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Anyone who reads my blog knows I am no information service. My motto is “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. All the same there’s more that needs to be said about Knoydart, my most recent travel muse, for it is not like any other place I have been to.

The earliest recorded history of Knoydart goes back at least a thousand years and yet it is March 1999 that will go down as the definitive point in this timeline because this is when the residents finally wrestled control of the peninsula from absent and disreputable landlords.

   
Perhaps the most notable of these landlords was Ronald Nall-Cain, a conservative politician and Nazi sympathiser (almost to the point of treason) who after the war raised the shackles of disenfranchised Scots by denying them access to scarce crofting land so he could retain the entire region as a personal recreation area for himself and his privileged friends. This link describes the events that saw the Knoydart Seven attempt to stake land for the use of locals plus lyrics to a song that encapsulates the incident. Do click on the link – it’s would make for a great film plot.
 
 

Today an inscribed cairn in Inverie commemorates the actions of the magnificent seven.

In 1948 near this cairn the Seven Men of Knoydart staked claims to secure a place to live and work

In 1948 near this cairn the Seven Men of Knoydart staked claims to secure a place to live and work

This community buyout in 1999, under the umbrella of the Knoydart Foundation, finally established a platform for the 5 dozen or so inhabitants of Knoydart to run the land for the common good.

Remembering the buy-out

Remembering the buy-out

This 2001 feature in association with the West Highland Free Press captures the positive spirit of change shortly after the buy-out when the emphasis was on securing the basic facilities like a reliable electricity supply. Now in 2013 not only has the hydro-electric plant been updated into a reliable independent energy source but it is yet another point of attraction for visitors

Ranger-led guided tour

Ranger-led guided tour

In the limited time I have to explore the village of Inverie and beyond it is easy to sense a weight of history. There are mechanical ghosts in the woods and I wonder whether the Knoydart Seven knew of or even operated these machines.

Ghost rider

Ghost rider

It looks like nature won this particular battle…

Reclaimed by the land

Reclaimed by the land

Today Knoydart is heavily – athough not entirely – reliant on tourism. It attracts walkers, climbers, kayakers, photographers, painters, pony trekkers, deer stalkers, day trippers. Looking at my own motivations add foodies and bloggers to the list. Visitors need accommodation and that’s catered for in the form of cottages, hostels and camping. Rangers lead walks and tours and Anna, who is looking after my hostel as maternity cover, helps to run pony trekking for visitors.

Say hello to Milo – 15 hands tall

Say hello to Milo – 15 hands tall

Then of course there is The Old Forge pub which does a very good business – not just through having an almost captive audience but because it serves fabulous locally sourced seafood and venison dishes. Never before have I seen langoustines in a British restaurant, probably because they all get shipped abroad.

Fresh from the sea

Fresh from the sea

While I was there the ale on tap was also local. Business idea: start a micro-brewery here?!

The Glenfinnan Gold was lovely!

The Glenfinnan Gold was lovely!

When I mentioned that the pub had an almost captive audience I was alluding to the fact that the pottery and tea room across the road now also serves food in the evening. Everything I saw at lunchtimes was freshly made/baked and the evening menu paid appropriate homage to the immediate sea, land and skies.

Just look outside for culinary inspiration

Just look outside for culinary inspiration

These ventures are representative of the success story that continues to be written here by the now 120 plus inhabitants, amongst which there is extremely low unemployment. As well as the tourist focussed trades there is also inward employment; eg: forestry workers, rangers and a teacher at the local early years school.

Life may be changing but from the outside it does seem that under the leadership of the foundation this is a controlled change, bringing much-needed positive benefits while recognising and protecting the assets that make Knoydart unique and special. While this can’t always be an easy balancing act there appears to be an underlying ethos – a shared understanding – amongst the community members new and old that I hope will serve the interests of inhabitants and landscape sensitively for many years to come.

A shed load of post

A shed load of post

A conversation with the post mistress of 30 years proves enlightening. When she started out there was no post office – just a shed where mail was deposited for collection by residents. Now the post office is housed in a proper building while a driver delivers mail in so far as the limited road system allows. A positive change in lots of ways, but the message on the post box serves as a reminder that some elements of the service will always remain the same.

Collection time 15 minutes before the ferry

“Collection time 15 minutes before the ferry”

What of the other services we take for granted? There is no doctor on the peninsula although one travels from Mallaig each month to hold a surgery. There is no police presence here either, but why would you need this when there is no crime to speak of? A small close-knit population with low unemployment. The best kind of tourists – self motivated outdoor types who come here for a positive experience. Doors are routinely left unlocked. I left my tablet computer unattended wherever I went and theft never crossed my mind.

Fire service - of sorts

Fire service – of sorts

There is a limited fire and rescue service, the future of which hangs in the balance due to shortage of personnel, low levels of activity and (inevitably) cost. If you have grown up in such a community or moved here then you are signed up to discrepancies in service levels as compared to more accessible areas (though I wonder if any council tax rebate is forthcoming). Despite the improvement in services and facilities on offer I’m under no illusions that life here must still be tough at times – especially in winter. It’s no wonder that the threat of rain or midges fail to ruffle any feathers when there are more important issues to worry about, such as retaining your roof in the high winds.

A reminder that it can get windy here

A reminder that it can get windy here

I have previously mentioned there is no road access to Knoydart so all provisions are reliant on the ferry, which in turn is subject to the weather. As I prepare to leave a vehicle marked Taxi pulls up on the pier. I wonder if this is the service made available to bunkhouse visitors who wish to have their baggage (although not them) driven to their lodgings. Another idiosyncrasy of Knoydart – so many four wheel drive vehicles on just a couple of miles of isolated road system!

You don't need an A-Z here

You don’t need an A-Z here

It isn’t until I prepare to board the Western Isles ferry that it occurs to me just how important this passenger ferry link is. The postie pulls up in his van to exchange mail and discuss social plans in Mallaig with one of the crew.

Second class mail is delivered by rowing boat

Second class mail is delivered by rowing boat

A lady (from the pub?) arrives with a trolley to pick up food provisions plus any gossip from across the water. The skipper is offloading a polystyrene container of fish for a private customer and my mind returns to a conversation in the tea room yesterday when a visitor asked if they served wine and was advised to ring spar in Mallaig and have them put a couple of bottles on the next boat.

Delivery of food and any gossip

Delivery of food and any gossip

It is this social cohesion that will above all else define my memories of Knoydart. Chatter and friendly gossip has been everywhere. Every visit to the pub has entailed conversations of events in Inverie and beyond. I feel like I almost know bunkhouse manager Izzie despite her maternity absence since everywhere I went people were excitedly sharing news on the arrival of new little girl Josie! How warming to observe such close-knit relations in this small outpost community, in stark contrast to the insular lifestyles of the cheek-by-jowl neighbours of mainland suburbia.

On consecutive days my visits to the tea rooms were enlightened with talk of local names and events to the point I was able to pick up from the previous days conversation. I’m delighted to find that one family that I “know” is also heading to Mallaig on my boat enabling me to pick up more insights into their relationship with the “mainland”. Older children travel by ferry each day for schooling and often a trip over will entail errands to perform for others.

I wish this had been my journey to school

I wish this had been my journey to school

In the week since I returned from Knoydart I have consistently referred to it as an island before having to correct myself. It isn’t. A glance at the map tells you it is glued to the mainland but when you look at the reality of life on Knoydart then it is, to all intents and purposes, an island – at least an island of the mind.

With so many new places in the world to visit I rarely pledge to return anywhere but this case is different. I want to return in a few years to see how the place is changing. In a 2009 interview with The Independent Foundation development manager Angela Williams commented that the community was at times living on a knife-edge. In 2013 I perceive stability and controlled growth. I feel protective of Knoydart; want to know what the future holds. This wholesome initiative deserves every success.

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My previous blog described the circuitous journey from Derby to the Knoydart peninsula (further than Paris and longer than Tunisia). That’s to say it chronicled the final interesting hour or two and not the preceding automotive slog which, while not without its moments of curiosity or beauty, could never rival On The Road for literary attraction unless you’re the type of person who senses the spirit of adventure at Scotch Corner service station.

Needless to say I haven’t come all this way to (just) sit in the pub and there is the small matter of an expedition into the wild interior of this unspoiled and uncharted (by me) wilderness. The original plan had been to climb all the Munros and Corbetts in the region and then complete a 30 mile circular walk around the peninsula coastline while eating only things I could catch and cook but since everyone else I have met seems to be doing precisely these things a change of plan is urgently needed. While “the crowd” take the high road I’ll take the low road and yomp from Inverie to Loch an Dubh Lochain on a notoriously treacherous 4WD path that ascends as much as 170ft above sea level and has, for the most part, no protection from the rain.

The morning skies show some degree of promise in defiance of the near useless weather forecast as I set off from Inverie along the coastal road bordering Loch Nevis. Yesterday as I walked from ferry to bunkhouse I saw some bird of prey with an immense wingspan hovering near a rocky outcrop and I’m taken with the notion it was a sea eagle. Apparently there are golden eagles here also but that would be hoping for too much.

Morning glory

Morning glory

The loch also attracts exotic creatures including dolphins and porpoises while even whales have been spotted further out. As the path heads inland I would settle for a red squirrel sighting but so far they have proved elusive.

Woodland stroll

Woodland stroll

The low morning light seems to creep through the passing clouds so slowly as to land just softly on the exposed rock face of the opposite shore. Certainly there is insufficient drama to distract a horse nearby from breakfast, but I’m impressed.

Horsey breakfast

Horsey breakfast

A temporary detour to the Kilchoan estate near my bunkhouse provides sight of some wildlife at last. Some Highland cattle peak out from behind a barn. It occurs to me that their location offers them particularly good grazing – not that I’m supremely qualified to judge such things – but if I were of bovine stock there would seem to be a lot of space and a decent variety of grass upon which to ruminate.

Curious Cattle

Curious Cattle

Welcome though this sight is it’s the deer that I’ve really come this way to see. The problem is that deer know you are coming well before you know they are there so I’m unlikely to get close to them. Antlers appear over a hill and I’m downwind of them but they soon realise I am in the vicinity and my photo opportunity turns out to be – limited…

Deer are rubbish at Hide And Seek

Deer are rubbish at Hide And Seek

In fact I do get a good view of a sizeable leash of deer through my binoculars but without good quality photographic evidence you will have to take my word for it. It’s back to the main trekking path again, through a wooden section and into the hills.

Into the hills

Into the hills

There’s a busy stream beside the path and it is fed at regular intervals by frothing torrents of water that spill down the hillside following last nights torrential rain. There is no shortage of flowing water around here and by a stroke of fortune a small hydro-electric station sits at the foot of the valley fed by water from the loch I’m headed for. It generates all of the electricity required by the residents of Knoydart and is backed up by a diesel generator in case of failure or maintenance. There’s a ranger led tour of this facility tomorrow but for now I have a route to walk.

Am I going to get wet?

Am I going to get wet?

Portentous clouds hover in the distance over my intended destination but the breeze is now behind me where the skies are clearer. The landscape has a drama that befits my noble solo ascent – unaided by oxygen or sherpas – so it’s a little irritating to meet an elderly lady coming the other way who claims already to have reached the loch. No flag no claim I tell myself.

Finally one more summit and there it is – Loch an Dubh Lochain, as prophesised on my map. But something tells me that neither I nor indeed the elderly lady has planted a virgin sole on these shores. A quaint fishing boat is tethered to a stake in the turf alongside which lay an outboard motor and wooden oars. Nobody is here and it is tempting to drift out into the centre of the loch and doze beneath the slow-motion cloud cinema. I settle for a waterside lunch before turning back for Inverie.

No sign of an owl or a pussycat

No sign of an owl or a pussycat

On the return journey I chat to a few walkers heading in the same direction. They are members of an organised tour and have been dropped off by private boat at Loch Hourn about 5 miles to the north. Their route has taken them over some quite steep slopes and one or two have taken the opportunity to chalk off the 3346ft summit of Ladhar Bheinn. This seems somewhat pointless to me given the very poor visibility. Others in the group are less hardy and one American lady in particular complains that “the track is muddy further up and they should put some duck boards down”. Her spotless gaiters tell me everything I need to know and I restrain myself from breaking the news that there is no Starbucks in Inverie.

Progress is rapid but not dull as it is nice to see the landscape from a different perspective. The route is alive with birdsong and an abundance of stonechats appear to be deeply immersed in the business of nesting. I’m encouraged to observe a healthy variety of butterflies and they seem to like resting on the shiny exposed mica-rich rocks that store heat from the day’s sunlight. The streams attract huge dragon flies and I spot a couple of otter setts although no signs of their inhabitants.

Last rays of the day

Last rays of the day

Today’s walk has been simple and very fulfilling. I have taken a lot of time to bumble around, absorb the views and stalk the wildlife and this feels more rewarding in contrast to all the route-marching high-roaders I have bumped into. I’ll knock off a munro on my next visit but for now the visual drama of this special place has been my reward.

The clouds have returned bringing a premature end to the daylight and as I approach the bunkhouse it seems that the horse I saw this morning has done nothing but chew grass all day, seemingly oblivious to the visual feast about it.

Hungry as a horse

Hungry as a horse

My outdoor credentials haven’t been tested on this gentle walk but I’m determined to make up for this in the well equipped bunkhouse kitchen tonight. I picked up fresh venison sirloin from Inverie this morning and together with some groceries I purchased further south plus rosemary from my garden I attempt to plant a culinary flag of sorts.

Culinary expedition

Culinary expedition

Dinner tonight is pan seared knoydart venison on a bed of wilted watercress with sweet potato and red onion mash, accompanied by a summer ale. It looks and tastes superb and this is comfortably the best quality venison I have ever come across. Yes I’ve a tinge of guilt as I consider the shy local deer population that contribute to this meat supply and a more tangible guilt as I watch much harder walking co-habitants dine jealously on bread rolls and twix bars. I guess it’s just a question of priority but that’s the beauty of Knoydart – whether you take the high road or the low road you’ll have a trip to remember.

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Where do you go if you want to get away from it all and escape the rat race? This was the question I asked myself recently and the answer wasn’t simple. The problem is that everywhere is so accessible now that you have to travel further and further to find somewhere unspoilt. By “unspoilt” what I really mean is somewhere without the homogeneous commercial trappings of every town and village nowadays – a place rich in natural beauty that attracts those who want to experience the simple life but still has a decent pub.

That’s an idea …googles “remotest pub in UK” … ah, up comes The Old Forge in Inverie on the Scottish Knoydart Peninsula. Knoydart is notoriously wild and beautiful, can only be accessed by ferry or by strenuous overland walk and there is no mobile phone coverage. Thus a plan was formed.

According to Google it is 439 miles from Derby to Inverie, including the foot-ferry connection – a journey that will take nigh on eight and a half hours. To put this into perspective I could travel to Paris via a shorter route or check in at the Hotel Africa in Tunisia in less time door to door. To save you a monologue I’m going to fast-forward to Mallaig, gateway to the Western Isles and beyond. Not for me the slick Caledonian MacBrayne departure terminal and car ferry docked at the pier…

Booking terminal and departure lounge

Booking terminal and departure lounge

The Bruce Watt booking office is essentially a garden shed containing cardboard boxes, a removals trolley and weathered boat paraphernalia strewn around a worn desk in the gloom beneath a strip light. Tariffs are scrawled in marker pen on a strip of torn cardboard hung from the wall and the bearded crew mate who makes out a ticket for me looks like he’s going to come down with land-sickness if we don’t cast off soon. I like it!

The good ship Western Isles

The good ship Western Isles

I also like the vessel that will shortly sail me out of the harbour and into the intriguingly named Sound Of Sleat – the body of water that lies between the mainland and Skye. I doubt I have ever seen a more honest boat than the perfectly proportioned Western Isles passenger ferry. There’s the fleeting moment of panic I always get upon seeing a nun on public transport but in the apparent absence of a guitar and a bed-ridden girl I board cautiously.

When I discovered that cars can’t be taken to Inverie I packed my old Karrimor rucksack for the foot crossing and as I lay it on the deck the chap next to me points out that it’s almost identical to his equally ancient and rare model.

Vintage style

Vintage style

Sure enough mine dates back to 1984 when it was bought to enable me to complete my Explorer Belt – an 11 day hike in the French alpine region. I subsequently took it on three month-long inter-rail outings in the early 90s since which it has for the most part been in my parent’s roof, while my travel mate’s version looks to have been in continuous use for the last 30 years. I explain the history of my Karrimor to this genial outdoorsy looking travel mate with the silent relief that this vintage model is not only acceptable but may even be slightly cool, and not some decrepit laughing stock for the modern walking set.

Having boldly ventured that I intend to do a little walking I ask my travel partner what he has lined up. He has come to walk/climb a couple of Corbetts (Scottish mountains between 2500 and 3000 feet) as he works towards chalking off all 221. My jaw drops a little at this point. He goes on to say that he is one of the 80 or so people who have climbed all 282 Munros (3000+ ft) twice and he is part way through his third round of climbs which would put him in an elite group of 20 people. This information is imparted with modesty as if it were no big deal.

Munro Lassie

Munro Lassie

My jaw is now on the floor and I’m rather wishing I hadn’t mentioned my own feeble walking plans. To cap it all he tells me that he is on his third dog, a slightly wary but sweet collie, but one of his previous dogs actually ascended all of the munros with him. If these feats weren’t enough he manages to indulge this passion in his spare time when he isn’t working on the Railways in and around Glasgow. I’m in awe of such dedication even though the exercise in itself doesn’t appeal to me.

Feeling less smug

Feeling less smug

I may feel less smug about my own outdoor credentials now but at least this episode has proven that Knoydart is going to be the place I had hoped it would be – a proper no-frills destination. While we have been chatting the diesel engine driven screw of the Western Isles ferry has propelled us into Loch Nevis which, on this overcast day, has taken on something of a broody air of menace. Silhouetted are the peaks of Ladhar Bheinn, Beinn Bhuidhe and Luinne Bheinn, mysterious and enticing but exuding an aura of danger as I wonder how to get them past my spell-checker.

Inverie ahoy

Inverie ahoy

As Inverie hoves into view it becomes possible to get a sense of scale. The dozen or so stone whitewashed loch-side buildings account for everything Inverie and Knoydart have to offer in terms of the high-street experience. It is almost surprising therefore to see so many people waiting on the jetty to catch the ferry back to Mallaig and I wonder whether this will leave Inverie deserted. I later realise there are a fair scattering of hostels and rental cottages beyond the high street (including my own hostel) while other departees may be day visitors who arrived from Mallaig or Skye on the morning ferry.

Knoydart exodus

Knoydart exodus

A short walk along the jetty leads to the loch-side road and within a minute I am at the “heart of the action” at The Old Forge – the remotest pub in the UK. Today the place is heaving with people outside – 2 sat on a bench by the door and another three seated at a picnic table across the road overlooking the Loch Nevis. The little white dog in the doorway lives here and he trots up to me, drops a much loved green ball at my feet and looks up expectantly.

Doggie play time

Doggie play time

Not wanting to disappoint this lovable mutt I throw the ball for him and he eagerly scampers off to fetch it and drop it again at my feet. Ten minutes later I give in, say farewell and feel very guilty as the little fellow gives that crestfallen look only a spurned dog can give.

The Old Forge - remotest pub in the UK

The Old Forge – remotest pub in the UK

The Old Forge is renown for fresh local seafood and venison and it also stocks real ale. I’ll be returning to the pub tonight as I have booked a table (advisable) but right now I need to check into my hostel and get this rucksack off my back. The rest of the village consists of private houses, a sweet little village hall, a visitor centre come shop and a café next to a slipway.

Loch Nevis Slipway

Loch Nevis Slipway

There are very few people to be seen, my phone has no signal, it’s quiet. A minutes pause to take in this pure untarnished tranquillity. An hour in these parts can pass without any incident whatsoever but as rain starts to fall from seemingly nowhere I realise the weather can change in an instant. Into the visitor information centre cum shop to take cover and immerse myself in things local. The centre consists of a room with some activity leaflets and folders crammed with press cuttings about Knoydart. The shop contains a freezer full of venison sourced from the peninsula and there is a basket containing one bulb of garlic and a large locally grown courgette. There is nobody here but a sign says to leave money and write down what you took if nobody is about.

The rain reaches a crescendo before easing off and I see a few locals sauntering by outside oblivious to the soaking. If you live here you don’t speed up when it rains and umbrella ownership is frowned upon. This is the remote Knoydart peninsula in the Highlands where the weather will not be allowed to dictate people’s lives.

The rugged shoreline

The rugged shoreline

Sheepishly I slip out of the building wearing head-to-toe waterproofs and head for my hostel a 20 minute walk away. The rain clears and I am left feeling silly and far too hot in non-breathable over-trousers. The shoreline is rocky but attractive in a stark way, peppered with countless muscle shells and carpeted with sea-weed.

To my left is a forested hillside and after a while the road snakes into the foliage, past a couple of houses and then re-emerges into an unmettled lane where I find my hostel, just past a few whitewashed rental cottages and before a working farm. If this is a satellite to Inverie then I really am staying at the back of beyond, even if the hostel provides more homely comforts than one might reasonably expect at such a remote location.

I lay claim to a bunk and converse with a couple of backpackers in my dorm. They are walking the entire 7000 mile length of the British coastline for charity and are approximately half way around after setting off from North Yorkshire last year. Needless to say these fascinating but unassuming travellers walked in the hard way and did not get the ferry. I decide to no longer mention my own miniscule walking intentions but focus on listening to the tales of others. There be stories in these hills.

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