Old Forge in Inverie: Life at the helm of 'Britain's remotest pub'
It has a famous claim to fame as the most remote pub in mainland Britain.
Now the landlord who put the Old Forge in Inverie on the map for more than 20 years has lifted the lid on what went on behind its fabled front door.
Ian Robertson has published a new book recalling the highs and lows of trying to run a pub that can only be reached by boat from Mallaig seven miles away or after an 18-mile hike through the Knoydart peninsula in the West Highlands.
“The Remotest Pint” recounts how the Old Forge would become equally fabled among hill-walkers, musicians and bands, boat owners and those simply looking to get away from the outside world.
Robertson left a career in the army behind him to run the Old Forge with with Jackie.
The couple had already moved to Inverie, the main settlement in Knoydart, when the opportunity to buy the local pub came up in 1994, five years before the community buyout of the 17,500 acre estate.
Ian recalled: “Happily, the pub did work out and became very successful, though it took a long time and a lot of hard work.
“A lof of things had to fall into place and I guess we were lucky with some of the resources we had on our doorstep. Food was a big part of our success.
“I would take the boat out of Knoydart on a Friday, having stuck the prawn boiler on in the pub, and would try to catch a fishing boat on the VHF radio before it had even come into Mallaig harbour.
"I would take three boxes of live prawns off them and radio Jackie to reverse the trailer down the pier, so that people saw this stuff coming off the pier as fresh as could be. Twenty minutes later it would have been on their plates.”
The book recalls the couple’s efforts to publicise the pub by making a virtue of its remote location, with “Mainland Britain's Remotest Pub '' featuring on thousands of t-shirts, hats and sail shirts.
The recording of a promotional CD was almost scuppered by the foot and mouth epidemic, with Ian having to persuade the local community to allow musicians and sound equipment to make the journey to Invere.
Ian writes: “We put a trough of disinfectant at the top of the step on the pier, with a sign which read ‘Keep foot and mooth doon south.’ Of course, nobody moved from the pub all weekend.
“I booked all the accommodation for the musicians and everything was recorded live in the pub over the course of 48 hours.”
The book recalls how the Robertsons “did every hospitality course going” as the pub gradually built its reputation.
Ian writes: “I wanted every single person who came into the Old Forge to be welcomed.
“’Speak to them,’ I would say, ‘just speak about anything.’ Buying a pub was the last thing I would have thought about, but the secret was that if a complete stranger came in all you had to say was: ‘How are you today? Good to see you.’ Before they left, they would be swapping addresses with the locals."
As the pub’s reputation grew, so did its popularity as a place to find work, with the couple employing 14 members of staff at one point.
Recalling the arrival of a favourite barman, Sandy Sutherland, Ian says: “He turned up in a Hawaiian shirt, having hitchhiked all the way from Caithness, with a CV that included everything from parking tickets to bowling alley scores and school photographs, so we couldn’t really send him home again after all that.
"Once he got the job, he told us he hadn’t been sure whether to give us his crofter look or his Caribbean mixologist look.”
Although Ian admits chefs would cause him the most headaches, the Old Forge would go into battle with the Foreign Office to try to secure a visa extension for a kitchen worker, Kristy.
Ian recalls: “For some reason, the British Government was very strict about Kiwis and Australians coming to work here, but we wrote and phoned the Foreign Office constantly, and eventually were allowed a third year, so we tried for a fourth.
“They said: ‘What about local people?’ We explained that we had already employed most of them.
“They were unmoved by this and said that they very rarely made exceptions, unless the person in question had specific skills, so we told them that we were starting to smoke our own salmon and that Kristy was the only person that could do it properly.”
It was the end of an era for the Old Forge when the Robertsons to sell up and launch new self-catering properties in Inverie.
New owner Belgian hotelier Jean-Pierre Robinet would go on to have a difficult relationship with the locals, not helped by his decision to close over the winter.
But when he put the pub back on the market last year, Inverie’s villagers launched a fundraising campaign to help secure a community buyout of the Old Forge, which was declared a success in March, allowing the pub to reopen in April.
Robertson writes: “The unwavering support and appetite for community ownership of the Old Forge stretched from our neighbouring Small Isles, Skye, Mallaig and Lochaber to the rest of the UK and from every nook and cranny imaginable around the globe – so many emails, tweets, messages of encouragement and heart-warming good wishes. The amazing level of support demonstrates just how important this little whitewashed Shangri-La is to so many.
“There is not much I would do differently if I was buying the pub today.
"One thing I learned was that there was never any point in trying to change people’s lifestyles.
"You could have all the craft or Belgian beers you wanted, but our clientele would still go back to drinking McEwan’s Export and Tennent’s Lager.”