On the community-owned and -managed estate of Knoydart in the Highlands of Scotland, work is afoot to improve the sustainable management of the woodlands and produce much-needed timber for house-building. Key to the plans is a new sawmill, and Forestry Journal was invited to see it installed. But the remote location presented a considerable logistical challenge for Wood-Mizer agent Keith Threadgall.

YOU could be forgiven for not having heard of Knoydart.

I hadn’t heard of it myself before Wood-Mizer agent Keith Threadgall invited me to join him on a trip there. “I’m going to be installing a new mill in Knoydart,” he said. “You should come along. It’ll be a great story for the magazine.”

Taking him at his word I agreed, only bothering to look the place up after making the commitment to go. Knoydart, I learned, is a peninsula in the west coast of Scotland, sandwiched between Lochs Nevis and Hourn – often translated as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’.

Comprising around 55,000 acres, it is cut off from the UK mainland road network, meaning it is only accessibly by boat or via an arduous two-day trek across the hills.

There is no mobile phone coverage and no WiFi. There are around 120 residents, most living in the village of Inverie, which has often been referred to as the most remote community on mainland Britain. My first thought, on learning of its existence, was to wonder what life must be like for the people living there. My second thought: how on earth does Keith plan to get a new sawmill up there?

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The mill in question is an electric Wood-Mizer LT40, capable of cutting logs up to 90 cm in diameter and 5–8.6 m long, and paid for, in part, by a grant of £15,386 from Scottish Forestry to the Knoydart Forest Trust. At eight metres long and weighing just shy of two tonnes, it’s a cumbersome bit of kit to transport. A few days before it is due to be installed, Keith informs me the mill will be coming on a lorry from Wood-Mizer’s factory in Poland.

We’re to meet it at Mallaig harbour, where it will be loaded onto the Spanish John II, a cargo vessel which can take it and us over the water to Inverie Bay.

So, on the morning of Friday, March 25, I set out on the long drive north, enjoying spectacular scenes and unseasonably bright and warm weather as I wind my way up past Loch Lomond, through Glencoe and beyond Ben Nevis, arriving in Mallaig at 11.30 am, half an hour ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the lorry hasn’t been as fortunate. At the harbour I meet up with Keith, who informs me there’s been an accident on the M1, which has held the lorry up and means it won’t be arriving until after 7 pm.

As there’s no point in both of us kicking our heels in Mallaig for the rest of the afternoon, I take the ferry across to Inverie to meet Grant Holroyd, head forester at the Knoydart Forest Trust, who can tell me a bit more about its work and why the new LT40 is so important.

Forestry Journal: Traditionally known as ‘The Rough Bounds’ and ‘Scotland’s Last Great Wilderness’ because of its remoteness in the West Highlands, Knoydart is renowned for its beauty and tranquillity. Evidence of the Knoydart Forest Trust’s work is never far away.Traditionally known as ‘The Rough Bounds’ and ‘Scotland’s Last Great Wilderness’ because of its remoteness in the West Highlands, Knoydart is renowned for its beauty and tranquillity. Evidence of the Knoydart Forest Trust’s work is never far away.

The trust was established in 1999, after the local community succeeded in purchasing the old Knoydart Estate, comprising some 17,500 acres. With Grant, three more full-time members of staff and more than 60 volunteers, the trust looks after 919 hectares of woodland on community-owned land, with a broad mixture of quality and species including Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, oak, larch and more. For its first decade, the trust was mostly engaged in a battle – ultimately victorious – against rhododendrons. It has also planted more than half a million trees since it was formed, with a long-term aim of linking up the woodland habitat across the peninsula from Loch Nevis to Loch Hourn.

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When I meet him, as well as preparing for the arrival of the mill, Grant is busy organising a tree-planting expedition to the northern side of the peninsula.

He explains: “There’s no road to get there, so the plan is for the boat to pick up the trees, the digger, the gas and the fuel at Mallaig, come over here, pick up the planters, the food, the tools, and everything else, take us round the coast and drop us off on the beach; then we go and plant the trees. We’ll stay there for two weeks, then come back for a week, then go for two more weeks. Organising all that takes some effort.

“That site’s all native, so it’s birch, pine, oak, rowan, alder and willow. It’s 80,000 trees, which is not a huge amount, but a lot of it will be hand mounding, which is really slow. Until the digger gets there, we don’t know how much it will be able to do. It’s quite steep and difficult. But it’ll be fun.”

He says the trees are currently sitting on the harbour at Mallaig, waiting to be brought across. Currently, trees for planting have to be brought in from outside (‘abroad’, as he puts it), but efforts are underway to establish a nursery on Knoydart. Resident Jacqui Wallace has a tunnel in the community garden in which she had been growing vegetables to supply to restaurants, hotels and tourists. When the COVID pandemic hit, all tourism stopped, her customers closed down and her business disappeared. Calculating there was space in the tunnel to grow 20,000 young trees, she began gathering seeds from the local woodland and is now growing birch, oak, rowan and hazel. In a couple of years she’s looking forward to becoming the Knoydart Forest Trust’s first local tree supplier, contributing to the community’s self-reliance and sustainability.

Beyond creating new woodland, the trust, over its 22 years of operation, has been building up its sawmill and firewood business, using local timber to support Knoydart’s economy and employment, and reduce the community’s carbon footprint.

“We’ll get the harvesters in every four years and cut 4–5,000 tonnes, most of which goes away on a boat to BSW or Ireland,” says Grant. “But we retain a heap of sawlogs for ourselves and a heap of firewood.”

At the heart of the operation has been a 25-year-old diesel-powered Wood-Mizer LT40, purchased second-hand. Time and weather – particularly the salty sea air – have taken their toll, but it still works and has milled the timber for several local construction projects, a highlight being the spectacular oak timber flooring for the renovated community hall. However, it is past its prime and requires a lot of maintenance, and the trust now wants something with which it can mill more timber more efficiently to meet growing demand.

“The biggest issue we’ve got in the community is lack of accommodation,” says Grant. “There’s plenty of work, plenty of opportunities, but it’s difficult to bring people over because there’s nowhere for them to stay. Everybody struggles to accommodate. We’ve built quite a bit over the years, but it’s never enough.

“The Knoydart Foundation has quite an ambitious housing plan. We’ve got a bit of land and a few properties to do up and some new builds. It gives us confidence we’ll be able to sell the wood. Hopefully next year we’ll be building houses for people who live here with the wood sawn on the new mill. This is us taking it to the next level.”

When he looked into replacing the old diesel LT40 with a brand-new one, Grant discovered Wood-Mizer no longer produces a diesel version, due to emissions regulations. This presented a problem. A petrol version would be no good, as petrol can’t be delivered on a passenger ferry and could only come on a freight boat, making it prohibitively expensive. An electric version was the only viable alternative, but this presented problems of its own.

Knoydart is not connected to the National Grid and generates all of its own electricity. The main producer and distributer is the hydro-electric scheme which, at the moment, can generate 235 kW. The Knoydart community makes an average demand of 90 kW, topping out at 120kW and an occasional maximum demand of 180 kW.

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“In the past, the power only ever tripped out at Hogmanay,” says Grant. “A lot of people are coming over, all the lights are on, everyone’s awake and busy. That’s when it tripped out and we’d have to put the back-up generator on at the same time. Normally, there’s a lot of unused capacity, but it doesn’t take many additional appliances to trip you out. At the moment, if everyone put their kettle on at the same time it might do it, but that doesn’t happen.

“We have made some improvements to the hydro that have made us more confident and got us looking for new and different things to do with the electricity. The new mill will be the highest load on the hydro. It’s 11 kW, which is not such a big deal in itself. Some showers are 10 kW. But the motor demands very high current when it starts up, to go from stationary to spinning.

“Normally you start the motor every time you cut a piece of wood – off, on, off, on – but we discovered Wood-Mizer does a version with a clutch, which means you can run the electric motor the whole time, regardless of when you start and stop the blade. You don’t have this in-rush current. Because of that, we’re reasonably confident it’ll work. There’s still a risk it won’t and we’ll have to buy a diesel generator to run the thing, which is not what we’re aiming for.”

Leading me up the hill from Inverie, Grant shows me around the trust’s yard and the machinery and equipment it has gathered over the years, like a relatively new Valtra tractor, Bobcat excavator, Japa 370 firewood processor and Botex trailer. I also take a glance in the area where small crafts like ornaments, spatulas and chopping boards are made by Wood Knoydart, which are then sold in the local shop. The yard’s latest addition is a wooden shed with its back to the bay, some shiny electrics and a cement floor awaiting the arrival of the new Wood-Mizer.

It is past 8 pm and well after dark before it finally makes it across the water. A small, excited crowd gathers on the pier as the Spanish John II comes into view with its distinctive two-tonne orange cargo aboard, Keith standing alongside. He looks a bit nervous when the Palfinger crane hoists it up above the pier and swings it around to the waiting trailer, but nobody else seems concerned. After it is strapped in tight, he makes a show of handing the keys to Grant, marking the historic moment of its arrival. But its journey is far from over.

Forestry Journal:  A small crowd has gathered on the pier to see the Wood-Mizer’s arrival. A small crowd has gathered on the pier to see the Wood-Mizer’s arrival. (Image: FJ)

The next morning, on what is to be another remarkably beautiful day for March in the Scottish Highlands, we make our way down to the pier and follow Grant as he pulls the mill by tractor up the hill to the yard. It’s not far, maybe only a few hundred yards, though the bottom of the hill is worryingly steep. However, we go slow and encounter no problems.

Once at the yard, things become more complex as Keith and Grant try to figure out how to get the LT40 off the trailer and into the shed. Grant has a Manitou MLT 626 telehandler which can lift it off the trailer easily enough. But when it comes to manoeuvring it into the shed, he can’t pick it up from the left or he risks damaging the control box. If he picks it up from the right, he’ll need to reverse with it over the other side of the concrete pad, where a load of logs has been piled up. He suggests dangling it, like the Palfinger on the Spanish John II, but Keith shoots this idea down. They don’t have any fork extensions and he won’t be able to control the weight – and making matters worse, one of the Manitou’s tyres is soft. Keith ends their discussion by telling him: “You do it my way or you’re on your own.”

As Grant sets about clearing the logs with the Bobcat, Keith tells me: “I’m making him listen to me because it’s my responsibility until it’s on the concrete pad. So he’s doing it my way. You’ve got to move it safely. You can’t get it this far and start taking chances.”
With the logs cleared out of the way, Grant reverses over the pad then nudges the mill into place. Straps are put around the legs and pulled to straighten it up. It looks like a perfect fit. Next, Grant plugs it in, puts in the key and turns it on. All lights are green.

“Are you happy?” asks Keith.

Grant shrugs. “I’m not unhappy.”

Forestry Journal: Keith considers the best way to get the mill off the trailer and into the shed.Keith considers the best way to get the mill off the trailer and into the shed.

The next hour is spent securing the legs in place, before Keith takes Grant and assistant forester Josh Gilbert through the painstaking process of alignment. It’s all in the manual and relatively straight-forward, but Keith is very keen to make sure they understand what they’re doing. By this time tomorrow he’ll be away, off to another job, and it’s a long way for him to come back.

By this point, it’s getting into the late afternoon and the yard has played host to a succession of visitors coming to see how work is coming along. One of them is Lorna Schofield from Knoydart Forest Trust, who says: “We’re really excited about it. We wanted an electric machine to be more sustainable, to tie into the community hydro and reduce our carbon footprint. I’m looking forward to seeing it mill its first piece of wood.”

Another is John Cocker, director of the hydro scheme, Knoydart Renewables, who has brought along a new bit of kit to measure the mill’s energy usage.

Forestry Journal: At first, while it is cutting, the mill seems to be losing power.At first, while it is cutting, the mill seems to be losing power.

He says: “The concern is mainly the motor size, which is a three-phase 11 kW motor and will be the biggest on Knoydart. It doesn’t sound massive, but the concern is when it starts it will demand a lot of power to get up to speed and it might cause some problems with the rest of the network. We have a new fluke analyser which connects to the incoming power cables of the machine and shows what current is being drawn by the motor in real time. It looks at every single cycle of the wave form and the voltage as well. It’s a really powerful tool for us, allowing us to make sure everything’s sound.”

Forestry Journal: With this fluke analyser from Knoydart Renewables, it’s possible to see exactly what the mill’s power demands are on the hydro.With this fluke analyser from Knoydart Renewables, it’s possible to see exactly what the mill’s power demands are on the hydro.

A few ‘dry’ runs of the mill show no problems. No-one comes running up the hill to say the power in the village has gone out. Hearing the LT40 running, Lorna remarks that, with it being so much quieter than the old diesel, no-one will know when Grant is working now.

Forestry Journal: After the drive belt is tightened, the mill cuts like a dream.After the drive belt is tightened, the mill cuts like a dream.

It’s all looking good until the first log is loaded up. The saw manages to cut it – just – but the power is dying down as it goes along the length of the bed. “Losing oomph,” is how Grant puts it. A few more tries all have the same result. It’s cutting, but the performance is a pale shadow of what they’re used to from the diesel. With John’s analyser hooked up the electrics, we can all see the power coming through is 7 or 8 kW, well below where it should be.

It’s a dispiriting moment, where no-one’s quite sure what to say. There is no obvious reason why it should be losing power. As far as the LT40’s electrics are concerned, everything appears to be working as it should be. There is some speculation that the cable used to hook the mill up to the electrics – an offcut from the substation – may be at fault, but there’s no way to tell. On a hunch, Keith takes off the panel to have a look at the drive belt. He says, “It won’t be this, but just to check...”

It is indeed. At some point in its long, complicated travels, the drive belt has slipped and gone slack. “It’s not surprising when you think about the journey the machine’s had,” says Keith.

He tightens it up and the mill is turned back on. Now, it cuts like a dream. John’s analyser records a reading of 17 kW. Keith heaves a massive sigh of relief, remarking: “It wouldn’t be as much fun if it was all plain sailing.”

After Grant has cut a few more planks, Keith asks him: “Considering what you’ve had and been using for however many years, are you happy?”

Grant replies: “I’d like to try it with a bigger log.”

Forestry Journal: With the mill finally in place and working well, Keith is feeling happy and more than a little relieved.With the mill finally in place and working well, Keith is feeling happy and more than a little relieved.

That can wait till tomorrow. The trust has opted to enhance its capabilities with the additions of a bed extension and blade sharpener, but they too can wait till tomorrow, along with further schooling for Grant and Josh on setworks. When Keith is done, they should have everything they need to operate the LT40 and take Knoydart’s timber operation to new heights, improving the community’s self-reliance and opening up new opportunities. But right now it is 5.25 pm, at the end of a long, challenging day, and Keith is ready for the pub.

Unfortunately, The Old Forge, which is the only pub in the village – renowned for being the most remote in mainland Britain – is closed, still a few days away from being bought by the community. So we make do with a few beers and some crisps from the shop, sitting on a table looking out over the bay.

As the sun sets, Keith tries one more time, asking Grant: “Are you happy?”

Grant says: “I’m happy if you’re happy.”

It sounds like as good an answer as he’s going to get.