MY PLAN for day two of my May ’18 walking trip involved placing one foot in front of the other a lot until I got somewhere else. Well, nothing unusual there. Except this time, I planned to do that in the Knoydart Peninsula, a rather remote sticky-out bit of Great Britain. So much so that, while I can’t say that it doesn’t have roads, I can say that they’re not connected to the rest of the roads on GB. So, if you want to visit the village of Inverie, for instance, you need to do so on foot or by boat.
Taking the ferry might seem like the less ‘walky’ method but I’d pretty much missed the usual perambulatory route to Inverie when I headed south from Glenfinnan eight walks ago instead of going north beneath the viaduct.
I could, I suppose, have made my own way around Loch Nevis — the route chosen by fellow coast walker Alan Palin — but I’m not nearly so intrepid when it comes to trailblazing across the pathless wilds. Besides, I knew an important footbridge was down, which would mean fording a stream. I came to the conclusion that I’d rather not wade and, having decided to try to keep my feet dry, I decided I ought to do that properly.
More prosaically, there was a ferry from Mallaig to Inverie and I saw no reason not to take it.
One possible reason, my stomach pointed out, was that in order to catch the earliest Inverie ferry, I had to leave my hotel before breakfast. I silenced the rumbly organ by observing that it might be too early for the hotel kitchens but it wasn’t too early for Mallaig’s Co-op to open. A breakfast-themed sandwich mollified my tum and I waited on the quayside for the ferry to turn up, clutching my pre-booked ticket in my hand.
When the ferry arrived, I almost didn’t realise. I had been expecting the MV Western Isles, an 81-passenger, traditional wooden ferry. What arrived was a dinky little Safehaven Interceptor 42, a small 13 m boat of the sort often used by harbour pilots. But it had moored itself to the ferry embarkation steps, so I shouted down a query. Yep, it really was the ferry. No call for anything bigger at that time of day — I was one of only three passengers.
Soon, all three of us were standing on the pier at Inverie and I got my first good look at this isolated village.
Arriving by Boat
Almost an Island
Inverie is the largest settlement on the island of Great Britain not to be connected to the public road network. This rather implies that there are other, smaller ones (not counting the occasional lone house) and there are: Knoydart is also home to the tiny hamlets of Scottas, Doune, Airor and Inverguseran, all connected to Inverie by Knoydart’s own tiny network of roads and tracks.
The main parts of this network are officially public roadway but, like on the Small Isles, a permit is required to drive on them. Official permission is just the first hurdle though, as the Knoydart Ferry is passenger only, no matter which boat they are using. Unless you already own a boat capable of transporting a vehicle, you’d have to charter one specially.
In many ways, Knoydart functions much like an island.
As a pedestrian, I needed no permit to stroll along the path around Inverie Bay into the village itself. En route I encountered an unlikely erection, resembling a telegraph pole adorned with half-hearted carvings. This was, an explanatory sign attempted to convince me, Inverie’s totem pole. Yes, totem pole. I had to read that twice, too.
I can well understand why Inverie wanted some sort of celebratory monument to mark ten years since a community buy-out put the estate in the residents’ hands and not those of an absentee landlord. I can entirely appreciate that making it something hand-carved by residents and their friends and guests gives it a strong relation to the community. But a totem pole? It’s not what you’d call quintessentially Highlander is it?
Not that it looks all that much like a totem pole either, but ‘commemorative wooden pillar’ doesn’t trip so well off the tongue, I guess.
Somewhat bemused, I made my way into the village, which deftly dealt with my artistic criticism and general flouting of its splendid isolation by being resolutely shut. I was a couple of hours too early for both the shop and the tea room. That left the Old Forge, which revels in its title as the remotest public house in mainland Britain.
And so, shunned by Inverie, I set off through the village to begin my long walk out of Knoydart…
Knoydart (Cnòideart), remote and mountainous as it is, is pretty sparsely populated with a total population of just over 150. It would be easy to assume that it was always thus but, like much of the Highlands, it once supported far more people until famine and clearance did their work.
In 1795, for instance, the minister at Glenelg on the next peninsula over recorded that Knoydart had a population of 1000, having already lost 800 through emigration between 1770 and 1793. Half a century later, the 1846 Highland potato famine — an outbreak of blight caused widespread crop failure — reduced those numbers dramatically, followed by clearances in 1853. The latter involved Knoydart’s landowner forcibly evicting inhabitants to empty crofts and combine them together to make sheep farms.
Clans Rory and Donald
The owners of Knoydart were initially Clan Ruadhri (Rory), descendants of Ruaidhrí mac Raghnaill, a grandson of Somerled, King of the Isles. In the 15th century it passed to Clan Donald, which was descended from Ruaidhrí’s brother Domhnall.
For around 200 years, it was the Clanranald branch of Clan Donald that held it but, in 1613 ,the MacDonnells of Glengarry gained control of the peninsula. It was the MacDonnells — specifically Josephine MacDonnell — who evicted 350 of their tenants in 1853, forcing them to emigrate to Canada. Another 60, who refused to board the transport ship Sillery were forcibly evicted anyway and had their houses destroyed.
This makes Josephine sound positively evil, and certainly she was heartless, but she was also recently widowed and saddled with huge debts left by her late husband, Aeneas MacDonnell, 16th chief of Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry (1828-1851), who had in turn inherited huge debts from his father. Their son Alexander, now the 17th chief, was just a boy and, in clearing the land, Josephine saw a way to perhaps avoid bankruptcy. The people living on that land were just a minor inconvenience.
Having cleared the land and made it more commercially viable, Josephine MacDonnell sold it off in 1856, using the proceeds to mitigate her debts. The new owner was Scottish industrialist James Baird (1802-1876), who became the first of a series of short-term absentee landlords.
Possibly the most appalling of these was Ronald Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket, who bought Knoydart in the 1930s. A Conservative politician and keen Nazi sympathiser who attended Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday celebration in 1939 as a personal guest of the Führer, Lord Brocket continued to urge a negotiated settlement with Germany even after war had been declared, proposing Poland be ceded to Germany (the invasion of which had been the British casus belli).
After the war, Lord Brocket and his family returned to Inverie House and threw out all the furniture and fittings because they’d been used by Allied servicemen who had commandeered the usefully remote house for secret commando training. He sacked and evicted his estate workers, replacing them with people he considered loyal and the right sort and made it clear that anyone found on his land — whether shepherd, walker, whatever — was likely to be ‘mistaken’ as a deer and shot. This was not popular.
It was especially unpopular with returning Knoydart veterans who had just fought a war against Fascists and now had one to contend with at home.
Seven Men of Knoydart
In 1948, seven such men attempted to seize plots of land from the estate by invoking the Land Settlement Act 1919 (which had been used to grant land to WW1 veterans). The act empowered local governments to allot smallholdings to returning veterans from under-used land.
The Seven Men of Knoydart, as they became known — an allusion to the Seven Men of Moidart — had public opinion on their side but not the letter of the law and Lord Brocket obtained a court order to evict them. Appeals were unsuccessful.
Today, it is remembered not so much as a failure but as a struggle for justice by people essentially dispossessed of the land their families had lived on for generations and, in Inverie, it is commemorated by this cairn:
After Lord Brocket, a succession of other landlords followed until 1999, when the community bought the land for £750k. The last of the Seven Men of Knoydart died that same year.
Having inspected the memorial cairn, I headed out of Inverie on a perfectly smooth, recently-resurfaced, tree-lined single track-road. This brought me to within a stone’s throw of Inverie House, a whitewashed Georgian mansion. I was not heading for the house however but for the path to Barrisdale, which turned inland from the road. Before I too headed inland, I paused to look out over Inverie Bay.
Turning my back on pleasantly blue waters, I followed a hardened but unsurfaced track with a gorgeously mossy wall running beside it. In the 1st edition six-inches-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey map (1843-82), this track is shown as a main road, though it had downgraded to a minor road by the 2nd edition (1888-1913). My modern OS map shows it as an ‘other road, drive or track’, which seems fair enough.
The track soon passed through the small patch of woodland and, passing through a white, wooden gate, ran along its inland edge. It then broke free of the trees altogether, affording me a last look at Inverie Bay, as it skirted the lower flanks of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean (‘jagged peak of the mossy corrie’), a 796 m mountain.
Gleann an Dubh-Lochain
As the track headed towards another small patch of woodland, it passed the site of a vanished two-building settlement, named ‘Seanachaidh’ in the OS 1st edition and described as ‘a shepherd’s dwelling’ in the name-books used to compile it but not shown at all in the 2nd. Certainly, I saw no sign of them.
As you can tell, I enjoy an old map, and I was interested to see that while no earlier map than the 1st edition showed the road, Inverie itself could be found on Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of 1807 (as ‘Inverich’) and on William Roy’s military survey map of 1748-52 (as ‘Inverigh’).
The track deteriorated a little as it went but still remained metalled and distinct. It passed through a narrow strip of woodland that crossed the foot of the Gleann an Dubh-Lochain (‘glen of the little black loch) and roughly followed the course of the Inverie River. On the way, it passed a memorial cross perched on a cairn on a tor. Tòrr a’ Bhalbhainn to be specific.
One might be forgiven for thinking, at first sight, that the monument is a war memorial, erected to honour the names of those who died in the Great War. Unfortunately, it’s no such thing.
It is, in fact, the Brocket Memorial, built for Lord Brocket in 1938 ‘in gratitude for his father and mother and his wife and children’. His father had died in 1934, which is why he had inherited the title Baron Brocket, but his mother, wife and children were all very much alive, so it wasn’t even a memorial to them. Basically, he built a memorial because he wanted one. On his land, where everyone could see it.
It’s just a big ‘fuck you’ to the people of Knoydart.
A little way past the memorial, a side-track branched off to the right, passing over the Inverie River and heading up Gleann Meadall. This wasn’t where I was going but it bears mentioning because that was the footpath leading to Carnoch — where the footbridge wasn’t — and thus to Southies Bothy and on, via other footpaths and roads, to Glenfinnan or Fort William. It wasn’t always a mere footpath, however.
In the OS 1st edition, it’s the main road, with the road up Gleann an Dubh-Lochain being minor from that point. And, though it diminished to a minor road further on, it nonetheless remained an actual road — for the given definition of ‘road’ at the time, i.e. a hardened track — over a bridge at Carnoch and all the way to Loch Arkaig where the modern road network picks up today.
What I am saying, in a roundabout way, is that Knoydart’s isolation is a modern thing, born of redefining what a road is (thanks to motor traffic) and not maintaining the ones that didn’t measure up; 150 years ago Inverie might not have been easy to get to but it wasn’t cut off from the road network.
I passed by that turnoff and kept going up what the early OS editions showed as a minor road and which my modern map still shows as a track. Which it was. As it made its way up the glen alongside the Inverie River, the latter’s meanders brought it closer.
Labelled as ‘Water of Righ’ on Roy’s map of 1748-52, Inverie River is about four miles in length from where it drains out of Loch an Dubh-Lochain (‘loch of the black tarn’) to where it enters the sea in Inverie Bay. I was now reaching its upper end. Or should that be its beginning?
Loch an Dubh-Lochain
There are a lot of ‘black lochs’ dotted about the Highlands, largely in consequence of the terrain. Bogs tend to form in the hills, where acidic, waterlogged conditions see sphagnum moss grow and die. This sinks and compresses to form thick layers of peat, which give the beds of lochs and lochans a rich, dark hue. And, since the Celtic languages love to name things on the basis of ‘what does this look like?’ — big bay, grey rock, yellow hill etc. — a lot of them get called ‘Loch Dubh’ or in this case Loch an Dubh-Lochain.
Interestingly, Roy’s map labels it as ‘Loch Dow Lochan’ because he was spelling it phonetically and in Scotland, where the Great Vowel Shift had different effects than in England, the spelling ‘ow’ made the /u:/ sound now represented by English ‘oo’.
Overlooking Loch an Dubh-Lochain was the settlement of Torcuileainn, described in the OS 1st edition name-books as ‘three small cottage houses situated on the north side of Dubh-lochan. They are one storey high, slated and in good repair.’
The easternmost cottage had fallen into disrepair and become unroofed by the time of the OS 2nd edition. The other two were converted into one building for use by a fish farm sometime during the 20th century. Although the roof is now partly missing, the structure is still full of circular fish tanks standing about a meter high and just over twice that in diameter. They were used for raising trout fry, which would be then released into Loch an Dubh-Lochain as fishing stock.
From Torcuileainn, the track continued along the north shore of the loch but deteriorated as it did so, becoming stony, muddy and uneven.
By now, the sky had clouded over and was experimenting with the idea of intermittent drizzle, adding a misty countenance to Luinne Bheinn which at 939 m thigh, loomed at the head of the valley. Its name could be translated as ‘angry mountain’ but also more poetically — and more probably — as ‘sea-swell mountain’ on account of a wave-like appearance.
Beyond the Loch
At the head of Loch an Dubh-Lochain, where it was fed by two streams, the track dwindled further becoming narrower and considerably wetter as it climbed slowly up the valley wall. My modern OS map reflected this change, downgrading it from track to footpath at this point, but the early editions had been in no doubt that they had thought it still a road.
I considered this as I hopped over rocks, squelched through mud and forded minor burns (dry feet now seemed such a naïve idea). It was probably too narrow for any vehicle, I figured, an opinion I was forced to revise when a quad bike hurtled up the track and squeezed past me.
Over the course of half a mile, the path gained 400 m in height, topping out at 450 m (the head of the loch had been at 50 m). This brought me to the pass of Màm Barrisdale, nestling between the mountains of Stob na Muicraidh (‘pointy peak of the swine herd’) and Bachd Mhic an Tosaich (‘MacIntosh’s bank’).
As the path attained the summit, it turned to the north and, as I did likewise, I received for a moment the full blast of the wind. Well, blimey!
I paused beside a small tumbledown cairn to steady myself against its onslaught and then pressed resolutely on. Ahead of me was the descent towards Barrisdale.
A Dry Descent
I had just realised that though I was being icily blasted, the blasting was at least dry — the rain had ceased — when I descended into the lee of the hills anyway.
It was about this time that I began to meet people coming the other way, starting with a gaggle of older walkers whose levels of fitness and enthusiasm clearly varied widely within their group. The determination of their more reluctant members was likely to get a severe test any minute, I mused, for they would be taking the pass’s mighty wind blast directly to their faces. Ah well.
A lone walker followed a little distance behind them and he paused to ask me how far it was to the top? I simply pointed.
These other walkers had just ascended from Barrisdale (Barasdail), a broad valley opening into a bay on Loch Hourn. Its name derives from Old Norse and means exactly what it says on the tin — Barri’s dale — though who Barri was is lost to history. Whoever he was, his dale is pretty remote by overland standards, though much less hard to visit if you have a longship.
Today, there are just a few buildings scattered about the valley floor, one of which is an old farm building converted into a bothy (very likely where some of those other walkers came from). Another is Barisdale House (with one ‘r’), built around 1815 for Coll MacDonnell of Barrisdale to replace an earlier house burnt down in 1746 in retribution for the MacDonnells’ Jacobitism.
As I reached the valley floor, the clouds let through some rays of scorching sunshine and I paused by a wooden bridge over the Barrisdale River to put away my cagoul and slather myself in sunscreen.
Suitably armoured against the efforts of the Giant Nuclear Pain Globe, I set off once more on what had temporarily become a metalled road connecting Barrisdale’s buildings. For approximately half a mile, this led me along the shoreline of Loch Hourn.
This Loch’s Gaelic name is given by the Scottish Parliament as Loch Shubhairne, which they translate as ‘loch of the berry gap’ but others, perhaps poetically, perhaps wishfully, have claimed it to be Loch Iutharn (‘loch of Hell’) to contrast with Loch Nèimh (‘loch of Heaven’) for Loch Nevis.
The easy-going road was not about to last, however, for from Barrisdale to Kinlochhourn it’s something of a rocky, muddy rollercoaster. It may have once been less arduous — the 1st edition OS map clearly marks it as a proper track or road — but no longer; there’s quite a lot of up and down and in several places there are some quite large rocks that need to be clambered over. It wasn’t difficult per se but it was tiring and time consuming. The fun began where it left Barrisdale’s road, steeply climbing 50 m beside the ruins of a church.
Quoad Sacra Church
To my immense disappointment, this church does not appear to have been known as the Church of Hell. The 1st edition OS simply labels it as a quoad sacra church, which meant that the church parish was not a civil parish. That is, Knoydart was a parish of the Church of Scotland but for civil government purposes it was part of the parish of Glenelg.
It is labelled again as a church in the 2nd edition and subsequent smaller-scale (one inch to the mile) editions indicated it with a church symbol up to 1948. By the time of the 7th one-inch series (1955-61), it had clearly met its demise, however, as it ceased to be shown with a church symbol and was shown as an unroofed building.
A Helpful Hailstorm
I felt quite warm as I climbed the steep track behind the abandoned church but I had no fear of overheating for, no sooner had I reached the top, than the clouds dropped one last bout of precipitation upon me before slowly clearing. But let it not be said that they didn’t end their act with a flourish for rather than rain, I received an unexpected shower of hail. Well, it did cool me down, I suppose.
Fortunately, the hailstorm was almost as brief as it was unexpected. Thankful, I picked my way along the footpath which was by turns boggy and uneven. ‘Mud, rocks and muddy rocks’ was how I would later describe it.
I had this rugged path entirely to myself as it carried me towards Caolas Mòr (‘great narrows’), which is the narrowest part of Loch Hourn. The tiny three-cottage settlement of Caolasmor lay across the water but interestingly both Roy (c. 1750) and Arrowsmith (1807) showed a settlement of ‘Kylishmor’ on the south side of the loch where none stands today.
A 2004 survey by the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) found evidence of 19 structures, over a dozen of them buildings. The settlement was cleared for sheep farming fairly early and had vanished by the time of the OS 1st edition.
The path weaved and undulated high along the loch-side, at one point becoming a delightfully leafy path right next to a sheer drop, with supporting stone walls attesting that once again this path had been more than a mere foot trail.
It soon climbed out of the trees, however, to reveal the farmstead Runival (Raon Abhall, ‘orchard plain’), which faces Eilean Mhogh-sgeir and had been a working croft until the 1920s.
The path veered dramatically after Runival, heading both inland and upwards as it rounded a large rocky headland (shown in the photo above) on the landward side. Somehow, in the ascending of this, I badly tore my trousers across the back of one leg, leaving a jagged flap of cloth flailing about in the breeze. I thus descended the other side of the headland rather more raggedly than I’d gone up it, finding at the bottom the stream of the Allt a’ Chamuis Bhàin (‘burn of the white bay’).
This little stream emptied, unsurprisingly, into Camas Bàn (‘white bay’) and the land about it was dotted with the low remnants of walls, indicating more abandoned buildings. It was once a satellite hamlet of Skiary — a village further up the loch — and the OS 1st edition shows three buildings, one of which had lost its roof by the 2nd. Today, none of the structures survive.
It had been a fairly steep descent to Camas Bàn and it was another fairly step climb out of it as I rounded yet another headland. It was nonetheless easier going than the last one though that didn’t prevent me from pausing for a rest while I regarded Skiary down below.
Now a lonely cottage surrounded by scattered ruins, this had once been a sizeable village with an inn and a school. It was labelled as ‘Skiochree’ on Roy’s map of around 1750 but the remains all date from 1765 (and later), when it was decreed that future buildings on the Barisdale Estate should be built of stone, rather than as creel houses of timber, wattle and turf.
The Annexed Estates Commissioners, responsible for administering estates (like Barisdale) confiscated from Jacobites after the 1745 Rising , described Skiary as having ‘a most horrid appearance’.
Farming & Fishing
To be fair, the commissioners weren’t judging it on its aesthetic merits but its agricultural potential. Like all the Barisdale Estate settlements, such corn land as it had was on the hillside, way off the vertical, and worked manually by spade (the nearest plough was apparently in Inverie and would have been useless on the incline). The villagers did keep cattle but the beasts were often killed by either falling rocks or falling off rocks.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the residents turned to herring fishing as both a food source and an industry and Skiary developed into a small but important local port and victualling station. An admiralty chart of 1853 identified one of its buildings as a schoolhouse and the 1885 Gazetteer for Scotland described it as having ‘a modest inn’. The 1st edition OS map showed ten buildings and a sheepfold though it was down to six buildings by the 2nd.
The inn closed its doors around WW2 and the last family moved out of Skiary in the 1950s. That could easily have been the end of it had someone not bought one of the cottages during the 1980s and then lovingly restored it.
Today, their grandson, Tom Everett, touts it as ‘the remotest guesthouse on the British mainland’ and I have to say that had I learned of it before I made all my hotel and B&B bookings I would have seriously considered it. It has no road — the nearest is a mile away and even that is the dead end of a 22-mile road from Invergarry — no electricity and no mobile signal. You spend your nights by paraffin lamp or else you spend them in the dark. It sounds awesome.
The path from Skiary towards Kinlochhourn was pleasingly level compared to what that had come before, skirting the very edge of the loch on a built-up embankment. It was still lumpy, muddy and occasionally flooded but what it wasn’t was climbing up a hill.
Thankful for small mercies, I strode along it cheerfully, my torn strip of trouser waving like a triumphant flag as I put on a final burst of speed to get me to my destination.
A mile on from Skiary, at a small flight of stone steps that marked a boat landing point, the path turned into a tarmac public road. The last half mile was an absolute doddle as I finally reached the head of Loch Hourn and my destination of Lochhournhead Farm.
I had walked less than fifteen miles — a short day — but I felt like I’d done more. I was tired, sunburnt and wearing torn clothing as I plodded into the farm courtyard where I quite bemused my B&B host — a splendid chap named Tony Hinde — who expected me to look more walkery than I did.
Lochhournhead Farm was built over a hundred years ago according to its website and yes, it’s certainly there on the first OS map, so that pushes it closer to 150. To my inexpressible joy, it had a drying room to remedy the sodden state of my footwear and a hot shower to fix the sorry state of me.
The farm may not be quite as remote as Skiary but it’s close: It sits more-or-less at the end of that narrow, winding Invergarry Road, a useful stop for hikers but not really somewhere you’re likely to be ‘just passing.’ It has no mains water (but still enough for a shower) nor mains electricity and no mobile signal. Tealights at the bedside suggested that the generator would not be running 24/7 but that was no problem as the moment I sat down after dinner, I was out like a (powerless) light.
Company & Comparison
Dinner was a communal affair, with three other guests, one of whom was a young German woman who put my walking efforts completely in the shade. She was following the Cape Wrath Trail — an unmarked, unofficial trail — taking in as many peaks as possible and she was doing pretty much a month’s walking straight, with most nights spent camping.
Yes, I thought, while listening to her, I am indeed nothing but a dilettante.
Our host fed us well with soup and chicken and imparted much useful knowledge of the area, not to mention the observation that my next day’s plan was perhaps over-ambitious. Which, in fairness, it totally was. But I would deal with that in the morning…
This time: 14½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,288 miles