Scotland’s youth hostels provide affordable accommodation for travellers in cities and rural areas. John Davidson visited two remote Highland hostels and found some unexpected benefits
Picture the scene: you’re making your way over distant lonely mountain tops and suddenly you catch sight of a small flash of colour in the valley far below, a tiny red shape standing out from the surrounding natural landscape.
That distant dot offers shelter, respite and no little sociability in the most unlikely of places.
Here, deep in the heart of one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens, lies the country’s most unusual hostel. More mountain hut than holiday hideaway, Alltbeithe is unique in terms of both its style and location.
The nearest road is around eight miles away, so accessing the SYHA-run hostel is the first challenge. A right of way runs through An Caorann Mor from near Cluanie on the A87, though this is a particularly boggy route through the hills, and you can also walk in from Morvich on the west coast.
But we chose to cycle from the end of public road through Glen Affric, from where a good vehicle track – dubbed the Yellow Brick Road – leads for the first five miles to Athnamulloch before a rougher route is followed after crossing the bridge over the River Affric.
Arriving at the youth hostel before lunch was all part of the plan. We dropped our gear in the porch, introduced ourselves to the warden and headed up into the remote mountains behind the hostel.
These Munros are the main attraction for the majority of visitors to Alltbeithe, but things have been changing over the last couple of years.
Hanne Tristram has been the warden at the Glen Affric hostel for the last four seasons, and worked there for the two previous seasons as relief warden. She told me how the introduction of the Affric Kintail Way has seen people other than Munro baggers come through the dorm doors.
“It has brought more foreigners,” she said. “Younger foreigners and older Brits. It has opened it up for older people who don’t do the hills but can do the through route.
“A small proportion of visitors also come just to experience the hostel. It’s probably the most remote hostel in Britain, certainly in Scotland.
“Everyone who comes has a common interest in the place – for the hills, nature, the walking. And the hostel offers a different experience from bothying or wild camping.”
Chatting to fellow guests is all part of the hostelling experience. As well as those of us heading onto the tops to take advantage of the wonderful dry spell and clear summits, there are others here doing the long-distance route.
I spoke to a young German woman with her official Affric Kintail Way map and pages of route notes, who was loving the walk through the glen, having visited Skye last year. She was about to embark on her final day to Morvich and was clearly wanting the trip to last longer.
Scotland’s youth hostels provide great opportunities for people of all ages – and all nations – to travel and explore. There are more than 60 SYHA and affiliate hostels and they cover a range of areas from city centres to the most remote glens.
They cater for everybody, whether travelling solo, in groups or, increasingly, for families. More and more hostels now have private or family rooms as well as the traditional shared dormitories.
So, after my wonderful couple of days at Alltbeithe, I picked up the rest of the family and we travelled north-west to Achmelvich Beach, where the youth hostel is situated in a former schoolhouse.
We had a six-bed private room with our own toilet and washbasin, as well as the excellent shared kitchen and common room.
Naturally, with two young children in tow and being just a few hundred yards away, our first port of call was to the breathtakingly beautiful beach. The hostel had little activity packs for children, with things to look out for at the seaside, a magnifying glass and some colouring and games sheets.
These are a really good idea and proved popular until we (OK, I) got hooked on a game of mini Olympic javelin with one of those “whistling bombs” that you can pick up in stores along with so many other outdoor toys at the moment!
There are also a few short walks straight from the hostel, including the signposted plod to a former mill at Alltan’abradhan and an exploratory wander to find the concrete Hermit’s Castle on the coast.
It was good to be able to retreat to the hostel at any time. Despite it closing for cleaning in the middle of the day, we were able to access our room all day and even get into the kitchen earlier than the official opening time.
There was an interesting mix of people at the Achmelvich Beach hostel, from foreign travellers touring Scotland to hill walkers tackling the Assynt hills including Suilven, Quinag and Canisp.
The North Coast 500 – which passes the end of the road a couple of miles from here – has also made a difference with plenty of overnight stays, and the introduction of the family room has meant more of those type of holidays, which tend to be for longer periods.
Our children certainly enjoyed the experience, though the shared facilities were perhaps a little confusing – our four-year-old wandered into the kitchen with her empty cup at one point and just handed it to a stranger, much to everyone’s amusement!
The social interaction of hostelling is perhaps one of its biggest assets, and it’s one that Hanne at Glen Affric – who has been working for the SYHA for 20 years – is particularly keen on.
“Taking kids to hostels is a good experience,” she said. “To have that interaction with others and to be in a different environment, but a safe one.”
She has even had families staying at Alltbeithe, with the youngest to cycle there being five years old. “They were Belgian,” she adds, as way of explanation.
While some hostels, particularly in the cities, now offer wi-fi and other mod-cons, Achmelvich Beach only has a shared connected laptop that you can use to get online and Glen Affric is very much “offline” (there isn’t even phone reception on the mountain tops hereabouts, let alone wi-fi).
“People are more inclined to sit and chat,” says Hanne. “It’s a throwback to what hostelling was like 20 or 30 years ago – meeting people and sharing experiences.”
From my experience, it seems this tradition is alive and well, and in these days of connectivity, it was a real break to spend time in this once common fashion.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Route one – Remote Munros in Glen Affric
A number of Munros can be more easily accessed with a stay at Alltbeithe Youth Hostel, and we decided to climb a trio of them during our stay. Following the good path from the back of the hostel, we climbed to the bealach between Stob Coire na Cloiche and An Socach then took a descending traverse from a small cairn into Coire nan Dearcag before climbing to the Bealach nan Daoine. From here it was a long trek over Carn na Con Dhu to reach the first Munro summit of Mullach na Dheiragain. We explored a little further along the ridge to reach the top of Mullach Sithidh before returning to the bealach and ascending Sgurr nan Ceathramhnan via its narrow but straightforward north-east ridge. From its airy summit cairn, we returned over Stob Coire na Cloiche to the bealach high above the hostel. It is easy enough to continue east to climb An Socach as part of this route, though we had already climbed that lower Munro the day before, so returned down the path into Glen Affric.
Route two – Achmelvich Beach and Alltan’abradhan
Discover a 17th century mill where flour was ground in the days before such supplies reached these remote areas from Lochinver, just a few miles down the coast. From the youth hostel, head towards the beach and go through a gate onto a track to your right, signposted for Alltan’abradhan. Follow the track until you see a house up the hill ahead, then go left onto a signed path that dips then rises to the left of the house. This path undulates through the rocky outcrops – which the children loved climbing on – before eventually approaching a vehicle track. Fork left before the track then follow the signs right to cross it and take a path just left of another house. It’s worth a little detour to the top of the little hill here for the view back to Achmelvich Beach and over the Assynt hills. Continue on the main path to descend to Alltan’abradhan, where you’ll find plenty of old mill stones lying around the ruin. You can continue past the mill to a little inlet with a small sandy beach before returning by the same route.
Glen Affric (Alltbeithe)
A remote eco-hostel in the heart of beautiful Glen Affric
Beds/rooms 24, private rooms available
Access Only on foot from Morvich or Cluanie, or by bike or on foot from the road end at Glen Affric
Perfect for... Munro bagging or the Affric Kintail Way
A former schoolhouse with good facilities and a glorious location
Beds/rooms 22 beds, private and family rooms available
Access By road, just a couple of miles off the North Coast 500 route north of Lochinver
Perfect for... Family fun on the beach, exploring the Assynt hills or just getting away from it all
To book your stay:
The Scottish Youth Hostel Association – SYHA Hostelling Scotland – was established in 1931 and is a not-for-profit charity operating a network of more than 60 youth and affiliate hostels across the country.
Its unique sites provide affordable, comfortable, safe and quality-assured accommodation at locations ranging from city centres to remote glens.