As the name clearly suggests, the Old Forge originally housed a blacksmith’s forge for the villagers of Inverie. It was converted into a private club in the 1980s and, in 1992, turned into a pub by Ian and Jackie Robertson. It was on sale for three years before I bought it in 2012.
Location: Inverie, Knoydart, Inverness-shire, West Highlands
Staff: Five full time
Guests per year: 15,000
Annual turnover: £450,000
Wet:dry split: 40:60
Best-selling dish: Venison burger
The Knoydart peninsula on the west coast of Scotland has been described as Britain’s last great wilderness. Isolated by its geography from the rest of the Western Highlands, it has four munros, teeming salmon rivers and great herds of deer.
The land was taken over by the local community in 1999. The nearest road to Inverie is 18 miles away and most visitors walk for two days to get to the pub, stopping overnight at a bothy (basic shelter). Alternatively, the ferry from Mallaig takes 45 minutes.
My family have been hoteliers for six generations. My grandmother had a Michelin star, my father was a hunter and fisherman, and we always had fresh food on the table. Running the Old Forge is a way of going back to those roots. I was a hunter myself and when I first stalked deer here 20 years ago, I fell in love with Knoydart and came back every year.
It was during one crazy night at the Old Forge that Ian Robertson asked me to make an offer for the pub. The deal went through in a week. I had no family to worry about, just my dog, so I sold my house in Ardennes, put everything on a lorry and drove all the way.
I was retail director of the French supermarket chain Carrefour for eight years with all the pressure of corporate life that sort of role brings with it. I think that influenced my decision. Immediately before I came here, I was running a hotel in the Alps so I had some knowledge of difficult logistics and I felt ready for the challenge.
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We’re very proud to be the remotest pub in the last British wilderness and I came here for the way of life – but logistics is my main concern. It’s expensive to bring things here and you have to continually invest in the building and maintain the property as well.
Remoteness is a marketing tool, but you’ll never be rich with a pub like this. Our turnover, though, is high enough to cover the extra costs. We’re very green, too, and all the electricity comes from a hydro-electric plant.
The pub provides staff accommodation for five full-time staff, two in the kitchen and three front of house. It costs us to set aside five rooms for staff but that’s the price you pay for good-quality people. They need to be food lovers, and they need to love natural products.
We close on Wednesdays. It’s the only day there are no deliveries and our people work hard for 48 hours a week so it’s important for them to have a good break. We might go for hike, a picnic, or a trip to Mallaig and we’ve organised brewery tours for them.
The Old Forge attracts around 15,000 guests a year including munro ‘baggers’, stalkers, anglers and locals. People also sail here. There are 10 moorings at the pub that cost £15 a night – but they’re free if you radio ahead and book a table, and we offer a hot shower, too!
About a quarter of the 110 local residents use the pub regularly and another 50% support what we’re doing here. We have a social role, but it’s hard to please everybody on Knoydart. There are a lot of strong local characters, as you can imagine, and there’s no diplomacy in a place like this. You know what everyone’s thinking.
There are 80 to 100 days in the summer season, from April to the end of October, and the winters are long. The sun sets at 11.30pm on 21 June, and in December it’s 3.30pm. But I like it. You get to meet the locals, and we’ve got the Gulf Stream so it’s not as cold as you would think.
From the menu
Cullen skink (£6.95)
Stalkers Platter with smoked duck and herb-smoked venison (£9.95)
Knoydart Seafood Platter – Loch Nevis langoustines, local mussels, hand-dived scallops, crab claws and Gleniug smoked salmon (£34.95)
Lochaber venison burger with Arran mustard mayonnaise and chips (£9.95)
Beer-battered haddock and chips (£11.95)
Belgian chocolate mousse (£5.95)
Forge cheese platter served with a glass of port (£9.95)
We have some beautiful produce to cook with and everything from A to Z is home-made. We have our own scallop diver, lobster man and a langoustine fisherman who’s 80 years old. The venison comes from the local estates.
Since I came here, food sales have risen dramatically and we’re doing 80 to 100 covers a day during the season. In the past, the pub opened for lunch and dinner, but people can pop in at any time so now we offer food from 2.30pm till around 10pm – though we’ll never refuse to serve anyone at any time. In the past year, we’ve sold 6,000 venison burgers, 4,000 fish and chips meals and 3,000 seafood platters.
Beer sales have gone down as we’ve served more meals, but wine has increased because we’ve matched it with the food.
We have an exclusive house beer at £4 a pint called RemoteNess, a 3.9% ABV cask ale brewed for us by the Loch Ness Brewery. We also have Grimbergen and Liefmans fruit beers on draught and bottled Trappist ales.
There are 257 different drinks in total, which I think is a lot considering where we are.
Live music is mostly Celtic folk and we’re well known for our impromptu ceilidhs. We also have poetry sessions and, this September, we’re staging a classic rock weekender for the first time. Our regular music festival, held in a marquee outside, is every two years and the next one will be in April 2017. We couldn’t do it annually because it takes a lot of preparation. Some 800 people come and camp here.
We don’t usually have TV, though we did show the Euros this year, and the Wi-Fi goes off at 6pm. People come here to be remote and get rid of all their city habits.
We also work with a company called Minch Adventures to offer guests deals on mountain biking, fishing and hill walking trips.
In January, we opened six Knoydart snugs at the Old Byre, which used to be cattle sheds, and they’re already fully booked until October.
We offer a three-night minimum stay, including breakfast and a three-course dinner with wine, for £100 per person per night. As well as the en-suite rooms, guests have use of a communal area with a peat stove and a kitchen.
We could extend the restaurant but we don’t want to turn into an industry. This is a human-sized place, a place to socialise. It’s tempting to grow, but what for? It would be different. When it’s all locals in the winter, it’s like home. And we want to remain a pub – to stay humble. We want to say to people – “it’s a pub, relax”.