The only ways to get to the Old Forge Pub are by sea ferry or by a two-day, 18-mile hike across the Scottish Highlands – a trip that gives new meaning to the term “pub crawl”.
Our journey began at the road’s end. In fact, it is the longest dead-end road in the United Kingdom. A 22-mile taxi ride from the town of Fort William in the western Scottish Highlands to our starting point of Kinloch Hourn took two hours of knuckle-whitening jags around hairpin bends and past sheer descents.
I was embarking on a journey to the most remote pub on mainland Britain with two friends, Carl and José. The Old Forge is only accessible by sea ferry or a two-day, 18-mile hike across the Scottish Highlands from the small settlement of Kinloch Hourn (or an even longer, 28-mile hike from the hamlet of Glenfinnan). on the Knoydart peninsula’s southern coast. “Walking in” to the pub is a rite of passage in the outdoor community, and one we were eager to complete, thirsty for adventure as well as the extreme satisfaction of a well-earned pint.
Knoydart, which is part of the Rough Bounds – the “highlands of the Highlands,” is remote and inaccessible even by local standards. There are no streetlights, no mobile phone service, and the seven miles of paved roads are not linked to the mainland network. At the last count, there were about 120 people living here, spread across 86 square miles (roughly the same population density as Alaska). The majority of those brave and hardy souls reside in Inverie, and following a community buyout in March 2022, the majority of them now own a stake in the Old Forge.
The pub’s legendary status had dwindled over the previous decade, with the previous owner closing for six months each winter when tourists were scarce. The pub’s community spirit had vanished, as had its status as a year-round haven for tired, thirsty hikers. Even for summer visitors, first impressions were frequently negative. “This place used to be jumping,” reads one of the many negative online reviews from this period. “It’s now like a mortuary.”
“Over the years, it wasn’t serving the community in the way that it needed to,” said Steph Harris, who grew up in Inverie and is now the Old Forge Community Benefit Society’s business development manager. “The main issue was that it closed during the winter, which was a huge inconvenience for us. Because we are primarily a tourist destination, people are extremely busy during the summer, and we have the opportunity to reconnect during the winter. However, the pub would be closed for six months in September or October. When it’s dark and windy and horrible outside, you need somewhere to go to relax, meet up with friends, and celebrate special occasions.”
During the dark winter months, locals were desperate for somewhere to go. They built a makeshift wooden bar around an old table on the loch’s edge near the pub.
When it’s dark and windy and horrible, you need somewhere you can go and relax, meet up with your friends, celebrate stuff together
When the Old Forge was finally put up for sale in February 2021, a community buyout was quickly proposed, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. “We have 90 shareholders,” Harris said. “That equates to roughly 75% of the local population. The response was incredible; people were willing to put their own money into it, which was incredible.”
The pub reopened in a little more than a year, in April 2022, this time in the hands of the community. Though some physical renovations are still ongoing (the kitchens are scheduled to reopen in 2023), the pub’s atmosphere was immediately restored as locals and hikers returned, making it a place worth the walk once again.
Our first hike took us along the southern shore of a steep-sided, fjord-like body of water that connects the peninsulas of Glenelg and Knoydart like a witch’s finger. The path followed the loch’s edge; it was mostly rocky and easy to follow, but it frequently collapsed into boggy marsh, sucking our boots and smearing our ankles in mud. This was once a deer-trail stalker’s and, more ominously, a coffin road – a route through which corpses were transported to the Kilchoan burial ground in Inverie.
I imagined ghostly hands grasping at my boots as they squelched beneath the mire, wondering what secrets lay in the bog. Loch Hourn means “Lake Hell” in Gaelic, while Loch Nevis means “Lake Heaven” in the same language.
But first came purgatory, with its mountains and bog. We ducked our way along loch-side paths overgrown with jungle-like greenery, which poured water down our throats and soaked us completely. We waded across natural stepping stones over raging rivers on our hands and knees. The weather seemed to validate the weather report we heard from locals and passing hikers: “three months of solid rain.”
We spent the night at Barrisdale bothy, a basic shelter left open for hikers’ use that had apparently not been painted since the 1950s. On the kitchen table was a guestbook with an entry that read, “I’m a scientifically minded person, but I experienced things here that I cannot explain.” I curled up on a wooden bunk and fell asleep without a care in the world.
The following day, we traversed the Knoydart peninsula from north to south, fording waterfalls where rotten wooden bridges had been crossed and plodding up the seemingly endless slopes of Mam Barrisdale, a modest mountain whose peak was the route’s highest point. This hike was giving new meaning to the term “pub crawl,” but we were energised once again when we saw that most Scottish of sights: a massive stag, regally observing us from the crest of a hill.
From Mam Barrisdale, our pace quickened as we descended to the gleaming Inverie Bay. As we approached the village, a resident tinkering with a boat in his driveway regarded us with kindly concern. We carried the essence of the bog with us, mud-smeared and smelling for all the world like a badger had died in one of our bags. But as we rounded a corner, Inverie’s tiny main drag revealed itself: a row of little white houses, each with a pub sign proclaiming the Old Forge in the centre. We’d done it.
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