The image of Scottish youth hostels is changing as more international

travellers, families, and couples flood the market. George Hume examines

the future of the budget accommodation.

IN castle and croft, city centre, and at remote road end, the Scottish

Youth Hostels Association has spent the past 64 years laying out the

welcome mat -- more than half a million young people annually finding

bed, board, and companionship under its roofs. Now membership is

falling, the number of bed-nights dropping, and four hostels, said to be

either under-used or beyond economic refurbishment, are to be closed.

Youth hostels in Scotland, once simple and homely, are being shaped

for the future as nothing less than a low-budget hotel chain with a

concentration of accommodation in cities and major towns. Many of the

rustic huts, Victorian villas, and turreted mansions that have so long

seen service -- 20 young people to a dormitory, lino floors polished to

make glad the heart of any sergeant-major -- will, by the turn of the

century, be little more than a memory with Scots themselves a rare sight

in their own hostels.

In place already are hostels built and run like hotels -- twin-bedded

rooms, family accommodation, bookings by fax, carpets throughout,

opening hours to 2am, continental or full Scottish breakfast to wake up

to, and cleaning staff in attendance instead of the roster of domestic

duties that once put hostellers on their knees before morning departure.

But even as the Scottish Youth Hostels Association moves to meet

tomorrow's demand with a two-tier system -- budget-hotel-type

accommodation to cater for the international traveller and traditional

old-style hostels for those setting out to enjoy scenery and

tranquillity -- its officials acknowledge that there is disquiet among

members, a public perception that the sale of hostel buildings indicates

an institution on the slide.

The four youth hostels marked for closure and sale -- at Kingussie on

Speyside, Ballater on Deeside, Loch Ard near Callander, and Garramore

near Morar -- can no longer pay their way, says the association, which

claims that criticism is unjustified, being made without regard to the

changing face of hostelling, today's demand, and the association's plans

for the future.

There is, they stress, no need for concern, no call to fear the

collapse of an organisation that for more than half a century has

introduced young people to the beauty of Scotland.

Millions of pounds are to be spent in the next few years upgrading

hostels and building new ones -- for example, #3.5m earmarked for a new

250-bed hostel in Edinburgh. To help meet the development bill the four

hostels to be sold will be marketed, it is claimed, with vigour.

How much will be raised by the sale of the four hostels -- 248 beds

between them -- is uncertain but anxious association members recall the

lost opportunity that was the sale of Garth Memorial Youth Hostel, given

to the association in 1951 in memory of a young naval officer who died

in the last war and sold by the SYHA for just #18,000 when dry rot was

discovered: a very modest sum even 13 years ago for a mansion-house and

stately acres.

Garth Youth Hostel, in the magnificent setting of Glen Lyon --

Scotland's longest glen -- was given to the Scottish Youth Hostels

Association by the mother of Lieut Ian Mackenzie-Anderson who died when

HM submarine Odin was sunk by enemy action in Tarranton Bay on June 13,

1940. When Garth hostel was sold in 1982 the memorial room was

transferred to the hostel at Oban.

James Martin, general secretary of the association, said: ''The

problem with Garth was dry rot. We contacted the Mackenzie-Anderson

family before we sold and they had no objection. But that did not

prevent some ferocious criticism. Now people are saying again -- why

sell? At our highest point we had 99 hostels, today 85, but what the

critics do not understand is that hostelling is now a very different


The rationale behind the disposal programme, says Bill Forsyth, the

association's accountant, is simple. ''We are, at all times, attempting

to meet the needs of young people and the danger is that we do not --

that we address the needs of 30 years ago. We simply cannot live in a


Reasons for putting the four hostels on the market at the end of the

summer are two-fold. The Ballater hostel is in poor condition and needs

#75,000 spent on it, yet last year managed to mark up only 2000

bed-nights. Kingussie hostel likewise requires substantial expenditure

if it is to meet fire-safety and environmental requirements.

Furthermore, association officials point out, Aviemore hostel, which had

#500,000 spent on it last year, is just 12 miles distant.

Loch Ard hostel, in the Trossachs, and Garramore hostel, at Morar, are

both suffering marked long-term decline in usage. Says James Martin:

''We do not set out to make a profit but there is a limit to what we can

spend on subsidies.''

Changes in the pattern of use -- such as short breaks taking over from

two-week holiday periods -- are bringing about the present need to sell

some hostels and open others elsewhere, says Jim Martin.

The hostel circuit favoured by international travellers, generally on

a one-night-only basis, runs from Edinburgh to Pitlochry, on to

Aviemore, Inverness, the magnificent Carbisdale Castle at Culrain, Skye,

Fort William, Oban, Glasgow . . . then off to another country.

The modernisation and re-shaping of the hostel at Glencoe is held up

as an example of what can be achieved by a change in tack. Formerly able

to house almost 100 visitors a night, the building was altered and the

number of beds reduced to 64 after which bed-nights sold rose by 50%.

The hostel in Glasgow is also cited as an indicator of what the new

approach can achieve. Fifteen years ago it drew just 8-9000 overnights a

year. Now, in the form of a hotel, the Glasgow hostel marks up 50,000

bed-nights annually . . . acknowledgement freely made by the association

to the part played by the new-look Glasgow itself.

At the other end of the scale is the 30-bed tin-roofed Glen Affric

youth hostel, made available to the association by the National Trust

for Scotland. Due for refurbishment, it is causing some anxiety on

account of the sensitive nature of the local environment.

But for all that the association claims to be striving to meet

tomorrow's market, according to Ken Howett, national officer of the

Mountaineering Council for Scotland, the SYHA must improve its marketing

and let people know it has changed its image if it is to survive.

Regrettable or not, the hostels will go. Last year's annual report

tells the story of hostelling's changing face in Scotland with

overnights down 22,000 overall -- those of Scots residents by no less

than 31,000. Ten years ago usage of the association's hostels was by and

large evenly split between Scots and ''international'' visitors. By last

year Scots' share of the overnight total had dropped to just one-third.

Notwithstanding the downward trend in overnights the income from

accommodation charges increased by almost #100,000 as a result of the

trend toward the use of larger -- and more expensive -- urban hostels by

young tourist visitors from England and overseas. The future in a

balance sheet. Says SYHA general secretary Jim Martin: ''There is no

doubt that we have got the business -- young people.'' But not, it

seems, young people on their native heath.