Saturday, 7 December 2013

At the Hostel Door

When all five lums in and around the hostel here are gently reeking with woodsmoke we feel the wind of seasonal change from Autumn to Winter is just about on us.  We lost our Soay ram this week as he simply could not make the transition from grass feeding to a diet of hay, sheep mix and the last of the vegetation.   Today, after the big winds we are inching our way around in the white stuff and keeping an eye on road conditions for tonight's party, oldie hill walkers returning for at least their fifth visit.
That inauspicious start to the festive season apart we are happy to look back on a bumper summer and autumn which have brought to us so many different discerning visitors.  A number of North Americans we learn like to spend time both in Ireland and then Scotland or the other way round.  This Celtic pilgrimage is echoed also by Bretons and Basques whose shores share in our rich seaboard heritage.  Add then to this our Welsh and Cornish cousins for whom, as with the Scots of old, it was the seaways more than land routes which saw them trading and of course fighting to protect or conquer and we can begin to understand the bonds which bring those North American descendants to explore our treasured Scotland.

I learned recently from Andy Howard, plantsman and wild life guide that he regularly watches crested tits on the Black Isle. Folk come here from all over to photograph them in our hostel's sitooterie – how is that glorious nonsense of a word spelt? And for years I have been peddling the false mantra that they are confined to Speyside and Deeside.  Apparently not and Andy has the photographs to prove it. 

Some years ago when I was, like all past and present committee members, now Directors, a volunteer working my socks off for Scottish Independent Hostels – SIH or rather its forerunner, Independent Backpackers Hostels Scotland, IBHS  I thought one day I might write about the more colourful characters I had met at their hostel doors. I still might.  Some literally have carved their hostel creations from the landscape which had drawn them to it in the first place.  Jacks and Jills of all trades who, some of them, then learned how to be hospitable. These hostel owners' tales of treks undertaken, oceans explored, peaks climbed, ski tours traversed, bikes rattled across inhospitable tracks are riveting and timeless and although sadly I have lost meaningful touch with some of them, others still have welcoming firesides and a brew or a dram I am proud to help them with.

There are many heroes here and those of you who have been lucky enough to stay in their bespoke, culturally rich hostels will know who I mean – and I don't know them all by any means.  There are others too who have come to hostel keeping from a completely different route and although they may have no direct experience of arduous adventure  they have made the transition from their former lives to cater for those who do.  May they be much influenced by the original ethos of Independent Hosteling and those of their visitors whose tales rival that of the great Hostel Keeper adventurers themselves.

And speaking of ethos, I much appreciated reading the blog spot before this from Peter Wright who  leads the team taking Inveraray Hostel in Argyll  from SYHA membership to independent status. At our hostel door we have a simple wooden plaque with the two words:-  'traveller welcome'  burned into it.  Notice the word 'traveller' is singular, not plural and that is exactly what we mean and the very same message Peter and his team are sending out from Inveraray.  While groups are great guests and hugely welcome:- the very bread we need for viability,  the butter, rich and soul sustaining so often comes through the courage, ingenuity and stand alone quality of the solo traveller.  We here can't quite match Peter's maxim of always keeping a space for the solo guest – we are too small.  We do manage it though on our miniature lightweight camping ground where anyone walking or cycling in, May to October is never turned away.  They even are presented on arrival with dates and mint tea straight from a camel bone encrusted Moroccan tea pot.  We learned this demonstration of grace from the Berbers some years back. Many a flushed and exhausted arrival has thanked us profusely for that unexpected freebee.

So, if, after all this, you as a Hostel Keeper are worried about viability do reflect that often after being made unstintingly welcome the solo traveller of one year translates into a couple or family group some years later and that's a cause for celebration as well as more assured viability and of course, yet another brew. What was it about keeping an empty chair at the table?  Good for body and soul it seems to me.

Hostel Keeper

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