For students, the notion of a study break most often means a beer at the bar with a few friends, where the conversation will tentatively skirt around the topic of exams, pass-marks and the ominous fear of failure...
Yet for truly unwinding after a hard week at university, there’s nothing better than taking off into the Scottish countryside for a couple of days, where you can explore, skirt the pressures of coursework by several hundred miles of stunning Scottish wilderness – and, as an added bonus, even have a beer in a Highland brewery.
As a student at Stirling University, I am, geographically speaking, pretty well positioned to take advantage of the best that Scotland has to offer. But if Stirling is the gateway to the Highlands, then SYHA is a gateway to all of Scotland, and an eminently affordable gateway at that, as I discovered on a recent trip to Aviemore.
I’m usually more inclined to pitch a tent (however haphazardly) and sleep under the stars, but when I arrived at the Aviemore Youth Hostel, I discovered there’s nothing quite like a little luxury to take the edge away from exam-time stress: no tent pegs or midges to fuss around with here!
There are of course a great many walks to enjoy in Aviemore and the surrounding area. On the first afternoon, I decided to take a walk into Craigellachie Nature Reserve, which is only a short walk from the youth hostel. I’d taken along a friend, Kerry, who was fairly new to exploring the Scottish Highlands – and who had a lot more exams to worry about than I did! The walk up through birch woodland and little ponds was a fairly simple one, with a well-marked path and a wonderful sense of tranquillity. But once we reached the summit cairn, and the vast canvas of the Cairngorms National Park unravelled in front of our eyes, we realised that the pressures of university had been left at the bottom of the hill, and that was where they would stay for the time-being.
Because even for a city-dweller as familiar with the Scottish Highlands as myself, there’s always something quite extraordinary about the oftentimes bleak beauty of the landscape and its apparent remoteness from civilisation, even when every corner of Scottish wilderness in the country is really only a short hop on a train or by car from the busy modern world. And for an avid photographer like Kerry, the place was a goldmine of shots to compose: a sweeping vista of imposing snow-sprayed mountaintops and endless expanses of tussock and gorse. She spent the entire walk back wondering by turns at the beauty of Scotland, and berating herself for never taking much of an interest in it before.
Back at the youth hostel we rewarded ourselves with a beer from reception and a chat with a group of German students we met in the lounge. This was a great little space with a pool table, shelf-loads of books, and corners that seemed forever reserved for cosy armchairs and cosy conversations – conversations that could go on into wee small hours without irritating the rest of the guests. The German students, we learned, were youth hostelling their way around the UK. They seemed to know more about youth hostelling in Scotland than either of us, and they were certainly of the opinion that there was a lot young Scots could learn from the culture of hostelling that’s so ingrained on the Continent.
“Why wouldn’t you?” asked one of them, perhaps as perplexed by the answer as we were.
Of course, walking isn’t the only thing to do. The next day, we headed along to the Cairngorm Brewery for a tour. This consisted of a fairly informative (and surprisingly interesting) explanation of the brewing process, followed by a look into the fermentation tanks, and, naturally, a sampling of the beers. It’s fair to say that by the time our guide had run us through the gauntlet of beers they had on offer, including Gold, we were all pretty merry. Indeed, when he eventually appeared with freshly-pulled jugs of the stuff (“You have to try it on draught!”) I’m sure even the most hardened student party-goer would have had to decline his generous invitation.
After the brewery tour, we took a trip down to Loch Morlich Water Sports Centre. The bracing Highland breeze was more than enough to sweep away any of the lingering effects of our tour guide’s generosity, so thankfully this wouldn’t be a case of drink and drown! As a kid, I’d been out on the loch in a canoe with my sister and dad a couple of times; my sister and I bickered too much to enjoy it much, so it was nice to return in more serene circumstances. In the intervening years, I’d forgotten about the sandy shores – peculiar as they seem, nestled amongst the surrounding forest and mountainsides – and about the quaint wooden beach house that serves as the Water Sports Centre. Kerry was so enamoured with it all that she elected to stay behind on shore snapping photos. Or, as she put it: “getting some pics for your sister”. So I hired a kayak alone and set out into the waves.
Typically, it started raining almost the moment I got out there; typically, Kerry had forgotten the waterproof cover for her camera, and had to put it away; and typically, the weather cleared up again shortly after I’d returned to shore. But for all of Scotland’s characteristically blustery weather, I had a great time out there, exploring along the little river that feeds into the loch, and ploughing out towards the deeper waters to enjoy a fantastic view of “the beach in the mountains”, as the man who kitted me out had called it.
We ended the day with a stroll around the loch itself. Kerry, who’d never set foot outside the Central Belt before, was getting quite into the whole Highlands Thing by now, and echoed the student’s words from the night before: “Why wouldn’t I?”
All in all, it was a great little trip that couldn’t have come at a better time. Sometimes, there’s nothing quite like getting away from it all, and the youth hostel itself was a great change of pace – cheaper than a hotel, with the freedom of camping, the bonus of a cheap warm bed and a cheap cold beer to come back to after a day out, and great staff who’re more than happy to point you in the right direction or offer up some local knowledge on what to do and where to go if you haven’t mapped it all out yourself.
There’s not much that will top SYHA as an affordable and convenient gateway to Scotland, be that as a gateway to help this knackered old student unwind, or, as Kerry discovered, a gateway to new parts of the country that were always waiting on her doorstep. For those who haven’t yet given their youth hostels a try – particularly younger people – you’re left with the question offered by the German student on our first night. Why wouldn’t you?