Monday, 8 September 2014

At the Hostel Door: September 6th 2014

Well, summer, and what a summer, came in and is now officially out again. The first of September is herald to autumn and on today's 'BBC Out of Doors Programme' we were not overly surprised to hear there might be a powdering of snow on the high tops up the strath from us. As usual the hostel team, or at least five of us, sat down to a Saturday working breakfast to look at the sharing out of tasks for the day and prepare for this afternoon's visitors.

We were interrupted by departing Graham, going a day early because of a work crisis way south. We presumed to tell him that he looked infinitely more relaxed and with more colour in his face than he had on arrival. Lone traveller Graham has been with us for six days in which time he has rubbed shoulders with, amongst others, a Spanish trio studying in Edinburgh, Sonja a returning team member, now teaching in Germany, Manuel an Edinburgh Uni. PhD candidate from Ecuador and Paul. Now Paul really was interesting. Arriving on foot, he knew his mushrooms as well as his wine, walked his socks off by day and was grossly entertaining or challenging, depending on your point of view, by night. On the evening of the day he left he rang to thank us effusively for his stay and to tell us that the rather yummy chocolate cake remains left in the fridge he solemnly bequeathed to all those in the hostel who remembered him.

Our team breakfast reminds me of the pattern of such things at Lake Wakatipu's Kinloch Lodge, Glen Orchy on South Island N.Z. There the staff team, led by the owners, Brits as it happens, shared the evening meal together most nights of the week. They would take it in turn cooking and looking after the other team members. This bonding, they told me, was a vital prerequisite for them being able to maintain the impressively high level of rapport, effectiveness and givers of rugged hospitality to their many guests.

Our team here let us off for a welcome mid August break. Temporarily demob happy we effectively lost ourselves in the Outer Hebrides for ten days and were more than pleased to drop in on other hostel keepers. Ruari Beaton at Am Bothan, Leverburgh, Isle of Harris has created a Gaeldom's Aladdin’s cave of a hostel on a slope overlooking the harbour there. A weathered rowing boat is slung from the rafters of the living area and I could not but admire the trusty and faithful Jotul No 1 woodburner which sends out just buckets of heat but which sadly Jotul have discontinued as a model. It can be burned closed or as an open fire. We have one here and it is sheer masterpiece.

Contented German motor cyclists were about to leave for the day. They come each year Ruari tells me and he is happy to share occasionally in their beers at dusk. Apart from his reaffirming of old friendships I like the way Ruari, who lives in an attached house of his own, tells me that he is not an 'in their face' host. Any tendency to 'over 'yarn' with guests who might just not be that interested, has long gone and I guess he values his own time with his four boats – well four at the last count, and his fishing. While he does just about everything himself from new building the hostel in the first place, to the everyday care of hostel and hostellers I see no resistance from him as his sister, on a rare visit from the south busies herself with the cleaning tasks which normally would fall to him.

In Tarbert, also on Harris, we note that the elegant town centre hostel, formerly Rockview Bunkhouse, now re named The Backpackers' Stop and revitalised after two years or so being empty has bright new primrose masonry paint and owners with an impressive track record in innovation. John and Harvey have spent five years in creating Lickisto Blackhouse Camping & Yurts. Weathering all seasons in Harris is no picnic for the mainlander. When we visited we were all stoically managing the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha's legacy for the Western Isles yet here, in this string of islands, when the Gods are with you there can be little to compare. If what has brilliantly developed to welcome visitors at Lickisto can translate into the re invented Tarbert Hostel, The Backpackers Stop then SIH has gained yet another thoughtful and committed member.

In all of this mild wandering thanks to skipper Derek Gordon and guide, Nicola Boulton one of us ploughed the fifty miles west to St Kilda. Now there's a place for Ruari or John and Harvey to contemplate!

Berneray Hostel is one three gorgeously rustic and windblown Blackhouse hostels renovated by the Gatliff Trust. Blasted by the ocean these more basic but thoroughly adequate and evocative shelters provide an unbelievable stillness inside their double drystone walls. Warden Jackie lives nearby and visits twice a day. Respect for the ancient building, for the volunteers and locals who make staying there possible and hosteller for hosteller imprinted on our awareness in our few hours of their company.

The route home had us impelled to drop in on old friend and true Highland gentleman, Gavin Scott- Moncrieff at Dun Flodigarry Hostel. Characteristically Gavin and Annabelle were cleaning toilets as we drew up and yet, once settled in a corner of their warming tartan carpeted hostel dining room, we reminisced on the many years each of us has been involved with hostel guests and in this particular hostel owners' association, SIH. We were also, for the second time this year treated masterfully to the case for 'YES'. in the independence campaign. Like our earlier savvy 'persuader', Gavin has few if any doubts and puts copious supportive literature into my hand as we leave.

I blether with friend, Ian Bishop at Slochd Mor hostel, like Gavin, an icon in the hostel world We are in his bespoke bike building shed alongside the hostel and the odd drip from the rain shower outside keeps us on the move. A train from London to Inverness glides by just yards away on its way to Slochd summit. I was on that train yesterday I tell him, and waved, in vain. Ian, entrepreneur and engineer relocated his bike business from Inverness to the top of the pass here and then with his wife Liz and younger members of the family set about building his hostel stone by stone. Then came the inimitable hosting. A bike racer, skier, both cross country and downhill, Ian's renown as a past World Porridge Making Champion and Burns Night toastmaster gives an inkling as to his irascible humour and boldness.

For an appreciation of both Gavin and Annabelle and Ian and Liz's hostels just take a look at the website for The Forres Big Choir, They sing too the praises of John MacLean with his Iona Hostel. What these perceptive folk and others have to say about independent hostelling in Scotland is worth barrel loads more than that which we hostel owners might say about ourselves. Now let's spring into Autumn and continue to warrant these kind accolades.

Hostel Keeper

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