Saturday, 14 March 2015

At The Hostel Door: March 2015

Sail Mhor Croft Hostel

One of the first independent hostels I remember staying at was Dave and Lynda Neville's now venerable Sail Mhor Croft Hostel   at Camusnagaul, Dundonell in Wester Ross.  We had been doing some elementary hill walking with young people on the Scoraig Peninsula across the waters of Little Loch Broom by which the hostel sits, pristine white and welcoming.  We're going back some thirty years and I well remember the evening visit to the local hotel where, to our amazement we were caught up by a wedding party, invited to sing for them and treated to supper.  Just how good can it get?  I was reminded of this lately by a 'boy' who was there, now in his mid forties and a successful author.

It's so easy to go west in Scotland.  There's something magnetic about crossing the watershed to where the mountains heave themselves to great heights with less of a footprint than say in the Cairngorms.  There in the Grampians the ancient lumps and scoured corries may have the wildest of all hill weather as  friends who run their hostels there will tell you.  Many an experienced hill walker never mind the novice ones have found themselves pushed hard to get back to the welcoming warmth of the hostel fire.  However, a night in a hostel in the west can be unrivalled for the sunset, the symphony of mountain and sea and a hardy breed of resident, many of them three hours drive from Inverness and its hospital clinics.

Rattray Head Eco Hostel
Last year though we took time off from the hostel to go east.  In particular we were taking ninety year old mother- in -law back to Rattray Head   a headland on the Buchan coast, just south of the loch of Strathbeg and close to Peterhead.  Mother in law challenged Rob Keeble who with his wife Val are the hostelkeepers there with the twinkly question, “ Do you know I haven't been in here for seventy years?”  No Rob didn't know but was soon to be enlightened.  M.i.L had been based at the next door Crimond, later Rattray, Airfield during WW2 as a meteorologist.  She recounted not only her flights in flimsy aircraft both to RAF Leuchars and elsewhere, her life in barracks across the main road and which we discovered amongst head high weeds and were able to explore, but also her long walks to the lighthouse and back.

Well not to the lighthouse itself as that stands well off shore from the eleven miles of sandy beach and dunes.  The cottages, built 1892, housing the keepers  and which now host the hostel and apartments were home to the Principal lighthouse keeper. And this keeper had a son.  We know no more and must not speculate but the long walks for tea around the keeper's stove and then back to the barracks before curfew were spelt out for the benefit of us and an interested Rob.  I loved the flumpy, comfy, faded glory, salt laden feel of the main room on the upper floor.  Signs of Val's clever craft making work is never far away and she tells me that this year she is opening her adjacent craft shop and activity centre to test the waters for interest.  Good on the pair of them for diversity in action.

 Meanwhile, Rob is released a wee bit more to allow him to indulge his second love:- teaching advanced maths to those who can learn from him.  It strikes me now that his first love might be the hostel.  It will be a close run thing though as those of you, including the countless university students on field work who have visited will remember.  To heat his hostel's newer age boiler Rob collects discarded wooden pallets. Never in my life have I seen so many in one place.  However, in addition, out of these he built, wait for it, his baronial Viking hall in which he, Val and their guests celebrated their wedding in 2013.  That's independent hostel keepers for you. No top down bureaucracy for them!

Cullen Harbour Hostel
I have had a few chats over the years with Howard Owens and Ruth Hyde who have created their own magical eastern seaboard hostel at Cullen on the Moray Firth.   Put simply, Howard is a genius in wood.  If I am right it was he who contributed to the remarkable hardwood cabinet making in John Maclean's hostel on Iona.  Cullen though has virtual tree trunks as bunk uprights and stone walls quite thick enough to make you feel safe so close to the sometimes heaving salt waters.

The ruins at Back Street, Portsoy
 Further along the coast at Portsoy a remarkable undertaking is now progressing.  A new independent hostel or bunkhouse will be created from the Back Green ruins which once housed flax, rope and sail making, all at different periods in history.  With handsome financial support from The Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and others The North East Scotland Preservation Trust together with the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival Committee are taking forward their hard worked at plan to create not only a hostel for visitors but a venue for teaching traditional boat building and other maritime crafts.  There is a tight time scale for completion but all parties are confident of success.

Coll Bunkhouse
 Malcolm Handoll  in Alyth, appointed in 2001 by IBHS, now SIH as its first inspecting Hostels' Visitor  and asked to promote and implement the organisation's member evolved 'Essential Standards' is helping with advice and his experience.  I am a bit involved  with the Portsoy project myself and we have recently welcomed the major players here to discuss ideas, provision and strategy.

Breakfast at Smugglers Hostel
The idea of hostels with a social enterprise remit appeals to me.  That's why I just love to see the community hostels in the company of other SIH members    and the slightly less available to solo travellers,   We can learn from them.  It's not for most of us of course even though a good many hostel keepers will be quite aware of the difference they are making to other people's lives.

Findhorn Village Hostel
 Again, with social enterprise in my sights I was intrigued recently to hear from Cambo Estate in Fife where at a different level the owners whose forebears have lived there on and off since the seventeenth century have created both viable holiday accommodation in the house, apartments, cottages and glamping snowdrop teepees and activities on an impressive scale for the learning disabled of Dundee, horticultural and craft students and much more for the general public. 
Smart City Hostel, Edinburgh
I heard from Struan Erskine, Steward of Cambo who wrote asking if we could share the design and build features of our recent hostel development here.  It's great to hear of location appropriate developments in Edinburgh and Glasgow:-     and    It is also happening in the rural sticks and Cambo, again with Heritage Lottery Funding support is seeking to extend its educational and social remit. 
Euro Hostel, Glasgow
One day they may even add a bunkhouse to their portfolio.  They certainly have a beautiful energy.

Well, close enough to the hostel here we had three pine trees snap off in last night's gale.  One is a lodge pole pine so we won't weep over that.  The others though have left a gap we rather were not there.  Carmel and her walk in party of four staying the week didn't hear a thing.  A former hostel keeper herself from Rotorua, down under she must be well used to blanking out intrusive noise.  As the days are getting longer and we have today taken the snow plough off the quad bike there's much to celebrate.


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