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Britain’s Last Wildernesss

The remote Knoydart peninsula in the West Highlands is only accessible by boat or on foot, but for those who make the effort, the rewards are enormous.

BY BRUCE MACGREGOR SANDISON

The small boat was busy and its decks crowded. As we set sail, children and adults chattered and jostled good-humouredly while finding a comfortable space in which to spend the journey. Once clear of the harbour, the Sound of Sleat greeted us with sparkling, blue-bright waves and I thrilled to the feeling of adventure that comes only with the scent of salt sea spray.

Kittiwake, herring gulls and black-backed gulls clustered astern, screaming their approval at our departure. Etched like snow-white flakes on the vast canvas of the silver and gold sky, gannets hovered and dived for fish. Ahead lay our destination, the tiny hamlet of Inverie on the Knoydart Peninsula, 40 minutes by boat from Mallaig at the end of the "Road to the Isles."

Knoydart is one of Scotland's last great wilderness places. It enfolds 55,000 acres and lies to the west of Fort William between "heaven and hell" -- the names given to the two fjord-like sea lochs, Nevis to the south and Hourn in the north, that guard it. Knoydart has been designated a National Scenic Area for its amazing diversity of flora and fauna, and for its outstanding beauty.

Apart from by boat, the only way in is on foot; a taxing 16-mile hike from Strathan at the end of the public road at the head of Loch Arkaig. The path climbs though Glen Dessary, amidst the ragged mountains where Bonnie Prince Charlie hid after his defeat at Culloden to the ruins of Finiskaig on the shores of Loch Nevis. The route then winds past Camasrory and Carnoch before climbing steeply over Gleann Meadail and down to the River Inverie.

This was my first visit to Knoydart, the only place in the land that I love and call home that I had yet to explore. As our vessel, the Western Isles, crossed Loch Nevis, the outline of the few houses lining the shore below the massive bulk of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean grew and took form. On the port side, we passed the dramatic white statue of "Our Lady" on the rocky headland of Rubha Raonuill and a few minutes later were alongside the pier at Inverie.

A crowd of people awaited our arrival -- to meet friends and visitors, collect supplies shipped over from Mallaig and mainland Scotland (building materials, household goods, food and drink and all the other necessities that the people who live in Knoydart depend upon to sustain their lifestyle). Cheerful greetings, in Gaelic and English, filled the air as the crew helped passengers disembark.

The resident population of Knoydart amounts to 60 people. There is a well-stocked shop, the famous Old Forge, the most remote pub on the British mainland, a primary school with nine pupils and a nursery school with two. For visitors in and around Inverie there are a number of comfortable and welcoming self-catering properties, bed and breakfast establishments and guesthouses.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2008 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Royal Deeside by Keith Aitken.

Photos: by Michael Roper