For me short breaks in Scotland often represent plans that are cruelly dashed!
Last week’s dash to the Knoydart was jinxed before it began. I went down with some kind of virus that knocked me out and my walking companion wrote off his car on a motorway. Our itinerary needed to be put back but we were determined to get out into the wilds and to tackle the three Munros of the Knoydart. Things got worse, My virus hadn’t disappeared by the time of our first climb. At the first summit I realised I was completely lacking in energy and I gallantly suggested my companion walk on alone.
I set back down meandering through the crags and the grassy banks of the hills before rejoining the path from Inverie to Soulies. Walking along this path was agony. It was like someone had taken away all of the shock absorbing bits of my body. I took me ages to crawl back to the campsite at Inverie. I really fancied some of Alan Sloman’s steroids! On day 2 we were hit by dreadful weather, rain (lots of it), winds strong enough to blow you off your feet on Mam Barrisdale and it was cold, very cold! The while area seemed to be echoing to the shout of “damn you Scotland, this is summer …”
Still, begin washed out (in both ways) allowed me to properly catch up with Inverie.
I first came here on my first TGO Challenge. I was out of the area within a day and a half but all my instincts told me to turn back and return. Later that summer Kate and I spent a super 5 or 6 days backpacking around the Knoydart, wild camping in some of the most beautiful and isolated spots that I have camped in.
We finished our trip with a day and evening in Inverie. We arrived to find a small celebration on to commemorate the official opening of the new jetty . Although we were two smelly backpackers who had just strolled into the village we were enthusiastically invited to join the buffet lunch with a handful of locals. After the formal part of the day was over everybody moved over to the Old Forge Pub (the remotest pub on mainland UK don’t you know). Afternoon blurred into evening. We stayed put to enjoy a fabulous evening of local hospitality and music.
This was in 2006 and Inverie had the feel of a frontier town back then. The Knoydart Foundation had been established not quite ten years earlier, taking advantage of the new government’s legislation which allowed local communities to take ownership of their land. It was difficult to not be to be moved and inspired by the people of the Knoydart.
Knoydart’s unique identity is due to its remoteness. Although a peninsula access to the rest of the mainland is blocked by mountains. The only way in is on foot through the mountains or by boat, usually from Mallaig.
Although a remote place, the Knoydart was once a hive of community and activity with a population of over 400. The land was cleared by landowners who hoped to make their fortune through sheep farming. The local population was gathered together and put on a boat that was to sail to Australia. Once at sea the Captain didn’t fancy the journey and he took his cargo to North America instead — hence Nova Scotia.
In the early 1930s a young English aristocrat, lord Brocket, bought the estate. Brocket was a Nazi sympathiser who resented the use of his estate by commando forces during he war who used the Knoydart as a training ground. After the war he and his wife returned sacking many local staff, banning access to hill waker and straying shepherds. They even banned young children from playing on the beach. (Google Brocket and you can find the current family seem to have dedicated themselves to living the kind of aristocratic life that only readers of the Telegraph seem to approve of these days.)
As you hike out of the village of Inverie you have no choice but to skirt a large monument that was erected to Lord Brocket. Today’s villages prefer to commemorate the lives of the Knoydart 7, who in 1948 led a series of land raids on the area and attempted to take the Knoydart back for its community.
It took time I suppose but the work of the Knoydart 7 eventually led to the creation of the Knoydart Foundation. Today the permanent population of Inverie has steadily grown and is now somewhere around 100. In summer the population swells as walkers and tourists make their way to the village.
Seven year after my first visit and Inverie seems much the same but on close inspection quite a lot has changed. The place is tidier now. More buildings have been bought back into use as holiday lodges or B&Bs. The Old Forge Pub has been extended and there is now a warm and roundly café on the sea shore opposite. Bruce Watt’s ferry is still sailing from Mallaig but he has now been joined by the Knoydart Sea Bridge service operated by smaller but after boats. You can know leave Inverie in the morning and be confident in meeting the early morning train from Mallaig to Glasgow.
When I first stayed in Inverie the folks at the bunkhouse pet apologising for it not being finished, yet it was still one of the warmest places I have ever stayed in. Today the bunkhouse is finished and the campsite on the side of Long Beach is now well established. The campsite is basic but boasts a modern and ecological toilet building and a hut which can use to cook meals and shelter from the midges!
And then there is the traffic! There is a tarmac road on Knoydart now (actually there are two) but even so nothing prepares you for the traffic. Inverie may be home to 100 people but ask to almost the same number of Land Rover’s! It was almost impossible to walk from the campsite to the pub without dodging out of the way of one or more 4 by 4 vehicles.
The Land Rovers seem to be mostly be used to ferry visitors from the jetty to their holiday accommodation. Back in 2006 most of my fellow visitors were walkers — I was there in August. Today, will still meet the walkers but also many who have come over for an evening or two. There may be only be one pub but the holiday visitors mean that it is always full; it is advisable to reserve a table for your dinner! Staff working in ‘ for the holiday season told us it was much like anywhere else.
I’m not bemoaning these modern tourists, far from it. Inverie retains its magic. It remains a special place. Today more people can experience that spirit and, of course, their numbers anchor the prosperity of the existing community.
I think I’m right in saying that all of the community here are incomers of one form or another. The community today is made up of an interesting mix of people who have in the main sought to move the place. None is more prominent than JB the new Belgian owner of the Old Forge who is 6 foot 7 tall! A group of drunk and cheeky young visitors got more than they bargained for when the ‘boss’ took them outside for a talking to!
One young man I talked to had moved to the Knoydart with his family when only a few months old. He is a joiner and told me he had more than enough work to get by, mainly building new houses and lodges. HE was not the only one, however, that told me that the population is not only increasing but ageing. It appears that Inverie is becoming a retirement destination for the more adventurous.
What seems clear is that the Inverie community is one that works, it is stable and prosperous enough to see a good future ahead. There are music and cultural festivals here now and a lively live music scene with not only great local musicians but visitors from all over the world. While waiting to take the boat I came across a poster advertising a gig by Nashville songwriter Darrell Scott and English Acoustic Bass legend Danny Thompson. I’ve ben trying to see Scott live for years — and here is playing at the tiny Inverie Town Hall! Sadly, Darrell is not playing until Friday 12th July (although this is not listed on his web page). If you plan to be in Inverie that weekend don’t miss this gig — world class musicians and songwriters! Details here.
Despite the dreadful weather and the energy sapping virus I enjoyed my time at Inverie. It seems to me that this is a community that has the balance right. I’m sure the locals face many challenges in developing their community but they are on the right track. Tourism sensitively planned and developed not only helps maintain our special places but allows an increasing number of people to share in their magic.
And if you find Inverie is getting too busy all you have to do is to take your tent and amble out on the main track. Out in the wilderness the magic is accentuated. Off the beaten tracks you won’t see a soul. And the best wild camp spot of I have ever discovered is on the Knoydart (email for details).
Thanks Inverie for your hospitality. And all the best for the future.
The view from the campsite