Glasgow and Mallaig are only 150 miles apart by road and there is a direct train three times daily, but it takes 5 hours 13 minutes, much the same time as it takes to get to London. The last 90 minutes of the journey are from Fort William on the spectacular West Highland Line. On Saturday that last leg was a rail replacement bus, which must have come as a huge disappointment to the swarms of Harry Potter enthusiasts who come to travel across the Glenfinnan Viaduct in the tracks of the Hogwarts Express.
As you know Hogwarts is a top private school in the area, specialising in witchcraft and wizardry. If you were willing to part with £49 or £69 first class – and plenty of Quidditch fans were – The Jacobite steam train was running from Fort William.
Armed with the dog, Beer Guide and a strictly limited supply of wine gums, we chose to go by car and enjoy the magnificent views across Loch Lomond and through Glen Coe. We also greatly admired the rear end of many a plodding caravan. Like Aviemore, the dramatic setting of Fort William is not greatly enhanced by the town itself, consisting mainly of hotels and souvenir shops where you can buy head nets and Avon Skin So Soft to repel the ferocious midges. The latter is a wise purchase though they stayed away despite a still, hot weekend.
It is a town with several reliable real ale outlets, notably the Ben Nevis Inn and Grog & Gruel. On this occasion the targets were Garrison West – a 2020 Good Beer Guide entry – and the Black Isle Bar, from the current edition. Garrison West is tucked up the side of a square behind the converted cinema.
It’s a cosy bar that had two beers on. I chose one from a brewery that was new to me, Ardgour Ales. It is a five barrel plant run by a couple from an old manse that, wisely, supplies pubs in four and a half gallon pins or nines. My 3.6% Boc Beag was a refreshing, light beer in good condition.
The Black Isle Bar opened in October 2019 and is, like their bar in Inverness, an altogether more ambitious venture, supplying several of their own beers, though not cask at the present time. This was starting to get busy just after noon, as customers sat outside on a gorgeous day. My Red Kite is a 4.2% beer from their core range, selected from an electronic beer board. I imagine it will do a good trade as Ben Nevis is an all-year round destination.
Off to Mallaig next, 42 miles away, for a top of the table clash against Kyleakin in the Skye and Localsh League.
Mallaig is a hub for boats to Skye and the the Small Isles (Eigg, Canna, Rum and Muck).
You can also get the boat to what is often regarded as Britain’s most remote pub, the Old Forge at Inverie, otherwise only be reached by a 17 mile hike across Knoydart. It has been in the news recently following a stand-off between some of the 98 locals and the Belgian owner, who has now agreed to sell it. A community buy-out is planned but for a while some residents set up an outdoor alternative they called The Table where people brought their own bottles.
I had previously been to the GBG-listed Steam Inn in Mallaig but wanted to try the Tea Gardens Cafe, as it was listed as selling cask on the invaluable Highland CAMRA website. They had a slightly tired Skye Red, though probably not as tired as the excellent staff, who were serving fresh seafood and coping cheerfully at a particularly busy time.
Our overnight stay was at the Arisaig Hotel, a few miles back towards the Fort, but best travelled by a minor road that takes you past beach after beach of glistening silver sand. Arisaig consists of a few houses, a restaurant (the Old Library) and the hotel. They had two beers on and the Cromarty Happy Chappy was served in very good condition.
We walked off the beer and langoustines as the sun set over Skye (main pic).
On the way home we called in at the Doghouse in Balloch for a glass of Loch Lomond Bonnie and Blonde, not as good, in my opinion, as their delicious Southern Summit. Cask beer hasn’t yet recovered in Scotland and indeed was increasingly under pressure before the pandemic. Generally the weekend is the best time to catch it in good condition outside the cities, something that has also been noticeable in some other parts of Britain recently.
Naturally we took the dog to the Doghouse.