Knoydart: Island of the mind

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.