Haven in a Blizzard - Loch Ossian Youth Hostel


e've come in from an orange and black night to a place where white light bounces off hard plastic surfaces. We sit awkwardly at a table, dressed for a quite different occasion than the Glasgow-bound passengers sprinkled down the train carriage. I blink at them and ask questions in my head: is that a Russian DVD playing on that laptop? What's the boy listening to on his I-phone that fizzes in the air and makes him tap his foot? And is that a good or bad text the woman is staring at?

Loch Ossian Youth Hotel after the blizzard, 107 kb
Loch Ossian Youth Hotel after the blizzard
© Sarah Flint

"It's 17 miles to the nearest road but feels like it could be 100"

The train leaves the station and I pull off rucksack and thick winter smock and stare out of the big windows into the black, trying to make shapes emerge. But there's nothing out there: just black.

We pass empty platforms lit in their dirty orange glow. 'Tulloch'. A name to swear with. 'Are we next?' Yes. A man in uniform suddenly materialises to fight with his portable ticket machine. 'We want to get off at Corrour please'. It eventually spits out two orange tickets.

The train stops in blackness. No orange glow here but lighter shapes emerge on the other side of the windows: a bank of snow. 'Is this us?' Yes. Uniform opens the door and light falls into the night. Black air is dazzled by white flecks as a wild wind blows snow sideways. On the platform a rectangle of thick untouched snow shines out solidly against the dark. Rob steps out in the spotlight but is eaten up instantly by blackness. I shiver, hurriedly re-layer and step out of the train into calf hugging snow.

A starkly beautiful Loch Ossian, 118 kb
A starkly beautiful Loch Ossian
© Sarah Flint

The wind throws snow at my cheeks, whips my hair around my face and pushes me into the dark. I firmly pull my hood over my head to hide from the angry night. A man passes by me walking hurriedly, the door slams and the train goes on its way into the black night to a bright and shining Glasgow. Pulling on gloves, I hurry to catch up with Rob, who's barely visible.

My eyes slowly work it out: the world changes from blackest black to tarmac grey. I can just see the outline of a small platform and a lonely station building hunkered down against the wind. No-one is in. No lights anywhere.

"I can feel the huge hidden world that's out there: a grey world full of snow and ice and watched over by silent mountains"

The rushing man gets into a Landrover and headlights make the snow-wrapped world real again for an instant – until the car turns and all we can see is the red eyes of the tail lights. The tyres have gouged out deep tracks in the snow which I blindly try to follow; stumbling and plodding while the wind pushes and shoves like a playground bully. The cold wind and snow work into my cheek bones where they sit together and bite. I hug the hood even closer and pull up my scarf to my nose until I'm in a cosy burka. I focus on the heat in my body and where I'm putting my feet: my world reduces to a grey tunnel in a grey wilderness.

Loch Ossian YH
© Jim C, Dec 2007

Gradually the cut and thrust of cold gusts becomes less like a fight and more like a rough and tumble. My body relaxes a little and snail-like I peer out of my shell. Layers of blurred grey hills merge into a velvet dark grey sky: a two-dimensional grey-scale landscape of curious beauty. These greys are gentler, so much more varied than the monotony of winter city streets.

'Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, c.1895 Timberclad former waiting room for the steam yacht that plied Loch Ossian, converted to a hostel in 1931; refurbished as an eco-hostel by the Scottish Youth Hostel Association, 2003.' Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Indistinct darker shapes materialize. Scrubby trees? Boulders? They move… 'It's a stag' calls Rob. It runs off with the ease of a startled horse in a summer meadow and joins other black shapes. They canter off together away up the hill until the blizzard fades them out. Ahead the Landrover's tail lights are now just glowing embers, but as we walk on a small yellow light appears in the distance. 'Is that where we're going'? I ask. 'Yep'.

Uphill now - enough to make me sweat in my synthetic cocoon. On the brow of the hill deer stare at us while some of them graze in the greyness. They don't hang around as we pass. The light ahead gets bigger. We leave the tyre track path and push through snow drifts towards it. Knee high, thigh high, sometimes just shin high. More startled deer, annoyed that their peace in the storm has been disturbed.

Loch Ossain under ice, 86 kb
Loch Ossain under ice
© Sarah Flint

A small wooden house is lit up like there's a party going on. The benches on its well-lit porch are drowned in snow. We open the door to a bright wood-panelled hall and warmth hits us. Our boots leave piles of snow that melt instantly. The place is empty. We walk to the back of the house and find a frozen loch that recedes away from grey to black. At the loch edge skeletal birch trees bend with the wind and the burden of snow-smothered branches. Loch Ossian. It could be as big as a sea or as small as a pond. I can only guess.

"A small wooden house is lit up like there's a party going on. The benches on its porch are drowned in snow"

Despite the cold in my hands, the snow in my eyes and the cutting wind, a kind of peace sinks into me. I can feel the huge hidden world that's out there: a grey world that's full of snow and ice and watched over by silent mountains. I want to stand here until dawn, wind-blown and dusted by snowflakes, and absorb the deep solitude. The word 'haven' arrives on the wind and catches on my tongue.

There are footprints running along the front of the house to a small cabin. We find the warden there, where the 21st century leaks into the room through her computer. She cheerily accepts our money and reminds us there are no showers here and not to be put off by the compost loos. We return to the blizzard for an instant before closing the door on it, stomping the snow off our boots and finding a large kitchen where a wood burner throws out welcome heat. Wooden tables and benches, wooden floor and wood-panelled walls. My first Youth Hostel and not what I expected at all: a redundant Victorian waiting room for rich visitors to the grand Lodge at the far end of the lake, now used by anyone who cares to travel through the boggy wilderness that is Rannoch Moor. It's a slice of the nineteenth century spread with the ethics of the twenty first. And this evening it's just us, and the warden warm and safe in her cabin…for miles and miles.

It's 17 miles to the nearest road but just now it feels like it could be 100.

Having a Trainspotting moment at Corrour station, 70 kb
Having a Trainspotting moment at Corrour station
© Sarah Flint

I look through the windows and see how the light falls onto the snow, making black and white grids. Beyond, grey shapes creep. More deer, right by the house. They stand eerily still, staring at the light-bathed house. We stare back.

Later, when the hard benches make standing better than sitting and there's nothing left to eat from the basic rations stuffed into our rucksacks, I go outside again. The wind has dropped and silence wraps around everything. Every sound is eaten up by the snow. Trees are immobilised by frost and the thick coating of snow. I expect the White Witch to turn up at any moment. It's too cold to daydream for long so I grudgingly return to the hut half expecting to find a suitable wardrobe.

I don't find a wardrobe and I don't want to: I don't need to visit Narnia for time to stand still. So I go to bed in the wooden bunk, keeping on most of my clothes, stealing an extra duvet from the empty bunk above me, and sleep the deep sleep of a hermit.

We wake to the same peaceful world, but grey is a thing of the past. It's all about white: white snow, white cloud, white ice. And as I watch at the lake edge the cloud lifts showing me mountains that fill the horizon. Blue enters the colour scheme: blue sky smudged with pink flushed clouds turning the icy lake and distant white summits blue. Sunlight shudders across the opposite hill and we see a speck of a man breaking through deep snow in search of a Munro tick. 'He must have started early', says Rob, a fellow Munro man, approvingly. Deer stand casually around, finding something in the snow to root out for breakfast. Across the lake a Ptarmigan calls, its strange shuttlecock shape defined sharply against the white.

When we leave to catch the morning train I feel as if I'm leaving a lover…and I know I'll be back.

Loch Ossian from Beinn Eibhinn, 110 kb
Loch Ossian from Beinn Eibhinn
© stevesmith, Dec 2012

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