My Journey to Scotland’s Most Remote Pub

For decades, the Old Forge was the holy grail of the British outdoors community. The UK's remotest pub, it could only be reached via boat or a three-day walk through one of Britain's last true wildernesses, the Knoydart peninsula in Scotland. A dispute between some locals and a new owner threatened the legend—until they decided to open up a pub of their own.

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In the beginning, there was the pub. And the people saw that the pub was good.

The pub was the Old Forge, and the Guinness Book of World Records declared it “the most remote pub on mainland Britain.” It was set in the village of Inverie, the only major settlement on Scotland’s Knoydart peninsula, a wild finger of land with a population of 100. To get there, you had two choices: catch a six-mile ferry from the little port of Mallaig, or set out on a two-to-three-day hike across some of the most isolated mountains in Western Europe—an attempt referred to by the British outdoor community as a “walk-in.” The trek from the hamlet of Glenfinnan is some 27 miles, crossing swollen rivers and lonely mountains along vague and vanishing trails. With every mile walked, every sprain of ankle, every squelch of bog, the beer tasted sweeter.

For many years, the legend of the Old Forge echoed down the glens and out across the world. I heard stories of midsummer nights when the light never quite left the sky and the music never left the pub—the fiddles reeled, the beer flowed, walkers steeled their trail-weary limbs and danced on the tables and out into the streets in the gathering dawn. The hangovers lasted an eternity. “It’s a classic British experience,” says a friend who made the walk-in in 1996. “Getting to the Old Forge was a golden moment. I can still taste the first pint.”

But then the trouble started.

In 2012, a new landlord took over the pub, and, fairly or unfairly, a wave of negative publicity followed. There were newspaper stories about a police search for unlicensed hunting firearms at the Old Forge in 2014 (the guns were confiscated but no criminal charges were filed) and unpaid utility bills (the owner reportedly settled with the electricity company out of court). There was talk that the owner was excluding locals and muddy visitors. Those of us who watched from afar wondered if it was going to be the end of the legend.

Then, earlier this year, British papers reported that disgruntled regulars had constructed their own drinking spot directly across the road from the Old Forge in protest. Called the Table, it was said to have started as a plank of wood that evolved into a little shack and essentially served as a DIY pub, built, maintained, and patronized by the most remote community on mainland Britain.

What did this mean for the famous pilgrimage to the Old Forge? Would hikers be welcome at this new place?

In late October, I boarded a sleeper train to Fort William, Scotland, from London’s Euston station. Passengers snored as we trundled northward through the cities of northern England, passing scenes of spires and chimneys silhouetted against a starless sky. There was a faint glow in the east as we rolled across the border. By the time my alarm sounded and the curtains parted, we awoke to a new world. In place of parking lots and factories, there were mountains and moors, lake and forest, heather and bracken. Fresh ice glinted, glass brittle, on the ponds. A stag galloped in the first rays of morning sunshine.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct, in Inverness-shire, Scotland
The Glenfinnan Viaduct, in Inverness-shire, Scotland (1111IESPDJ/iStock)

Getting into nature feels like a miracle in the wilderness-starved United Kingdom. It counts as one of the most crowded countries on earth. It has a population of 66 million on a landmass a little smaller than Wyoming, much of it paved, farmed, trammeled. In the context of Great Britain, the Scottish Highlands is a corner of wilderness and also a wilderness cornered, edged as it is into the northernmost part of the island. Still, there are roads and towns, tourists looking for their fix of Hogwarts and the Loch Ness Monster. There are places where you can get Uber Eats delivery.

The Knoydart peninsula is not one of them.

It is a place one Scotsman described to me as being “more of an island” than some islands, surrounded by remote inlets and occasionally cut off by rough seas. To the south lies Loch Nevis, often translated from Gaelic as “the loch of heaven,” and to the north, Loch Hourn, or “the loch of hell.” To the east stretch wild mountains known as the Rough Bounds. This is the part a hiker must traverse on the walk-in to Knoydart.

Twelve hours later, 500 miles north from London, I got off the sleeper train in Fort William. From here it was a 30-minute train ride west to the trailhead for my walk-in at Glenfinnan. I stocked up on supplies at a supermarket, sat in a café, and checked the weather forecast. The outlook had deteriorated since I last checked. It showed low pressure inbound from the North Atlantic: wind, rain, and mention of “arduous” walking. I thought hard about whether I was equipped to walk 27 miles and three days through Scottish weather at its most raw and ruthless. While not a technical hike, its hazards lie in fast-changing conditions, in wayfinding on elusive, unmarked paths.

Armed with only a paper map and warnings of treacherous bogs, I decided to play it safe: instead of starting at Glenfinnan and hiking over the the Rough Bounds to Knoydart, I’d catch the ferry straight over to the village of Inverie and take a 17-mile hike over to the north coast of the peninsula and back. It wouldn’t quite be the walk-in in search of a pint, but it’d at least be a walk. I promised myself I would do the entire route another day.

The harbor at the town of Mallaig
The harbor at the town of Mallaig (lucentius/iStock)

I boarded the tiny ferry from the town of Mallaig, an hour’s train ride west from Glenfinnan. The boat was being loaded up with supplies for the 100-strong community at Inverie—a bulk delivery of cheese-flavored potato chips, 18 rolls of toilet paper, a ladder, and a spare tire. For half an hour, the vessel dipped and heaved through the swells. The craggy summits of the Rough Bounds loomed out of the clouds, rising mightily over our little boat, and then vanished.

Standing on deck, I felt like a coward. I was not doing the walk-in. I would not have earned my pint.

“It was the best trip I ever made,” said Jürgen Walter, a German hiker I met after landing in Inverie, about his walk-in from Glenfinnan. “It is wild. It is original. There are no shops, no telephones, no bus stops, no infrastructure. You do not see that in Europe anymore.” He was catching the ferry back to Mallaig after some days of aimless roving on Knoydart. His snowy-white beard was tied in two braids, and both were sodden in the rain.

Walter told me he’d recently returned from a canoe journey across the Yukon, paddling from Whitehorse to Dawson City, but he said that it was “nothing to compare with Scotland.” It is to this wilderness that he keeps returning year after year, to a remoteness that, for Canadians, would likely seem laughable but to us Europeans is vanishingly precious.

The next morning, after a night in the Knoydart Foundation Bunkhouse, I set off on a 17-mile walk to the north coast from Inverie to Barrisdale, via Loch an Dubh Lochain and the slopes of Ladhar Bheinn. The weather was changing fast: ten paces behind me, the land basked in sunshine. Ten paces ahead, the hail and sleet of midwinter thrashed down, and meadow grasses whipped around in the gusts.

The walk-in across the Knoydart peninsula
The walk-in across the Knoydart peninsula (Oliver Smith)

I have come to the Highlands many times. And it is to the Highlands I come in my daydreams: Its wide-open spaces, where stress dissipates. Its ballet of wind and rain and sun. Its cool air, which is untroubled by cell-phone signal and which tingles deliciously in the lungs. The going is tough. In some mountain ranges, you stride or stroll. But in the Highlands, you mostly trudge, measuring your feet on boggy ground, your head bowed humbly before the hills.

The only people I met on the trail that day were a group from London: Piers Herron, James Montague, and Adam Watson. They had just stopped for lunch by a waterfall on the Mam Barrisdale pass, a two-hour walk east of Inverie, and were doing a circuit of the peninsula. None of them had ever heard of Knoydart until Herron bought a Vango Knoydart 300 tent a few years ago.

“We were wondering where the name came from, because it was an odd name,” Herron says, gesturing to his tent. “And then we Googled Knoydart and discovered where it was, what it was… that it’s the last wilderness.”

From left to right: Hikers Piers Herron, James Montague, and Adam Watson
From left to right: Hikers Piers Herron, James Montague, and Adam Watson (Oliver Smith)

I joined them on the path north. That evening we stayed in a bothy—one of many such simple shelters dotted about the Highlands that usually take the form of centuries-old cottages or farm outbuildings. They are unstaffed, unlocked, and generally free. What they lack in electricity or running water, they make up for in fireplaces, mice, candlesticks, and ghosts.

After dark, the first snow of the year fell on the surrounding peaks—a subtle silvering under moonlight. Though we did not know it at the time, the northern lights danced in the cold skies above. We massaged sore feet, dried sodden clothes, watched our breath drift and dissolve in the shadowy nooks of the bothy. Whisky was passed around. Inevitably, we talked fondly of returning to civilization back in Inverie: showers, dry socks, hot meals, log fires, golden beer.

In the beginning, there was a plank of wood.

A plank of wood became a bench, which then evolved into a table. The Table eventually got a tarpaulin and a Facebook page, and in January 2018, it metamorphosed into a little shack. Someone installed a window, so you can look out over the loch where porpoises, orcas, minke whales, and dolphins come up for air. It got a disco ball and a fire pit. Someone carved #LOVEKNOYDART into the timbers. Books on a shelf included The Trial of Socrates by Plato and Still More of the World’s Best Dirty Jokes by someone named Mr. J. The Table is not a pub by law (alcohol can be purchased from the Knoydart Foundation shop across the road), but it feels like one in spirit.

The interior of the Table
The interior of the Table (Oliver Smith)

“It is like the community in microcosm,” explains Craig Dunn, operations manager at the Knoydart Foundation, a community-owned organization that formed in 1999 after a groundbreaking buyout of private land by locals. “It reflects the diversity of who lives here. Nobody took the lead. You’d be lucky to get someone to admit to [building it]. There was a need. The community said, ‘Where are we going to gather?’”

It’s no surprise that Dunn is a staunch advocate of rural community power, not least because he says that “every city in the history of time has failed.” Thanks to the foundation, Knoydart is seen by many as a blueprint for progressive living in the British wilderness. The organization operates a hydroelectric scheme and has been praised by the government for bringing sustainable practices to the local industries of tourism, timber, and venison. The peninsula is governed by committees of locals, and it is the locals to whom it answers. Though the Table isn’t linked to the foundation, Dunn sees it as another manifestation of Knoydart’s particular kind of people power.

“I’ll have a beer with whoever is about. If someone is walking past, I’d make sure they know it’s not just for locals, anybody is welcome,” says Dunn. “I think it’ll have more of a following than the Old Forge, because it’s organic.”

The creation of the Table was a defining move in a disagreement between locals and the Old Forge, now owned by Belgian landlord Jean-Pierre Robinet. Robinet first came to Knoydart in 1997 as a deerstalker. He fell in love with the peninsula and bought the pub from its former landlord, Ian Robertson, in 2012.

The sign outside the Old Forge
The sign outside the Old Forge (Oliver Smith)

Somewhere at the core of the dispute is a disagreement about what people expect from their pub. Speaking to me on the phone, Robinet explained that he wanted to move the focus of the Old Forge toward gastronomy—he was previously the youngest manager of a five-star hotel in Belgium. He says that after taking over the pub, he urged certain customers to conduct themselves by “acting with politeness, using the toilet properly, having a shower.” Robinet ascribes the slew of negative publicity to the fact that he is an outsider, a challenger, and that others are jealous of his business. Another key point in the dispute is the Old Forge’s long closure during the winter months. Robinet says he has to shut it down so he can care for his father in Belgium, who had a stroke 12 years ago, but that on the sad day his father passes, he will dedicate himself to Knoydart year-round. 

The dispute is a world of claim and counterclaim that is hard to verify at long range. Because it is shut for the season when I visit, I cannot eat or drink at the Old Forge. But the fact that the Table technically only has three walls means its doors are always open.

By day, Inverie appears as a cluster of whitewashed houses huddled between the loch and the mountains—you could walk straight through it without realizing you’d passed by its center. On the October nights I visited, Inverie was swallowed whole in the Highland gloom. The lights of the Table were the only beacon in the darkness.

I took a seat by the fire pit. Where there was numbness in my legs, warmth returned. Where there was silence in the hills, folk music played on a little speaker. My first beer was a can of McEwan’s Export. It was handed to me by Tom Patrick, an outdoorsman from Glasgow. It was 500 milliliters—68 milliliters short of the British pint—but it came with a gallon of generosity, so it tasted sublime.

“If the pub was the beating heart of the community, this is the new left ventricle. We’re trying to fill the gap. It keeps us sane.”

I talked to locals as the disco ball swung in the breeze. We discussed Brexit, wild-boar populations, that you can pee anywhere in Scotland (unlike England), and the bittersweet work of foresters on the peninsula, planting oaks that will only reach maturity once those same foresters are long dead. It seems that no one who lives on Knoydart today was born here: the majority came as visitors and were caught up in its wild embrace. That night at the Table, it was easy to understand, in the lick of flame, the lap of waves, the drumming of rain on the roof. Lastly, the subject turned to the dispute with the Old Forge.

“What was created before [at the Old Forge] was legendary,” says Patrick. “To shut it down [for the winter], to me, is a two fingers up to the community.”

The Table “is in protest to what we’ve lost,” said one local who asked not to be named. “A lot of folks who walked in every two years stopped coming, because they remember the pub how it was. If the pub was the beating heart of the community, this is the new left ventricle. We’re trying to fill the gap. It keeps us sane.”

It is easy to see how tempers flare when pubs are concerned. The pub is part of the soul of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole. Its meaning transcends a tavern or bar. Pub is an abbreviation of public house—a meeting place for all comers (children and dogs are admitted, too). In the Scottish climate, pubs were a place of shelter for wayfarers on the open road. For some hikers, the walk-in to Knoydart is a reenactment of this memory: of people coming in from the cold in an age before mechanized transport, when walking was a necessity. Or even an echo of an old story from a faraway land—of some people tired and lost in the wilderness, looking for a room at the inn.

One local was hostile to me when he found out I was a journalist asking questions. I can understand why: a pub is a sacred space, and maybe the Table is, too. He asked me if I did the walk-in. I explained that I only did a round-trip to the north coast, which he retorted “doesn’t count as a walk.” I didn’t disagree with him.

Long before the Table and the Old Forge, there was another gathering place on Knoydart.

From the pier at Inverie, a winding road leads up the hillside to St. Agatha’s Chapel, a little whitewashed 1884 building whose arched windows face out to sea. Deconsecrated in 1992, it is once more a hive of activity. Where pews formerly stood, fermentation tanks whir. Where the priest once hung his robes, chemical equations are scrawled onto a whiteboard.

“We put on our website, ‘Probably the remotest brewery on the British mainland,’’’ says Matt Humphrey, co-owner of Knoydart Brewery. “And no one has said it isn’t!”

Matt and his wife, Sam, purchased the property in 2002, joining Sam’s parents, who were already residents on the peninsula. They produced their first beer in the chapel in October 2018. The logistics of brewing on Knoydart are tough. Equipment had to be shipped in on an ex–Royal Navy landing craft. Beer exported to the mainland must find its way over six miles of rough seas (which, Sam points out, saves the bother of shaking the casks).

Matt and Sam Humphrey, co-owners of Knoydart Brewery
Matt and Sam Humphrey, co-owners of Knoydart Brewery (Oliver Smith)

The reward is working with pure Knoydart water—the kind Highland nature writer Nan Shepherd described as having a “sharper clarity [than] air’’—in the first moments after it tumbles from the mountain. It shines through in a pale ale Humphrey hands me soon after I step through the creaking door.

At some point next year, the chapel will host a new taproom. The old altar has been converted into a bar. There will be a new place for hikers to find salvation after the walk-in. But word is already out: Humphrey explained that some hikers came to purchase bottles at the door a few days ago.

“They said, ‘We’ve walked in from Glenfinnan, and this is the holy grail! We’ve walked in and found a brewery,’’’ says Humphrey. “You have a pint at the end, and it’s sustenance for carrying on your journey.”

After four days of hikes across the surrounding hills, countless pints, and nights at the bunkhouse, I woke up one morning to find that the weather had unexpectedly eased. Blue gaps appeared in the rain clouds, and half-formed rainbows rose over distant Atlantic leagues.

I did not walk in, but I saw my chance to walk out—hiking homeward, doing the famous journey in reverse across the Rough Bounds. After walking 12 miles on my first day, navigating with a map that crinkled in the rain, I slept in a bothy by the sea, seashells jammed between its stones. The next morning, I got lost in a sea mist, its sudden whiteness purgatory-like, before it dispersed, leaving the rock outcroppings salty and sparkling. Sometimes I felt small and feeble: hunched in the rain, in a forest of pines. Sometimes I felt mighty: traversing a ridge in a burst of slanting sunshine, with my shadow as tall as the mountain. I passed among hills: Sgurr na Ciche, Sgurr nan Coireachan, beautiful Gaelic names that seem themselves composed of granite. In three decades of living in the United Kingdom, it is the first time I did not see a soul for almost 48 hours.

A bothy, one of many simple shelters hikers can stay in across the Highlands
A bothy, one of many simple shelters hikers can stay in across the Highlands (Oliver Smith)

Arriving back at Glenfinnan three days later, I headed to a pub in Fort William with four solid walls and drank the pint I finally earned. There was the miracle of a hot shower, the marvel of a real roof over my head, the buzz of being back among people. But after just a few weeks, the daydreams recurred again. Of mountains and moors, craic and company, and bracken-swathed slopes in fall, the color of an IPA. Where places and things are farther apart but people are closer together.

Looped video of the Table (seen on the desktop version) by M.H. Photographic

Lead Photo: Oliver Smith

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