Why Scotland’s youth hostels are still the best on earth

Writer Mike MacEacheran at Loch Ossian, which was recently voted UK Hostel of the Year
Writer Mike MacEacheran at Loch Ossian, which was recently voted UK Hostel of the Year

Follow the West Highland Railway Line north from Glasgow, along tracks squirrelling through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park to where the air is clear on Rannoch Moor, and a Brigadoon awaits. At least, for those who like their holidays when sleeping bags, muddy boots and bunk beds are never far away.

This is where hillwalkers and hostel-goers can alight at Corrour station, the UK’s highest mainline terminus, before trudging the tough one-mile gravel track that cuts across peatland to Loch Ossian and the hostel on its banks in the lonely heart of the Grampians.

Loch Ossian is a 20-bed hostel in Corrour
Loch Ossian is a 20-bed hostel in Corrour - Loch Ossian

Once it was a lochside waiting room for the gentry brought by horse and carriage from the station to shoot red deer and game on surrounding Corrour Estate. Now, the lodge is the UK Hostel of the Year, winning top spot in The Great Outdoors Reader Awards 2024. It really is a perfect place for experiencing the Highlands at its most beautiful – and a fitting testament to Scotland’s innate ability to do remote, rustic accommodation so well.

It was snowing heavily when I arrived at Corrour, the ground covered in a duvet of white, and the landscape felt dreamlike, evoking a backdrop fit for a faun, lamppost and sledge-riding queen. The station itself had a fleeting appearance in Danny Boyle’s zeitgeist-defining Trainspotting, but, in outdoorsy circles, it’s more of a star turn than Ewan McGregor. It’s a gateway to almost unreachable wilderness, a portal to some of Britain’s most memorable back-country adventures.

Corrour was once held by the people of the glens as an ancient common, a high-altitude range for summer cattle grazing. Today, travellers with rucksacks monopolise the landscape. In winter, a trickle of mountaineers in brightly coloured waterproofs become tiny hillside beacons. In summer, weekend groups shuttle between the station and the lochside accommodation. On my visit, as I neared the hostel, a car crept past on the track. Later, I learnt it was workers from £25,000-per-week Corrour Lodge, a modernist bolthole on the 57,000 acre estate. These days, it’s owned by a Swedish philanthropist and a favourite escape of Bono.

A foil to this, Loch Ossian’s 20-bed eco-hostel stands alone, half-hidden by a copse of trees on a hook overlooking the water, feted by purists for its sense of remoteness and wild space. Confronting me was the symmetry of a mirror-like loch reflecting Scots pine-topped islands and sloping mountains speckled brown and white like a grouse feather.

Glencoe Youth Hostel in Ballachulish was a close runner-up to Loch Ossian
Glencoe Youth Hostel in Ballachulish was a close runner-up to Loch Ossian - Glencoe Youth Hostel

Hostel manager Jan Robinson, who’s worked by herself at Loch Ossian for 13 years, was almost at a loss how to describe what the setting means to her and many who visit. “It evokes awe more than anything,” she said, as we sat under a rack of antlers by the open fire. “That feeling of being connected to the wilderness does something to your brain.” For me, the car- and wifi-free location – the sense of undisturbed quiet – was like pulling the plug on modern life.

Loch Ossian Youth Hostel is a textbook example of why such places still have a vital role to play in our modern travels. According to Hostelling Scotland, bed nights across the country have risen since pre-pandemic levels, with nearly 315,000 nights recorded for the past season, compared to around 260,000 for the 2019/20 equivalent. That’s a striking occupancy level of nearly 70 percent across the charity’s 29 lodges and 24 affiliates. And much of the UK is experiencing the same rise.

Cairngorm Lodge is found within Cairngorms National Park
Cairngorm Lodge is found within Cairngorms National Park - Ailidh Beaton

“Responsible and sustainable travel and the connection with the great outdoors has long been at the heart of hostelling, but the desire to get outside and enjoy nature has never been stronger,” said Graham Sheach, Hostelling Scotland marketing manager, who I’d spoken to before my trip to Loch Ossian. “The cost-of-living crisis has definitely led to more people giving it a go. The flexible and informal nature of it, and the ability to self-cater, makes it an increasingly authentic travel experience.”

Grasping that, it’s not hard to understand why Loch Ossian has seen an upswing in younger travellers, as well as a stream of arrivals from as far afield as China, Korea, Japan and India. Reasons for optimism are plentiful and my night in the bunkhouse was spent with all ages, from all walks of life. My fellow hostellers included a group from the Lake District, a South African hiker, a pharmacist, photographer and a student, among others. In Scotland’s hostels, no one is left out. Late into the night, hot cross buns and whisky are shared by the fireside.

Inside Gairloch Sands in Ross-shire
Inside Gairloch Sands in Ross-shire

With deep snow on the ground the next morning, I retraced my route to the station at Corrour, where I waited for the morning service back to Glasgow. A raptor circled above the track. The sun-streaked tops of the Mamore summits formed a barrier between Loch Ossian and the rest of the Highlands. As I clambered into the carriage, another two hostellers disembarked from Fort William, ready to arrive in a place that was in the heart of Scotland, but also as far away from it as can be.

How to do it

Mike MacEacheran was a guest of Visit Scotland (visitscotland.com) and Hostelling Scotland (hostellingscotland.org.uk). Loch Ossian Youth Hostel (01397 732 207; hostellingscotland.org.uk/hostels/loch-ossian) has dorm rooms from £23 per night.