The early years of the Gatliff Trust & the Crofters Hostels (1961-1984)

by Peter Clarke

Herbert Gatliff set up the Trust that bears his name in 1961 to perpetuate his interests in the youth hostels and outdoor movement.  For some years had been making donations to a range of outdoor, amenity and other causes. Herbert had retired early from a senior position in the Civil Service in 1955 and he felt that he had the time, and the administrative skill, to make these donations via a charitable trust, constituted under the recently passed Charities Act, 1961 in a more effective manner.  Herbert asked Peter Harwood and Bernard Selwyn to become trustees and they signed the original Trust Deed on 26thSeptember 1961.  The first meeting was held on 11th December at the Continental Corner Restaurant, London.

Throughout its history the Trust has devoted itself to two principle activities: its involvement with the outdoor and youth hostelling movement and its work in the Outer Hebrides.  Both aspects of the Trust’s work are characterised by three phases: 1961 to 1976; 1976 to 1981; and 1982 to the present.

During the first phase the Trust was fully under the control of Herbert Gatliff.  It therefore reflected his eclectic interests, his verve and energy, and his pivotal position within the outdoor and youth hostels movement.  He was a member of the YHA[1] group in Croydon, the very first local group.  He was a member of the Open Spaces Society Executive Committee, a founder member of the Standing Committee on National Parks and a member of the Properties Committee of the National Trust.  He was also a life member of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.  In the late 1930s he represented the YHA on many bodies including the National Committee for National Forest Parks and he was a member of the National Executive Committee of the YHA from the late 1930s for over thirty years.  In recognition of this service he was made a Vice President of the YHA.  In short, he had spent a lifetime helping the youth hostels and outdoor movements in England, Scotland and Wales.  He had the ideas, time, energy and cash to put his ideas into practice.

Under the Trust Deed Herbert had the power to appoint all the Trustees during his life time.  It was, after all, his money.  He was selective, but those he did appoint were supporters who (more or less!) willingly helped Herbert with his life’s-work.

In 1964 Peter Harwood retired from the Trust and was replaced as Honorary Secretary by Malcolm Campbell with Robert Wickenden as an additional Trustee.  Frank Martin was appointed in 1969. Herbert commented that he would be of great assistance to the Trust thanks to his “wide experience of scouting, camping, practical forestry and wilderness”.  He took over responsibility for the Trust’s Hebridean contacts and the crofters’ youth hostels.

Herbert next appointed Roger Clifton in 1975, and John Joyce in 1977.  By 1976 Herbert was ailing and increasingly the day-to-day running of the Trust passed to the other Trustees.  They carried out Herbert’s wishes as faithfully as they could but they couldn’t duplicate his approach.

Following Herbert’s death in 1977 Frank Martin became Chairman and the power to appoint Trustees passed collectively to the Trustees.  During the three years after Herbert’s death the Trust adjusted to the loss of his commitment and financial support.  All the Trustees had full time jobs, career and family commitments.  They were volunteers in the true sense of the word.  In 1980, in order to infuse some fresh blood, they exercised their power to appoint new trustees when Robert Wickenden retired from the Trust.  They appointed Len Clark, Peter Clarke, Liz Gatliff and Arthur Meaby.  In 1983 the Trustees appointed Gerald McGuire.

It took a while for these new Trustees to become fully involved with the work of the Trust, but by 1982 the Trust passed from the second, transitional, phase into the third and contemporary phase of its history.

In reviewing this history it is necessary to concentrate on the early period, when Herbert stamped his character upon the Trust.  Besides, copies of the first triennial report, for 1982 to 1984 are still available and deal with the second phase of the Trust’s history.  That report sets the scene for the third phase, which is the subject for the triennial report for 1985 to 1987.

The early years of the Gatliff Trust

Herbert Gatliff recorded in 1973 that when the Trust was set up it was “a quite small trust, to pay a few pounds a year to the two churches where his father had been vicar and a few bodies with which he had been specially associated.”  These included the two National Trusts.  “It was to have an income of £30 a year, rising perhaps to £50, which would provide a little margin for emergencies.”

But soon after starting the Trust Herbert agreed to support a simple youth hostel at Rhenigidale, on the Isle of Harris.  He soon found that the Trust was a convenient vehicle for extending his influence over the outdoor movement.  Very quickly, therefore, the Trust became the channel for Herbert’s many and varied interests.  In 1965 the list of regular donations included the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Pedestrians Association, the Countryside Fund of the Ramblers’ Association, the Iona Community, and the Commons and Footpaths Society.  By 1973 the list included nearly sixty bodies, the odd one or two donations being above £10, but most in the range of £3 to £5.  As it grew it became more diverse and now included bodies such as the Society for Psychical Research, the Poetry Society and the Alveley Good Companions.

Tours, Logs and Surveys

From the start Herbert offered special grants, or expenses, to people prepared to carry out studies of interest to him, or who wrote logs recording what he called the “adventure” of hostelling.  Two of the earliest were David Stones’ 1965 footpath and landscape survey in the Hebrides and the N W Highlands, and the account by a seventeen year old schoolboy of a fortnight’s camping in the Lake District.

In 1968 the Trust funded Tim Porter’s second Elenith guide, which dealt with the landscape of a remote part of central Wales including “the even remoter and still quite treeless country crossed by the “ancient road” and the head of the Elan Valley.”  Sadly the Stika Spruce planting in the Elenith has gone on apace over the past thirty years.  The YHA conducted surveys in 1964 and 1974.

In 1969 no less than ten reports were published.  These included Tim Porter’s account of a tour in the Radnor Hills; David Sutton’s poems; Simon Boyes (aged 16) camping with a friend in Wester Ross and North Uist; Philip Grant’s study of Farley Mount and Crab Wood, Hampshire, (“an important landscape and access area near Winchester”); Chris Wright’s account of walking the footpaths of West Lewis and North Harris; Christine Turnbull’s log of a hostel tour of Devon.

In 1972 the Trust was circulating eight “tours, logs and surveys” ranging from Colin Price’s thesis on the “social benefits of forestry” to three walks by Jonathan Bell in the North West Highlands, the South Downs and the Isle of Wight.

This work required a full time effort to organise and the onset of illness by Herbert Gatliff meant that it declined when our resources of time and effort had to be directed to the Hebrides.

The Gatliff Trust and the YHA

Herbert was a Vice President of the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales and the Gatliff Trust inevitably became the means whereby Herbert pursued his enthusiasms within the YHA.   He supported a number of its smaller hostels, and the evangelical work of the YHA.  From  the early 1960s onwards the Trust gave support to Diane Johnson and other field officers who worked to encourage young people to become hostellers.   They organised special parties of youngster.   Those who had been introduced to hostelling with special, or school, parties were encouraged to become independent hostellers.

Herbert supported the smaller hostels.  £25 a year was given to the YHA’s Small Hostels Fund which was set up to stimulate the setting up and modest improvement of small simple youth hostels.  All donations to the YHA not ear-marked for specific hostels were placed in this fund and used for capital schemes at hostels with less than 40 beds.  But he also contributed towards the running costs of hostels “of character which make a loss or require special effort to keep going.”  Wilderhope, in Shropshire, was supported from the start; Chaldon, in the London Region, was given support, as were Llandeusant, Saffron Walden and Ewhurst.

In the 1960s the YHA had a number of “specific funds” largely for the purpose of subsidising specific hostels.  The 1965 and 1966 reports kept an oblique but watchful eye on them but in the 1967 report Herbert observed that “like branch railways they do not fit into the routine of big bureaucracies, which cannot digest makeshifts.  It is now clear that those who want to subsidise particular hostels should keep the capital in their own hands, only paying over the income if the hostels are provided and make a loss, and, if not, either subsidise other bodies to get them provided or do it themselves.”

Herbert went into more detail in the 1968 report criticising the YHA over not allocating the High Roding Fund (the hostel had closed in 1963) to help save Wholehope and Staindale “two much loved hostels of distinctive character.”  He was pleased that the fund had now, in 1967, been used effectively to help Blaencaron and “other small hostels in South Mid-Wales.”

By 1969 Herbert had found twelve specific funds and named them.  His charge was that they were neglected by their parent bodies, who with thought could put the money to much better use.  Herbert wanted some of the money in specific funds under the YHA’s control to be used to help the “adventure fringe” and he called for the creation of an “Adventure Camping Trust”.  Herbert Gatliff had been instrumental in setting up the Youth Camping Association in the 1940s  but it never took off nationally and it remains a set of youth clubs in the London area.

By 1972 Herbert had mellowed but he was still calling for the history of these specific funds to be documented.

The 1960s in the Outer Hebrides







































During the summer of 1961 as Herbert Gatliff was making plans to start the Trust, Mac Hoskin, a volunteer warden at Achininver hostel, and an active member of Epsom and Ewell YHA Local Group, went over to the Outer Isles to see if he could find a hostel.  He met Herbert Gatliff, who was visiting Tarbert, Isle of Harris, for a few days.  Herbert had been introduced to the Outer Hebrides after the Second World War by John Cadbury, past Chairman of the YHA and its President from 1964 to 1981.  He became fascinated by their landscape, people and Gaelic culture and language and was keen to see a hostel opened in the islands.  Herbert suggested that Mac go over to the township of Rhenigidale, where there were some empty houses.  One owned by Roddy MacInnes, a local crofter, proved suitable for use as a hostel.  Roddy was enthusiastic about the project and the hostel opened at Easter in 1962.

The SYHA were not willing to take over or “recognise” the hostel.  Instead they handed over the fund created to establish a hostel in the Hebrides as a memorial to Keith Chambers, a London caver and Chairman of London Region YHA, who had visited the Outer Hebrides in 1951.  He had been drowned on a coastal climbing weekend in Cornwall in 1955.  The fund provided an income of £25 per year.

Despite the reluctance of the SYHA to publicise the hostel it had 71 visitors, with 161 bednights in its first year.  45 visitors were English, 17 Scottish and 9 were from overseas.  This was twice the number Herbert Gatliff thought likely.   The YHA and YHA Services provided the equipment for the hostel and were happy to advertise Rhenigidale from the beginning.  The hostel had a log book, of course, but this was “not of a standard pattern” since it had space for remarks.  Hostellers soon took up the silent invitation to append remarks and soliloquy.  They showed that the hostel was an instant success.  “I’ve been to over 100 hostels and this is the best that I have ever stayed in”, wrote one.

Early in 1963 a newsletter was issued to the pioneer hostellers at Rhenigidale.  Duplicated on foolscap paper it captured the unofficial spirit of the place and the evocative Gaelic atmosphere of the Outer Hebrides.   During that year 84 people visited the hostel and 240 overnights were recorded. It was during that second year that the practice of making donations to local churches began with a donation to the Tarbert church.

In 1964 the summer weather in the Outer Hebrides was poor and Rhenigidale had only 67 visitors recording 169 overnights.  A new ferry was operating from Uig to Tarbert.  The previous route being from Mallaig by the Loch Mhor, or Kyle of Lochalsh and Portree.  The 1964 newsletter hinted that more hostels might be found in the Outer Hebrides.  The Gatliff Trust and its supporters were searching.

The 1965 newsletter announced that “there is a good prospect of our having next summer the use of old thatched houses in the islands of Scarp, and Berneray and probably at Howmore, which will at least provide more shelter from wind and storm than a tent, and we hope will have a few camp beds, a primus stove and some peat for a fire. The two islands are reached only by infrequent ferries not connecting with any public transport, and those who go to them may have to be prepared to camp or sleep out on the way”.

1965 also saw the SYHA open their first hostel in the Outer Hebrides at Stockinish.  Prior to this they had an arrangement with the YMCA in Stornoway that part of their building could be used by SYHA members.  This arrangement ended in 1964.

The Fourth Annual Report to the Trustees, issued in 1966 carried a more sober assessment of the chances of new hostels. At Easter Margaret Duke, who had much experience of wardening Craig Hostel on Torridon, visited the area to see whether use could be made of houses which Frank Martin had found the previous summer.  She found the building on Berneray too small, “apart from other difficulties,” but she believed that an old thatched house in Scarp would serve well.  Some camp beds were put in the building and Mr Angus McLellan became the warden.  Amongst the first visitors were two parties from the Schools Hebridean Society.

Preparations to open the Trust’s third hostel at Howmore began at the end of summer 1965. With the agreement of Mrs MacSween, of Howmore, the Trust gained the use of “a somewhat larger thatched house”.  It was in easy reach of Ben More, the highest peak in South Uist.

Howmore hostel was fully open for the beginning of the 1966 season thanks largely to Ernie Ives, a handicraft teacher from Essex, who spent Easter working there.  That year’s newsletter initiated a familiar theme by appealing to experienced hostellers to extend their holiday in order to carry out repairs and effect minor improvements.  “This means some expense as MacBrayne’s comfortable new ferries cannot be hitched and we can meet a few pounds extra expense.”

The Annual Report for 1966 recorded the comment of a hosteller at Scarp.  “Suggestion: Advertise the hostel more widely, if possible include the SYHA handbook.”  To which someone else had written “No, please don’t.  Let it be the wonderful surprise to others it was to us.  The dilemma of Multitude and Solitude.”

The report went on to assess the prospects for yet more hostels.  The Trustees thought that the funds allowed the addition of one or two more.  “The most obvious need is for some kind of shelter along the route from West Lewis (the Uig road end), past Tamanavay, one of the supreme mountain landscapes in Scotland, to Harris.”  The Newsletter went on, “We believe that more, perhaps many more, hostels on similar lines could be got and run, in Lewis, Barra, Islay to mention only three islands.”  Revolutionary stuff no doubt written with the SYHA in mind.

Howmore was rethatched during the year by a local craftsman and there were plans to get Scarp rethatched during 1967.

During 1967 the three hostels were open all year round and had over 500 bednights, including 30 for 3 work parties from the Nicholson Institute, Stornoway who decorated the hostel.  By this time the debate between the realists and the romantics was in full swing, with one hosteller remarking that Howmore was a big improvement whilst another thought of Scarp as “most primitive is best.”  At least everyone could agree that it was a blessing that Howmore was free of “psychedelic fish and chip shops”.

But by 1967 the future of the hostel at Scarp was in doubt.  Angus MacLellan had left Scarp and now lived at West Tarbert.  Though Norman MacInnes had taken charge of the hostel the Newsletter reported that he too might be leaving soon.  Others were leaving Scarp.

The future of Howmore was far more secure.  “The machair of South Uist is good farm land and the villages will continue.  Howmore itself has an upstanding church, an old graveyard with church ruins, and a number of thatched houses still inhabited and in good heart.”

In 1968 overnights  were up again, a fine sign for the hostels, but the future of the Scarp hostel still looked shaky because of the continued depopulation of the island.  Rhenigidale remained in fine fettle with a large party visiting from the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway.  Howmore had become more accessible thanks to a new car ferry service from Oban to Lochboisdale.

The Trustees still hankered after more hostels. “We could provide say £20 a year grant and the necessary equipment for at least one or even two more hostels on similar lines.”  Indeed they almost got a hostel in Barra, only losing the chance at the last minute.

Bednights remained static in 1969 compared to 1968, ascribed largely to wet windy weather.  The Nicholson Institute again sent an expedition to Rhenigidale, where they repaired damaged beds.  Distinguished visitors during the year included Adrian Ebrill, Secretary of An Oige, the Irish Youth Hostels Association, John Graham, Chairman of the Ramblers’ Association, Scottish Area, Bernard Heath, Founder of the Mountain Bothies Association and Cyril Kermode a CTC Councillor.

The decision was taken to connect Howmore to mains electricity.  Mrs MacSween met the cost of connection but the Trust paid for the internal wiring.  The newsletter noted, “we call it fairly good news because some of you may feel that while more light is welcome to make Nescafe and cook beans (the main diet of hostellers these days) it may be rather too bright for fireside conversation or meditation appropriate to South Uist.”  But the main argument was one of greater safety of the light bulb compared to the oil and paraffin lamps.

Scarp was in difficulty.  The depopulation of the island continued.  The barn end of the hostel’s roof fell in during October 1968.  Though Act of God (wind), Act of Cow (grazing), or Act of Sheep were jocularly referred to, the fact remained that the polythene sheets made the hostel only partially weather proof.

These difficulties did not deter Herbert from speculating about possible hostels elsewhere.  Lewis, Barra, Coll, Jura, outliers of Orkney and Shetland were his order of priorities.  He offered a “modest subsidy” to help set up a “real hostel” such as the main Associations could not afford to run, though he quickly added that Glen Nevis, Bruntsfield, York and Carter Lane “are real hostels too”.  “But often it is the small remote hostels that in casual talk at the big ones provide those special memories most intensely remembered.”

The 1970s in the Outer Hebrides



















































Scarp struggled on for one more season but only 22 hostellers braved the conditions before the hostel was reluctantly abandoned.  Though the roof continued to cause difficulties, the main factor had been the continued depopulation of the island which had finally deprived the island of its ferry service.  Private hires could be had but what was the logic of spending several pounds on the crossing to obtain the facility of cheap accommodation?

The electricity did not arrive at Howmore, despite the fanfares.  No one could be found to make the connection.  The hiatus fuelled the debate about its desirability.  It was finally made in autumn 1971.  Meanwhile a good prospect for a new hostel had been identified on Barra, and another on Eriskay, though there after repairs it would still be primitive.  Herbert encouraged the search by reporting “It is possible that we might find an abandoned house not good enough to use even as a primitive hostel but that could for a few years at any rate serve as a camper’s shelter. Such a shelter need provide no more than a primus table and perhaps a bench.  It would enable campers to escape wind and midges for cooking, and would either be free like a bothy or cave or make a nominal charge of a few pence if the owner lived nearby” (and could collect the fees).

Increased overnights in 1971 meant the hostels were occasionally full.  The Trust was reluctant to increase the number of beds over 12 to meet this problem.  They had found from experience that this was the most appropriate size for a crofter’s hostel.  The answer was more hostels in other parts of the islands, especially as the SYHA seemed to be having difficulties retaining their hostel at Stockinish.  It had opened in June 1965 but by 1971 was in need of improvements, principally an improvement in the sanitation.  So the hostel closed at the end of 1971 for two years.

New “more prosaic and postable” log books arrived at the hostels.  They did not inspire so much “decoration either verbal or pictorial as the vast old Rhenigidale book” but they did generate “significant comment”.  Archie McCallum from Glasgow wrote of “the way the machair is divided into strips of barley, strips of potatoes, and so on, the arrangement of the houses in the villages at different times, the division of peoples’ time between working the croft and some other job, the arrangements for mutual help (as with tending the bull which is behind the hostel) — all these things seem to make people into a community instead of whatever you and I live in when we’re at home –The last thing we can afford to do is let a sort of alternative society die away and be lost, so that it can’t suggest anything to us.”

Herbert noted that the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Countryside Commission for Scotland[2] were doing much to bring new economic life into the area whilst being sensitive to the grandeur of its landscape.  “Bodies like the National Trust for Scotland, the SYHA, Schools Hebridean Society, Mountain Bothies Association, Brathay Outward Bound and many other schools and educational bodies take many there, specially the young for adventure, education and great fun.”  But, Herbert asked, perhaps rhetorically, did they get as much out of the area than those travelling independently?  Herbert knew that those using the SYHA hostels and Mountain Bothies were certainly not organised groups.

By 1972 an increasing number of visitors at the hostels were from overseas; 99 from fourteen countries, compared to 35 Scots and 92 from England and Wales.   From the maintenance point of view, it was an uneventful year, some jobs needed to be done, but there were no serious problems to be tackled.

Meanwhile the logbooks showed how much the hostellers got out of their stay at a Crofter’s Hostel. They made real contact with the islanders.  Herbert ascribed this to using local wardens.  He compared Gatliff policy favourably to that of the SYHA which had largely to rely on “incomers” as wardens.  This was understandable since “we are well aware ourselves of the difficulty of establishing local contacts in far away places.”   He welcomed the news that Stockinish was to be reopened and that a new small hostel was to be opened at Eday in Orkney and spurred on hostellers to look for other hostels in the Western Isles by noting “we have an income sufficient for help another hostel or even two”.

Roger Clifton and his companion Michael Lambert surveyed both hostels in 1973, finding Howmore in “good health but Rhenigidale in a less desirable state.”  Whilst the number of visitors was not increasing the length of stay was.

Overnights were slightly down in 1974, perhaps because the Stockinish Hostel had reopened in May 1974 after refurbishment. After the reopening Len and Isobel Clark led a party of SYHA officials – Jack Frame, Vice President and Bob Crawford, National Secretary – over to Rhenigidale.  Poor weather just prevented the Chairman of the SYHA, Walter Ballantyne, from reaching the village.

Roddy MacInnes installed piped water and a WC at Rhenigidale, with the aid of a working party lead by John Joyce.  Fire precautions were improved at both hostels.  The kitchen at Howmore was repainted with fire retardant paint.

The “romantics” battled it out with the “sceptics” in the Howmore logbook.  The romantics regard the island as paradise which should remain untouched, the sceptics saw a poor, bleak, hard way of life in unrelenting rain and wind, so were happy to see physical and economic improvements to the islanders’ way of life.

Eileen Elliot summed it up, “For us the simple life’ is fun.  For others it is grim reality….The slow tempo of life here is the tempo of manual labour, not the ease of relaxation.”

1975 was a much better year for overnights, following some modest advertising.  Fire precautions were further improved at the hostels.  Colin Sharpe and two other lads from Oldham spent two weeks at Rhenigidale exploring the area and writing a guide to walks which can be made from the hostel.

Rhenigidale was more popular than Howmore during 1976, if overnights are anything to go by.  Perhaps hostellers found the building more comfortable, following the improvements carried through in 1974.  However, the need for equipment to be replaced and the rear part of the roof to be repaired was noted.  Piped water and a WC were installed at Howmore.  The newsletter records that Archie McCullum was reunited with May, whom he had met at the hostel eight years previously.  “They are now engaged.”

During the year the Trust received a donation of £70 in memory of Andrew Megson.  It was spent on improvements at Rhenigidale, and the trustees had a map of the whole of the Hebrides mounted at the hostel as a memorial.  Rob Wightman wrote in the logbook, “Four years ago Andy Megson and his friend arrived here via Orkney.  Andy was a great person and both coming from Lancashire we became close friends and over the next three years walked and explored the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales.  He always wanted to come back to Rhenigidale and really liked this place, but never came back.  He died in August 1975 aged 22 years as he was about to go to Aberdeen University to do a PhD.”  It says so much for why so many people regard Rhenigidale as a very special place.

A new hostel was opened on 16 April 1977 on the island of Berneray.  It was found by Roger Clifton, who visited North Uist with his fiancée Janet Ferguson in 1976, with the assistance and advice of his brother-in-law to be Dr John MacLeod of Lochmaddy.  In giving details of the ferry connections, the newsletter cautioned, “these are small boats, so you may be delayed in getting on or off Berneray.”  Perhaps this deterred because only 167 overnights were recorded.  But those who went were in for a treat.  As Isabel Steel put it in the logbook, “This island seems to possess that same quality of light, indefinable and beautiful that elevates Iona above all others.  To see a sunset on Berneray on a summer’s evening, standing on the flower covered machair, listening to the birds – swans, corncrakes, cuckoos, pewits, snipe – and gazing from Skye to St Kilda in one sweep of the eye is an experience that mentally throws one’s knees in awe.  The beauty is intense and (an) almost painful to experience.”

The experience was no less intense at Howmore, where Mrs MacSween came in for warm praise from hostellers, and Rhenigidale where Barbara Short from Mount Vernon USA in thanking Roddy recorded, “Sitting in the half-grey daylight of evening, surrounded by the usual cooking bustle that dinner brings on, I feel that leaving is a far off thing, yet it is tomorrow.”

The death of Herbert Gatliff was marked by hostellers in 1978, one writing in the Howmore logbook spoke for all.  “Now that Herbert is gone his Trust lives on and we all come here and enjoy this hostel – but let us not forget what Herbert went without in order for us to be sitting here, and let us hope that other people will be prepared to give similarly of their effort and money so that we can continue to enjoy these hostels, and our children continue to enjoy them.”

John Joyce led another work party to Rhenigidale and Berneray, since it had proved too difficult to get local labour to do the required maintenance work.  The log books ranged far and wide from sheep ticks, neat whisky, through collecting mushrooms and recipes of the famous to the infamous NATO exercise in Lewis and Harris when gun toting troops had stopped a number of civilian vehicles and caused damage to crofting property.

Louise Pearson of Leeds said in the Berneray logbook, “Thank you for providing a refuge in such a remote and yet wonderful place as this.  Coming from a city, the contrast in way of life was a rare and new experience.  All through Harris I had seen the stone remains of old croft houses, some with the tattered remnants of thatch still clinging to the resilient stone walls but never did I hope to live in such a house!  Before I came here I had never experienced an outside toilet, or even built a fire, never mind lived under a thatched roof.”

The weather in 1979 was appalling, so not surprisingly overnights were down.  This did not put off the bird watchers who wondered over the Golden Eagle and Steller’s Eider, and other birds.  Angel Sutton of Ely asked, “Where else do you get miles of beach to yourself, (apart from a few thousand birds)?”  She went on, “And where else such magnificent sunsets painting the Atlantic in colours that don’t exist anywhere else?  This evening I saw Tir nan Og, mountainous and misty under the sun, magic to the soul, enlightening to the mind.”

The weather must have driven hostellers indoors since the joys of Harris tweed weaving, a Gaelic/English service at Howmore Church (of Scotland), and a ceilidh at Berneray were amongst the significant experiences worthy of a write up in the logbook.

The early 1980s in the Outer Hebrides














Claddach Baleshare






















The early 1980s were no different to the 1970s or 1960s for that matter.  Each year the bulk of visitors to the hostels were new to the islands; each year most vowed to return.  Some did and the quality of their experience intensified.  Apart from 1981, when overnights were sharply down the hostels continued to demonstrate their popularity.  In response the trustees began to take more concerted action to improve and maintain hostel facilities.  Early on in the decade trustees recorded that this was their first priority, over-riding the continued desire to find new hostels.  The Trust adjusted to the loss of Herbert Gatliff’s generosity, by founding the Hebridean Hostellers group, which also provided a ready supply of volunteers for work parties.  But they found it more difficult to replace Herbert’s commitment to the administration of the Trust, which in ever more complex times, demands a good deal of time.  Younger trustees meant more energy and enthusiasm for work in the Outer Hebrides, it also meant full time jobs and young families which bring their own demands on peoples’ time.

Nevertheless significant progress was achieved including the opening of a new hostel at Claddach Baleshare in 1982.  This coincided with the opening of the SYHA hostel at Lochmaddy.  This period is fully documented in the Gatliff Trust’s triennial report for 1982 to 1984.

Economic development in the form of the Independent Development Programme (IDP) and new roads and ferry facilities brought immediate improvements to crofters” lives.  So the realists dominated the romantics in the log books.  Perhaps this was because the romantics found that there is, indeed, room for both.  The islands are so sparsely populated that it is not difficult to find seclusion, beauty and mother nature without interfering with the islanders justifiable demand for improvements in their standard of living.  As important, the unique Gaelic culture of the islands is as strong as ever.

(This paper was first published in 1997)


[1] The letters YHA stand for the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales.  The letters SYHA for Scottish Youth Hostels Association.

[2] The term “Countryside Commission”, as in common usage in Scotland, will consistently refer to the Countryside Commission for Scotland, not its English and Welsh counterpart which is properly referred to as the Countryside Commission.