Scotland's youth hostels aren't just for kids

They may still be called youth hostels, but Hostelling Scotland’s network of great value places in spectacular locations are for people of all ages
A view from the Nevis Range (Picture: Nevis Range)A view from the Nevis Range (Picture: Nevis Range)
A view from the Nevis Range (Picture: Nevis Range)

Check-in at the Glen Nevis hostel is not like your normal hotel. It’s more like dropping in at a party. Not a raucous, all-night affair: just a pleasant gathering of old friends. Which in a way it is.It’s a busy Friday night at the Glen Nevis hostel. It’s one of the most venerable sites in the estate. There’s been a hostel called Glen Nevis on this site since 1934. And what a site it is: a few miles south of Fort William, by the River Nevis, overlooked by the great Ben.

After spending £2.1 million on a makeover, the hostel now has slate walls, bare floors, an open fire and green leather armchairs. It looks like some boutique eco-lodge, welcoming to the new generation of hosteller.

And that also means they are welcoming an older generation.

A hire bike from Nevis Cycles (Picture: Iain Rogerson)A hire bike from Nevis Cycles (Picture: Iain Rogerson)
A hire bike from Nevis Cycles (Picture: Iain Rogerson)
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They are no longer ‘Youth’ Hostels. The ethos today is ‘hostelling has no age limit’.

I may not be the youngest person here, but I’m not the oldest, either. And if I do have the urge to sit down and talk to someone about Telex machines and the final Yes album, I feel pretty sure there’ll be a few candidates.

Plenty of time for that tomorrow, when the hostel is to host a gin tasting and I’ll be cooking some of the local produce I plan to acquire on my excursions.

I check into my room. I have one to myself! No bunking up with partying millennials who might want to stay up to an unearthly hour – 10pm or something.

Inside Glen Nevis youth hostelInside Glen Nevis youth hostel
Inside Glen Nevis youth hostel

Then I head back into Fort William and The Highland Cinema for dinner. It’s a sturdy, bothy-like building rather than some bland multiplex. In the cafe bar, over a Korean burger and pinot noir, I watch vintage footage of tweed-clad adventurers scaling the mountain.

The cinema, which opened in 2020, and recently won the UK cinema of the year award, has two screens, which is two more than the town had in the previous 15 years. It is one of those welcome innovations that’s giving Fort William, this venerable centre of outdoor pursuits, a fresh buzz and a new reason to visit. There’ll be more.

Back at the hostel I slept like the baby I hadn’t been for six decades. And boy, would I need that sleep. Whoever designed my itinerary was no respecter of age.

I tucked into my ‘wee breakfast’ the next day thinking I’d be thankful for it later. I wasn’t wrong. The Lochaber region of the West Highlands isn’t called the Outdoor Capital of the UK for nothing.

All the comforts of home at Glen NevisAll the comforts of home at Glen Nevis
All the comforts of home at Glen Nevis
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I’m not one of those sixtysomethings who runs marathons and swims entire lochs for pleasure. But I keep fit with golf, five-a-side football and above all, walking. The programme would be testing but I like the look of it. And the weather, too: crisp and clear.

First stop: Nevis Cycles, I met with Iain Rogerson in a quiet street in the Inverlochy area of town. He kitted me out with an e-bike. We coasted along the river, then headed up the steep incline as far as a viewpoint below the summit.

You realise what a messy mountain the great Ben Nevis is. It’s not one of those neat, conical, Mount Fuji-like peaks. The explosion that created its iconic shape 350 million years ago erupted from the side. As the lava flows swept down the hillside, it (and 350 million years of weather) left a granite landscape of gullies and false summits, secret hinterlands and foothills.

We rode and splattered along local trails in the Leanachan Forest, and the Old Puggy Line, the former Lochaber narrow gauge railway. The area is such a joy to explore if you are prepared to head in a different direction than straight up Ben Nevis.

We finally halted at a cattle auction market. I wasn’t planning to buy a cow. Just as well, as there weren’t any on sale that day. Plenty else was: for this was the second Saturday of the month, and the Glen Spean Producers and Crafters market was being held at the Torlundy auction mart.

It’s another of those developments that is reinvigorating the area for locals and visitors alike. The former were out in force on this chilly winter’s day, queuing for coffee or burgers, stocking up on organic dog treats, choosing a loin of venison for the freezer – or, like me for dinner that night.

Later, we left the bikes at the Nevis Range visitor centre and took the gondola 650m up the north face of Aonach Mòr. Iain, a competitive mountain biker, showed me the route where a stage of the world championship had been held just a few weeks before. You can’t help but marvel at the breakneck (and break-everything-else) jumps these riders take on – going 60 kph with the ‘death grip’: hands off the brakes.

We walked the mountain trails, enjoying classic Highland views as far as the Inner Hebrides, passing what must be the coldest bench in Scotland – a standard park bench that has somehow found itself up a mountain and got a bad case of frostbite on the way.

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Back at the lodge, before dinner, there was another sign that the hostelling experience is, well, maturing.

I met Aaron Ross of Fassfern Highland Gin, as he was laying out his bottles in the lounge. Free gin and whisky? That could have ended up messily in the days when I qualified as a youth hosteller.

We listened to Aaron’s story about how he ultimately followed his father into the distilling business. His dad died in 2020, living just long enough to see the first bottles Fassfern labelled – but not, sad to say, his son’s gins and whiskies winning gold medals at international competitions.

It’s not just what’s inside the bottles that’s a thing of beauty. The labels, with their signature fern designs are a real taste of the Highlands.

In the kitchen, as we cooked our meals and washed our dishes, I spoke to guests from Hong Kong, New York, Malaysia, France and even England. How often would you do that in a hotel as you jostle for space at the international buffet?

“He’s a legend!” said Iain when I told him who I’d be seeing the next day. Mike Pescod moved to the area in 1995 and has built a successful mountain guiding business. He offers expert guidance whether you are an experienced ice climber or someone who just wants to spend an invigorating morning in the glen. I was in the second group.

Mike drove me up to the Steall Falls car park. We traversed the flat, glaciated landscape by the Water of Nevis then clambered up the boggy, heathery hillside to Meall Cumhann, at 2,290 feet. We talked about geology, trees and the forces, manmade and natural, that have shaped these valleys. We discuss the best ways to tackle these adventures – the gear to take, the techniques that help, the signs to look out for.

In fact, I realised halfway through that Mike was teaching me how to walk.

It seems you’re never too old to learn.

Hostelling Scotland and the Outdoor Capital of the UK, Lochaber’s destination brand, hosted Mark Jones. /

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