The battle for the pub at the end of the world

For three days and nights, we talked of nothing but the pub.

The pub filled our thoughts as we slogged over snowy mountains, over sodden moors. The pub entered our dreams as we camped in the cold, beneath winter constellations. We were heading for The Old Forge: certified by The Guinness Book of Records as the most remote pub in mainland Britain. The only way to get there — on land at least — is a hike of two or three days, depending on route, over the rough trails of the Knoydart peninsula: a wild, wind-lashed corner of the West Highlands through which no roads venture, and to which mobile phone reception makes only occasional and grudging visits.

In February 2018, I set out with three friends on the 28 mile-walk from the railway station at Glenfinnan to The Old Forge. Our feet bled in our boots, our water bottles iced up and mice danced on our sleeping bags in a bothy after dark. No matter. The promise of the pub at the end of it all spurred us onward. We imagined collapsing through the pub door with our last ounce of energy — being carried aloft by locals, hailed as conquerors of the wilderness. This pub, we imagined, would be a hall fit for heroes. A Valhalla with scotch eggs.

Except — when we did eventually get to The Old Forge, the door was locked, the hearth cold. The pub, we were told, had closed for the winter season. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the locked doors of mainland Britain’s most remote pub were a symptom of an increasingly remote relationship between the landlord and locals. Only now — in this publess winter of 2021 — might this strange dispute be entering its final chapter.

The current landlord of The Old Forge is Belgian hotelier Jean-Pierre Robinet. He first came to Knoydart to hunt deer in 1997, and bought the pub almost a decade ago. It is easy to see how he fell for the peninsula.

Jean-Pierre Robinet, landlord of The Old Forge © Alamy

If you opt to travel by boat rather than on foot (as the locals almost always do), you arrive on a 45-minute ferry ride from Mallaig. Puttering out of the harbour, the islands of Skye, Rum and Eigg appear to port. The boat abruptly veers starboard, into what seems like a cul-de-sac of a sea loch, hemmed in by sullen mountains. There is almost no imprint of humankind on the peninsula — until you draw closer, and a seam of whitewashed cottages appear where the hills meet the swells. This is the village of Inverie. At the centre of it is The Old Forge, its chimney smoke wisping up to the summits.

For many observers elsewhere in the crowded UK and beyond, Knoydart represents more than just a charmingly remote holiday destination. Rather, it has come to embody longed-for notions of tight-knit community, closeness to nature, and freedom from all the stresses of motorised transport and modern urban life. So the village tea-room has a strong social media following, videos of the area can get tens of thousands of hits, and travel magazines have fed the yearning with numerous articles about “Britain’s last wilderness”.

The Old Forge itself had assumed almost mythical status. Its wilderness setting somehow made its ceilidhs wilder, its cast of characters more famous, its craic more intense. For years it was a centre of gravity for the 100-strong community, and a highlight for holiday visitors.

Under Robinet’s tenure something changed. There came a number of negative newspaper reports: of some locals barred, of a falling out with a member of staff, of a police raid in search of unlicensed firearms in 2014, of a dispute over a planning application. Numerous TripAdvisor reports complained about grumpy service.

The row reached its lowest point in 2018 with the creation of The Table: a garden shed-cum-drinking spot some locals provocatively erected opposite The Old Forge. Robinet has accused some of its patrons of hostility to him on account of his nationality. Patrons of The Table insist the great insult to Knoydart was the closure of The Old Forge during the winter — when the nights are longest and it was needed most.

Amused journalists reported the dispute as an Ealing comedy playing out at the roof of the nation. To residents, it cut deeper. It is telling that The Old Forge first opened in the years after Knoydart’s chapels were deconsecrated.

“It is really heartbreaking,” one local told me during an evening at The Table two years ago. “We want our pub back, and it’s not going to happen until he fucks off.”

In January, Robinet put The Old Forge on the market for £425,000 — explaining he wanted to return to his native Belgium to support his family after the passing of his father last year, and take time to reflect. He says the business is in good shape, that there is no rush to sell and that any disagreements have been with a minority of Knoydart residents. “We’re very proud to have lots of very reliable and loyal locals in the pub,” he says. “We’re doing good business but it’s a decision in terms of family: a personal decision.”

Scotland map

Over Zoom calls, Knoydart residents organised The Old Forge Community Benefit Society — with the aim of bringing Britain’s most remote pub under community ownership “for the benefit of all patrons and pub lovers”.

Having secured funding from the Scottish Land Fund in March, further legal and financial plans are under way to put in a potential bid. Remarkably, about one-third of Knoydart residents have volunteered their time to run the pub should the bid succeed. One organiser is Jo Firminger — an accountant from Chesterfield who moved to Inverie in August 2019, after years visiting as a tourist. She says that under community ownership the pub could stay open year-round — with high-season profits offsetting quiet winter days (she herself remembers making a reservation for a meal one October, only to turn up and find the pub had shut early for the winter season).

The ferry to Knoydart © Alamy

“It’s not been easy for the community,” says Firminger. “But equally, it’s not been good for [Robinet] commercially, so it’s probably good that he’s decided to move on. It’s a case of looking to the future. It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past.”

Stephanie Harris is also on the team — she moved to Knoydart when she was two, and has fond memories of growing up in the pub of old: Halloween parties for children, weekend afternoons when crafting clubs would be busy at the tables, the turn of the millennium, when she was allowed out to party with her cousins for the first time.

“This project isn’t necessarily to do with disputes or rivalries — they’re non-helpful words. Having that place you can go any time you want and have a blether — for me that’s the most important thing.”

The tone of the Community Benefit Society today is conciliatory towards Robinet. But Knoydart has long had a tradition of revolt against landlords. Not far from The Old Forge is a cairn commemorating The Seven Men of Knoydart. In 1948, seven veterans invoked the Land Settlement Act, which allowed returning British servicemen to farm underused land, and carved out acres on the peninsula to sow crops and rebuild their lives. After a legal battle with the estate landlord — the Nazi sympathiser Lord Brocket (who, an unlikely legend tells, had seen Knoydart as a bridgehead in a German invasion) — the men were evicted. But their story endured: one spark in the ancient fire of Highland defiance that had burnt through the Jacobite Rebellion, right from to the days when the first centurion dared set a sandal in the glens.

A music session at The Old Forge in 2007 © Alamy

“We all walk past the monument to The Seven Men every day,” says Craig Dunn, operations manager of the Knoydart Foundation. “That spirit still exists among a high percentage of the population here.”

Memories of the Seven came to the fore in 1999, when the community purchased the 17,000 acre estate from another absentee landlord for £750,000 in a landmark buyout, creating the Knoydart Foundation. Ever since Knoydart has had the aura of a micro-republic hidden in a remote nook of the island of Great Britain. Seen as a model for progressive living, it is not on the national grid but generates green electricity from its own hydroelectric plant.

The Foundation has planted half a million trees since its creation, and reinvests profits from sustainable timber back into the community. It operates affordable housing and employment schemes for residents, runs a friendly bunkhouse and shop for passing hikers, and allocates land for deerstalking, farming and even beekeeping. It has no leader, but is run by a baffling series of committees — with all 100-odd residents involved in decision making.

Covid-19 saw ferry timetables slashed, and the drawbridge shut to the wider world. Knoydart doubled down on its self-sufficiency: a community larder offered free essentials to anyone who needed them. Locals picked up buckets of langoustines from passing fishing boats, and kale and turnips from a community garden. Not one case of the virus found its way to Knoydart and no one ran out of toilet roll. Wildflowers bloomed on trails usually trammelled by tourists, and — with little boat traffic — you could stand on the end of the pier and stare into a crystal-clear sea. Seeing the environment transformed, a new working group was formed: looking to plant more trees, and encourage greener tourism.

“The planet is fucked,” forester Danny Gorman told me when I visited. “But here we are at its raggedy edge, building in resilience. It might be too little too late — but at least we’re trying.”

A red deer in Knoydart; deer stalking provides one income stream for the community © Alamy

In the jigsaw of Knoydart community life, one senses there is just one missing piece.

“We want [The Old Forge] to be how it used to be back in the day,” says Sam Humphrey of Knoydart Brewery, who are supporting the bid. “To see the old crowds back: the walkers, the sailors, the families coming over for day trips. For music sessions to break out in the pub again.”

Humphrey says she would love to stock a community-owned pub with the brewery’s flagship beer: The Seven Men pale ale.

In my last big trip before Covid-19 lockdowns, I returned to Knoydart to do the “walk-in” a second time — this time alone. I have retrodden that route over and over in my memory since. In the densely inhabited island of Great Britain, we normally have to contrive our walking routes: devising a circuitous way to take in the tallest mountains, swerving to avoid industrial estates, car parks, other people. The walk-in to Knoydart, however, is wholly uncontrived because it is a real journey from A to B, a path with purpose. Less of a country walk: more of a Caledonian Camino.

Daydreams of the Knoydart walk-in still ambush me in lockdown life. Standing in the pet food aisle in my local supermarket my mind wanders to the bay at Sourlies — where an inlet lunges deep into the ranges, and the tide wreaths the foot of the Munros with seaweed. When doing laps of my local park my thoughts short circuit to a morning fog at Glen Dessary, where a thicket of antlers ghost in and out of the whiteness and the pine woods. 

Mostly it is the boredom of lockdown. Maybe it is also because the journey to The Old Forge has a kind of symmetry with this past year. A hard and sometimes lonely path through the weeks and months. And, at the end of it all, the promise of pubs reopened: their fires stoked and doors unlocked.

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