I’ve been meaning, promising and threatening to write about one of my favourite places in Scotland for a long time, the Oak Tree Inn; and finally, here it is.
The Oak Tree is in Balmaha, and sits almost on one of the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. The village is at the very south east of the loch and is the next place along from Drymen (once the home of a young Billy Connolly).
For many it’s the end of the road because after that there’s very little other than a couple of campsites and Rowadennan, which really is the end of the road – unless you’re a forester or work for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and have the key for the padlock on the gate that leads into Ben Lomond National Memorial Park.
Balmaha is also on the West Highland Way, as is Drymen, with the two places separated by the towering, and quite often grueling, Conic Hill, as well as the B837 road. This means that a lot of foot traffic goes through Balmaha (it’s estimated that 85,000 people start the long-distance walk each year) and it’s also a popular place for day trippers from Glasgow, which is about 50 miles away.
I first visited the Oak Tree in April 1999, arriving there at the end of day one with four other people having begun several hours earlier in Milngavie, and with no idea as to what I was letting myself in for.
We were staying at the Oak Tree’s bunkhouse, and arrived with battered and bruised feet, and aching legs; and we hadn’t even gone over Conic Hill due to lambing which meant we were directed from Drymen along the previously mentioned B837; a very long and straight and boring road that did nothing for our collective moral.
We booked in and then crashed on our bunk beds for an hour’s sleep before dinner. I was on a top bunk and by the time I awoke the lactic acid had really kicked in and I struggled to get down from it because my legs and feet were so stiff and painful. We collectively hobbled to the bar, bought pints of beer (because that would make everything better), ordered food and then flopped on our chairs and waited in exhausted silence for our meals to arrive.
Back then I’m certain that the Oak Tree was a lot smaller, there definitely wasn’t a dining room at the rear, and there was a television on the wall where the fire place is now – but I was slightly frazzled from the walk and taking in my surroundings wasn’t a priority. I don’t even recall a village shop but there must have been something for us to stock up on food for the next day*.
I visited again the following year, another West Highland Way, but only stopped there for lunch having started the walk in Drymen and then wild camped behind Rowadennan youth hostel at the end of day one.
In summer 2005 I was back again; this time for dinner on my way from Milngavie to Cashel campsite, and it wasn’t a good experience. I was exhausted when I got there having been up since 5am to drive to Milngavie in time for the bag carrying service which left at 10am. I already walked 20 miles and after dinner I had a further three to do.
My Oak Tree meal was a veggie burger with chips and salad. It was one of those burgers made with peas and carrots a held together in some kind of mush, and the salad was limp. It filled me up, but it didn’t really nourish me and the walk to the campsite was just a long trudge. I emailed the Oak Tree when I got home (I’m not one to moan on TripAdvisor) and I was sent a money-off voucher valid for six months. I felt a bit insulted, I mean what were the chances of visiting again in such a short space of time? And all the way from Yorkshire?
I didn’t visit again for about four years (not because of the burger but because I wasn’t in the area) but when I hiked up Ben Lomond in 2009 I called in afterwards and the food was a lot better; just as well I don’t hold a grudge!
Since then I’ve visited on numerous occasions, and not just as part of the West Highland Way. I’ve eaten there several times, called in just for a drink, stayed in the bunkhouse and was even there for two night in one of its cottages last New Year’s Eve, and each time there’s seems to be some sort of tweak or improvement.
I now know that the Oak Tree is owned by the Fraser family, although I’d don’t know when they took it on but it’s apparent that they’ve had the initiative to capitalise on both the West Highland Way and the day tippers.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m certain that when I first visited it was smaller and I’ve a feeling that not all of the building is ye olde world but a modern construction with ye olde world cladding; which makes lots of sense otherwise you’d have an old building with a modern piece of architecture tacked on and which might not go down well with the National Park Authority; and ye olde buildings need lots of maintenance.
The Oak Tree has evolved to be part pub (it even has its own range of beers) and part hotel. And when the hotel wasn’t big enough the Oak Tree built some cottages. The Oak Tree now owns the village store, a coffee shop and an ice cream parlour (selling its own brand ice cream) and the inn has also helped with getting a statue built to commemorate the climber, author and broadcaster Tom Weir.
And then there’s the Balmaha Braw, a weekend of food, drink and music which was first held last autumn as saw 5,000 people descend on the village; and the next one is scheduled to take place on 1 and 2 October.
The Frasers are now instrumental in improving boat access to Balmaha, with a new pontoon hopefully coming soon.
The Trossachs covers 721 square miles, and there are a lot of similar businesses all vying for the attention of the tourist. The Oak Tree does have the advantage of being a stone’s throw from Loch Lomond, and water does attract tourists, but it’s not down to just that or that what is on offer is well presented or the added extras such as its own beer, a lot of the success is down to marketing.
There’s a very good website that works across all platforms (and it’s currently number one on Google for “Oak Tree Inn”), plus there are regular email updates with excellent calls to action along with a strong social media presence (#OakTreeInn is now pretty much their own); all of which are used to promote the business as a whole as well as the area’s natural beauty.
Hopefully, see you soon!
*The next day we managed to get to Inversnaid and then caught the ferry across Loch Lomond to the A82 to get a bus to Glasgow and then back to the car in Milngavie.