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Issue 34 - Not quite roughing it

Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Not quite roughing it

Gone are the days of shared bunks and joint cooking, Scotland's hostels are now clean, comfortable and, above all, reasonably priced. Richard Goslan reports

If the thought of youth hostelling brings back memories of draughty dormitories, chilly showers, grumpy wardens and chores in the morning, think again. Since celebrating its 75th anniversary last year, the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA) has re-invented itself as a more relaxed, family-friendly experience.

Yes, there are still dormitories, but they tend to be smaller than they used to be and many hostels now also have private rooms and family rooms, many of which have en suite facilities.

The days of the curfew are long gone, no-one is going to assign you a list of chores in the morning before you leave, and you can even bring a bottle of wine or some beer into the hostel to enjoy with your meal.

The SYHA has demonstrated a new understanding of what motivates different types of travellers to visit Scotland – which could nowadays be anything from the old favourite of tracing the family’s roots, to more recently popular activites of hurtling down one of the country’s prized mountain bike trails.

Instead of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, the SYHA has divided its hostels into appropriate categories, depending on your interest – so now you can choose between hostels set up for families, walkers, or more youth-oriented action and adventure.

If you decide to stay at Sandra’s, the SYHAaffiliated hostel at Thurso, for example, be prepared to share it with some die-hard surfers, chasing waves at one of the world’s best – albeit chilliest – breaks. As the range of Scotland’s attractions has developed, the choice of hostels has had to try and keep pace.

Carbisdale is the jewel in the crown of the SYHA and since extensive renovation work was completed a few years ago, it’s more popular than ever.

The fairytale castle was built for the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland a century ago, and gifted to the SYHAby the Salveson family. It comes with all the features you would expect from the Highland castle of your imagination, complete with suits of armour, marble statues, huge paintings – and rumours of its own ghost. But climb the opulent staircase, and you will find modern dormitories and family rooms, as well as an extensive kitchen area allowing you to create your very own banquet.

If Carbisdale is the most attractive hostel in Scotland, the five-star facility in central Edinburgh represents a new age of hostelling.

More hotel than hostel, it is well equipped to suit the needs of single travellers, families and larger groups, and even has its own conference facilities. The hostel has 300 beds, as a result of the £10m make-over of a landmark building on the city’s Leith Walk, itself a symbol of the area’s regeneration and now an attractive and convenient location for exploring every part of Edinburgh.

The change in approach and relaxation in rules at the SYHA followed the success of several independent hostel operators around Scotland, which have attracted younger travellers by offering inexpensive accommodation without the restrictive rules associated with the SYHA.

The Scottish Independent Hostels (SIH) organisation now has more than 120 independent quality-assured hostels on its books throughout the country. Visitors do not need to join any membership scheme, and standards are kept high by regular inspections.

Thankfully, in Scotland nowadays you have plenty more to choose from.


A former school and cottage on the rugged and beautiful Sutherland coast have been converted into a hostel. Perfect white sand beaches and sheltered coves are just a short stroll from the door, and the fishing village of Lochinver and the mountains of Assynt are close by. The peaks, including Suilven and Stac Pollaidh, dominate the dramatic landscape.

(NB: Achmelvich Beach is only open until September 28)

A real fairytale Highland castle with its own fascinating history, in an area of extensive natural beauty overlooking the river Kyle where there are many local woodland walks.

For the active, there are more than 10 miles of mountain biking trails at Balblair and Carbisdale Woods, and the Falls of Shin waterfalls are an hour’s walk away. Lairg archaeological trail is nearby, and for another castle experience, visit the extravagant Dunrobin Castle, seat of the Clan Sutherland and home to one of Scotland’s most celebrated gardens

If you want to spend time on the beach, this hostel on the east coast near Edinburgh is a great option. It has a spectacular setting overlooking the beautiful bay of Coldingham Sands. The beach, just a few minutes walk away, is great for surfing, picnics and swimming.

Nearby St Abbs offers a wildlife reserve, sea-bird colonies, cliff-top walks and scuba diving, while the small harbour town of Eyemouth has shops, a leisure centre, heritage museum and golf course

EDINBURGH CENTRAL There are various options for hostels throughout Edinburgh, but the SYHA’s new facility on Leith Walk is the biggest and most modern. The hostel has more than 300 beds, with en-suite rooms, a café, restaurant plus traditional selfcatering facilities, internet access, a travel information desk and 24-hour access – perfect for taking in some of the capital’s cultural events

Spending a night on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis is a chance to step back in time. Visitors stay in traditional Hebridean accommodation at the preserved Blackhouse Village at Garenin.

One of a double row of thatched crofts has been sensitively converted into a 14-bed hostel that looks out on the Atlantic.

The village is an excellent base for exploring the ancient sites nearby, such as the Callanish standing stones and the Dun Carloway Broch.

Open all year round. It is not possible to book in advance, though it is unlikely you won’t get a bed


This is reckoned to be one of Scotland’s best hostels, and a great base for exploring the Highlands. Right on your doorstep is Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, dolphin spotting on the Moray Firth, or a trip to the nearby Culloden battlefield

Stay overnight in the 200-year-old conservation village of New Lanark. The hostel has rooms in a historic building in the cotton mill which rose to fame under the leadership of Robert Owen, who introduced working practices at least 100 years ahead of their time. The village is in a beautiful location on the Falls of Clyde, surrounded by woodland, with wonderful walking and the chance to go on wildlife trails in search of peregrine falcons and even badgers

Prepare to get away from it all, with a trip to one of Scotland’s most remote hostels. You can only get there by foot on one of the paths from Rannoch, Glen Nevis, Dalwhinnie, Fersit, Laggan or Kinlochleven, or hop off the train in the middle of nowhere at Corrour station and make the one-mile walk.

Bear in mind you will have to bring your own bed linen, although pillows and blankets are provided, and all your own food. And as an ecohostel, you’ll have to take your own rubbish away with you too

Connoisseurs of the water of life can stay in this converted whisky warehouse on the beach in the picturesque village of Port Charlotte on the island of Islay, home to seven of Scotland’s finest whisky distilleries.

The hostel is surrounded by rolling hills and a scenic coastline, which harbours secluded sandy bays. Along with its outstanding natural beauty Islay is also famed for its diverse and plentiful wildlife, and is home to two RSPB nature reserves

This charming hostel is ideally located overlooking the famous harbour, on the beautiful Isle of Mull. The hostel has been recently renovated with central heating, good hot showers, laundry facilities, a spacious selfcatering kitchen and small rooms with either five or six beds, most with sea views. Family rooms are also available. Coastal and woodland walking is excellent round Tobermory and it’s also worth taking a trip to Iona or Staffa. And there’s always the Balamory trail for the kids

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