A pint in Britain's most remote pub
The Old Forge is in the wilds of Scotland, 20 miles from the nearest road. Yet its bar is usually packed out. Jamie Merrill takes a ferry to find out why it’s thriving.
Thursday 28 February 2013
When I first round the point where the white horses of the Sound of Sleat meet the calmer waters of Loch Nevis the village of Inverie doesn’t look like much of a settlement. It’s just a row of sea-bleached cottages on the horizon. My ferry heads on down the loch but the settlement doesn't get much bigger. It’s dwarfed by the mountains behind it and it dawns on me just how far from civilisation this far-flung part of the Scottish Highlands really is.
Few places are remote in Britain today, but to get here I’ve flown to Inverness before picking up a hire car, driving west across Scotland and down the spine of Loch Ness before hitting Fort William and turning north through the craggy hills of Lochaber to the port of Mallaig. From there I’ve caught a ferry – actually a local fishing boat – for a choppy 45-minute trip to the Knoydart peninsula.
Knoydart is a special place. The locals bought back the land in 1999 from an absentee landlord and promptly set up a community foundation to manage it. Until relatively recently there was no internet, television or even reliable electricity. Today it’s Britain’s last true wilderness – there’s still no mobile phone signal – and it has a romantic charm that draws in hikers, adventures and nature lovers from all over the world. I’m here for a beer.
It might seem like a long way to come for a pint but Inverie – the only village on the 55,000-acre peninsula – is home to the Old Forge pub, the most remote pub on mainland Britain. If I’m honest I’ve taken the easy route in. Really brave travellers will tackle three Munros as they yomp the 20 miles from the nearest road. Most people come by boat to the Old Forge, though, and its car park isn’t a patch of gravel but 12 moorings on Loch Nevis
With a reported 20 pubs closing each week, you might think this isolation would be problem for the Old Forge, but you’d be wrong. It’s bar is packed all summer long with day-trippers, backpackers, guests from cruise ships working the west coast of Scotland and sailors searching for a drink. They all have one thing in common; they want to tick the box in their guidebook marked “drink a pint at Britain’s most remote pub”.
My aim is the same, as Ian Robertson, 65, welcomes me off the boat. He’s the strong and silent type, responsible, with his wife Jackie, for turning the Old Forge into a thriving business. He takes me inside the single-storey building, which is buzzing with trade and pleasantly decked out – Ian won’t allow a television or a loud jukebox. Fresh seafood is the pub’s biggest draw after its location and the menu includes hand-dived scallops from Loch Nevis (a local diver goes down two or three times each day in peak season), oysters from the next loch along and langoustines from Mallaig. There’s also wild venison from the Knoydart Foundation’s stalkers. The foundation is a community body that runs the peninsula, its hydroelectric power station, a bunkhouse and the ranger and wildlife service. It’s not a cheap boozer, though, with beer prices nearer to west London than the Western Isles.
“I fell in love with a man who wanted to live in the most remote place in Britain,” Jackie tells me in the bar. “He was in the army for 20 years so is a master at the logistics of the pub and I handle the marketing. There’s something for everyone here, whether you want good, clean fun in the outdoors and to let the kids run feral in safety or you just want to get wellied.”
Jackie has obviously done a good job with the marketing as the Old Forge is packed with tourists by lunchtime. All the customers are paying around £15 a head and the locals are confined to the bar area. Jackie and Ian obviously welcome their trade, though. “Knoydart is a close-knit place and there’s no way we could survive without our regulars,” says Ian. “Everyone has to run the gauntlet of locals at the bar, though,” he jokes and the local stalker steps in for a beer.
My visit came late last year and the 115 or so permanent Knoydart residents were adjusting to life without the summer tourists. It’s the kind of place where the local wildlife ranger is also the postman. His name is Tommy McManmon and I join him for a beer. It’s also a place, he admits, where many people come to escape their troubles: “We all have to be mad to some degree or another to live here.”
“There’s plenty of truth in that,” agrees Paul Williams, who owns Lochside guesthouse where I’m staying. “We’re 45 minutes from the nearest supermarket and if you need a doctor in winter he’ll have to been helicoptered in.” Like Tommy and many of the “locals”, Paul isn’t actually a Knoydart native. He’s from Bolton, but fell in love with the remote peninsula on his first visit.
Paul is sipping from a can of cider. The unwritten rule, he explains, is that only the locals can order the “cheaper cans” of beer and cider on sale behind the bar. It’s a reminder that with low salaries and a shortage of affordable housing on Knoydart, the Hampstead-level pricing at the Forge is hard for some to handle. Hence the cheaper local option.
The booze has to come a long way, though, and the bar is soon buzzing as Tommy recounts the story of chasing the local postmaster Bernie down a muddy track with a cockerel under his arm. Before I get to the bottom of that one it’s the turn of Morag, a local guesthouse owner, to recount her morning run-in with a peahen. The bar is in stitches and I’m scratching my head as Tommy leans over and says, “it’s a bit like a Scottish version of The Archers in here sometimes”.
Since I visited Knoydart, Ian and Jackie have sold the Old Forge to concentrate on Knoydart House, their luxury rental property on the slopes abovethe pub. When I was there a few locals seemed worried about who might take over the pub, but the new owner, a hotelier called Jean-Pierre Robinet from Belgium, seems sensible enough to change little.
“I’ve been coming to Knoydart every year since I fell in love with the place in 1997,” says Robinet, 45, who has worked for the Leading Hotels of the World group and paid somewhere near the £645,000 asking price for the pub. “I worked at a hotel in the Alps where you could only get supplies in on skis, so I have some idea about how hard it is to run a pub here.”
Coming off the hill on my last day on Knoydart I see that the anchorage is busy. Several small yachts have moored and the Hebridean Princess, a 200ft luxury cruise ship is moored at the pier. A force 9 gale is predicted and the Old Forge seems the safe haven of choice for all around.
The well-heeled guests from the Princess don’t get a quiet pint, though, as Ian has arranged for some local lads to belt out a few Gaelic tunes. It’s not one of the spontaneous folk nights the pub is known for, but it’s the end of the tourist season and the American tourists tip well. The beer goes down fast and before long the whisky is flowing as names blur, the pace quickens and the tourists head for their cabins. I take my cue to leave the locals to it, but the banjo-playing pulls me back in for another dram as the impromptu end of session celebration turns into a night-long session.
As the whisky flows, it doesn’t really matter that we’re in the middle of nowhere. That’s just a label, the locals say, a clever marketing gimmick. As with all pubs what really matters is the quality of the welcome. Be warned though; the Knoydart welcome is very warm indeed and it’s a very long way home if you’re nursing a hangover. It’s easy to see why some people never leave.
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