More areas of the Caledonian Canal could be opened up to help active travel and sustainable tourism.
Scottish Canals is looking to improve access to towpaths to encourage more people to walk and cycle on the routes to improve their health.
Other areas could also be made available to provide facilities for motorhomes to tackle an issue with a lack of infrastructure.
It’s part of a corporate plan which also includes repurposing canal buildings and partnering in economic development projects, including providing affordable homes.
Increasing access to towpaths
The plan revealed that more than one million people in Scotland live within 1.8 miles of a canal.
In 2022, more than 13.5 million visits were made along towpaths and it is hoped to increase that by improving access.
Scottish Canals CEO John Paterson said: “We’ve done lots of work in the lowlands and we’re hoping to do more on the Caledonian Canal to turn the towpaths into suitable access for active travel, both for commuting and leisure.”
Mr Paterson, who took up the post in May, said the organisation has a long way to go to fulfil the potential of canals.
“It’s about making the most of the canals network, but also acting as a conduit for greater economic regeneration and activity.
“The potential is just beginning to emerge and the realisation that canals are so important and presents the arena for untapped activities to happen alongside boating.”
The former executive director of facilities at NHS Tayside said there are also health benefits to improving towpath access.
A Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) study showed that people from deprived areas can cut their risk of developing chronic life-shortening diseases by up to 15% if they live within 700m of a well-developed canal.
The study of 137,032 people living near the Forth and Clyde Canal had a 15% lower risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, a stroke or hypertension.
It also lowered their risk of diabetes by 12% and obesity by 10%.
Mr Paterson also worked in local government for 25 years, including in environmental services He said the canals post brings together much of what his previous roles covered.
“It’s a diverse organisation, which is what attracted me to it, and the benefits it can bring people in terms of health.
“I don’t believe I’ve left the health service, I’ve just joined a different bit of it.”
Recent canal-side improvements include the towpath between Caol and Corpach, as well as between Inverness and Dochgarroch.
Scottish Canals was the lead partner in The Treehouse project which saw a two-storey building with offices and community space opened on the Caledonian Canal in Inverness in March.
The £3.46 million first phase of the project also includes towpath, community access and green space improvements.
A project with Hitrans is also improving towpaths on the canal at Laggan.
Vikki Trelfer, active travel officer with Hitrans, said: “The canal towpaths offer a great option for people to walk and cycle safely in so many of our towns in the Hitrans area.
“We’ve seen improvements to paths in places like Inverness, Fort William and Lochgilphead in previous years which all enable both everyday and leisure journeys to be made in a healthy, sustainable way.”
Providing facilities for motorhomes
Mr Paterson also envisages creating space near canals for motorhome users and help address an issue of wild camping.
“The Highlands has a problem with motorhomes with not enough places for them.
“Generally, people are driving about in yacht-sized and yacht-priced land-based vehicles so there are opportunities up and down the canal to join in and support through the provision of good infrastructure.”
He said motorhome users are often looking for similar facilities to yachtspeople.
“So there are synergies in infrastructure and there might be an opportunity for us to help solve a problem in select locations.”
Mr Paterson said it may be possible to set up ‘aires’, places to park and stay overnight in a motorhome, caravan or campervan which are popular on the Continent.
He said they may be created in areas such as underused car parks and help generate income for communities.
“I’m not saying we’re going to do it everywhere, but we’re exploring where there might be appropriate locations.”
Meanwhile, Scottish Canals’ capital investment plan also includes some major engineering works scheduled along the canal over winter.
This includes £650,000 on upgrading moorings and jetties at Seaport Marina, Gairlochy and Fort Augustus and £150,000 on entrance jetties and coastal protection at Clachnaharry Sea Lock.
Dredging will also take place across Torvean and Dochfour Burn to improve navigation.