As lockdown eases, the dream of strolling to the pub for a quick drink or three is edging towards tantalising reality.
You could, of course, stroll to the Old Forge but might need more than a bag of dry roasted by the time you stagger to the bar.
There are no roads to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula and drinkers shunning the ferry face up to three days of hiking over peaty bogs, winding paths and daunting Munros.
If you hit Loch Hourn – sometimes translated as Gaelic for Heaven or Hell although both are likely wrong – you’ve gone too far but, provided you don’t get lost, you will be ready for a beer at a pub which is, according to the Guinness Book Of Records, the most remote in the UK.
Yet those hoping for a quiet pint at the end of their epic walk – or boat journey from Mallaig – will these days find not splendid isolation but instead a community embroiled in a debate about the pub’s future.
The 120 residents are hoping to take ownership of The Old Forge after Belgian landlord Jean-Pierre Robinet put the pub on the market. Although he has cited personal reasons for the sale, the decision came after years of increasing rancour between him and villagers.
They have now formed a community group with the aim of scraping together the asking price of £425,000 to buy The Old Forge, with the backing of local MP Ian Blackford.
Relations between Robinet and some villagers became increasingly strained after complaints of poor service, drinkers being barred and the pub – which serves as a community hub – being closed for six months of the year. Some disgruntled drinkers even set up a rival bar called The Table in a lean-to across the road from The Old Forge.
Isla Miller, partner at the Knoydart Pottery and Tearoom, has lived in Inverie for more than 30 years and enjoyed her first drink in The Old Forge. Her memories of the bar in its heyday were of residents and tourists mixing over drums and drams.
“The Old Forge was famous for its welcome,” said Isla, 42. “It didn’t matter who you were, you could walk through the doors and be met with a smile. You were all treated the same.
“It was somewhere you’d find yourself going for a quick one after work only to be still there at last orders because you’d got talking to someone or other.”
One night former Rangers manager Walter Smith visited at the same time as a group armed with Australian aboriginal instruments, who mixed with traditional Scottish musicians.
“It to-ed and fro-ed between Old Scots songs and rhythms from the didgeridoos,” added Isla. “It was a great night. Those musicians used to come about once or twice a year but not any more. What used to draw them now deterred them.
“A pub famous for its welcome was now notorious for bad service, irregular opening times and being shut six months of the year. Anyone that’s missed the pub being open during the pandemic will have a small taste of what we’ve experienced for several years.”
Isla is a member of the Old Forge Community Benefit Society, which is raising capital in a bid to buy the pub. Relations between locals and the owner are more cordial these days, although the 120-strong group, made up of around a quarter of the Knoydart population, now communicates with the landlord solely through his estate agent. “The support shown from within and outwith our immediate community has been amazing. We’ve received a steady flow of messages from people around the world keen to support our venture in any way they can,” said housekeeper and group member Stephanie Harris, 31, a former patron of the pub.
“The Old Forge is more than just a pub. In such a small community, it plays a vital role, not only to the overall economic sustainability of the area but also has an impact on social aspects of rural living as well.
“As Knoydart has developed over the past decade unfortunately the pub has not evolved with it, and currently does not provide the service that locals and visitors need and expect from such a prominent local asset.”
With the pub on the market to anyone, there’s no guarantee the group will be successful. They are keenly aware another bid may arrive. “If that were to happen, the local community would no doubt regroup, discuss and decide on the best way forward – but, for now, it’s not something we are focusing on,” said Stephanie.
“Knoydart has a hugely successful track record when it comes to community ownership through the Knoydart Foundation and this is an amazing opportunity for us to continue to improve the long-term sustainability of our community.
“I believe that, with the support we have behind us, the brilliant team on the steering group, and the drive to see this through, we will be able to purchase the pub for the community.”
At the moment The Old Forge is closed. Although he declined to comment, Robinet is gearing up for reopening from the middle of next month.The move to take the pub into community hands is supported by Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Blackford.
“The pub is great, whether it’s welcoming locals or visitors to a wonderful area,” he said. “It’s an important and integral part of the community. I’m just desperate to see a happy ending to this saga.
“It’s beautiful but it’s also a massively fragile area and there are huge challenges to living in such a remote place. But to sustain a community and have that cohesion, particularly through this pandemic, has been really important.
“The Old Forge has in the past been a thriving place and massively important to Knoydart. I’m pleased for the community and I’m looking forward to what they do if they’re successful.”
Isla pointed to 2003 when a fire on the nearby hillside blazed out of control as evidence of The Old Forge’s importance, not just as a watering hole for weary hikers.
Lifeboat crews ferried in volunteers and the pub served as a base for the firefighters.
“The Old Forge was always about the people and it was always more than a pub,” she said. “Sadly these events don’t get shared or celebrated in the pub any more.
“But we have the chance of a new beginning and a new chapter, something that everyone can be part of with our fundraising campaign.”
A magical journey to the Old Forge, a pub with no peer
by Paul English
It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, according to Robert Louis Stevenson.
Well, the Treasure Island author obviously never enjoyed the pleasure of a pint at Inverie’s Old Forge.
As pubs go, the Old Forge is garlanded with superlatives. It’s one of the most remote in the world, lying an 18-mile hike over mountains or a seven-mile sail from the port of Mallaig, at the end of a rail journey once voted the best in the world.
I’ve taken the journey twice, an indulgence which seems utterly otherworldly during these days of frozen travel and closed pubs. Still I’m warmed by the memories.
The first was to cover the story of London artist Sam Firth, a filmmaker who’d moved to the area and won funding to film herself standing on the same spot at the same time every day for a year. Nice work if you can get it.
The train journey – judged the greatest in the world by readers of Wanderlust Magazine – from Glasgow lives up to the hype, slicing along lochs, round mountains, over sites of historical magnitude and awesome natural beauty. Rannoch Moor, the Monessie Gorge, Glencoe and the Glenfinnan Viaduct are among its jewels and, as one epic view gave way to another, I switched seats a dozen times to drink it all in, arriving in time for one of the few tiny water buses from Mallaig to the peninsula.
On a midsummer’s night the sunset was there to greet me as I sat in the west-facing window of the Old Forge in the hamlet of Inverie, my fish dinner plated and local pint poured.
A spontaneous session of fiddles, guitars and accordions accompanied the setting sun, as I made friends for the night with my neighbours at the next table, each of us content in the perfect confluence of time and place and people, carousing in a corner on the edge of the ocean.
My second visit? The Old Forge was under the management of its new Belgian owners.
It was closed, and had been for weeks.
This tiny community knows what a gem it has on its shoreline. It must be sure to let it shine.
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