Loch Ossian Hostel, Scottish Highlands
The Highlands provide a much more stirring and dramatic scene on a dark, forbidding day than they do in bright sunshine. Standing at the top of Carn Dearg, a 3,394ft Munro on Rannoch Moor in the southern Highlands, dark clouds threatened a downpour, yet shafts of brilliant sunlight fell across the shadowy mountains. I'd spent the morning squelching peat underfoot and sucking in lungfulls of crisp air to get some height and my reward was a glimpse of wild Scotland in all its age-old glory.
My guide for the day was Neil Birnie, co-founder of Wilderness Scotland, an adventure travel company that organises holidays throughout the Highlands and islands. For walking holidays in Rannoch Moor, they use Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, which has no road access and can only be reached on foot over the mountains or from Corrour train station. Though the hostel is in one of the wildest parts of the country, Corrour is on the Caledonian sleeper from London, so you can leave Euston at 9.15pm and arrive in the heart of the Highlands just before 9am the following morning.
After bacon butties and tea at the station cafe, we walked the mile-long winding path to the hostel. It's in a stunning setting, tucked in a small clump of birch and rowan trees overlooking the spectacular Loch Ossian. The Scottish Youth Hostels Association has owned it for the past 75 years and has recently given it a green makeover. Electricity is powered by a combination of wind turbine and solar panels, there are compost toilets and a natural reed-bed filtration system cleans the waste water. There's a fully equipped kitchen with hot water and a multi-fuel stove, and two dorms for eight and 12 people. Wildlife thrives in the surrounding Corrour Estate - Nick Priest, the hostel's warden, told me he recently recorded the 100th species of bird in the area; otters live on the loch, and roe deer, red squirrels and pine martens are regularly seen on the mountainside and in the estate's forests. The rustic setting of Loch Ossian is typical of the wild, open spaces Wilderness Scotland has sought for over 30 types of outdoor adventure holiday, including walking, sailing, mountain-biking, sea-kayaking and canoeing, as well as wildlife and photography courses.
Most of its holidays begin at train stations, where the walk or cycle ride begins, or, for trips out to the Western Isles, you're met off the train and transferred by boat. Its efforts to encourage train travel and reduce the carbon footprint of its holidays have won Wilderness Scotland a reputation as one of the leading environmentally friendly travel companies. It is the first adventure tour operator in the UK to attain the Green Tourism Business Scheme Gold Award and was highly commended in the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards in November.
In 2006, the company organised 70 trips for over 500 clients and the total mileage of all of its vehicles was just over 12,000 miles. That's the same carbon emissions as one person's return flight from London to Singapore. But it's not just the company's commitment to low emissions transport that is proving a hit. Birnie says there's a growing interest in its trips because people see Scotland as an affordable and accessible place to get back to nature.
At the top of Carn Dearg, Birnie proudly pointed out: "If you go further north or to the west, for as far as your eye can see, there are another hundred scenes just like this." And he doesn't just mean the view; there are plenty of opportunities to see a variety of wildlife. On the three-hour descent down the mountain towards Rannoch train station, we saw a herd of deer, two ptarmigan just yards away from the path, and a peregrine falcon swooping mid-flight to catch a meadow pipit. And not a car or plane in sight. A bed at Loch Ossian Youth Hostel (0870 1 55 32 55) costs £13 per person or you can rent the entire hostel for up to 20 people from £225 a night. Sleeper train from Euston to Corrour costs from £107.20 return firstscotrail.com, 08457 55 00 33). An eight-day guided walking holiday to Knoydart with Wilderness Scotland (0131 625 6635) costs £795pp, including accommodation, meals, guide and transport to from Mallaig train station on the West Highland Line.
This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the Guardian.
For more green accommodation in Scotland: Green Accommodation in Scotland