Reminiscences of Herbert Gatliff


James Shaw Grant, August 1989

A Man in a Gas Cape: Article in The Stornoway Gazette and West Coast Advertiser

I read my Gazette week by week not only with interest but with wonder and delight. Wonder that so much can be happening in a small community. Delight that it should be so.

Inevitably, as I read, my mind goes back to the early thirties when I was scraping around for news. A very mediocre concert rated a column or so of space, and council meetings were reported almost verbatim. Nothing else was happening, except religious (or irreligious!) squabbles and obituaries. It was a depressing but a challenging time.

By the end of the thirties the Islands were beginning to struggle out of the Slough of Despond, but even so the transformation which has overtaken their social life – mainly, but not all, for the better! – in the last twenty-five years is quite astonishing. This comment is provoked by the juxtaposition of several items in a recent issue, particularly the annual report on An Lanntair and the opening of the Herbert Gatliff Youth Hostel in Berneray. Herbert Gatliff deserves to be remembered in the Islands with gratitude and affection. I well remember my first meeting with him. I was told by one of the staff there was a tramp at the door who wanted to speak to me. “Show him in”, I said, wondering what strange story was about to unfold. Instead of a tramp, I was greeted by a senior civil servant who had held high office both in the Treasury and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. A man of considerable intellect with many friends of the same calibre, but who was possessed – I don’t think the word is too strong – by a love of the Highlands and Islands. The small remote places. He was weather-beaten after weeks of walking through the hills. Tousled a bit from sleeping rough or at best in youth hostels where they were available. His hair was long and a bit unkempt, in the fashion of the day, although it had not then penetrated to the Islands. And he was dressed in a rather dilapidated, wartime, camouflaged gas cape.

It was the beginning of a correspondence which spanned many years. His letters were hand written on small sheets of paper, torn, I guessed, from a duplicating notebook, so that he retained a copy, which he would need to do, because he kept up a voluminous correspondence, much of it with bright young people he had met on his hostelling trips and whom he wanted to imbue with his own love for out of the way places.

His later years were devoted to establishing small hostels in areas the SYHA had not reached. He particularly wanted them to be integrated with the community. Partly so that locals would benefit from any small financial spin-off, but much more importantly because he wanted the young folk from the cities to mix with and learn from those who really lived in the countryside. He poured a good deal of his own money into the work and when he died he left a trust fund so that it could continue.

At that time, for reasons I never understood, he got no help or encouragement from the SYHA. He was swimming against an adverse, or at least indifferent, official tide.

It gave me particular pleasure to see that the new Berneray Hostel has the backing of the SYHA, and that the Countryside Commission and the Council of Social Service were both represented at the opening ceremony. That is the sort of memorial Herbert Gatliff would have wished. He may be no longer with us, but he had made his point!

Shortly after he died I was summoned to Stornoway to give evidence before a Parliamentary Committee then visiting the Islands. I was told they wanted to question me as chairman of the Harris Tweed Association. Much to my surprise, Harris Tweed, the Island’s principal industry, was hardly mentioned. I was grilled for a couple of hours on the question why Lewis was not producing its own milk supply like Orkney. It was a frustrating experience. There is nothing more difficult than fending off the questions of people who believe in miracles and cannot understand why you are not performing them. At the end, one of the MPs, who seemed to be better informed than the rest, came over to speak to me privately. “I was hoping to have a word with you”, she said. “I was a regular reader of the Gazette for many years. ”

That shook me. She sat for an English industrial constituency and was very much in the news at the time because she was too hot a political potato even for her left-wing constituency executive to handle. They were reported to be trying to edge her out of the seat because she was not only a very active feminist but an avowed lesbian. She certainly did not fit the profile I had in my mind of the typical reader of the Stornoway Gazette. She explained that before going into Parliament she had been a civil servant. Her boss had been Herbert Gatliff and he insisted on her reading the Gazette so that she could understand that London was not Britain, and learn what made a real community tick. I had always known Herbert Gatliff was a friend of the Islands, but, up until then, I had not realised he was our self-appointed mole in high places.

Bob Chaney

Member of YHA National Council from Manchester

 He had his own very distinctive mode of address, which commanded attention as soon as he started to speak, and which could make people think twice before disagreeing with his opinions. He did not waste words, and he never gave any hint of bias, political or otherwise. I felt he was a very genuine and sincere man, with no time for showmanship or playing to the gallery, who deeply loved such wide open and lonely parts of our country as still remained, and who would give his all in support of any cause in which he believed.

Jack Frame

Vice-president of Scottish Youth Hostels Association

 We used to see him yearly at Inver Alligin in the 50s when he was on his round of the hostels. We had a wee cottage in Wester Alligin, the six of us, and our Manchester friends had another cottage. One Sunday, very wet, everyone camping or hostelling in the area decided to visit us! In walked the ‘old man’ (for we didn’t realise he had retired at about 55 and wasn’t as old as he looked). There followed a monologue about the state of all the hostels – irrespective of the interests of all the others.

 The late Alan Gardiner

Long serving YHA volunteer on YHA’s Committees and Councils and a founder member (with Herbert Gatliff) of Croydon YHA Local Group

 Of meeting Herbert in his huge office at the Treasury and him extracting all his walking kit from a stately filing cabinet! He used to leave for weekend hostelling by the back door!

Of crossing the Larig Ghru with Herbert, of bathing (just dipping as it was very, very cold) in the Pools of Dee in the middle of the Larig in the buff. Of camping overnight, watching the torrential rain through the open end of the tent and of the wind suddenly changing and soaking us. Of soaking exposed skin in oil of citronella – the midges just paddled with greater irritation and then crouching round the primus stove which helped a little to keep their numbers down. Herbert’s boots exposing more and more foot until the boots were thrown away and he continued barefoot. Of bathing in another pool in the buff, suddenly realising a mixed party was approaching, making ourselves respectable and sitting on a mound just above only to see our visitors strip off to the buff and dive in.

Of Herbert at National Council and Regional AGMs pushing countryside issues against opposition but with such charm and erudition that you could not possibly but agree!

Graham Heath

Past Secretary, International Youth Hostels Federation

 I came to YHA National Office as a very young Assistant Secretary in 1937. I was blissfully unaware of YHA politics, but I soon realised that a long, handwritten letter from Herbert Gatliff (addressed from the Treasury) meant trouble; it was action-stations for that good pacifist Jack Catchpool (YHA National Secretary) – as the minutes and files were searched for defensive ammunition. . . Not being involved in financial matters, I had little personal contact with Herbert. But I was very nearly responsible for his early demise. There was to be a committee meeting at Saltburn, and I offered to give Herbert a lift in my newly acquired car. It was a young man’s car, a convertible, and the day was cold. We drove all the way up the North Road with the top open, and I expatiated on the virtues of fresh air. Herbert’s nose, a noble organ, turned increasingly blue. But he never complained. However, for the homeward journey he chose another form of transport.

Carol Johnson


 My most frequent and closest connections with Herbert Gatliff took place in the Commons (now Open Spaces) Society where, apart from the Society’s business he often talked with or wrote to me about his other interests, and in particular his activities in opening up the wilder parts of Britain to young people: he showed me their letters and writings – vivid in phrase and often poetical in character – which showed what an influence he had had in opening the eyes of young people to the glories of our countryside and in particular its moors and hills and mountains.

Herbert Gatliff served on a number of bodies and made his presence felt on all of them, as in a way he was different from many of us in his air of unconventionality: he was indeed a ‘character’ in every sense of the word and often exhibited an individual approach to problems. In the field of finance he impressed everyone with his (to many of us) special and unusual knowledge about ‘city’ ways and the world of finance. But he brought to all problems a highly trained mind and an individual approach – indeed he seemed to me to have a ‘wide-angled’ mind which often introduced a quite different but invariably germane idea that raised the discussion to a more relevant level.

Herbert Gatliff was a man one would not easily forget and one remembers him always with a sense of gratitude.

Max Kirby

Past National Treasurer, YHA

 It was at the end of May 1947 that I first met Herbert Gatliff. I was on a walking holiday in Coigach and Wester Ross staying at SYHA hostels each night, which at that time were mostly small crofter’s cottages or old school houses.

My companion and I had spent one night at Inver Alligin, an 18 bed hostel in a small cottage on the north side of Loch Torridon where we were the only people staying at the time and left after breakfast to spend the day walking on the peaks of Liathach.

Upon our return we had been joined by a slightly stooped middle-aged man who was wearing khaki shorts. He had a Punch-like face and rather long and unruly hair which fell over his face at regular intervals.

He told us he had left his office which was in Leeds at that time and had taken the night train to Inverness. He had travelled alone in a first class compartment in which he had cooked his meals on a Type 96 Primus stove much to the consternation and concern of the Guard.

During the long evening whilst we prepared and cooked our suppers on the solid fuel stove by the light of candles and a hurricane lamp we talked of our journeys and the burning topics of Scottish countryside matters of that time, afforestation mainly of conifers, and the plans of the North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board for some of the most beautiful glens.

Next morning we made our way down to the village to pay our overnight fees and to take the warden’s launch across the loch to Shieldaig – there was no road on the south side in those days. Here we parted company – Herbert with a lightweight tent, food and his primus to sustain him on the coastal path to Applecross, whilst we made a beeline for the Corries and then to the hostel at North Strome.

In the twenty years or so which followed I was privileged to receive many notes written on the pages of triplicate note books in a hand which was difficult to decipher but always of interest to read, and to serve with him on the National Executive and Finance Committees of YHA.

Dick Knapp

Past National Secretary, Youth Hostels Association

 Herbert was a unique character. Many folk could not accommodate themselves to his uncompromising attitude to some amenity questions, his odd manner of speaking and his almost illegible and lengthy notes. But he was very kind and supportive to me from the time when on my appointment to the YHA Secretaryship, he invited me to go as his guest to the Annual Meeting of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

He devoted much time and thought to the YHA because he believed passionately in encouraging and enabling young people to think and act for themselves, particularly by exploring the countryside – especially the wild, remote areas which would challenge their courage and initiative. He felt strongly that these objectives could be best achieved by the provision of the simplest possible overnight accommodation, of which his Scottish ‘bothies’ were a practical illustration. Long may his spirit invest them.

Peter Knottley

Cycling journalist from Cheam, Surrey

 Herbert went to great lengths to ascertain the views of the young on countryside and amenity matters and to encourage them to take part in YHA affairs. Typically, I recall a visit with him to Berry Head in south Devon, where some gravelly development was proposed, to get some idea of its extent and effect and to form some opinion on whether the proposal should be opposed and if so on what grounds. This would have been about 1952. I strongly suspect I learned a good deal more from Herbert than did he from me.

I often think of Herbert and his work, which delayed the destruction of so much of our heritage for so long, when I am out and about in the country, and in particular I invariably do so when in the Scottish hills and glens. They were surely his spiritual home, and I can readily imagine Herbert among them still, conversing as he walks, complete with rucksack – and perhaps, umbrella, too.

Steve McCombie

Past YHA Committee and Council member from Greenwich

. . . But what was so remarkable about Herbert was his ability to bridge the generation gap. To a great degree, to articulate the views and aspirations of young people far better than those around him. This was because he was actually in touch with them from his encounters in hostels and the correspondence that ensued. He was constantly armed with, and quoting from, recent letters from young hostellers (who I recollect were invariably male – simple hostels in the Outer Hebrides were perhaps considered rather too adventurous for young ladies in those days). Herbert had a passionate concern to encourage adventure by young people in the countryside and saw hostels (as well as bothies, camping etc) as a means to that end. At a time in the late fifties and early sixties when the YHA was getting middle aged and moribund, increasingly interested in organised school parties, family hostelling and, indeed, anything that enabled old stagers to carry on hostelling like they always had, Herbert performed a most memorable service in stressing the real principles for which the YHA existed ‘to encourage the first independent adventure of the young in exploring the countryside’.

George and Sheila Perry

Past wardens of Kemsing Youth Hostel

 We remember his championship of Keith Chambers; his verbosity, apparent vagueness, his scholarship, great kindness, and above all his great courtesy and country-gentleman demeanour, typified by his invariable hostelling dress of knickerbockers and long stockings. George particularly remembers Herbert’s oft-used preface when he stood up to address a meeting, ‘Broadly speaking. . . ’.

The late Bryan Speedy

Member of YHA Committees and Councils

 His appearance at Lloyd’s always caused something of a stir; he invariably arrived trailing an army surplus gas cape round his ankles; as a result my brothers always referred to him as ‘Gas cape’!

His tendency to threaten to add codicils to his will if things were not going his way!

He once related to me how, in his married days, he was down at some remote hostel in Cornwall ‘just getting the feel of the hostellers’ when his wife arrived from the local hotel and destroyed the whole atmosphere!

Another quote: ‘the finest food in London is to be found in Lyons Comer House’.

Bernard Trayner

Past Publicity Oflicer, YHA

 Herbert was an indefatigable letter writer, using carbon paper notebooks. Not only indefatigable, but almost illegible. I could read his writing, but not get the sense of it without having it typed out. In one memorable week I received 50 pages of Gatliff code, and after a few weeks of not having replied, I felt I ought to apologise when I met him. Herbert was not put out and said, ‘Even if you don’t reply, I think it useful for you to know what is going through my mind’.

I used to dread August when the National Secretary, Accountant and Countryside Officer were all on holiday, as he used to ring me up, complain about the absences, and tell me what he wanted to discuss with each officer. At the end of it he sometimes forgot what he really wanted to discuss with me.

The late Michael Trinick

National Trust Director, Cornwall

 ‘Gatters’ – never known as anything else – sat on the Estates Committee of the NT from before my joining in 1950 until – I think – shortly before his death. While he was distinctly an odd man out, in what was then a somewhat aristocratic landowning membership, he was entirely capable of holding his own and projecting his persona which was based on the open air, simplicity, idealism.

I think Gatters had been at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and that it was he – acting as an anonymous civil servant ~ who ensured that one of the earliest cases of coastal land coming to the Trust under National Land Fund procedure was pushed through. This property is the Kelsey, a wonderful headland west of Newquay – with beaches on either side of it – on which I was subsequently able to build a mini-empire. Gatters kept the ball in play from about 1948 until 1951 when the land was eventually transferred to the Trust.

Noel Vincent

First Warden of Tanners Hatch Youth Hostel, Surrey

I was always impressed by his voice – so deep and resonant to come from a man who was on the small side. I think it was he who told that he was sent to a provincial city to advise on their finances. After an impressive dinner with the burgesses they took him to his suite at the best hotel. After waiting for the coast to clear, out he comes with shorts, boots and rucksack, walks up the hills above the town to spend the night in his little ‘Itisa’ before coming down at dawn.