Earlier this year, six adventurers /lunatics (Mark Watt, Ian Gray and his partner Biggi, Claire Couttie, John MacCheyne and myself) canoed down the Spey over four days, stopping at various dramming places along the way. We were accompanied by two instructors (semi-lunatics) Graham McCullough and Rob Waddell (Yooglu) who supplied canoes, equipment and considerable expertise. It might be an exaggeration to say that we owe them our lives, but certainly without their help the trip could not have been such a success.
Ralia to Kincraig
Ralia owner, Robin Lambie, kindly supplied us with pack lunches and our choice of miniatures; clutching our selections we headed for the river. After demonstrations from Rob and Graham (e.g. which end of the paddle to stick in the water) we launched the four canoes and let the river carry us away. We were immediately into some fast water and completely forgot about being cold and wet – the fear of death is a great distracter from minor discomforts, a lesson we would learn again.
Kingussie has numerous pubs, but the obvious choice for us was the Silverfjord (aka ‘the Silly’). Biggi looked worried, “Do we have to drink whisky at every stop?” Relieved that this was not in the rules, she ordered hot chocolate.
Next, we had a long paddle through the Insch Marshes; slack water, swallows and sandpipers everywhere, the hypnotic rhythm of paddling had me dreaming of being a galley slave.
Eventually, we came to the open water of Loch Insch. Would we go round by the shore or straight across the middle? In fact we went across the middle, but not paddling –pulling the four canoes together we hung on to each other while Mark and Biggi stood up holding a small tent; suddenly they were a two-masted ocean-going yacht; the crossing didn’t take long.
At the Quarterdeck bar (Loch Insch Water-sport Centre) we had a dram and a chat with the owner, Clive Freshwater, a hero among canoeists. In the 1970s he won a landmark legal battle with anglers and landowners, earning the gratitude of all who canoe the Spey.
Next, we had to struggle against wind and waves into the loch before turning to catch the river outflow, (near an Osprey nest) to our final stop of the day – the Suie Hotel. A log fire was blazing and people were ordering fantastic looking platters of fish and chips – we wished we were staying.
My choice of dram? Bruichladdich Waves – what else?
Aviemore to Grantown-on-Spey
A pleasant starter dram of 30 Years Old Black Bull revved us up so much that Mark and I took a bend in the river too strenuously, hit the far bank – capsized and got submerged. Mark lost his glasses and my camera got soaked.
We kept our spirits up for the next three hours by making up songs about it. The Boat Hotel had a log-fire – bliss – a change of clothes and an extra dram and we were right as rain – which is exactly what we got next –persistent rain – wet again! Craggan Outdoors had a log fire too – everyone wanted to be near it!
After a final bit of white water, another log fire at the Craig Inn, Grantown-on-Spey –drams and pies – but it’s the fires I remember best from the day.
Ballindalloch to Craigellachie
Day three was the scary fast-water rapids day; we prepared for the wrath of the river with dark chocolate and A’bunadh at Ballindalloch. We didn’t have to wait long; the adrenalin surged in our veins as fast as the river was surging through some of these narrow places – the Avon Rapids – the Blacksboat Rapids known as ‘The Washing Machine’ – and then the long rapids at Knockando.
A morning of tumult, torrent and trial by water! My canoe partner was Rob; instructor Graham looks like Bruce Willis, but Rob behaves like him. A kamikaze, sado-masochist, homicidal psychopath – instead of avoiding the biggest stretches of white water, Rob, with a maniacal whoop would head straight for them, ensuring me an experience I will never forget.
The fabulous lunch at Tamdhu (courtesy of Alisdair Anderson, distillery manager) especially the generous drams of a 21 Years Old cask sample, helped to calm me down. By the time we arrived at the Mash Tun in Aberlour, I needed a Monkey Shoulder. Mark Braidwood led us round to the graveyard, where we drank a toast by the grave of James Fleming, founder of Aberlour distillery and benefactor to the town.
Getting back into the river, Rob kindly demonstrated a seal launch, firing our canoe down the bank into the water with me fearfully gripping the sides up front while he threw himself in at the back – it was a miracle we didn’t capsize and the others all applauded as we bobbed out into the mainstream, me shaky and splashed.
Soon we were at the day’s end; Telford’s Bridge at Craigellachie – then the serious pub-crawl started – by foot. Firstly, we visited the Highlander Inn, the Craigellachie Hotel and the Fiddichside Inn – what a trio of whisky bars! We even managed a barbeque before the night was over. Deep contented sleep followed.
Rothes to the sea
The incomparable Dennis Malcolm at Glen Grant set us on our way with a breakfast dram in the distillery gardens. 25 Years Old Glen Grant from the dram safe at the top of the gardens, reduced with crystal clear water from the stream – fabulous!Shame he had to tell us terrible tales of the deepest pool in the Spey, the Sourden Hole, just downstream from Rothes – a place where drowned bodies always turn up he said.
The wind was stronger today, making paddling difficult; John and Biggi lost control at one point and collided with an angler on the bank – thankfully, he was good-humoured. Then a sign announced “Danger – no canoes or rafts – danger of landslips”. We carried on, and Claire and I were tipped out of our canoe, in the middle of the river, by a gust of wind – was it because we ignored the sign? Was I the group Jonah? We had a chance to change at Baxters where we stopped for lunch (and drams, including a counterfeit Laphroaig – it’s a long story).
The final stop should have been the Garmouth Hotel, but we were so knackered that it seemed OK just to stretch on the sand with the sun shining and the scent of gorse everywhere and enjoy our last moments and the final dram together.
The group had bonded well over the four days and we spent the last evening together. Graham asked us what had we learned. I said, “The Spey is like a woman - sometimes beautiful, sometimes grim and scary, you never know what’s going on under the surface and you can’t trust it an inch.” Mark Watt added, “But it’s bloody good fun!”