People who appreciate Scotch whisky allude knowingly to ‘Speyside’, a magical source of elegant, complex, distillates, but exactly where is this place? It hides among the pines and in the glens, but where does it begin and end? Like a
mythical kingdom, it is vignetted, vague, dissolving at the edges, rather than having defined borders. It is shaped by streams and rivers, and takes its life from their waters. They become the water of life. The Spey is not the only river but it is the biggest and fastest, the eponymous power in the kingdom. I have seen the Spey a hundred times, over the past 25 years, as I travelled to this distillery or that. I have lingered for a moment on its banks, or on bridges over its waters, but these have been brief encounters. I wanted to follow it, to walk with it for a few hours at a time. To ‘set foot’ somewhere is a physical connection, a sense of truly being there. I wanted to feel Speyside as terra firma. Because I thought that the mouth of the river would be less disputed than its source, I decided to start there. It would mean an uphill walk, but that would make the connection all the more physical. From Inverness, by road or rail, there are early glimpses of the coast. Between Elgin and Buckie, there might be the odd sighting of Spey Bay. On the coastline is the hamlet of the same name. That was the place where I wanted to begin. When I got there, I discovered that the river had moved. It keeps on moving. I don’t just mean rolling along. I mean shifting sideways, occasionally to the east, more often to the west, toward Kingston-on-Spey. If this were to continue, they might have to change the name to Kingston-under-Spey. Despite its sometimes placid appearance, the Spey is in parts one of the fastest-flowing rivers in Britain and periodically floods. Apparently it excels at “behaving spectacularly badly,” I was told. At Spey Bay, it daily tussles with currents in the Moray Firth. Every 10 years or so mechanical diggers are brought to put if back on the straight and narrow. As the river migrates, it leaves a series of lagoons, separated by shingle bars. The lagoons are now a reserve for wading birds. On the east bank, a statue of an osprey was being upstaged by a live one swooping into the waters for a fish supper. The gulls were outraged. The mute swans said nothing: they prefer to dine off algae and salt-marsh plants. The bay has grey seals, too, and bottle-nosed dolphins, their behaviour and numbers monitored by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.Salmon from the river were once stored in ice collected through the winter. The ice houses, built in 1830s, survive as a museum, a series of turf-roofed, arched, brick bunkers. A strange, distinctive, landscape half-hiding ghostly, unfamiliar, structures of early industry, heightens the sense of a mysterious kingdom.
Fishermen had worn a track to follow, but I quickly seemed to be losing the river. People sometimes complain about this, I was told by my companion Alison Wilson, a ranger on the Speyside Way. The route’s name leads people to expect that it will cling to the river. It does not always conform, but it rarely wanders far. I was lucky to have Alison’s company: normally she guides parties of no fewer than six or seven and her services are much in demand. Her colleague Jim Strachan, who manages the service, co-authored a guide to the Speyside Way (published by Rucksack Reader service). This is a long-distance walking route, one of four in Scotland. It is looked after by the ranger service under the auspices of the Moray and Highland counties. The main route is 65 miles long, but two branches add a further four and 15 respectively. Although the entire walk is indicated with marking posts, and much effort and expense goes into maintaining them and clearing the paths, the route did not always seem clear to me. I am not sure how I would have fared without Alison. We threaded our way through a braiding of wet woodland, its swampier tracts drooping with mare’s tails, Alison pointed out the flowers of the greater and lesser stitchwort, the blue bugle and the red campion. After only a couple of miles, I swore I could smell peat. It turned out to be the tar-like, resiny aroma of Scots pine. I began to wonder how much this omnipresent tree contributes to the atmosphere of whisky warehouses. On the floor of this wooded stretch wee wild sage and woodruff. “The smell of Scottish woodland. I love it,” sighed Alison. I began to fancy a whisky. Next time, I’ll take a hip flask. We rediscovered the river, and saw a ghillie’s hut with a bench outside. Alison asked the ghillie if we might sit down and the ghillie told us we were looking at a ford that was crossed before the battle of Culloden. The walk had a short urban stretch in Fochabers, then a rock road climbed steeply through forest and over the shoulder of Ben Aigen. Alison fetched out her binoculars to look back for the Auchroisk Distillery, but had more luck facing across the river to catch sight of the saltire fluttering above Speyburn, at Rothes. Anyone vacationing on Speyside for the first time should go to the little town of Rothes (especially for the gardens at Glen Grant), Elgin (for Gordon and MacPhail’s shop) and Dufftown (for Glenfiddich), and hear each claim to be the whisky capital. The village of Craigellachie is smaller, but Telford’s flood-resistant bridge is the river’s most specific symbol. That was where my first day’s walk ended, at the foot of the crag behind which rises the farm and Macallan’s château. On Speyside, I usually stay at the Craigellachie Hotel and had settled for the familiar. As a city boy, ill-equipped for the country life, I don’t mind colluding with the notion that the Craigellachie is my country home, offering a restorative plate of sandwiches, several hundred whiskies, and an armchair to rest my weary body. I had made arrangements to be picked up at the end of each day’s walking. Some other hotels or bed and breakfast places along the route will make such arrangements. A list, also with information on camp sites, is available from the ranger service. On a tighter budget, I would have been comfortable at the Highlander, a small hotel and pub also in Craigellachie. A total time of five, six or seven days is suggested for the entire route, with the shortest stretch being four or five miles and the longest being 17. I never did more than five or six before arranging to be collected. When and where? Thank heavens for mobile phones, though they don’t always work when there is a mountain in the way.With my liking for old industrial sites, the most appealing stretch for me was the one following the track of the old Strathspey Railway. The trains first ran in 1863, stopped carrying passengers and distillery workers in 1965, but still hauled barley up the valley, and whisky back down, until 1971. The railway was a great Victorian achievement in miniature and it sealed Speyside’s elevation from smuggler’s haunt to the home of world-famous whiskies. It must have been a wonderful ride, though its bridges, cuttings and embankments today cost a King’s Ransom to maintain. The old railway station at Aberlour is now a tea room. At Dailuaine, the station sign had been newly painted, making the platform seem all the more forlorn as it overlooked the grassy track. We crossed the river by a bridge that once also carried the trains, and were afforded a good look at the Imperial Distillery built in 1897. A glimpse of grandeur, then we were back among the bracken and wild roses. The former private railway platform of Knockando House, another symbol of prosperity and power, is now overgrown. Then I spotted the pagoda of the Knockando Distillery and the flag of J&B. An interlude of sun lit the bubbling river below, and filtered through the arbour of ash trees to warm the grass beneath our feet. It seemed an unlikely time and place in which to be reminded of St James’s, where other whisky tourists would be dodging the cabs and buses in search of Justerini & Brooks or Berry Brothers (or, these days, Vintage Hallmark). At Tamdhu, the station has two platforms and a signal box. We sat down, unpacked our sandwiches, and contemplated mountains of casks outside the distillery. The most mountainous part of the walk, next day, began at Auldich, with Jeff Charlton, a ranger for the Glenlivet Estate. We were now high enough, and sufficiently cold, for snowberries and cloudberries. For the first time, I found myself frequently out of breath. I would stop and turn to enjoy the vistas – a good excuse for a rest. During these pauses, I learned a lot from Jeff about the management of the heather-covered grouse moors, and its influence on the colours of the foliage. At 1,480 feet, the heather gave way to a plateau of quartz and limestone. On the way down, there was peat underfoot and, suddenly, in the distance the plume of steam from The Glenlivet looked near – yet two hours away at my flagging pace. I’d wanted to end my walk at the most historically famous distillery on Speyside. Never have I been more pleased by a dram of its product. Next year, I will attempt make it to Tomintoul.For information on The Speyside Way call +44 (0) 1340 881266