A brave experiment

Just back from a week in the Outer Hebrides, that chain of islands on the edge of the Atlantic coast of Scotland that I love so much.

Time up there reminds me of a brave experiment in youth hostels that began in 1961.

Each year in September, Herbert Gatliff, an unusual and influential Englishman, took a holiday up there. He travelled the length of the islands, ending at Iona, the southern-most island in the chain.

The trip inspired him to create a chain of little hostels on the islands, run by crofters as part of their communities in traditional island houses where people visiting the islands could stay.

A wonderful set of values filled the hostels with hope that visitors would be part of the communities that they intruded upon, that their appearance would contribute to landscape and communities and not detract from either. Gatliff endowed the idea with his own money.

Only three of the tiny crofters hostels remain today. They still offer valued, rough and ready places to stay where the original spirit Gatliff wanted from youth hostels still survives.

Of the figures behind youth hostels he intrigues me the most. Gatliff was an official in the Treasury and then in the newly created planning department of the post war Labour administration. He was a long time member of the National Trust, serving on the trust’s estates committee.

He was a continual thorn in the side of YHA. He constantly prodded committees to remember small simple hostels. He left a number of bequests to support youth hostels he feared YHA might neglect or abandon, most notably Wilderhope Manor in Shropshire.

Len Clark has written a short biography of him and to date that is the only book available on his life.

More information about Gatliff and those hostels is available at the website of the Gatliff Hebridean Trust.

I covered some of this ground in a recent newsletter – if you didn’t receive it and would like to have more news like this, sign up for my newsletter.

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