You have to really want a pint to walk to the Old Forge. “It’s a two-day hike from the last tarmac to Britain’s most remote pub,” Knoydart ranger Finlay Greig warns me on the phone. I am desperate. And not just through thirst. Across those hulking mountains, plunging glens and surging waters survives a community that has recently overcome the odds – yet again – to buy its only pub. It’s just the latest skirmish in a baleful battle waged for centuries to avoid last orders being called on a community that literally survives between heaven and hell.
Even finding the start of the walk at Kinloch Hourn is a herculean effort down the UK’s longest dead-end road, 22 miles from what is already the middle of nowhere. Those local names are daunting – Knoydart is a 55,000-acre peninsula sandwiched between the lochs of Nevis (heaven, in some Gaelic translations) and Hourn (hell). A friend drops me off – otherwise it’s an hour by taxi from Invergarry – and as the engine cuts, the mountains threaten, steel-blue waters close in and foreboding clouds scud across the sky. With no escape bar the sinewy trail, I’m struck by a familiar sense of highland awe. I’m dumbstruck by the scenery, yes, but my stomach is churning at the wildness I’m hurling myself into, and I feel incredulous, too, that humans have stubbornly managed to eke out a living here for thousands of years.
If epic scenery tugs at your heart and sends your spirits soaring, this peninsula, home to a trio of Munros (mountains higher than 914 metres or 3,000ft), is the place for you. I set off on the old drovers’ route along Loch Hourn – arguably the country’s finest sea loch, certainly its narrowest, tracking west through undulating terrain dotted with patches of original Caledonian forest and equally rare temperate rainforest. I’m all alone, bar the otter splashing off on my approach and the stag I startle.
If epic scenery tugs at your heart and sends your spirits soaring, this peninsula is the place for you
I could walk through this landscape all day, but then suddenly I can’t as gradient-ravaged knees buckle and strength saps. Handily, there are the bunks of Barrisdale Bothy, after about five hours – you can camp here, too.
The next morning is my toughest, but sore knees seem trivial as I turn my back on the brightening waters of the loch to forge up through mist-shrouded mountains. I battle the wind tunnel of 450-metre Mam Barrisdale pass with a brace of golden eagles and then descend towards Loch Dubh.
By late afternoon I’m on the final stretch down through boggier terrain, snaking right of the River Inverie towards the main settlement in Knoydart, also Inverie. In this world, the imprint of man is a painful one. To those willing to look, it’s the sort of landscape that reveals how much of north-west Scotland is not just a wilderness, but a human-made one. In its heyday, more than 2,000 people had their wee bit of hill and glen here. Then came the calamitous Battle of Culloden in 1746 – when the highlands-backed Jacobites failed in their attempt to overthrow the Hanoverian monarchy – and its aftermath tore the clan system asunder. Gone was dùthchas – the inalienable right to clan land. Gone were the people; the scattered ruins were their ghostly legacy. Today, Knoydart may be recovering, but the population is still only around 120.
Much as the wildlife and scenery excels, it increasingly becomes a mere distraction. These mountains housed Britain’s only mica mine, used to manufacture Spitfire windscreens in the second world war.
Negotiating a herd of highland cattle, I drop into the village and am cheered by a sign of defiance: a modest memorial to the “Seven Men of Knoydart”, who took on notorious landlord Lord Brocket in a daring land raid in 1948. They eventually lost in the courts, but within a few years Brocket was gone. The flame had been lit.
Carrying on that spirit are sisters Isla and Rhona Miller, whose beaming faces light up the Knoydart Pottery and Tearoom, one of the local businesses thriving since the community land buyout was secured in 1999. “With community ownership came new hope and the opportunity to have more control of our lives, to work together to make things better ourselves rather than be ruled by an often-distant landowner,” says Isla. “This year the school roll is doubling and we’re seeing people who left coming back.”
The Old Forge is a whitewashed wonder on the Inverie waterfront that is the cheery Scottish pub of Hollywood movies
I witness further green shoots in the community shop, the new community hall and at The Table, a community “sitooterie” – built through more defiance after relations with the Old Forge’s previous owner soured. Miller tells me about a new initiative, Scoto (Scottish Community Tourism), which links communities such as Knoydart and welcomes tourists as “temporary locals”. It’s no tourist office puff – visitors do really feel welcome in this community.
I finally get my pint at the Old Forge. It’s an IPA – Inverie pale ale – from the new brewery just along the road. I’m clinking glasses with Davie Newton, who is managing the resurrection of the Old Forge and is a director of the Knoydart Foundation, running a community boasting hydroelectric schemes, forestry and rewilding.
Pointing at the land glowering around us, Newton narrows his eyes and says: “Once you wouldn’t be able to walk half a mile in Knoydart without being welcomed into a home. Then came the dark days. Now we’re fighting back, and the struggle to buy the pub is part of that. We had support from all over the world. Just maybe we have lessons for other communities across the Highlands and beyond.”
I’ll drink to that.
Google map of the route
Start Kinloch Hourn
End The Old Forge, Inverie
Distance 15 miles
Time Two days
Total ascent 1,039 metres
The Old Forge is a whitewashed wonder on the Inverie waterfront that is the cheery Scottish pub of central casting – famously welcoming to walkers, waifs, strays, sailors and all in between. Live music sessions are famous, with a piano and guitars on the walls if you fancy a go. Even if you don’t, you may well get roped in. As well as Knoydart beer they have ales from Isle of Eigg Brewery, on the community-owned isle just across the water. There are decent drams too, best enjoyed with sunset in the beer garden. The kitchen is being renovated. In the meantime there are pizza nights at the tearoom on Wednesdays and fish and chips on Fridays. You’re welcome to bring your food in – in fact, you’re always welcome in the British mainland’s most remote pub.
Where to stay
Sleep soundly at the new community-owned Wee Hooses, 10 minutes’ walk west of the pub, as you funnel money back into Knoydart Foundation. These Tardis-esque oases are clad in Knoydart wood, have a compact dining table, offer sleeping for four (one double and a bunk bed), wooden decking and a woodburning stove. A walking trail snakes up behind the Wee Hooses that connects with the “Knoydart in a Knutshell” route that explores the village.
Wee Hooses from £120, knoydart.org
This is a difficult walk in wild and remote terrain and all walkers should be well equipped and prepared. A map and compass should be taken, ideally with more than one member of the group able to use them. Always leave your ETA with someone.
Ferries to Mallaig with Western Isles Cruises connect Inverie with the railhead at Mallaig in half an hour. Scotrail trains connect with the Caledonian Sleeper to London at Fort William.