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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The West Highlands

Scotland is equally famous for its mountains as for its drink. And some of us who like the latter also explore the former, even though a pint in the bar after the exertion can be the highlight. But what pubs are worthy of hosting that particular delight?

Heading north from Glasgow, there are a plenty of options but the A82 offers the best route to the best mountains – those of the West Highlands. In succession you have the Loch Lomond peaks, followed by Ben Lui, Beinn Dorain, the Black Mount, Glencoe, and then on into the heart of Lochaber; crowned by Ben Nevis.

From Fort William, most drivers, if not hillwalkers, continue up the west shore of Loch Ness, but the best lands lie to the west of that, when you take a left at Invergarry. From there, the road leads to the delights of Kintail, Skye and even Torridon: an impressive list even when omitting the legendary wilderness of Knoydart.

And along this wondrous route there are indeed hostelries of note, not as many as you might first think, but that is only down to the limited permanent population of the Highlands in general. Here are a few of those pubs…

At the top of Loch Lomond, the Drovers’ Inn is one of the country’s most well-known and oldest hostelries. However, these two facts don’t excuse it being a draughty, damp and dirty pit of a joint, nor answer the question – why are the staff exclusively Antipodean? It is one of the most overrated pubs in the country and if you do want to stop off in this area, the Ardlui Hotel is a far better option.

The Drovers’ Inn is over 30 miles from Glasgow, yet you still somehow feel in the Central Belt, that impression only really dispelled as you climb up and away from the loch on the long pull up to Crianlarich. Unfortunately, there isn’t much drinking in that village, nor in the next, Tyndrum, though the Green Welly Stop and the Real Food Café are decent food stops.

Ten miles further on, The Bridge of Orchy Hotel is a welcoming haven, even if standards of food and drink have dropped over the last decade. Along a dead-end B road there is even more seclusion at the Inveroran Hotel but this remoteness means the bar is mostly very quiet.

The vast bleakness of the Rannoch Moor is next, and only the Kingshouse Hotel offers any shelter. Its large size means it can lack atmosphere but the humble Climbers’ Bar at the back is worth a pint, the worse the weather the better. It holds a special place in my memory as the place which allowed me the chance to change and recover after a scary tumble into a raging Glen Orchy burn one cold mid-February day.

The mouth of Glencoe beckons at the west of the moor. Near the bottom of the glen, the Clachaig Inn sits on the edge of the trees that flank the old road to Glencoe village. The Clachaig is up there with the Drovers in the famous stakes, but happily it gets far closer to delivering a good drinking experience.

There are two bars, the front- of-hotel comfortable type and the enormous back boot bar. Neither are brilliant but with this location, crouched beneath the peaks of Scotland’s most famous glen, they don’t have to be. The back bar, for instance, is really too big to have a sustainable atmosphere but on music nights that space is useful. And somehow, this inn offers a far more pleasurable bar experience if you are staying the night than if you are just passing through, whether you are boozing or not.

Fort William is next, but I’m not going to waste any time on it, as this dismal outpost surely gets the prize for the biggest negative contrast between town and location anywhere in Britain.

As the traveller continues north-west, the next bar of note is encountered just beyond Loch Lochy. The Eagle not only has great views of the surrounding hills, but floating on the Caledonian Canal it is one of only a handful of water-bound drinking outlets in the country. I’ve had pleasant afternoons both on deck and in the cosy confines below. The only reason I won’t give it any higher praise is the fact that on a recent visit, on a Sunday in July, it was closed, the owners taking a break without adequate notification of their absence.

Invergarry is next, at the junction of the A82 and A87. The village contains two hotels, one large, one small, both fine for a beverage of any variety. Turn left here and soon you are rising up beyond the trees to one of the finest roadside views in Scotland. The small layby allows a fantastic vista due west into Knoydart. Those Rough Bounds are arguably the best condensed area of adventurous hill-going in the land but as there is only one pub – The Forge – and that is at the very south of Knoydart, we can fairly leave that place to another kind of writing.

Instead, the next point of call can be the Cluanie Inn on the approach to Glen Shiel. This hotel, restaurant, bar and bunkhouse has been serving travellers of all sorts for at least a century. It is 15 miles either way from any other sort of habitation and a large part of its charm is this isolation and thus the refuge it gives from the wilds, especially in the dark of a winter night when its lights twinkle tantalisingly from afar as you approach along the lochside road. The focal point of the whole joint is the downstairs section of the whisky bar, get a seat down there if you can.

Kintail can be said to begin at the other end of Glen Shiel, the western end. The chief accommodation within this delightful district is the Kintail Lodge Hotel. I’ve stayed there three times over the last 15 years or so and enjoyed every visit. It, like Cluanie, also has a bunkhouse to complement the hotel accommodation and that adds to the eclectic nature of the mix of punters.

The hotel has a nice split personality: fairly refined, almost genteel dining/breakfast rooms with the option of alfresco in the garden; a cosy restaurant; an adjoining bar area with decent long counter, generous seating and a little covered sitooterie. These two latter areas bring all evening guests together, residents, locals and travellers.

During my latest visit, we enjoyed two nights of the hotel’s hospitality: good food, even better whisky, and engaging conversation with Kintail folk. As with all evenings like these, you know that, largely, most of the chat will soon be forgotten but you hope that at least some of it remains.

On our first night, the Friday, there was a large contingent of Yorkshire people in the bar and restaurant, this particular group seemingly annual visitors. Good for them, I say. During the course of the evening, the difference between the Scots and our southern neighbours became evident – their natural level of conversation is louder. I don’t think they notice it but we listen and think that nothing deserves that amount of amplification.

Anyway, by the next afternoon I had forgotten my little observation, perhaps because we were driving over the famous Mam Ratagan pass en route to a bar in a hotel that I had never yet visited before. The Glenelg Inn sits on the peninsula of the same name, a tranquil corner of Scotland sandwiched by Kintail and the Knoydart wilderness.

It is hard to get to, but not that hard that it should take three attempts, but it has for me; the two previous efforts denied by winter and another less-foreseeable reason I can’t even recall. The inn is worth it, though – complete with low-beamed ceiling, real log fire, pleasant garden and plenty of live music events.

We settled in for a couple of hours’ stay, sitting out then in, as the only rain shower of the weekend passed over. But then, who was inside but the same Yorkshire group as last night. They were, we found out later, staying in the inn, and they didn’t look too pleased at us breaking up their private party. Oh, well, we all have to be tolerant, you know, even of irritating neighbours.

After another enjoyable evening in The Kintail Lodge Hotel, we were done and dusted with our trip but took a slight detour past Eilean Donan Castle to a favourite viewpoint of mine. Nearby, we supped at The Dornie Inn. This is an unremarkable village pub but it sits at the meeting point of three lochs, Loch Alsh, Loch Long and Loch Duich – an enchanting spot.

And that is the point of these Highland pubs I’ve spent much time surveying. They aren’t distinguished by their housing nor by their interiors. Not even by the booze they sell. Their location is all, and that is – easily - enough for me.

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