An Obituary for Iona Hostel, a plea for Slow Tourism

The essential need for slow tourism in Scotland and an obituary for Iona Hostel which closed on the 30th March.

In the early 1980s I had a tourist experience in the Scottish Hebrides that changed my life. Prof Richard Demarco had chartered a large square rigged sailing vessel, The Marquesa,  to sail round Scotland and visit what he termed centres of energy, and in particular those in the Hebrides. Our cargo was wealthy artists, I worked on the ship as a bad deck-hand and reasonable hebridean guide. Climbing the rigging, terrified out of my mind but fired with adrenaline, and then when we arrived at islands introducing folk to some of the islanders I knew. It was extraordinary. Typically we visited gay lairds who told us that they had chosen the colour of their sitting rooms to augment their appreciation of their wines. Sorley Maclean showed us Raasay, Schellenberg Eigg. We ran wind-on-tide the confusions of the Pentland Firth under full sail. Danced on the high yards in the moon light off Skye, put on women’s make up and wore their clothes whilst they wore ours off Mull when the tensions in the fore peak became too much to bear. And it worked.
The whole experience  was like having your previous perceptions of the world ripped up and replaced. The Hebrides can do that to you.  That’s one of the reasons they are important.  Life on board was truly bizarre . The domestic arrangements were carnal l, particularly for the crew who worked back to back four hour watches  Some of the crew shared not only clothes but partners, sleeping on whichever bunk was available grabbing clothes from a shared pile when your watch was called. Eating with our hands, seldom shaving, singing often. The volume on our lives was turned up.
Sometimes we lived like animals and then returned to civilisation chastened and educated. After a few weeks of such lifestyles we lost track of what day of the week it was and love affairs were established. though mostly with the sea, the boat and the practice of flirting with danger, of which there was an unnecessary excess. Indeed far too much.
Not long after the trip the ship capsized with the loss of nineteen lives, a couple  of them friends of mine. Let me now kiss them over time. and say with sincerity that I still miss them. She had evidently sunk in less than a couple of  minutes. Nineteen of the twenty nine crew lost. I imagine nobody escaped that fetid forepeak when the wall of water arrived amongst them as the ship sank into the Bermuda Triangle.
They chose the risk of living short lives as lions, rather than long ones as mules.
I’ve never enjoyed anything as much as my time on the Marquesa, either before or since.
I was thinking of how deeply that experience  had touched me when I heard this week that the hostel on Iona was to close , at least for the time being and the building to be converted into three self catering apartments.
Now whilst living in a comfortable hostel on the flower strewn machairs of Iona and only two minutes from the sea isn’t quite as extreme an experience as acting the goat on the high yards of a square rigger as it plunged and twisted through the Hebrides, absurd though it may seem. There are certain similarities that make me similarly sad at this loss. I’m serious. The loss of not only this particular hostel, but several others like it, in the cheaper end of the tourism market  is truly a tragedy for Scotland.
The Iona hostel had no proper internet connection or television, guests were encouraged to speak to each other, long walks were advocated. Abbey services indicated, bicycles lent. People would soon start to offer to share food with strangers or teach them to paint or draw. Friendships were made. Conversations held in which there was as much listening as talking. The hostel won awards for it’s ecological responsibility.  In short it was what Professor Demarco would have described as a centre of energy. Lives were changed.
But why does this matter enough for an essay? Well here we sit nearing the end of what might he termed the pause. Many have opined that this is our last chance to make the gargantuan changes in our global way of life if we are to make any significant impact on the on coming ecological Armageddon whose full impact will start to become apparent within the next ten to fifteen years. and which we can at least lessen even if we are too late to entirely avoid.

And how can we do this? Well only if we not only learn the lessons of the pause, that the important things in life are nature. love and community and that it’s not all just a race to see who will own the most toys before we die.
Now we are Scots, Guardians of some of the finest wild lands and oceans in Europe  Places that can teach these lessons,not through finger wagging instruction but through simply encouraging change through giving people the opportunity to experience places like the Iona Hostel so that these immortal truths and their significance become apparent to them.
Of course the Iona Hostel is just an instance of the need for this kind of change, and how we in Scotland can help to deliver it, but it’s still a good one.
Of course this is an optimistic, almost childishly naive way of looking at things, but it is our only hope. COP 26 wont sort it It has to people led. Greta is right. It’s high time we started to panic.  The term being given to this kind of activity is slow tourism. I hear that there is a  chance that one day the hostel on Iona will re-open. I hope it does. For the sake of us all.

Image credit: Iona Hostel


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  1. Time, the Deer says:

    This is a great loss, a tragedy in fact. Iona Hostel was a very special place. I have spent many happy times there. I feel for John – this must have been a gut-wrenching decision. We can only hope that in the fullness of time circumstances will allow for it to re-open.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      I agree, I spoke to John this evening to check my copy and he was keen that I make it plain that it is possible that the hostel might one day re-open.

      1. Time, the Deer says:

        Wonderful – I can’t imagine anybody but him running the place either. If the hostel closed forever only the relatively well-off could enjoy a stay on Iona, and that would be very sad. I look forward to returning some day in the not-too distant future.

        The Marquesa sounds like it was quite the trip as well! Slàinte Maxwell.

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          I also spoke to John last week as I had a contingent booking for a group that I take up annually. He runs a wonderful scene with a wonderful spirit. He said that Covid has just made things untenable for now, and it’s the same for many a hostel. The margins of such low cost accommodation are very low. He just doesn’t see enough people being happy to share dormitory accommodation with strangers for some time yet. He’s therefore doing what he sees as necessary, but not without regrets. He’s very well aware of the precious treasure that the hostel was and of the need for budget accommodation in places like Iona, but this is just yet another impact of the virus on us all. I worry, as does he, that this will keep a place like Iona accessible for those who can afford self-catering, but what about those less advantaged or more solitary? I remember how it was back in the 1980s-90s when you’d have a whole community of campers down at Sandeels Bay, but that all went when the old crofter passed, and changing times in any case were bringing in changing mores. But spare a thought for those on low incomes, and for those who going to a place like Iona may wish gently to explore their own spirituality without being part of anything more insitutional. That’s what the hostel allowed for and why I’d take groups there.

          1. Time, the Deer says:

            Indeed, Alastair – I for one could not travel without hostels, and I’m sure there are many like me. I don’t really understand the appeal of cosseting yourself away in a holiday let anyway – surely meeting people is half the fun? If you want peace in a hostel you turn on your ‘invisibility cloak’ and folk leave you alone. Scotland is blessed with some of the finest hostels in the world, some of which I’d take over a hotel any day. I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful Stornoway Hostel, and the Gatliff Trust facilities in Harris, Berneray and Uist. To lose this part of our outdoors culture forever due to Covid would be desperately sad – this is one of the few things that should go back to exactly the way it was!

            My fondest memory of Iona Hostel was going in the first week of January, years ago. About two days after we arrived, we were told we could leave on the next boat or we’d be stuck for a week because of the storms coming in. I decided to stay, and woke up the next morning to find the electricity had been knocked out over half of Mull, and to find John in the kitchen busily lighting candles and a fire and setting up a gas stove. We all got to know each other very well in that week! We only got off the island when we did because Calmac put on a ferry for a funeral. By that point nobody really wanted to leave.

          2. maxwell macleod says:

            Well said Alastair. I somewhat regret not writing more about the hostel, but you have filled in the blanks admirably. I was anxious to instil a sense of the extreme emotions that one often experience in the islands and the subsequent fluidity of thought patterns before I got onto the sad closure of the hostel. If you ever want to take groups to my five acres at Fuinary there would be no charge and it is more easily accessible, though there are now no facilities other than sad ruins and very good water!

  2. Dougie Harrison says:

    I have in my time spent time in wild parts of Scotland and tranquil, and stayed in many youth hostels, bunkhouses and bothies to access the hill. But though I’ve visited Iona, I’ve never stayed there. I deeply regret that now.

  3. Michael Romer says:

    Were you part of the Demarco visit to Orkney that Alex Pirie recalled fondly? Pirie would have been delighted with the company since he was such good company himself. I never met his partner, filmmaker and writer Margaret Tait, but I suspect she would have headed for the hills if any were available.

  4. Jim Bennett says:

    What a wonderful article! Thank you.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      No. thank you.

  5. Pub Bore says:

    So, our salvation lies in the mass of humanity experiencing the energy of places like the Iona hostel…

    We’re going to need a bigger building, more infrastructure, if we’re going to make them less exclusive.

    1. Maxwell macleod says:

      Thanks for your comment, ObviouSly not,as well you know saving a few hostels isn’t going to do it,but neither is unfettered international monopoly capitalism it indeed building a new border with England,
      What is needed is a monumental cultural change and our chances of achieving it are virtually nil,but celebrating simplicity and local control is at least a start and better to light a candle than just curse the darkness

      1. Andrew R. says:

        Sad news. Happy memories of Iona hostel. Visited a few years back on a cycling holiday.
        The din of the corncrakes, shared food and wine from the fridge, friendship and cameradery.
        Enjoyed the nostalgia trip but fearful of the future.

      2. Pub Bore says:

        Indeed, it’s the perennial problem of how we can conserve such places without making access to them exclusive.

        I have the great good fortune to live somewhere I can ‘dwell poetically’, as Heidegger put it. But if Everyman and his dog accessed it, it would no longer be that special place. Can you imagine what it would be like if the Iona hostel was so popular with folk who wanted to experience its immortal truths that there was a three-year waiting list to visit it? It would no longer have the significance it undoubtedly holds for those who currently enjoy its privilege.

        As someone who is painfully aware that he enjoys the privilege of dwelling poetically only at the expense of those who are contained in the reserves of the ‘sump’ communities on the peripheries of our towns and cities, and kept peaceably entertained there by their toys, I just can’t see how this circle can be squared?

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          But the irony is that there is/was no 3 year waiting list to visit the Iona Hostel, or the Eigg Hostel that I’ve also used with groups as a first rate and community-embedded affordable facility. The only time it can be hard to get into these places, or to book them for exclusive group use, is between Easter and the October holiday. Half the year. The rest of the time – well, that’s the best time to visit the Hebrides. No midges, and people have got time for people. Way to go!

          1. Pub Bore says:

            Clearly, they’re shutting down for a reason, though, and I presume that reason is that they can’t afford to stay open due to a lack of paying customers.

            But my point was that Maxwell quite rightly claims that everyone would benefit from having such retreats from the hurly-burly of modern life. The paradox is that, if everyone did avail themselves of that benefit, such places would be lost as retreats. They depend essentially on their exclusivity.

          2. Time, the Deer says:

            We can always rely on you to see right to the heart of what matters, Andrew, and here you go again – railing against the ‘elitism’ of – *checks notes* – £20-a-night youth hostels.

            It must be really hard work being as miserable as you are.

          3. Pub Bore says:

            I’m not railing against elitism at all, TD. As I pointed out, I have my own wee bit of heaven, which I would guard jealously. I’m just pointing out that such places wouldn’t be heaven were many more people to avail themselves of their heavenliness, as Maxwell recommends. The margin between ‘spoilt’ and ‘unspoilt’ is a narrow one.

  6. Interpolar says:

    Sad news indeed. We stayed there as a family a few years back. Indeed, we not only spoke to others but played board games with them during the dreichest of weather. May the hostel be resurrected in some, similar form.

  7. Roland says:

    I seem to remember as a teenager – 1980 maybe staying in a hostel in the village. Was there a Syha youth hostel then?

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Back in the 1960s, I stayed in a railway hostel in Aviemore. It was a hostel that BR had set up at the station for railway workers who had to overstay between shifts. All painted breezeblock and metal furniture. Had a brief encounter with a nice wee lassie f’ae Aiberdeen there; cannae mynd her name.

      In the ’60s I also used to eat at the Piggery whenever I was in Glasgow. That was a kind of staff canteen for railway workers, deep in the bowels of Central Station. ‘Creeshie spuin’ daesna tell the hauf o’t. The hottest pies and tea on which ere a mouth was scalded, roastit cheese, and enough fag-reek and stale sweat ti bring a tear ti a gless ee. A retreat of sorts, sans pastoral. Another country.

      Happy days, though; a comfort to the memory!

    2. maxwell macleod says:

      There are two places that you may be remembering. The first was the former Iona Community Youth camp on the village street, though I believe that closed long before the eighties, then there was the red roofed shed and finally the extension behind Shuna.
      As far as I am aware none of these were ever run as traditional hostels but all offered cheap accommodation though usually through the Iona Community. I am not associated with the current Iona Community but do commend their week long courses, which will shortly be starting in their refurbished accommodation in the Cathedral, an experience you will never forget.

      1. Pub Bore says:

        Wheesht, Maxwell; else the cathedral will be packed to the rafters with folk coming to partake of that unforgettable experience! Let’s not kill the thing we love! Let’s keep it special!

        1. maxwell macleod says:

          Bring it on

  8. Niemand says:

    It is a long while since I have been up this way but I remember a memorable cycling trip to the outer isles (Uist etc) and staying in several bothies / independent basic hostels and it was great. Makes me wonder if any of them are left.

    1. Time, the Deer says:

      The hostels are still there, just closed for now:

      There’s only one (MBA) bothy in the Western Isles though, and I’d be impressed if you cycled to it – you would have crossed over Hecla to get there!

      1. Niemand says:

        Thanks for the info – stayed in the one on Berneray and I think Howmore, though it looks bigger than I remember though it might have been extended since. We were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves for the night. I was too loose with my language re bothies and never got to the one you link, which looks great btw. Also stayed in a youth hostel near Lochmaddy – quite a big Victorian style house.

        On thing l learnt from the trip is that we chose the wrong direction, north-south, as we had a roaring headwind all the way (not to mention the endless squally showers) and couldn’t help continually fantasising how different it would have been had we been cycling the other way.

        1. Time, the Deer says:

          Berneray’s my favourite, a wee slice of heaven – read the online reviews if you want a laugh, from all the Jemimas and Timothys visiting in the school summer hols, and spectacularly missing the point. It’s not supposed to be five-star accommodation!

          I believe there’s still a hostel at Lochmaddy at the outdoor centre, but I’ve never stayed – too close to Berneray. Oh and I wouldnae worry, I’ve met countless cyclists in the Western Isles who made the same mistake as you! At least you got to finish on Barra, which is a fine position in which to find oneself.

          1. Niemand says:

            From memory, when I was there the Berneray hostel was newish or at least was undergoing serious building work. Prince Charles had been there not long before. I have fond memories of the people there, that and the clear, turquoise blue sea that stunned me. Weather was awful too and two of the local old ladies (sisters I think) had white hair shaped a bit like a hedge that had grown all its life in a howling gale.

          2. Pub Bore says:

            Supposed by whom, TD? And to what end but to exclude the Jemimas and Timothies of this world, who would, of course, spoil the primitive ambience you prefer in your retreats.

            I’m not knocking it; as I say, I enjoy the privilege of dwelling poetically myself. But such exclusivity in the tourist sector comes at a cost in the form of lost revenue and financial unsustainability.

            Maybe traditional hostellers need to put their hands deeper into their pockets to keep their frugal hostels open and sustain their recreational choice of simplicity and plainness over mod cons.

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