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21 February 2000

Time to dig out your walking boots

New Statesman Scotland - Draft legislation on the "right to roam" could bring about a new d

By Claire Walker

Spring is definitely in the air. Time to empty the dust and pine needles out of the old walking boots and head for the hills. Everyone, it seems, is doing it: walking. The Ramblers’ Association Scotland has reported a steady increase in membership. An estimated 10,000 people walk the Pennine Way each year and another 4,000 walk the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Holy Island, by way of Harestanes, Morebattle and Kirk Yetholm. The Scottish Borders Enterprise, recognising that our beautiful countryside attracts walkers from outwith the region, has pledged £95,000 to promote and improve Border walks and pathways.

So it came as a surprise to learn that the small, but perfectly formed, youth hostel in Kirk Yetholm – at the end of the Pennine Way, or the beginning if you’re perverse – was for the first time to be staffed by volunteers rather than paid managers.

Worse was to come. It was reported that, throughout Scotland, youth hostel staff were facing pay cuts – of up to 25 per cent. Unless you’ve been orbiting Mars, you’ll know that youth hostel staff are already paid a pittance. This is a job you do for the love of it, or for the love of scenery. A pay cut would probably result in staff paying the Scottish Youth Hostel Association for the honour of working for it. So what’s going on? With sales of Berghaus jackets shooting through the roof, you’d expect the hostels to be turning visitors away at the door. Not so.

The strong pound has hit the whole tourist industry, not just hostels. In 1999, the SYHA had 35,556 fewer visitors than during the previous year. And although it is a registered charity – albeit not one in receipt of public monies – it must generate enough income to maintain the fabric of the hostels and to pay their staff. The slump in the tourist trade isn’t the only problem either. What really puts a burr under the SYHA saddle is the proliferation of independent – that means profit-making – hostels. You can see why the SYHA gets narked – the independents cherry-pick all the best sites, steal the association’s customers and turn a healthy buck. In the meantime, the association regards its hostels as providing a service – wherever they are situated. Try making a profit in the middle of Glen Affric.

Then there’s the small matter of the Scottish Tourist Board grading scheme – quality assurance for hotels, hostels and B&Bs. “We’ve had all our hostels inspected at no small cost; the competition have not,” said the SYHA marketing manager, Jason Clark. “It should be mandatory for them to join the scheme,” he adds. Seems fair.

Most worrying of all, however, is the apparent lack of regulation of these independent hostels. It’s scary. “These guys aren’t signed up to anything,” said Clark. “I dread to think of their fire regulations.” And there’s another thing. Yes, we have to face it. The image. Fuddy-duddy, fal de ree, hmm? Lights out by eight? Cold showers? Duties done in the morning or you remain incarcerated? A Calvinist’s dream. Well, you can forget all that. From cottages to castles, the 72 SYHA properties are stunning. In some, you can drink alcohol with your meal and the doors don’t shut until 2am. There are family rooms, so you’re not confined to dorms. And they are not all rurally based either. Can you imagine, bed and breakfast in the centre of Glasgow for a little over £12? Forget the “Youth” tag, too. In the SYHA, everyone is a youth.

The youth hostel movement was founded in 1909 by a German school teacher, Richard Schirrman, who thought that city kids should go out and experience the countryside. The idea spread throughout Europe like wildfire and the SYHA was founded in 1931. Later came the International Youth Hostel Federation. What this means to you and me is that if you are a member of, say, the SYHA, you can stay in other association’s hostels across the world. The SYHA is a democratic organisation, controlled by its own members. It is a non-profit-making body. Hey! It’s really quite hip.

It is a great shame, then, that the association is facing difficulties. With 70 per cent of its visitors usually coming from overseas, the run-up to this season will be a nailbiting time. Its problems are compounded by the fact that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of German visitors – who make up a substantial proportion of the foreign contingent. Apparently, they’re holidaying in eastern Europe these days. “But they’ll be back,” says the irrepressibly upbeat lan Cunningham, the manager of Glasgow’s youth hostel. There may be another wee glimmer of hope on the horizon. The so-called “right to roam” – or access legislation – is due in draft form before the Scottish Parliament around Easter. Ian McCall of the Ramblers’ Association hopes that it will be enacted around 12 months after that. Its effect will be twofold.

First, it will raise the profile of all outdoor pursuits in Scotland. And second, it will encourage more folk from throughout the UK to come and sample what Scotland does best – scenery. And they can stay in our hostels. Simple. Now, where’s my Berghaus?