Hay's Way: Decision to be made on future of Scottish Borders hostel with links to Romani-Scottish history

The existing owners of the Scottish Borders hostel are due to retire next year

Steeped in Romani-Scottish history and nestled in the hills just a stone’s throw away from the Scotland-England border sits the only inexpensive haven for miles for walkers and cyclists.

Traveling along the border as part of Hay’s Way, there was no hostel in sight for several days. There are hotels, but when on the road for a while and on a budget, it was noticeable how few cheaper options, aside from your tent, there are in this area.

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That is one reason that makes arriving at Kirk Yetholm Hostel, tucked in the corner of the Cheviot hills and at a crossroad for several long-distance paths, particularly special. The building is owned and run by Simon Neal and his partner, Maureen, and a band of volunteers.

It is part of the Friends of Nature network, which unites some 800 houses across the world providing inexpensive accommodation for those who enjoy being in nature.

But Mr Neal said he is retiring next year, which has put the future of the building, which has hosted thousands of visitors in the 80-plus years it has run as a hostel, into question.

The hostel sits in the peaceful village Kirk Yetholm, tucked in the corner of the Cheviots and nestled in the Scottish Border countryside The hostel sits in the peaceful village Kirk Yetholm, tucked in the corner of the Cheviots and nestled in the Scottish Border countryside
The hostel sits in the peaceful village Kirk Yetholm, tucked in the corner of the Cheviots and nestled in the Scottish Border countryside | Katharine Hay

“We are wondering how this place is going to be run in the future,” Mr Neal told me after I spent the night there.

“We are working with some groups in the community to do everything we can to keep it in the network. It’s early days. My preferred option is for our Borders Friends of Nature group to take it on via a mix of grant and crowd funding. [We] have some serious thinking to do later in the year.”

As well as a comfortable bed at £28 and a large, well-equipped communal kitchen, the building has a unique story.

According to locals, the building was constructed in the 1860s from surplus rubble from the nearby church. It is understood the local landowner at the time was saved by a Romani person while abroad. On his return, he was determined to build a ‘Ragged school’ to serve the local Romani community in the Borders. Ragged schools tended to be established by evangelical Christians in response to child poverty in the mid 19th century.

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The landlord’s vision, however, wasn’t successful. Locals said this was perhaps no surprise given the wandering lifestyle of Romani people. 

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The building was sold in 1939 to then Scottish Youth Hostel (SYHA), now Hostelling Scotland, and reopened in 1942 as a hostel. In 2012, it was taken on by Mr Neal and Maureen who, in their time running it, have celebrated the hostel’s 80th anniversary in 2022.

The hostel sits on the border of Northumberland National Park and lies on the St Cuthbert’s Way, the Scottish National Trail and is the final stop on the Pennine Way.

Mr Neal said: “What is unique about this place is we probably have the highest footfall of people arriving on foot or bicycle in any village hostel barring the remote sites accessible only via track or mountain path.”

There are various legends about why Scottish Romani people first settled in Yetholm. Records show the village became the home of the Faas - hereditary monarchs - by the mid-1700s. Research shows the first Faa, ‘Lord and Erle of Littil Egipt', appeared in Scottish records in 1540. It is said they were granted privileges by James V to essentially self-govern. By 1800, it is believed there were more than 100 Romani people or ‘gypsies’ living in Kirk Yetholm.

The last Gypsy King, Charrles Faa Blyth - King Charles II - was crowned in May 1898 in the village. He had no children and died four years after his coronation, with the crown never taken again.

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