Knoydart: Britain's last wilderness
It's been 10 years since the inhabitants of Knoydart, a remote peninsula in western Scotland, gained ownership of their land. Simon Calder paid them a visit – and discovered a place of splendid isolation
Saturday 21 March 2009
Skye at night has never looked so bright, I concluded as dusk drained the life from the furthest-flung fragment of mainland Britain. I was standing by the shore at Airor, a collection of half a dozen homes ranged around a bay at the far end of nowhere.
"Nowhere" may sound an unkind term to describe so harshly beautiful a location, where pillows of rock rest upon the steely waters of Loch Nevis. Yet from the point of view from which many of us see the UK – as motorists – Knoydart is way off the map. You can drive more or less anywhere on the mainland in Britain today – but not to Knoydart. As Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 33 shows, a barricade of grotesquely buckled contours defeat any roadbuilder as they crowd together in a collective "Keep Out".
Knoydart is a thumb of land that, on the map of Scotland, appears to be hitching towards the Western Isles. Which happens to be the name of the vessel that comprises the only public transport to Knoydart.
Butterscotch and duck-egg blue are the colours that greet you as you board the Western Isles at the port at the end of the Road to the Isles, Mallaig. The boat is imperfectly named, because she sails between mainland Scotland and mainland Scotland. Mind you, her destination is as isolated as any of the Hebrides. That becomes clear as she nudges around the headland and the Knoydart Peninsula fills your field of vision.
Who needs Canada or Siberia when Scotland can offer such intense drama in a single vista? Knoydart clambers out of the Atlantic gently at first, in a sequence of low hills wrinkled with antiquity, where deer roam. The peninsula's capital – population possibly up to 80 – is Inverie, a huddle of houses beneath some muscular fells. But beyond, dusted with snow even in a mild mid-March, stands the reason Knoydart is the last frontier: mighty mountains rippling away into the mist.
As scenery, it is priceless; as real estate, almost valueless, you might conclude. But at its height, as many as 2,000 people made a living, of sorts, from the land and waters surrounding Knoydart. In the mid 19th century, the peninsula fell victim to the clearances – the forcible replacement of the crofters' traditional subsistence agriculture in favour of bigger estates more suited to exploitation. The peninsula was cleared of crofters and turned over to sheep and deer, and Knoydart became a parcel that was passed around between rich men with motives that ranged from vanity to profit, with varying degrees of benevolence.
The music stopped 11 years ago when an entire geographical entity went bust – or, at least, the company known as Knoydart Peninsula Ltd collapsed. With the financial help of luminaries such as Sir Cameron Mackintosh, and a generous but anonymous donor (possibly with royal connections), £750,000 was raised to buy the land for the people of the peninsula. The Knoydart Foundation now runs much of the peninsula, and this month celebrates its 10th anniversary of community ownership.
A 21st-century commune? Not according to Tommy McManmon, who doubles as a ranger for the Knoydart Foundation and the postman with the wildest round in the realm. "There's a lot of independent people here, but if there are problems with the weather or whatever then the community comes together."
The whole community shares a postcode, too: PH41 4PL. Outbound mail depends on the ferry schedules; a notice on the pillar box in Inverie announces that the last collection is 15 minutes before the Western Isles is due to sail. The far end of Tommy's post round is at Airor, the Scottish mainland's point of no return. Across the water, the lights of the Isle of Skye twinkled in the manner of a modest Las Vegas – or that was how it appeared after I had spent time in a land where the night light is purely lunar, and mobile phones are excess baggage.
With no way out, I took the only rational course, and went down the pub. By now, you may not be amazed to learn that The Old Forge is a) the only inn in town, and b) the most remote pub in the mainland UK.
Spoiled for choice? I was glad not to be. While Starbucks – one of the many multinationals yet to establish a presence on Knoydart – invites you to "Come in for one of our 87,000 drink combinations", the coffee chain seems to be confusing quantity with quality.
If you ever fear that we 21st-century consumers of coffee and cultures have too much choice, go to this strange peninsula. I had the venison burger, perhaps appearing soon at McDonald's as a Big Bambi.
"Nightlife" and "Knoydart" do not sit easily in the same sentence, but if you are stuck for entertainment after devouring your deer, you could always head for the museum – the visitors' centre for the Knoydart Foundation never closes, partly because in so benign an environment few people feel the need to lock anything.
Back at The Old Forge, I was becoming convinced that it is the greenest pub in Britain, because the power – like most of the electricity in Knoydart – comes from a hydro-electric scheme. And it is surely one of the friendliest, too, not least because everyone is a stranger, of sorts. A market researcher keen to poll five Knoydart residents at random by calling the only phone box, 01687 462289 would likely find that two are from other parts of Scotland, two from England and one from elsewhere. Which leaves the number of adult residents who hail originally from Knoydart as zero – though 14 children have been born there in recent years.
"The community is strong, diverse and very committed to the area," says the Knoydart Foundation. "Residents are determined to halt the decline and instability that has been the cause of so many people having to leave."
Which is where you come in. The foundation is staging a series of events this year to mark a decade of something approaching self rule, and by some estimates 90 per cent of the peninsula's economy depends on tourism. The community owns a fine place to stay, the Knoydart Bunkhouse, a sprawling former stables that is now warm and welcoming, and by some miracle of the ether has Wi-Fi. Listening to Radio 4 was like eavesdropping on another planet, away from the serene security of this wilderness.
"You don't drop out when you come to Knoydart, you drop in," insists Izzie Prickett, who runs the bunkhouse. She is in cheerful competition with more than a dozen other providers of B&B or self-catering, and is responding to the recession with a "two-nights-for-the-price-of-one" offer; this is what attracted my fellow guests, John, John and Bjorn from Glasgow (who sound like the introduction to a joke). They had previously walked into Knoydart, tackling the 15 miles of Mordor-like mountains that stand between the end of the road and a bed for the night.
Even if you opt out of the tough hike in, you can still explore the end of the earth on foot. I took the "Knoydart in a Knutshell" self-guided tour, and soon found my own private wilderness. With none of the aural clutter that blights the rest of Britain, you get to hear more clearly what nature sounds like; streams tumbling down hills whisper hush to screeching seabirds.
Moss bestows softness to the foreground, while the hills that have escaped the snows are burnished to a faded auburn: man and livestock have taken turns to rid much of the land of the forest that cloaked the peninsula. Even in spring, Knoydart seems frozen in perpetual autumn.
Close to Inverie, plantations of firs are down to man – and the works of humanity are plainly visible. You come across a decaying bulldozer whose rusting corpse has been there so long that it now appears on maps as "Dozer Corner"; and an old sawmill that one day may be brought back to life as the gentle resurrection of nowhere continues.
Yet you need not venture far inland to be awed by the brute force of the ancient mountains that insulate Knoydart from the ephemeral cares of 21st-century Britain. Finally, I wandered to a desolate beach where shore, sky and sea colluded to make the spirits soar. Going to extremes may lead to the edge of the world, but the journey also takes you to the beginning of everything.
It's a long way – but worth it
Most people heading for Knoydart one way or the other find themselves passing through Fort William. The town has direct trains from Glasgow and London Euston (overnight only); call 08457 48 49 50 or visit nationalrail.co.uk for more details. From Fort William, the Road to the Isles runs to the port of Mallaig, roughly parallel with the railway line; by train, the trip from Glasgow takes about five hours.
If you happen to be driving, reckon on a minimum of three hours from Glasgow with a clear run.
The only scheduled ferry to Knoydart is the MV Western Isles, which leaves every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10.15am and 2.15pm; crossing time 45 minutes, with a one-way fare of £9. Check sailings with the skipper, Bruce Watt (01687 462 320).
Note that it is possible to visit Knoydart for just a few hours if you take the morning departure out and return on the afternoon sailing.
Other vessels carry out ad hoc runs, usually between Mallaig and Inverie. The exciting way in is to walk, which should only be attempted if you are fit and properly equipped; take advice from the Foundation's website, knoydart-foundation.com. The closest road access is 16 miles away at Kinlochourn, itself "the end of Britain's longest dead-end road".
The biggest accommodation option is the Foundation Bunkhouse (01687 462 242; knoydart-foundation.com), which charges £14 per person per night. It sleeps up to 25 people, but needs to be booked in advance.
Eighteen hours from central London: agreed, it doesn't have the catchiness of "24 Hours from Tulsa" or "From Here to Eternity", but in three-quarters of a day you could get to some fabulous places such as Bali or Buenos Aires. And 18 hours was exactly how long my journey from Euston station to stepping ashore at the peninsula's diminutive capital, Inverie, took. No complaints; the first 13 hours were spent on a train that is simultaneously the longest, most civilised and best-value train journey in Britain: the Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William. The £39 I paid for a "Bargain Berth" bought 500 miles of rail travel, a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. The views as the train clambered across the snowy wastes of Rannoch Moor, with a jagged barricade of rock beyond, came free.
Part two of the journey, to the port of Mallaig, was in the convivial company of Mark from Derby and, later, Kirsty from Arisaig, with whom I hitched along the new, improved (as from last month) Road to the Isles – more prosaically known as the A830.
The journey was a fine way to spend a night and the best part of a day; but I found a quicker alternative on the journey south. I procured a ride back on one of the ad hoc sailings that shuttle sporadically between Inverie and Mallaig.
From the port (which, by then, thanks to the inevitable recalibration of the urban spectrum resembled a thriving metropolis), I hitched to Glasgow airport in three hours flat. A £24 flight on easyJet took me to Stansted, and within six hours of leaving Knoydart I was back in central London. And rather regretting it.
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