The remotest pub on the British mainland reopens this month under community ownership. We spoke to one of the locals to find out more about their plans.  

In January last year, the owners of Knoydart’s iconic pub, The Old Forge, announced that they were putting it up for sale.

Situated in the village of Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula, the Old Forge holds a Guinness World Record for the ‘remotest pub in mainland Britain’. Despite being part of the British mainland, Inverie is not connected to the main road network and can only be reached by a 17 mile (27 kilometre) hike through the ‘rough bounds’ of Knoydart, or a seven-mile ferry from Mallaig.

The pub’s location and its past reputation for bonhomie, singalongs and community spirit have made it legendary among many hillwalkers. But under the most recent owners, the pub received mixed reviews.

For a while the future of this community hub and legendary walkers’ hangout hung in the balance, but Knoydart locals steadfastly pursued plans to buy the pub, and it’s now under community ownership.

To celebrate The Old Forge’s reopening in April, Hanna Lindon spoke to Stephanie Harris, Business Development Manager of The Old Forge Community Benefit Society (CBS), about the struggle to save a local lynchpin. 

How did the idea of a community buyout get started?

We found out from the previous owner in January last year that he was putting the pub up for sale. Davie, who is now on the CBS committee, sent an email around the community asking people what they thought to a community buyout. There was a good reaction, so he started a consultation. The main question was just “do you think we should go for it?” but there were other questions along the lines of “if it happens, what would you like to see?”

It had an amazing reaction – 75% of the community responded, and everybody apart from one or two, who were unsure, thought it was a great idea. We had a big community Zoom call where folks put their names forward to join the steering group, and we took it from there.

How long did it take to make it all happen?

It took 14 months in all, but other communities have spent years trying to buy their pubs so it wasn’t too long in the grand scheme of things!

Has it been a tough road?

It’s been a lot of work. We’ve got a Facebook chat group we started at the beginning, and not a single day has gone by when there hasn’t been 20 messages on it – if not more!

I’d love to know how many messages there are in all, it must be tens of thousands in total. I kept a note of all the meetings we had on my calendar and counted them at the end of the years. There were 70! It was a phenomenal amount of work, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone.

The pub must be immensely important to the local community for you all to have put in so much hard graft….

It’s kind of hard to describe just how important it is. We’ve got a really small community – there are only about 110 of us – and because we’re quite isolated from the mainland, pubs and open social spaces are just so important. The pub isn’t just a place you can have a drink and get something to eat, it’s where people come together. When I was growing up, it was where everything was celebrated – birthdays, celebrations… When new babies came home it was the first place they’d be taken to introduce them to the rest of the community.

Members of the local community with their pub. Photo: Stephanie Harris

And it’s important for tourism too?

Definitely. A lot of the businesses on Knoydart are reliant directly or indirectly on tourism. So the pub adds not only extra services for the people who live here but also another place for the thousands of visitors we get every year to go and enjoy. It’s good that we can bring it back under community ownership and tailor what we can offer, maybe more than would be possible under a private owner. We want to make an effort to get feedback and suggestions from everyone.

We’ve heard that you’re planning to bring back the live music sessions – hooray! What other plans are afoot?

At the very beginning of this process we set out our vision statement (you can check it out on our website), and underneath that we set out some broad goals we wanted to achieve – things like having a welcoming place everyone can come to, contributing to local employment, putting measures in place to tackle climate change and be more environmentally friendly. I’ve just successfully interviewed for the post of business development manager so part of my job over the next two years is to look at those goals and think of ways of implementing them.

One of the things we’ve always talked about is keeping everything as local as possible and supporting small businesses. Over the last week we’ve been working more on what we’ll stock and the bar, and we’re trying to focus on Scottish producers. We’ve got a brewery on Knoydart and we’re hoping to get their beer stocked as well.

Will you be offering food?

The kitchen area is an extension at the back of the building and it needs a whole new roof. We had a lot of rain yesterday and there was a bit of a flood pouring in from the ceiling! That’ll be our first big refurbishment job and we’re hoping to get the restaurant open later in the summer.

It’ll be great once the kitchen’s open because food-wise there’s so much in and around Knoydart. There’s Mallaig’s amazing seafood and plenty of venison through the work of the Knoydart Foundation. We’re really looking forward to supporting that kind of thing and showcasing what we’ve got in the local area.

This isn’t Knoydart’s first community buyout, is it?  

No, in 1999 the community bought what was left of the Knoydart Estate after pockets had been sold to private owners. We’ve got good people on the CBS committee with previous experience of a community buyout.

Last but not least, do you have an opening date? 

Not a definitive one, but we’re aiming for Easter weekend – either the Friday or the Saturday. We’re still on track for that, but we can’t confirm until the last minute because all the beer is arriving on Friday! You’ll find the latest updates on our Facebook page.