Robin McKelvie is a travel writer, blogger, and broadcaster who has travelled to and written about over 100 countries. In this blog Robin discovers how community tourism is creating 'temporary locals'.
Knoydart on first glance is a remarkable wilderness of rugged mountain, plunging glen and soaring sea loch. It is spirit-soaringly beautiful, but Knoydart is no wilderness. Or rather, it’s a manmade wilderness, suffering a century of Clearances. It’s also the land of the ‘Seven Men of Knoydart’ land raid that today is home to a positive community who run their own lives, following the 1999 buyout. Knoydart is a community with lessons for us all that links into other communities and their projects that are growing with the SCOTO initiative.
I’m sitting with Davie Newton, a director of the Knoydart Foundation, in the Old Forge. It’s a delight to see Britain’s most remote mainland pub open again, thanks to a community buyout this spring that swept it from an owner who had grown estranged from the community and closed the pub during the dark winters when the locals valued it most.
“It’s great to have the pub open again,” smiles Newton, as Loch Nevis shimmers in the background across the beer garden. “As the community now owns it we’re properly refurbishing The Old Forge with a new bar area and more space for drinks and for eating too, serving, of course, beers from Knoydart Brewery. We did a visitor survey once and people say they come to Knoydart for three things – community, mountains and the pub!”
Stephanie Harris - who does business development for the Old Forge - arrives and is as positive about the new ownership: “We had support for our bid from all over the world. And those people are now part of our community – Knoydart’s community is something that stretches well beyond the peninsula. We’re like that with visitors too – we welcome them as ‘temporary locals’.”
That idea of temporary locals is a key aim of the SCOTO initiative, which Harris is enthusiastic about: “Our community projects and private businesses work together here and through things like SCOTO we can work with other communities around Scotland, such as the Isle of Eigg just across the water. We’ve got lots of links with them and they’re growing.”
Flourishing Community Tourism
Looking closer into Knoydart’s community its work really is deeply impressive. The Knoydart Estate looked on the verge of bankruptcy when the community forged together to buy it in 1999. Since then the population has grown to around 120, when at one point it had seemed in terminal decline. It’s a far cry from the pre-Clearances population of over 2,000, but these are huge steps – stability has been achieved and remarkable projects abound with community-owned forestry and hydroelectric.
Small businesses are flourishing within the community too. The pub is the prime example, but next door is the busy shop, split between a grocer selling Knoydart venison and a gift shop selling paintings, woodwork and arts in other media created on Knoydart. I’ve got my daughters with me and they snare locally-made scrunchies and lip balm.
Across the road in this village of Inverie – a picturesque ribbon of whitewashed houses tucked at the foot of vaulting mountains – is the Knoydart Pottery & Tearoom. Here I meet Isla Miller – who runs this glorious waterfront oasis with her sister Rhona. It’s clear Isla loves both Knoydart and the sense of community – “Knoydart is stunning, but it’s the people, the community who really make it. After all you bring your own sunshine to any picnic. The buyout has given us the confidence to push on and address the things that matter to us in a positive way. I’ve seen first-hand how well private businesses can work with the community so the SCOTO initiative is a positive development. We already work with other communities and you can see with Eigg beer on sale in the Old Forge, and that’s definitely something we want to do more of.”
Sitting in the sunshine enjoying a delicious lunch on the tearoom terrace, washed down with a coffee made especially for them by Knoydart Coffee just down the road, my shoulders drop and I smile as the mountains soar all around. It’s easy to just stop, relax and just gaze in Knoydart. I do plenty of that in one of the new community-owned Wee Hooses.
The Wee Hooses are a trio of cute abodes sit around the bay to the west on land the community recently purchased. Being Knoydart they are very local – they were pre-assembled in Mallaig by a Knoydart-born man and the wood cladding comes from Knoydart. They are also great value and super cosy, with a wee deck with views, a bunk bed for the kids, a double bed, and a woodburning stove.
Knoydart is a place indeed where you can just stop to enjoy the silence. The locals don’t have too much time for that, though, as Newton told me back in the Old Forge: “Some people think we just swan around all day admiring the views and chatting with our pals when they see the cheery faces around the village. But behind that we are hardworking and most people have at least a couple of jobs or things they do.”
Temporary Locals Becoming Part of the Landscape
I rouse myself from view-admiring and beachcombing to make an effort too, joining Knoydart ranger Finlay Greig. He runs daily walks at 11.30am from the Old Forge that cover ‘Knoydart in a Knutshell’. You can follow this route yourself with maps available at the shop. We push on in search of the peak of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean, which rises Table Mountain-esque above Inverie. It soars straight from sea level to a height of 796m. It’s not one of Knoydart’s trio of Munros, but it’s a challenge nonetheless.
From the airy ridge we peer over a land that has seen much tragedy, but which today is alive with hope. “When you know how to read a landscape in Scotland you can see all the signs of those darker days,” says Finlay, “but today there is real hope here. I only moved to Knoydart relatively recently and I’ve been really impressed with how welcome I’ve been made to feel. I lived in a flat in Glasgow before and my neighbours were strangers.”
Greig continues, “There are people here with South African, Dutch, Israeli, Hungarian and French heritage, as well as from all over the British Isles. Contributing to the community is key – if you do that you’re very welcome. An initiative like SCOTO that brings us closer to other likeminded communities and shares with the public what we’re about is very welcome.”
Back down in Inverie I enjoy a last pint in the Old Forge looking out over Loch Nevis. Locals are split on its meaning, and that of Loch Hourn, which forms the Knoydart Peninsula’s northern boundary. If you side with the most commonly heard ones Knoydart is a place literally stuck between Nevis (Heaven) and Hourn (Hell).
Historically Knoydart has indeed been torn between heaven and hell. Today, though, the sun is unmistakably breaking through the clouds across these two mighty sea lochs as the community thrives two decades on from their buyout and new links are made with other communities through SCOTO. ‘Temporary locals’ coming to Knoydart these days leave having learned from the community, who are the force behind the rebirth of this majestic manmade wilderness.
Robin has been writing about travel for over 20 years, penning over 30 books and 1,000s of articles across five continents for the likes of the Australian Times, Telegraph, Wanderlust, Scotsman and Wanderlust. You can follow him on Instagram or visit his website.