We’ve just got back from a weekend on Knoydart.
If you’ve never heard of Knoydart, I wouldn’t really be surprised. It’s a remote peninsula in the north-west of Scotland, sparsely populated, stunningly beautiful, and so mountainous that even the most serious Munro-baggers regard it with awe. Cut off by mountains on the landward side, the tiny coastal village of Inverie is accessible only by boat from Mallaig – unless you fancy a two-day hike over difficult terrain.
From a distance, the whitewashed cottages that line the shore of Loch Nevis look like rocks that have tumbled down from the peak of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean. There’s a pub, a tea room and a small Post Office. The primary school boasts 11 pupils, and after the age of 12 they have to attend the secondary school in Mallaig, which means lodging at a hostel during the week and returning to Knoydart on a Friday night.
The only real road runs the length of Inverie before petering out into a rough track that you could only tackle with a Landrover. Everyone has a 4×4, and most inhabitants also have a boat. There’s a postal delivery three times a week in winter (five days a week in summer) and if you need some groceries you can phone or fax the Co-op in Mallaig and they’ll put them on the next ferry.
If you’re thinking it sounds remote and insanely difficult, you should talk to the people who live there. Most of them look as if they have found paradise. Some have swapped a busy city life for a cosy cottage with a front garden that runs right down to the shore of Loch Nevis. Others, like our friends Iain and Jo Wilson who are organic sheep farmers, are completely in tune with the landscape while making a living from the land; they enjoy its beauty and unspoilt freedom every waking minute.
We went out from Mallaig on Saturday afternoon, on the boat operated by Knoydart Sea Bridge. Iain met us at the pier at Inverie, and we bundled everything into the back of his Landrover before setting off for his farm, which is called Inverguserain. This lies on the northern coast of Knoydart, a good six or seven miles from Inverie at the end of a rough track that winds between gorse-clad hillsides, past the awesome bulk of Ladhair Bheinn, down into a winding valley where red deer cross the road at a leisurely pace in front of you, and finally out towards the sea.
The view that Iain and Jo have from their front windows, of the Sound of Sleat with the Cuillins of Skye beyond, is a sight that would probably keep me and Colin from doing any work on a daily basis. There’s no sound except the distant lapping of waves, the piping of oystercatchers, the bleating of ewes to their lambs. We were down on the shore early on Sunday morning, and heard the haunting call of Great Northern Divers against a background of deep silence.
It’s the start of their lambing season, and Jo had two orphaned lambs in a pen by the back door. They needed regular feeding, and they were so cute! Iain was out regularly, checking his scattered flock for new arrivals and potential problems, but he still found time to take Colin on a long walk in search of wildlife. They had a close encounter with a golden eagle, and watched a pair of red-throated divers on a lochan high in the hills. They were caught in a heavy rainstorm, and came back dripping wet and very happy.
Meanwhile, I was helping another friend to compile a book about the recent history of Knoydart, a task that involved interviewing a few of the area’s longest-standing inhabitants. I was taken to some pretty far-flung spots and I heard some fascinating stories.
Colin had been to Inverguserain before, and Iain had shown him the patches of garnet sand that occur naturally on the beach. I’d never even heard of garnet sand before, and as you can imagine, I was keen to see it! This amazing magenta-coloured sand is formed when tiny garnet crystals in rocks of mica schist are ground down by the force of the waves.
We heard the first cuckoo, a long way off across the glen, and chiffchaffs were singing from the trees around Inverie. On our second morning, newly-arrived swallows were dipping low over the beach.
Knoydart is a place that tends to grow around you, weaving its own magic. As always, we stood on the boat yesterday and looked back at the receding shore with a sense of privilege and pleasure at having experienced it.
A couple of ferry operators offer regular crossings to Knoydart from Mallaig, and a number of private boats can also be chartered for crossings and pleasure trips around the coast.
More information at www.knoydart-foundation.com
Images copyright © Colin Woolf