and Helen - who themselves met through a walking club - were expanding the site, adding more walks and making sure they had covered all areas of Scotland.

They says they were keen to get people away from tourist hotspots and take advantage of the great variety of walks which the country has to offer.

Nowadays they check and recheck those routes, personally walking the vast majority of the 2,200 routes on the site.

Walkers get in touch to let them know if things have changed, they also get information from landowners, but most of it involves the Websters' boots on the trails.

They are out walking many days of the year and then updating the website and app on the computer in the evenings or at the end of trips.

"The ones we did a few years ago are now out of date and you have to start going round it all again," Paul says.

"It's just like painting the Forth Bridge really."

The couple have always loved walking and it was that year-long trek which really changed things.

They swapped 9 to 5 office jobs for the ultimate outdoor office.

Paul left a job in pensions and Helen had been dealing with complaints for local authorities.

"It was a nice enough job but everyone I came into contact with was upset about something," she says with a laugh.

"To have that turned around and find that most people I deal with are pretty happy and are having a great experience in the countryside is worth its weight in gold."

The success of Walkhighlands has been a bit of surprise to both of them and they love the direct contact social media has allowed them with people who use it

"There are very few jobs where people can tell you what a difference it's made to their life," says Helen.

"To their mental health, to their physical health or just their enjoyment of their holiday or they've found somewhere they really love and it's their special place."

When pressed to pick her own special place, Helen opts for the Maze beach on Tiree.

She says: "It's the most amazing beach, beautiful golden sand, lovely walks jutting out into the water, backed by the machair which has a lot of flowers and rare species of insects on it. It's a wonderful spot."

Paul picks a mountain in the Cairngorms - Braeriach.

"What I really love is that you start really low down in the ancient Caledonian forest and then you progress all the way up into a semi-Arctic environment on the plateau of the Cairngorms, so you're getting to go through all these nature zones as you go up and see the changes in vegetation and wildlife that you see along the way."