• NEW HOPE FOR THE OLD FORGE, AN ICONIC SCOTTISH PUB

    Published 27th February 2021, 12:14

    I EXPECT there will have been glasses raised all over the country at the news that the Knoydart community is putting together a buy-out bid for The Old Forge.

    This famous remote pub in the village of Inverie holds many grand memories and anyone who has ever staggered through its doors after a hard day on the hills will have a tale to tell.

    For many mountain walkers this part of Scotland is the nearest we have to a Shangri-La; to reach this splendid isolation requires either a boat trip or a long trek over tough terrain from the road ends at Kinloch Hourn or Arkaig.

    It naturally follows that this level of commitment means most visitors spend a weekend here at the very least. This is not a place for frantic day trips. Every day on the mountains here is a long one, and so is any subsequent night in the pub.

    My first experience of The Old Forge came some 25 years ago after a 12-hour walk-in over Ladhar Bheinn. We were exhausted, but the sight of this oasis overcame our initial instinct to freshen up. A few hours later and we were still as unfresh. Once inside, there was no escape.

    From then on, a trip to Knoydart became an annual pilgrimage. The most memorable outing was in 2009 when a bit of party planning meant I would complete my Corbetts round on Beinn Bhuidhe while visiting with friends. If anything, the weather was too good. Soaring temperatures made the climb hard work, but it also had the advantage of hurrying us along on the descent to get to the bar. 

    The Med-like conditions had already created a packed party atmosphere; there were families sunbathing on the grassy section of shoreline across from the pub, impromptu jam sessions with a range of stringed instruments and those happy to find a bit of shade to enjoy their pints. As darkness fell, everyone retreated inside to continue the festivities. Needless to say, it went on for a long, long time.

    We sailed back round the coast to Kinloch Hourn the following morning over water like glass, our silence the combined effect of the beauty of the landscape, the already fading memory of what we had just left behind and, of course, severe hangovers.

    A few years later, in 2012, the Old Forge had a new owner, John-Pierre Robinet. He had fallen in love with the place during deer stalking holidays, but it quickly became apparent he didn't appear to understand how important it was for a pub in such a remote area to remain a community hub, a seven-day, all year-round operation. 

    He appeared to be aiming for a more exclusive type of establishment at the expense of local customers. This type of gentrification hardly ever works in these situations. It proved a failure a few years back at Corrour Station where restricted hours and an upmarket ambition quickly led to a rethink and new tenants. On the other hand, the Applecross Inn has managed to keep the right balance for years.

    His management style was brusque, often to the point of rudeness, and relations with his regulars grew increasingly hostile. Estate workers and deerstalkers, who had long popped in for a pint after work, were barred for still wearing their hill clothes or for having muddy boots. He also frowned on music sessions in the pub, one of the staples for locals and visitors alike. He started closing one day a week, then progressed to shutting over the winter months.

    Eventually, the fed-up locals opened their own unofficial lean-to bar, nicknamed The Table, on the grassy area outside the pub. Word of mouth is a powerful medium. I know plenty walkers, long-time patrons over many years, who began giving the bar a wide berth when they visited. 

    I only met the man once, in 2015 when I was filming with a German TV crew for a documentary on Scotland's wild places. I had to walk down the short section of road as if I had just come off the hill and go into the pub where mine host would pour a beer. Despite the fact it was free publicity for his business, he hardly cracked a smile. And after the sequence had been shot, he asked the film director to pay for the pint. 

    Now there's hope for better times again. The pub has gone on the market and residents, who have been aware of the Belgian's intention to sell since the turn of the year, have launched a bold plan to bring it under community ownership. Knoydart has a track record of successful community ownership, having secured 17,500 acres of the Knoydart Estate in 1999 as one of the first community buyouts in Scotland.

    More than 30 of the 110 local residents have offered to volunteer their time and working groups have been set up for all aspects of the project from business planning and fund-raising to post-purchase management plans. The group plan to fund-raise through a community share offer and are looking at other options including public funding and local events. 

    Jacqui Wallace, co-chair of the steering group, said: “The Old Forge plays a vital role in our continued sustainability and we have a great opportunity to secure its future and bring added benefit that wouldn’t be possible under private ownership. Profits would be reinvested into the community which will improve our circular economy and enable us to work on projects that will benefit locals and visitors alike.”