An Obituary for Iona Hostel, a plea for Slow Tourism

By Maxwell MacLeod published on 30th March 2021 in Bella Caledonia

The essential need for slow tourism in Scotland and an obituary for Iona Hostel which closed on the 30th March.

In the early 1980s I had a tourist experience in the Scottish Hebrides that changed my life. Prof Richard Demarco had chartered a large square rigged sailing vessel, The Marquesa, to sail round Scotland and visit what he termed centres of energy, and in particular those in the Hebrides. Our cargo was wealthy artists, I worked on the ship as a bad deck-hand and reasonable Hebridean guide. Climbing the rigging, terrified out of my mind but fired with adrenaline, and then when we arrived at islands introducing folk to some of the islanders I knew. It was extraordinary. Typically we visited gay lairds who told us that they had chosen the colour of their sitting rooms to augment their appreciation of their wines. Sorley Maclean showed us Raasay, Schellenberg Eigg. We ran wind-on-tide the confusions of the Pentland Firth under full sail. Danced on the high yards in the moon light off Skye, put on women’s make up and wore their clothes whilst they wore ours off Mull when the tensions in the fore peak became too much to bear. And it worked.

The whole experience was like having your previous perceptions of the world ripped up and replaced. The Hebrides can do that to you. That’s one of the reasons they are important. Life on board was truly bizarre. The domestic arrangements were carnal l, particularly for the crew who worked back to back four hour watches. Some of the crew shared not only clothes but partners, sleeping on whichever bunk was available grabbing clothes from a shared pile when your watch was called. Eating with our hands, seldom shaving, singing often. The volume on our lives was turned up.

Sometimes we lived like animals and then returned to civilisation chastened and educated. After a few weeks of such lifestyles we lost track of what day of the week it was and love affairs were established. Though mostly with the sea, the boat and the practice of flirting with danger, of which there was an unnecessary excess. Indeed far too much.

Not long after the trip the ship capsized with the loss of nineteen lives, a couple of them friends of mine. Let me now kiss them over time and say with sincerity that I still miss them. She had evidently sunk in less than a couple of minutes. Nineteen of the twenty nine crew lost. I imagine nobody escaped that fetid forepeak when the wall of water arrived amongst them as the ship sank into the Bermuda Triangle.

They chose the risk of living short lives as lions, rather than long ones as mules.

I’ve never enjoyed anything as much as my time on the Marquesa, either before or since.

I was thinking of how deeply that experience had touched me when I heard this week that the hostel on Iona was to close, at least for the time being and the building to be converted into three self-catering apartments.

Now whilst living in a comfortable hostel on the flower strewn machairs of Iona and only two minutes from the sea isn’t quite as extreme an experience as acting the goat on the high yards of a square rigger as it plunged and twisted through the Hebrides, absurd though it may seem. There are certain similarities that make me similarly sad at this loss. I’m serious. The loss of not only this particular hostel, but several others like it, in the cheaper end of the tourism market is truly a tragedy for Scotland.

The Iona hostel had no proper internet connection or television, guests were encouraged to speak to each other, long walks were advocated. Abbey services indicated, bicycles lent. People would soon start to offer to share food with strangers or teach them to paint or draw. Friendships were made. Conversations held in which there was as much listening as talking. The hostel won awards for it’s ecological responsibility. In short it was what Professor Demarco would have described as a centre of energy. Lives were changed.

But why does this matter enough for an essay? Well here we sit nearing the end of what might be termed ‘the pause’. Many have opined that this is our last chance to make the gargantuan changes in our global way of life if we are to make any significant impact on the oncoming ecological Armageddon whose full impact will start to become apparent within the next ten to fifteen years and which we can at least lessen even if we are too late to entirely avoid.

And how can we do this? Well only if we not only learn the lessons of the pause, that the important things in life are nature, love and community and that it’s not all just a race to see who will own the most toys before we die.

Now we are Scots, Guardians of some of the finest wild lands and oceans in Europe. Places that can teach these lessons, not through finger wagging instruction but through simply encouraging change through giving people the opportunity to experience places like the Iona Hostel so that these immortal truths and their significance become apparent to them.

Of course the Iona Hostel is just an instance of the need for this kind of change, and how we in Scotland can help to deliver it, but it’s still a good one.

Of course this is an optimistic, almost childishly naive way of looking at things, but it is our only hope. COP 26 won’t sort it. It has to be people led. Greta is right. It’s high time we started to panic. The term being given to this kind of activity is slow tourism. I hear that there is a chance that one day the hostel on Iona will re-open. I hope it does. For the sake of us all.

Image credit: Iona Hostel