You can enjoy some of Scotland’s favourite species and habitats from the network of Scottish youth hostels dotted around the country. With accommodation to suit all tastes, there is something for everyone. The editor of SYHA’s Hosteller magazine, Jane Mackie, selects just a few highlights.
The Scottish Youth Hostels Association (SYHA) was founded in 1931 and, although initially centred on Edinburgh and the Borders, youth hostels were also starting up in other regions that year, including Loch Ossian. Always a remote hostel, Loch Ossian is today a traditionally-styled eco-hostel, set in the remote wilderness of Rannoch Moor. Due to its wind and solar power and remote location (one mile on foot from Corrour station), Loch Ossian gives an insight into the kind of hostelling enjoyed by previous generations and is a great place to enjoy a peaceful break amidst stunning scenery.
Jan Robinson is the manager at Loch Ossian and has developed a keen interest in her wildlife neighbours. However, surprises are still part of the lure of this magical location. “As with most places the wildlife around here tends to be shy and retiring and very sensitive to change or noise,” explained Jan. “A couple of years ago the railway line was shut down briefly. One morning during that spell I went out to empty the bins and was treated to a wonderful close-up meeting with an otter. Otters are notoriously tricky to spot and usually require huge amounts of patience to see. I think it must have simply got a wee bit bolder with the lack of comings and goings.
“We have a great variety of bird life on the loch. Probably the most dramatic is the black-throated diver which has a wonderfully haunting call. We also have mergansers; they make me smile, as they remind me of punks, and I enjoy watching them with their young. From the bench outside the hostel with a good pair of binoculars you can glimpse herons as well as goldeneyes, siskins, and tree creepers.
“Most people who come here hope to see the iconic species like red deer and golden eagle,” Jan added. “However, you do have to work at seeing them, and I suspect that heading off the beaten track is the key to spotting them.
“I’m sometimes astonished by the efforts some folk make to reach this fairly remote hostel; this winter we had people turn up at the door on skis. But whilst it’s true that winter here can be achingly beautiful, we are busier in the summer.
“We generate our own energy from a wind turbine and solar panels, and we have a sophisticated grey water filtration system that feeds out into the reed bed. The renewable energy system means that sometimes you have to fit your activities to suit the weather but, hey, on a big windy day we can turn everything on!”
Away from the wilderness of Loch Ossian and farther south, Oban Youth Hostel is a great starting point for taking a boat trip to spot porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks, whales, seals, sea eagles, gannets, guillemots and a host of other seabirds. Back in April 2013, a sperm whale spent almost nine days in Oban Bay, right outside the youth hostel!
Islay is famous for having more than 200 different species of birds, including oystercatchers, gannets, terns, gulls, ducks, shags, and cormorants around the coast and wild geese, lapwings, curlews, corncrakes and many other birds inland. Buzzards, hen harriers, golden eagles and other birds of prey can be spotted in the more remote parts of Islay.
Heading up to the north-west of Scotland, Torridon Youth Hostel is ideally placed for those who love mountain scenery and the challenge of bagging a few Munros. Wildlife abounds too. There are otters along the loch and a resident pine marten which visits the youth hostel bird table.
Cairngorms National Park, with its pristine mountains and ancient forests, is of significant value worldwide and it houses over a quarter of Britain’s threatened species. We have three youth hostels within the park – Aviemore, Braemar and Cairngorm Lodge – which all provide good access to spotting wildlife.
Guests may be rewarded with sightings of red squirrels, red deer, roe deer, ptarmigan and mountain hares. If you’re lucky, there are also opportunities to see pine martens and ospreys at Cairngorm Lodge. Scotland’s first National Park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is very accessible to the central belt and also home to Munros, Corbetts, large lochs and beautiful, unspoiled scenery. If you keep your eyes peeled in spring and summer you could spot some of Britain’s most special birds such as black grouse and osprey. Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel on the banks of Loch Lomond or Crianlarich a little further north provide an ideal base from which to explore all the treasures in the Park.
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SYHA Hostelling Scotland is joining up with SNH and National Trust for Scotland for a conservation week in Torridon (28 September to 4 October 2014), which can be booked via the SYHA website.
This article also features in the latest edition of our magazine The Nature of Scotland which you can view from the home page of our website or via http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/SNHMagazine/SNHMagazine_SpringSummer2014Issue19.pdf
Image in this blog (c) Lorne Gill / SNH