Our journey began at the end of the road. The longest dead-end road in Britain, in fact. It took two hours of knuckle-whitening jags around hairpin bends and past sheer descents, on a 22-mile taxi ride from the town of Fort William in the western Scottish Highlands, to get to our starting point of Kinloch Hourn.
In the company of two friends, Carl and José, I was embarking on a journey to the most remote pub in mainland Britain. Accessible only by sea ferry or by a two-day, 18-mile hike across the Scottish Highlands from the small settlement of Kinloch Hourn (or an even longer, 28-mile yomp from the hamlet of Glenfinnan), the Old Forge sits in the village of Inverie, on the southern coast of the Knoydart peninsula. "Walking in" to the pub is a rite of passage in the outdoors community, and one we were keen to tick off, thirsty in equal measure for adventure and the extreme satisfaction of a pint well earned.
Forming part of the so-called Rough Bounds – the "highlands of the Highlands" – Knoydart is remote and inaccessible even by local standards. There are no streetlights, you can't get a mobile phone signal, and the seven miles of paved roads are unconnected to the mainland network. Around 120 residents lived here at the last count, spread across 86 square miles (that's approximately the same population density as Alaska). The majority of those brave and hardy souls live in Inverie, and now, after a community buyout in March 2022, most of them own a stake in the Old Forge.
In the decade prior, the pub's legendary status had waned, with the previous owner closing for six months each winter when tourists were few. The pub’s community spirit was lost; so too its status as a year-round sanctuary for tired, thirsty hikers. Even to summer visitors, impressions were often not good. "This place used to be jumping," reads one of the many unflattering online reviews from this dark period. "Now it is like a morgue."
Located on Scotland's Knoydart peninsula, The Old Forge is the most remote pub in mainland Britain (Credit: Mark Harris)
"Over the years, it wasn't serving the community in the way it was needed," said Steph Harris, who grew up in Inverie and is now business development manager of the Old Forge Community Benefit Society. "The main thing was that it shut during the winter, which was massive for us. We're really tourism-based, so people are very busy in the summer, and in the winter we get the chance to spend time together again. But the pub would shut for six months in September or October. When it's dark and windy and horrible, you need somewhere you can go and relax, meet up with your friends, celebrate stuff together."
Locals were so desperate for somewhere to go during the dark winter months, they erected their own makeshift wooden bar around an old table on the shore of the loch near the pub.
When it's dark and windy and horrible, you need somewhere you can go and relax, meet up with your friends, celebrate stuff together
When the Old Forge was finally put on sale in February 2021, a community buyout was quickly proposed and the response was emphatic. "We've got 90 shareholders," said Harris. "That's effectively 75% of the local population. The response was just amazing – people were willing to put their own money into it, which was phenomenal."
In a little over a year, in April 2022, the pub re-opened, this time in the hands of the community. Though some of the physical renovations are ongoing (the kitchens are scheduled to reopen in 2023), the pub’s atmosphere was restored to its former glory immediately as locals and hikers returned – making it a place, once again, worth the walk.
The pub is only accessible only by sea ferry or an 18-mile hike across the Scottish Highlands (Credit: Joseph Lynskey)
Our first day's hike saw us skirt the southern shore of Loch Hourn, a steep-sided, fjord-like body of water that reaches like a witch's finger between the peninsulas of Glenelg and Knoydart. The route traced the edges of the loch shore – it was mostly rocky and easy to discern, but often collapsed into boggy marsh, which sucked our boots and smeared our ankles in mud. This was once a deer-stalker's path, and, more forebodingly, a coffin road – a route along which corpses were carried to the Kilchoan burial ground in Inverie.
I wondered what secrets lurked in the bog; imagined ghostly hands grasping at my boots each time they squelched beneath the mire. Fittingly enough, Loch Hourn translates from Gaelic as "Lake Hell"; Loch Nevis, our destination, as "Lake Heaven".
But first came purgatory: the mountains and the bog. We ducked our way along loch-side paths overgrown with jungle-like greenery, which poured water down our necks and soaked us through. We picked our way on hands and knees across natural stepping stones over seething rivers. Conditions seemed to lend credence to the repeated weather report we heard from locals and passing hikers: "Three months of solid rain."
We spent the night at Barrisdale bothy, a basic shelter left open for the use of hikers that apparently last saw a lick of paint sometime in the 1950s. A guestbook lay on the kitchen table, including an entry which read, "I'm a scientifically minded person, but I experienced things here which I cannot explain." Tired enough not to care, I curled up on a wooden bunk and lapsed into a dreamless sleep.
The next day saw us cross the Knoydart peninsula from north to south, fording waterfalls where rotten wooden bridges had been trod through, and plodding up the seemingly endless slopes of Mam Barrisdale, a modest mountain whose peak was the route's highest point. This hike was giving new meaning to the term "pub crawl", but we were energised anew on seeing that most Scottish of sights: a vast stag, regally observing us from the crest of a hill.
A long hike up Mam Barrisdale takes you to the route's highest point (Credit: Milos Cucakovic)
Our pace quickened from Mam Barrisdale, downhill now all the way to glittering Inverie Bay. A resident, tinkering with a boat in his driveway, regarded us with kindly concern as we plodded past on our approach to the village. We carried about us the essence of the bog, smeared in mud and smelling for all the world like a badger had died in one of our bags. But soon we rounded a corner and Inverie's tiny main drag revealed itself: a succession of little white houses, with a pub sign heralding the Old Forge at their centre. We had made it.
Beside the main road sat a beehive-shaped cairn, inset with a metal plaque commemorating in Gaelic and English the plight of the Seven Men of Knoydart. After World War Two, these "land raiders" attempted to reclaim a place to live from the villainous absentee landowner (and Nazi sympathiser) Lord Brocket – something they had been denied since the Highland Clearances of the 19th Century saw locals evicted to make way for sheep pasture. The Seven Men were led by local priest Father Colin Macpherson, who preached in Inverie's St Agatha's Chapel. Now deconsecrated, the chapel houses the Knoydart Brewery, which supplies several beers to the Old Forge, including one named in honour of the Seven Men.
It's always been more than just a pub, and that's very evident after the past few years
"The Seven Men of Knoydart are heroes of community ownership, which is why we commemorated them with our beer," said co-founder Matthew Humphrey. "The fact we're making it in Father Macpherson's church… it just feels right."
The brewery is not the only local business feeling the benefit of the pub's revival; so too is the Knoydart Pottery and Tearoom, a café across the road from the Old Forge that is providing the pub with sandwiches while the kitchens undergo renovation. "I'm noticing a huge influx in smaller cruise ships coming in," said co-owner Isla Miller. "There's a great energy and buzz about the place. It's always been more than just a pub, and that's very evident after the past few years."
The pub, which reopened in April 2022, was purchased by locals as part of a community buyout (Credit: Stephanie Harris)
As we finally entered the pub, I was struck by the number of instruments lining or hanging on the walls: guitars, mandolins, a piano – all put to good use on regular music nights, both planned and impromptu. "This is the beating heart of the village," said bar manager William O'Neill. “The atmosphere has definitely changed [since the re-opening]. We are seeing more of each other, and now have the ability to have a night out rather than stand around a fire outside in the cold and wet.”
As for us, after two days deprived of such luxuries as clean water and fresh food, we gazed up at the glittering bounty behind the bar like Charlie Bucket surveying the chocolate factory: lagers, bitters, IPAs. “What’s it to be, lads?” said O’Neill.
Our mouths moved in unison. “Three pints of Seven Men, please.” And repeat, ad nauseam.
The morning sun, glistening over the eastern shore of Loch Nevis, pierced my brain like a lightning bolt shattering a tombstone. I staggered out of bed and stumbled around, unwilling or unable to open my eyes. Fumbling for a glass of water, I found the door handle instead, and emerged, blinking, into the dawn. My colleagues, similarly dishevelled, stood waiting. The thing was done; the dead were living. Now how the hell were we going to get home?
Slowcomotion is a BBC Travel series that celebrates slow, self-propelled travel and invites readers to get outside and reconnect with the world in a safe and sustainable way.
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