We Did It Our Way
The Story of Newtonmore Hostel
©Peter Main - 2002. Reprinted with permission — HighlandHostel.co.uk.
The idea started about 25 years ago when I was working as a young(ish) and single Outdoor Instructor on the west coast of Scotland. I was delighted to be living in Scotland but found the west coast rain and midges less than friendly. I was also working in a deep valley aligned north to south and in winter there was so little daylight that I felt I might as well be living in the land of eternal darkness. At the same time I was spending my winter weekends near Aviemore. Initially this was so I could ski but I also found the area had less rain, more sunlight and fewer midges in summer. The idea gradually formed that this was where I would like to live. Life moved on and I switched to teaching in Edinburgh where my job involved long periods of time taking youngsters away into the mountains staying in cheap accommodation both at home and abroad. One weekend we stayed at a place that was dirty, cold, poorly equipped and overpriced. My immediate thoughts were, I could do better than this, much better. By then it was the early 1980s and the idea of Peter's Doss was born: basic but cheap accommodation for climbers and hillwalkers, which would give me sufficient income to allow to live in the Highlands.
I married and plans were refined. The name was changed to independent hostel / bunkhouse. In 1988 we moved to Newtonmore. I continued with my work near Edinburgh. Our house opened as a B&B. The next stage was to plan the Hostel. All this took four years, much, much, longer than our optimistic hopes at the start. Work started in September 1991 with the builders promising to be finished by Christmas. To say we were stressed would be to understate things! After many traumas Newtonmore Hostel opened in February 1992.
It is a very scary feeling to open your own business, you have worked day and night and invested and borrowed many thousands of pounds. The builders and the bank need paying. Will you have any customers? Fortunately people did come, slowly at first and then in greater numbers with our second summer being particularly successful. At that time there were far fewer Independent Hostels in Scotland and the need for our type of accommodation was clear.
Numbers staying at the Hostel stabilised after about three years but my hopes of working at home diminished, the stumbling block being the amount of money we owed the bank, which drained away any profit. Local Government re-organisation saved the day in 1996, I was declared surplus to requirements and was delighted to take an early retirement / redundancy package that allowed us to pay off some of our loans. So in April 1996 I retired after 21 years in the same job, I was home at last. That was eight years ago and, looking back, it was the right decision.
Over the last twelve years we have had many people through our Hostel doors and we have very much enjoyed greeting our customers and being mine-hosts. Some have become friends and nearly all are pleasant, friendly and appreciative of our efforts to provide a good quality of accommodation at a reasonable price. There have been numerous amusing incidents and the strange things people do never cease to amaze us. What do they do with all that toilet paper? Why can't people from eastern bloc countries keep the shower curtain inside the shower tray? Some groups we will never forget, such as the Loadsaweeminsinging Ladies Choral Group who serenaded us, and the village, for the whole weekend. Their rendition of Pirates of Penzance at 2am on the lawn will never be forgotten. Just about all of our customers are outdoor folk who are more interested in a good night's sleep rather than causing trouble. In nine years we have only had to call the police once.
After being employed we really like being self-employed. The risk of losing it all gives an added incentive to succeed. We have a nice old house, in a traditional village in the Highlands. The welcome we received from the locals when we moved was superb and we are all well integrated into the local community. This is also a great area to bring up our children. When the sun is shining or the snow is on the ground we can nip out for some exercise and recreation, choosing to do the accounts or decorating on the rainy days. The downside is the constant interruptions, no matter what time we sit down for a meal the phone will ring or someone will arrive at the door. If we are ill and can't work and there is no sick pay or holiday pay. Going away on holiday is a logistical nightmare and time away is double whammy of loss of income plus paying for the cost of holiday.
My wife Kathryn also works part time since we gave up the B&B in 1998. The Hostel and other minor sources of income allow us to survive. We have yet to achieve our ambition of living in the Highlands with sufficient income just from the Hostel but we are getting there slowly.
What of the future? We feel our Hostel has never quite fulfilled its potential, the reasons being the arrival of many other new hostels, the strong pound and the siphoning off of backpackers by the bus tour companies in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Disasters such as 9/11 and Foot & Mouth have not been helpful either. We have countered this with strenuous marketing efforts as well as doing everything we possibly can to make our Hostel the best it can be. The number of returning customers and the feedback we get give us confidence that our Hostel is excellent. We take great pleasure in seeing satisfied customers.
Despite a new Hostel being opened less than half a mile away from us, we maintain hope for the future (and our part time jobs). There are now three hostels in our village and the number of village hostel beds will have gone from 18 to nearly 100. Despite the help we got from HIE (HIDB as it was then) when we started, it has taken a long time for the VisitScotalnd and HOST to fully recognise that not only do Hostels exist but they are also making a substantial contribution to the Highland economy. If the average local spend of each of our customers is £10 then £250,000 has been spent locally since we opened.
We feel our future here in the Cairngorms is a good one. There are three major developments in the pipeline that should result in an upturn in the number of visitors. These are:
- The Scottish National Cycle Route (Glasgow to Inverness), opened 2000, is beginning to bring many more cyclists through the area between Easter and October.
- The Speyside Way extension to Newtonmore, not yet complete. We want to see action on this one soon and we are puzzled why there isn't any.
- The Cairngorms National Park, open 2003, will provide added protection to this unique area as well as give a boost to summer visitors.
- With these three projects up and running there may then be a chance that all the hostels in the area will be able to make a living. Grandiose projects like the Cairngorm Funicular Railway have no impact on our business at all.
- So what is needed for success? You will need a good idea, a single-track mind, a stubborn determination and large quantities of very hard work. You will also need large helpings of good luck and good health. If you can put all these factors together then there is no better place than the Highlands to live and work.
Photo courtesy of Newtonmore Hostel