THE final glow of a blood-red sunset fades behind mountains and the sky turns black. There is a whisper of wind in the grass and the thud of a generator – which has become an accepted part of the background noise because of its constancy, like the waves breaking on the shore.
On the night breeze there is a tang of seaweed and salt, mingling with the dampness of mountains after rain. But the rain clouds rolled west before the sunset, and now the sky is a void studded with bright stars.
Stew and dumplings from a plastic packet was on the menu for dinner. Now a pan of tea simmers above the blue flames of a petrol stove as a night breeze steals off Loch Hourn with its sea smells and bird noises.
From the tent door I gaze across dark ground to where light streams from a bothy window. I can hear laughter within. I can hear voices murmuring in the scattering of tents behind me in the darkness, and a farm dog barking somewhere along the valley.
Then the generator dies with a cough, and the light dies with it. The darkness is complete except for the stars and the glow of my stove. And slowly, the laughter and the voices give way to the inevitability of night and I am left with the sigh of wind in the mountains. And tea.
Welcome to the back of beyond, welcome to the wilderness, welcome to that distant Highlands jewel that is Knoydart.
Knoydart is Avalon – the land beyond the sea. All roads may lead to Rome but not one leads to Knoydart. It is inaccessible. Knoydart is a candle burning on a limb of rock that thrusts into the Sound of Sleat, drawing moths into its flame to climb three of the remotest mountains in Scotland.
Knoydart is a peninsula, attained only by boat from Mallaig or Arnisdale – or rocky mountain paths (above) from road-heads many miles to the east at Kinloch Hourn and Loch Arkaig. It is, in essence, an island – certainly for the people who live in its scattered communities. Cut off from the rest of Britain by a mountain barrier, the people of Knoydart look to the sea for their post, their provisions and their visitors.
And that makes it a little bit special.
Knoydart is not unique in its isolation. Several years ago I walked ten miles along the shore of Little Loch Broom, just south of Ullapool, to the Cailleach Head peninsula. There the communities of Rireavach (right, May 2004), Carnach, and Scoraig enjoy a similar seclusion. There are no cars and the houses are powered by makeshift wind generators. If you want to go to town, the first step is to catch a boat to Badluarach or hike along the cliffs to the road-head at Badrallach.
To visit these places is like stumbling upon a way of life that – despite its isolation – feels more real, more human, and closer to how we are supposed to live.
In Rireavach, I strolled along the track that is the main street (right, May 2004), and this young guy came out of a croft house and offered me a piece of orange cake he’d just baked. He was off to see a neighbour and had cut the cake into wedges. “Would you like a piece?” he asked as we walked along the road.
People nod, they smile, they say hello in places like these. There is a real sense of community. There is a feeling, for me at least, that the Rireavachs of this world are on a higher plain. Outwardly they cling to a way of life that largely disappeared with the Clearances; inwardly they have discovered something that lies beyond the grasp of the most advanced society. Knoydart, too, has this atmosphere, this timelessness, this contentment.
So, Knoydart. Here I am after years of dreaming. It’s been a long day – a weary drive up from the North-East with a break for coffee at Queensferry, finally landing at Kinloch Hourn in the evening – where a friendly farmer kindly looks after my car for a few days.
I underestimated the eight-mile path from Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale. With two steep and sweaty ascents, some lesser ups and downs, and some rough ground it took much longer than I’d anticipated. Darkness had fallen by the time I arrived.
At Barrisdale there’s a bothy and a camping ground (above). It’s a private bothy, costing £3 a night. Camping is on rough pasture in the open valley bottom, though for a quid you get access to the bothy facilities, which include two toilets, two cold taps, electricity first thing in the morning and from 5.30pm to 11pm when the generator is switched off. Which is now.
Oh yes, and there are the mountains. Lots of them. Somewhere out there in the darkness.