Return to Knoydart

Thirteen years ago (this month), I traveled to Scotland for the first time.

I was a student and I was quite seriously broke—I remember well my empty refrigerator and the simple zeros in my bank balance until one fine September day when my housing deposit return showed up in the mail. I cashed the £250 check and with the money, roamed about Scotland for nearly three weeks.

I survived on Tunnock’s teacakes and economized by hitchhiking up the west coast from Glasgow. I got lifts with utility vehicles doing repairs in the Highlands, in the back of lumber trucks, and with the Gaelic school bus on the Isle of Mull. From there, I caught fishing boats from one isle to the next—I was amazed at how easy it was to move through Scotland, and how everybody was so nice. I was also amazed by the weather—a sun-drenched Indian summer that defied the norm.

Only once did it rain—outside of Mallaig—and it fell down on me in buckets. By the time I did get a lift, I was soaked and squeezing out water all over the car seat.

“I’m in a wee rush but I can getcha as far as Mallaig,” offered the lady. She was young and energetic and the back of her truck was filled with round metal kegs of beer.

“That’s great,” I said, then wiped the rain off my face and thanked her for the lift, “I’m headed up to Skye.”

My whole life I had dreamt of coming to the mystical Isle of Skye, and after two weeks of aimless tramping through Scotland, I was almost there.

But my ride was not impressed, and she began to counter-argue my travel dreams.

“Why d’ya wanna go to Skye?” she asked. “You should really come with me, to Knoydart, it’s way better than Skye—it’s the real Scotland up there.”

The problem is that I had never heard of Knoydart before, and though I believed it to be a lovely place, the sound “Knoydart” fails to match the splendid poetry of “Skye”.

But I was young and impressionable and it was already dark and raining so hard, and I had nowhere to stay for the night—Jackie was offering me a plan, and more importantly, a plan.

And so from Mallaig, I joined Jackie and her husband Ian on a small boat on the choppy waters of an autumn storm. The captain took me into the tiny wheelhouse and showed me how to steer the boat, then left me to it while he went off to have a drink and a chat with Ian and Jackie. Terrified but enthused, I guided the tiny craft in the darkness, feeling my way across the up-and-down sea and steering only by the digital radar in front me.

“That green line, there, ya see?” the captain pointed out, “That’s the bottom—steer clear of it.”

And that was the sum of my instruction on guiding a boat in a storm around a rocky point and across a loch with five human lives, a pair of dogs, and about 120 gallons of beer. But really, it was no different than playing an old school video game and we made it safely across Loch Nevis (“Lake of Heaven”) and into the port of Inverie.

On maps, Inverie is painted as a town with a name and streets, but in real life, this was a beach on a lonely loch with only a few white stone houses from centuries past. We roped the boat to a single wood dock, and I helped unload the beer and into Jackie and Ian’s pub—The Old Forge.

“The remotest pub in Britain,” Jackie proclaimed. As a student of Geography, I was wildly impressed with this fact—my wanderings had taken me to a far-flung spot on the map, accessible only by boat or a two-days’ hike over a shield of misty mountains. After a warm and hearty meal in the old pub, Jackie directed me through the rain to the musty bunkhouse in the woods, where I unrolled my sleeping bag on a foam mattress and slept.

The next day, I awoke in the green and yellow light of the forest. Walking back to the pub, I felt I had discovered a secret world—unknown by the rest of Scotland and ignored by everybody else on Earth. This was my own highland paradise, and I would stay for as long as I pleased.

That morning I swam in the loch and for about one minute, failed to breathe from the cold. Invigorated, I dressed and grabbed a sack lunch from the pub, then climbed to the top of Sgùrr a’ Mhaoraich, the tallest mountain behind Knoydart. From the summit, I could see across to Skye—and I could see all the deer about the reserve. As an established hunting estate, the woods around Knoydart are alive with does and giant, twelve-point stags, that wandered past me like strangers in the big city.

I ended up staying five days in Knoydart, eating and drinking at the remotest pub in Britain and exploring some of the purest wilderness in Scotland. I never made it to Skye back then—I had to wait until now, thirteen years later, before I finally set foot on that windy island.

But I never forgot Knoydart—I told the whole world about it and after touring the length of Skye, I rushed back to Knoydart, eager to see the place that for me, embodied all I love about the Scottish outdoors.

It was Ian who picked me from the ferry, standing on the dock next to his Land Rover. Yes—there was an actual ferry now—several times a day, back and forth to Mallaig. And now there was an actual stone dock, big enough to accommodate the small cruise ships that stop regularly in summer.

I didn’t expect Ian to remember me at all—as far as he was concerned, I was just another journalist showing up for too-short a time to his corner of the world. He took my bags and brought me into his house, offered me a drink, then sat me down by the fire, while outside, the rain dripped down from the sky and into the grey loch.

Then Jackie entered—unchanged and exactly as I remembered her from thirteen years before. The three of us chatted, they told me they had sold the pub and then apologized that their self-catering house was booked full. They would have to put me up in their own spare room. Then I told them.

“I doubt you remember me—but you picked me up hitchhiking and brought me to Knoydart thirteen years ago,” I reminded them, and slowly, they remembered, and smiled.

Thirteen years is a long time—Jackie and Ian have children now, a son who plays guitar and a daughter who plays fiddle. They no longer run the remotest pub in Britain and Knoydart is no longer a place that nobody knows. In fact, I was shocked by how much Knoydart had grown—more houses, more visitors, and more options. I had lunch at the Tea Room and browsed the shelves at the Knoydart Foundation, then hiked back into the woods to find the bunkhouse where I had stayed so long ago. In the evening, I ate an amazing meal of fresh lobster and scallops at The Old Forge.

Everything seemed a bit spiffier than before—the trails were marked and signboards pointed travelers to adventures all around. At the same time, Knoydart is still wild and natural. For twenty minutes I picked and nibbled at brambles growing along the path—and once again I ran into so many red deer hanging about.

The magic is still there, and though I failed to swim or climb any mountains, I fell in love with Knoydart all over again—mostly for the intense and changing scenes of Loch Nevis, and for all the people like Jackie and Ian who live there, tucked away on the map, out on the shores of heaven.