New accommodations – travel in the Hebrides

The hostel at Howmore, South Uist.

The journey to the Hebrides from the midlands of England is long. On a train travelling north I had plenty of time to think as, beyond the windows, the landscape changed from the flat yellow Vale of York to green slopes around Aviemore.

I love the journey, the views, the company, the comings and goings of passengers, and the changing landscape.

The journey reminds me of a neighbour on Skye who, when a visitor commented that the island was a long way away, retorted that for her it was close, it was where she lived and a long way from nowhere.

That sums up a gap in our lives that I want to explore.

A difference in view
Our journey to the Hebrides was a time to reflect. I read, listened to music, thought and considered. I wondered as walkers left the train to what hills they headed.

Were they tourists, travellers or neither? They prompted me to wonder if there is a difference.

Perhaps the equipment makes a difference or the method of the journey. Dictionaries give little help. A traveller, for the OED, is someone who travels often. The word travel has its origins in travail while a tourist is a person who travels for pleasure.

So, a difference of pleasure, pain and ease might set travel apart from tourism. But I think there are other differences, ones that early youth hostel users were trying to reach and make.

Youth hostels and travel
Youth hostel pioneers seem to have understood the arguments and the differences. They had and listened to the arguments.

Among their ideas, they didn’t want youth hostels that were too comfortable. Youth hostels should not be cosy or comfortable.

They thought journeys to and from youth hostels should involve hard work and strenuous effort. Travel should be made by your own power, through walking or cycling. ‘Under your own steam’ they called it.

They put those ideas into youth hostels when they began in 1930.

They also thought youth hostels should be less about pleasure, more about education and learning. When they said youth hostels should be educating young people about the countryside, they had in mind an education in manners and understanding.

They had in mind bridging the gulf between the countryside and urban living, between country people and town dwellers.

Youth hostels were not meant for the kind of person who fled from one place to the next, rushing from here to there. Youth hostels favoured those who took their time going from one place to the next, getting to know the landscape and the people, getting to know those they met along the way.

There’s no better example of this kind of travel than the little hostels of the Hebrides. During our time in the Hebrides we visited one of the Gatliff hostels. There are three of them, one on Harris at Rhenigidale, one on Berneray, between Harris and North Uist, and one at Howmore on South Uist.

Herbert Gatliff was behind them. Gatliff was the son of a clergyman, went to school at Rugby, was at Balliol, Oxford, and worked as a civil servant in the Treasury. He discovered youth hostels in 1933 and became a fan and supporter of them, as well as other causes including rural churches, social charities, countryside protection and young people.

The little hostels of the Hebrides are his best memorials. John Cadbury, YHA chairman during the second world war, introduced him to the islands and each year in September Gatliff travelled the length of the island chain, finishing his journey on Iona.

He came to love the islands and, when official youth hostels didn’t reach the outer isles and couldn’t be persuaded to do so, he devoted his later years to establishing small hostels there.

“He particularly wanted [hostels] to be integrated with the community. Partly so that locals would benefit from any financial spin-off, but more importantly because he wanted young folk from the cities to mix with and learn from those who really lived in the countryside.”*

That’s a vision of travel, not tourism, of journeys to discover and understand landscapes and people. It was the kind of travel youth hostels were meant for in their early days. As a style of travel it has slipped from fashion since 1930, if it ever was in fashion, as modern life brought change to travel and to hostels.

Modern travel
Tourism is the answer to limited time, and holidays. Tourism is travel for consumers. We buy a package, because we have no time to do anything else. We have to make the most of the little time we have, to see as much as we can and we have no time for experience.

Hostels are today destinations, not the means to seeing the countryside or escaping the city, that once they were. We visit Borrowdale or Ambleside because we want to go there and those places bring us close to the places we want to visit or the hills we want to climb.

Youth hostels when they started were a way of travel. Their users went from one hostel to the next and the hostels were not meant to be destinations, just a means to an end, of getting around the Lake District say or Northumberland, or Devon or Cornwall.

Youth hostels were communal and shared until, more and more, people arrived with their own demands for more and more privacy.

A different kind of travel.
These days, we split into tribes, small and large. We are vocal and shouty about remaining or leaving. We define ourselves by the groups to which we belong, animal lovers or hunters, environmentalists or millionaire farmers, visitors or locals.

We’re full of passionate intensity and not to take sides is weak. We take pride in not accepting the other point of view. We have little interest in understanding another point of view.

Gatliff’s ideals are relevant. He wanted people to understand each other. He and youth hostels had come from a time when the countryside was the preserve of the rich, or at least a place that didn’t want walkers intruding. Country people didn’t welcome or understand the townies in their midst.

In his idea for the youth hostels of the Hebrides, the hostels would bring people together, people who would not otherwise have met, those who ran the youth hostel and lived on the islands, and those who stayed, the country dweller or the visitor.

It was one of the driving ideas behind youth hostels when they started. They offered learning, chances to find out about the countryside where their first visitors were often strangers, regarded with suspicion.

Townspeople needed to be educated on the way to behave in the countryside. It led to the countryside code and YHA had its version.

Youth hostels offered something different. In youth hostels city dwellers met country people, young Germans met young Brits and people from the north met those from the midlands or the south.

Meeting opposites
Those gaps are back, or never went away. They may be more entrenched than they were in 1930. Meeting those who hold opposite views in a neutral space would be unusual today. We’re more used to private space, open only to those with similar views to our own.

We share our time with friends and look to live in communities with neighbours who share our lifestyles. We shout at each other on facebook or twitter.

Many of us have little interest in debate or discussion. Environmentalists shout down farmers and country sport enthusiasts disdain twitchers. Freedom to roam opposes private land.

The lives of country dwellers, farmers and shepherds are as remote from the lives of visitors as they ever were. We might glimpse a face as an ATV passes, might get a wave from someone mending a stone wall or see a shepherd working a mile away across a valley. But our lives never meet in any real sense. Who has time for that?

Old solutions, new problems
Gatliff offered a new kind of tourism, one we want more of today. At a time when Airbnb swamps cities, citizens despair of the pressures tourists bring. Summer traffic clogs country roads. If you live in a tourist honey pot it’s easy to feel threatened and swamped by well heeled visitors in smart cars, clean walking boots and Goretex.

Global tourism is on the rise, according to National Geographic magazine. “There was a six percent increase in worldwide travelers in 2017, and nearly 52 percent of Americans plan to visit Europe in the next two years, according the World Tourism Organization.”

In our village we now have holiday homes and Airbnb has arrived too. Go to York or Brugge or travel on the roads of the Peak or Lake District in high summer to see tourism bring problems. And more people are looking for quieter places off the beaten track.

We also visited Skye on our way to and from the Outer Isles. In a pub we heard that a new kind of tourism swamps the island: Instagram tourism. People want to see a famous site like the Old Man of Storr over one shoulder in a picture they can post on social media, bringing more people to see the same spot.

Too many people are arriving on the island in camper vans – the ultimate form of private touring. People visit particular sites and move on to the next. Car parks and crowds have appeared in places we never saw before.

Incomers and second home owners distort the local community. I’m sure our former neighbour is still telling people that the island is not a long way from anywhere.

New accommodation
As an antidote to these and other problems, Gatliff and his ideas are as relevant today as they were when he began looking for youth hostels on the Hebrides. Those little youth hostels he started, and that others now continue, offer a practical example of a very different kind of tourism, one where two different sides of a debate can accommodate each other.

There is a difference between travel and tourism, and as an antidote to the problems tourism is bringing, we need a little more travel and less tourism.

If this prompts any thoughts, drop me a line or comment below.

Find out more about the little hostels of the Hebrides at

*The quote is from “A man in a gas cape”, an article from the Stornaway Gazette and West Coast Advertiser included in Len Clark’s essential biography of Herbert Gatliff – An Eccentric Englishman.

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