Monday, 21 August 2017

At the Hostel Door, July 2017

What for me singles out the independent hostel fraternity from any other provision for hostellers is the owners' freedom to innovate.  There is the dreamer in most of us but just how many can say they have had either the opportunity or courage to take that dream to the next stage?  Look carefully at each of Scotland's independent hostels and you will find that very many are the product, not of accountants or 'Dragons' Den' style calculating business people but of someone, a couple often, who have the capacity to dream and then have the strengths to put that dream into action.

Unashamedly, we here at our hostel fall into that category.  No five year plan, no predictable funding to allow an instant creation.  More importantly, no wish to arrive at the journey's end before time, for by going down that road, so much opportunity for reflective development and learning from experience is lost.

The backpachers nestles up the stairs
Gaze from the sitting room/snug over the harbour.
I was really happy therefore to spend time in early Spring with Norman and Sheena creators of Mallaig Backpackers.     

From intermittent drop ins and a hostel owners' gathering once in a while Sheena and I have known one another for many a year.  I have always been intrigued by her focus, her demands of herself and others for exacting, high standards of housekeeping and hospitality and her sheer energy.   

On this visit I met, for the first time, her partner Norman.  That meeting completed the impressive equation.  What a duo they are.

Coming from the railway station, having journeyed from Fort William by either the standard service or the much celebrated Jacobite train, the first sight a traveller has of the place is a luxuriously verdant raised terrace leading to their famous Tea Garden.  It is, not surprisingly, the Tea Garden which drives the business and allows for the small twelve bed, two dorm backpackers retreat tucked away upstairs from the restaurant's entrance to flourish.  What I admire and respect is that, due to this couples' drive and commitment to the hostelling ethos, the facilities in this backpackers are always ahead of their time in refurbishment and d├ęcor.   

Norman's latest – the sensor power shower.
There is much of the artist in Sheena and, on this visit, Norman took justifiable pride in demonstrating for me his new sensor controlled shower room.  This, like every construction development in the whole enterprise, is Norman led and personally executed with his enviable set of practical skills.

Two dorms, functional, airy & popular.

This couple are driven and, over the years since 1992 have raised the bar of provision in Mallaig so very much.  This has been important for the port with its busy ferry terminal for Skye, the Small Isles and Inverinate on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.  I can remember long, long ago and not even in the depths of winter, persuading a prominent roadside hostelry on the north west coast to open up and provide a bowl of soup.  The soup was powder and unrecognisable, the white bread curled and stale. The lunch break had me feeling queasy and cost a bomb. 

Still that era is well in the past. Even now though with tourists from all nations pouring off the trains and into Mallaig's eating houses it is a challenge for each of them to maintain standards.  Not all make it. The Tea Garden does.  Sure, the kitchen and table service pace quickens, the temperature rises but Norman, who has done everything here in his time including as chef, and Sheena, joined now by her son Fraser and wife Ashley who are easing gently into the helm of the whole operation, keep the backpackers lodge in tip top order and, hardly surprisingly, much in demand.  I loved escaping the mele of the Tea Garden, glorious as it was that Friday of Easter and retreating with Sheena to chat in the intimate and exquisite cosiness of the upstairs hostellers' sitting room with its view to the incoming fishing boats.  As with all such family enterprises, it is now the transition from one generation to another and its inherent recognition by both of the need to embrace change that exercises the mind.  I know, for it will be our turn before that long.

Having charmed, or whatever, the ferry crew to allow us clumsily to manoeuvre our bikes up the  steep and too narrow gangplank in time for the 7.30am sailing to the Isle of Eigg, the normal and obligatory crane having broken down,  we could relax and breakfast at leisure.   Other passengers were scarce, and after several hours sailing via Rum, Canna and Muck islands we were, for the first time, on Eigg.  

I knew of Simon and Karen Helliwell and just a little of their painstaking work in converting the barn of the island's former manse into a glorious twenty five bed hostel with adjacent apartment.  With Simon's history as naval architect, boatman and woodcarver, that he and Karen could design and themselves build this twenty four bed absolutely superb hostel is of no surprise and puts them well in the 'premier club' of independent hostel keepers who have ' just gone and done it themselves'.  

Now daughter Tamsin and

Tamsin and staff member guaranteeing quality control.
husband Stuart are at the helm.  Just as the transition is happening at Mallaig Backpackers with Fraser and Ashley moving into the driving seat, so it is here at Glebe Barn w
ith Tamsin, a graduate in landscape design and archaeology and Stuart an English teacher who have lived in Manchester and more recently as far away as Kathmandu these two contribute significantly as do so many others to the vibrant international and progressive nature of this unusual island. 

Towards the Sgurr.  A view not to be forgotten.
Stuart, has his new project,  the island's LaigBay Brewing Company. Tamsin and he are also progressing the hostel together assisted by a five year old and a three year old, it's all go to offer their smart yet warm style of hospitality to the many, many visitors they welcome in the lee of Eigg's most iconic geological feature, the Sgurr. No wonder Simon is still a familiar face around the place 'fixing things' and more.  In our stay we learned much from native islander Marie of Kildonan, her husband, Colin, and engaged with a maker of intriguing willow baskets and a couple, shortly to move away, on the high road to Laig Bay who have been serving up scrumptious gelatine ice cream.
Fabulous gathering space and sun room beyond.

Having biked over the challenging hill road to the Bay of Laigh we met up with Sue at Eigg Organics. Her enviable campsite, yurt and  bothy well demonstrate the ethos of diversification necessary to achieve sustainability, so essential on a small island.  Come to think of it, with us too.  Sue is also a teacher at the island primary school.

Another well supported community event for Eigg.
Last night I teased friend Andy of Fraoch Lodge Hostel, Boat of Garten which has just achieved Visit Scotland  five star status:  good for he and Rebecca.  “ There's only one way you can go from five star”  I winked at him.  Tomorrow, in time for the island's music festival, I'm off to say hello to, among others, my old pal John MacLean at his hostel on Iona, John and I speak sometimes on the phone about, among various things, Workaway volunteering some of his folk having found their way to us and vica versa.

So, once again, our most excellent hostel team has let the two of us away to see something of Scotland's glorious west coast the islands and two most excellent hostels.  Twice in a year; that's good going for working folk.

Have a great hostelling summer yourselves.

Hostel Keeper

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