A Pint at the End of the Earth

By July 26, 2015 Europe, Scotland
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“Following me now, are yous?” came a chuckle from behind, as we gingerly made our way down a set of narrow steps towards the sea. We turned to see Jack, the man who just hours before had expertly maneuvered our tiny bus along the twisting Highland roads that connect Fort William to Mallaig. Arm in arm with his wife, Fiona, they were on their evening stroll down to the local pub.

We slowed our pace to match theirs, happy for the company. A steady chorus of “Hiya Jackie” punctuated our conversation as we passed the coast guard (on his bicycle), Jim (who runs the food co-op downtown), and Lorna (still recovering a spill on the dance floor at her grandson’s wedding last month). By the time we reached the Chlachain Inn and Restaurant, we had met half of Mallaig.

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Stepping into the pub was like auditioning for an episode of Outlander. A collection of tartan-clad characters played pool in the corner, sipping what I imagined to be exceptionally strong whiskey in between turns. Outside on the patio, men in kilts bared their thighs, glowing unapologetically white during a brief interlude of sunshine.

Had Mallaig been our final destination, we would have stayed nestled inside The Chlachain until the wood fire was stoked and the other half of town had came through its doors. Instead, we downed our pint of local ale and, heads already buzzing, and said our goodbyes to Jack, Fiona and the rest of our new, temporary friends. We had another pub to get to before sun down – the most remote pub in mainland Britain.

***

The ferry chugged towards Inverie, paving a path of steel blue in its wake. All around us Knoydart’s munros rose and fell in the distance, the undulating green interrupted only by an occasional waterfall. The wind whipped sea air through my hair as I looked out at a white house nestled at the base of the mountain range. What would it be like to live there, surrounded by such lonesome beauty at the end of the earth? Could I shut myself away with a supply of good coffee and spend my days writing a novel, perhaps? Maybe I‘d stock my cellar with wine and beer and throw rowdy dinner parties? Who would I even invite? When I died, how long before anyone would notice? Would there be wifi?

For roughly 120 people, Knoydart is their personal Shangri-La. Half of the population lives in Inverie at the water’s edge, where we would spend the night on Long Beach. There are only two routes into Inverie, the forty-minute ferry from Mallaig, or a multi-day hike over the craggy peaks and valleys that connect Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn, aptly translated to mean ‘the lochs of heaven and hell’. Visitors from around the world cross this Scottish purgatory for one of three reasons: for the solitude, for the view, and for a pint at the Old Forge.

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***

We made two new friends on the ferry, brothers from Edinburgh with matching red hair left to run wild after several weeks trekking across the Highlands. Rain clouds had stalked us to Inverie, and I was relieved to have someone to follow to the campsite – the only thing worse than setting up a tent, is setting up a tent in the rain.

The path passed a handful of buildings – a corner store, a post office, an information centre, and, of course, the pub – before quickly plunging into the forest. Dusk had fallen quickly, and the gnarled canopy shut out the last remaining light of the day. The underbrush was lush and unfamiliar, and the moss seemed determined to reclaim everything, living or dead, back to the earth. After a kilometer or so, the forest opened up and we spotted the brothers’ little red tent pitched on the beach. Two grass-roofed cabins marked the beginning of the campsite; one housing communal supplies left by former travellers, the other a very innovative compostable toilet. An ‘Honesty Box’ collected fees to help with the maintenance of the facilities, adding to the communal feel despite there being hardly another soul in sight. We fought off pesky midges as we fumbled through setting up our temporary home, and then quickly made our way back along the path in the dark to the pub, not sure what we’d find.

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When we arrived, half of the tables in the pub were already alive with conversation. I notice a chalk slate with my name stenciled across it sitting on a table for two across from the fireplace. (A little overkill perhaps, but you don’t want to arrive at the end of the world only to find they don’t have a table for you…) We settled in and took in our surroundings- wood beams crisscrossing the ceiling, a dartboard by the door, and a collection of stringed instruments hanging from the walls, ready to assist spontaneous music-makers at a moments notice.

An Australian girl took our order. Scallops to share, followed by mussels mined from Loch Nevis and JP’s Special Venison Cheese Burger Double Deluxe. Curious, I asked what brought her to this little known corner of the world. She shrugged, “I found the job on Gumtree. I’ve also heard they throw some sweet as parties here…”

The brothers join us later for a pint, and we talked about living abroad, Scottish slang and Amazing Race Canada. They tell us about the bothy, unlocked houses, lodgings and cabins scattered across the Highlands that offer free shelter to weary travellers who manage to find them. I imagine what a welcomed sight a roof would be after a day of trekking through the pissing rain.

On our walk back to the campsite, we passed a few bungalows I hadn’t noticed earlier that evening. They glowed orange in the otherwise darkness, living rooms alive with people drinking and carrying on, their laughter fading only once we had turned the bend to the beach. Must be one of those sweet as parties. Maybe there would be people to invite to my dinner parties after all.

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***

I woke to the sound of drums beating on top of us, the tent amplifying what was your average Scottish drizzle into a twelve-piece orchestra. Sounding too wet to venture out and explore the surrounding trails as planned we stayed cocooned in our sleeping bags until our stomachs demanded otherwise. At half past nine, we followed the path back towards where we had noticed an unassuming, white trailer sitting the night before. I approached cautiously, not fully believing that it would be magically serving breakfast between eight and ten as the sign on the door had promised. The sizzle of bacon reassured us, and we giddily placed our order at the Knoydart Snack Co – two coffees and sausage rolls, to go – starring incredulously, left and right down the otherwise empty path for the other hungry Knoydartians that would make being awake on a Sunday morning worth this poor boy’s time. I stood in the drizzle and sipped my coffee, marvelling at the corner of the world that I had found myself, and the people who called it home.

During our time in the Highlands we had been afforded a brief window into a warm, tight-knit community. Here, at the end of the earth, I discovered that while you might not find wifi, chances are you’ll find a good sausage roll, shelter from the storm, and someone to share a pint or two.

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