The Angry Corrie 55: Oct-Nov 2002


Always another closure (of youth hostels)

David McVey on the decline of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association

THE NINTH CHAPTER, "Shilling a night", of Alastair Borthwick's 1939 outdoor classic, Always a Little Further, is perhaps the ultimate celebration of youth hostelling in Scotland. (If you haven't read it, go away and read it now. If you have, read it again.) It describes a night in the old Arrochar youth hostel and is written with the structure and pace of a short story. Wonderfully evocative of a searching innocence, "Shilling a night" describes how the hostellers while away a night with music and song after a wet day in the hills. It is the more moving and poignant because most of those present were either Scottish or German, and some would not survive the savage conflict soon to engulf their countries.

These days, when a night in a Scottish youth hostel could cost you over 200 shillings, you won't be able to celebrate in similar style in Arrochar. Earlier this year, the Ardgartan hostel closed, ending nearly 70 years of hostelling in the area. More on this later.

What are youth hostels for? Originally a German idea, they were still new in the 1930s - the snowboarding of their era, perhaps. Borthwick went further: "I cannot rid myself of the conviction," he wrote, "that the youth hostel movement is one of the more important social innovations of this century."

The Youth Hostels Association in England quickly adopted the following aim, which sums up the hostel movement well: "To help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love, and care of the countryside, particularly by providing hostels or other simple accommodation..."

Few 70-year-old mission statements could sound as modern and relevant. With so many young people stuck in deprived estates, assaulted by drug culture, tempted by consumerism, despised by respectable society and poor in opportunities to achieve and escape, a movement with aims such as these has never been more needed.

A similar, near word-perfect mission statement was adopted by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. In recent years the statement has been quietly omitted from the SYHA handbook and other public literature, but it has recently returned to the SYHA website (www.syha.org.uk) and so we can all see what a diluted thing it has become: "To help all, but especially young people, to experience and appreciate the Scottish countryside and places of historic and cultural interest in Scotland, and to promote their health, recreation and education, particularly by providing low cost accommodation for them on their travels."

Note the quietly dropped reference to young people "of limited means". It is perhaps possible to gauge the flavour of today's "movement" - if we can still call it that - from the following quotation, attributed to Janie Riddet, the present chairman [sic] of the SYHA. It appeared in the most recent issue of The Scottish Hosteller: "The SYHA [...] aims to remain at the fore front as a provider of high-quality budget accommodation and as a major player in the Scottish tourism field." Sadly, such Powerpoint presentation-speak is typical of the modern SYHA.

Most readers will be familiar with the long ideological battle over the soul of the youth hostel movement in Scotland. TAC has covered this before (eg TAC6, pp14-15) and it's now almost 25 years since Hamish Brown wrote, in Hamish's Mountain Walk, of "misconceived Grade 1 palaces." But it's a mistake to think of the SYHA's change in emphasis as simply being a move from simple hostels to posh ones with showers. After all, most of us have nowt against a nice shower after a sweaty day on the hill (speak for yourself - Ed.), and there is an irreducible minimum of basic hostels - Loch Ossian for example - which the association will never be able to close.

Now consider the hostel at Ardgartan, one of a tranche of closures that occurred last winter. It was actually a fine modern building with up-to-date facilities. "Travel and leisure patterns have changed," said the SYHA in explanation of Ardgartan's closure (along with the closure of Ayr and Glendoll and the pending closure of Strathpeffer and Perth). This is a puzzling observation given that there are three adjacent caravan/camping parks at Ardgartan, all of which still seem to be thriving. In recent correspondence, the SYHA's chief executive, Lorna MacDonald, also invoked the spectre of foot and mouth.

The SYHA has a habit of carrying out closures by stealth. You buy the new handbook and the extinguished hostels are not there and not mentioned, vaporised over the winter like subversives in Nineteen Eighty-Four. A similar stushie is occurring down south over post-FMD closures including that of the much-loved north Pennine hostel at Dufton. But at least these English closures were announced in advance. A debate is raging - can rage - about the closure of Dufton and an anti-closure campaign, at the time of writing, is still in progress.

Why the secrecy over SYHA closures, and what influence can ordinary members have in the decision-making process? MacDonald told me that "the decision to close certain hostels at the end of last year was taken by our National Executive (who are elected by our members at National Council...)". Why does this leave me with visions of Ian Mikardo explaining the implications of the suspension of standing orders on a composited motion at a late-1970s Labour Conference? I vote for the national officials of my trade union by post. Why has the SYHA has not sought to widen participation and engagement in this way? (Or in any other way?)

A remembered story from a childhood Broons book showed the family setting off in their separate ways for the weekend. The twins, with bikes and rucksacks, were saying (simultaneously, of course): "it's the hostels for us!" On my increasingly rare visits to official hostels, I am dismayed to see how few young Scottish people - and almost none from poor backgrounds - are staying there independently. In family groups, yes; in school or Scripture Union or Scout or Boys' Brigade groups, often. But, while welcome, these are usually youngsters who will be encouraged to explore their own country anyway.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The hostels to which young people would escape from Glasgow for the weekend are fast disappearing: Loch Ard, Fintry, Trossachs, Balquhidder, Inverbeg - all gone. From Edinburgh, don't try visiting Snoot, or Ferniehirst Castle or Falkland. And no Glendoll or Glenisla for Dundee teenagers.

Lorna MacDonald told me about "...a recent partnership between SYHA and a financial organisation, which fully funds youth hostel visits for schools from deprived areas." There is the promise of "...the launch of a much bigger programme to fund youth hostel trips for children from socially-excluded areas." Well and good, and let us hope we'll actually hear about it this time. And about the 525,000 lottery cash to be shared between the three British hostelling bodies to build links with community groups for disadvantaged, ethnic and disabled young people. However, why does it require special projects and additional cash for the SYHA to reach out to the young people who should be their core clientele (or were, before the constitution was sneakily changed)?

The SYHA tends to paint those who oppose their reinvention of the movement as tweedy old reactionaries who like nothing better than to smash ice in order to reach their shaving water (and implying, I suppose, that the SYHA mandarins are technoheads who like nothing better than a bit of speed garage of an evening). Anyway, their track record is not quite as businesslike as they would prefer us to believe. Where the SYHA cannot (allegedly) sustain a hostel, new independent accommodation, much of it enshrining early hostelling values, tends to keep popping up - take Strathspey, for example. And over in Fife an independent hostel has even been established in Falkland's emptied SYHA building.

There is a relentless drive to improve hostel standards, yet youngsters flock in their tens of thousands to the rain-soaked camping grounds and fragrant latrines of Glastonbury, T in the Park, Greenbelt and so on. ("I very much doubt whether those same young people would put up with such primitive conditions on holiday or in any other part of their lives," Lorna MacDonald told me in response to this point. Er, both the festival-goers and the hostellers are on holiday, Ms MacDonald.)

Such is the SYHA today. No doubt there is a need for comfortable budget accommodation for young international backpackers, if only to counteract dopey visitscotland's Country House Hotel vision of Scottish tourism. But central to the SYHA should be its mission - yes, mission - to attract Scotland's underprivileged young people and awaken them to the wonders of their own country.

TAC has a lively letters page. Let's use it to conduct the debate that the SYHA discourages. What do you think? What is your present-day experience of SYHA hostels? Have you stopped, or all but stopped, using them? What do you think this fine old association should be doing? Over to you.

Upgrading, downsizing...

The SYHA used to maintain around 80 hostels. The list in the handbook now stands at 74, but these include several non-SYHA establishments offshore: Berneray, Eday, Garenin, Howmore, Hoy, Papa Westray, Rackwick and Rhenigidale. The number is also boosted by additional urban hostels, eg three extra ones in Edinburgh (where there are now five in total). The following, many of them much loved, have all gone in the past 15 years:

Abbey St Bathans Reflecting the low numbers of Southern Upland Wayers - but is there not a saying along the lines of "If you build it, they will come"?

Ayr Perhaps they have a quota of hostels in picturesque west coast towns: Ayr's gone, but Oban now has two.

Ballater Deeside between Braemar and Aberdeen? Not worth seeing, apparently.

Glendoll Add in the 1980s closure of Glenisla and there's now ultra-poor coverage of the Mounth.

Falkland The building is now an independent bunkhouse.

Kingussie The SYHA might have left, but there is still plenty of demand for bednights: the village now hosts an independent hostel, while Newtonmore has three.

Garramore Spectacular location, closed because "it's too far from the new road". Didn't hostels used to be for walkers and cyclists?

Ardgartan "Changing travel patterns"? Eh? So fewer people will come now that it's in a national park?

Trossachs and Loch Ard Did they get confused and think these were one and the same place? They closed them both, anyway.

Inverbeg Too midgy? Goodness knows.

Lochmaddy and Stockinish The Gatliff Trust hostels in the Hebrides disguise the poor SYHA coverage (although at least Islay and Kershader have opened in recent years).

Tighnabruaich ...but check out the Scottish Hosteller ad for residential courses at the local sailing school...

Snoot Probably the best name in the world. Sorry, all you Edinburgh weekenders, it's gone.

Next to go: Perth and Strathpeffer, both up for sale.


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