The Speyside Way – Walking and Whisky

The Speyside Way, one of Scotland’s official Long Distance Routes loosely follows the course of the River Spey for 66 miles (105km) from Buckie on the Moray Firth of the east coast of Scotland inland to Aviemore at the foot of the Cairngorm Mountains. I say loosely because although named the Speyside Way the path frequently diverges from the River Spey and provides more diverse and interesting surrounds than a six day walk along a river path might otherwise suggest. The Spey is most famous for its whisky production (although fly fisherman may argue that it is equally famous for its fishing). The peaty terrain of the area is apparently ideal for whisky makers and more than 50 distilleries have made their home in the area. The Speyside Way passes a number of these distilleries – we often smelt them before we saw them and many were open for visits. There were even more bars in the area, each with an extensive range of whiskies to choose from. For all this we met very few people actually walking the Speyside Way – most seemed to be touring the distilleries and bars by car and even if you aren’t a hiker it is certainly worth visiting the area (but obviously appoint a designated driver).

Length/Time. The Speyside Way is 105km over mostly flat terrain. We walked it over five and a half fairly easy days. You could walk it in less time but keep in mind that some of the Way is on tarmac and most of it is on a fairly hard surface so it can be hard on the feet.

Accommodation. We stayed in hotels each night except in Grantown-on-Spey, where we stayed in a B&B. It is also possible to camp or stay in hostels in some towns.

Favourite Accommodation. By far our favourite accommodation was Haus Alba in Grantown-on-Spey. David and Bette provided a wonderfully warm welcome, even going so far as to leave a nightcap of whisky and chocolate in our room. David is a walking and mountain guide and will provide suggestions for local walks.

Favourite Pub. The Mash Tun in Abelour is a pub with a great atmosphere, but we found it made a better place to drink than to sleep. We were there on a Saturday night and the patrons were still going strong at 1.30am.

Mash Tun, Abelour
Mash Tun, Abelour

Getting there and away. Buckie can be reached by a bus which travels between Elgin (which can be reached by train or bus) and Dundee. Aviemore can be reached by bus or train from Edinburgh.

Day 1 Buckie to Fochabers (10 miles, 16km). We started the day by catching a train from Inverness to Elgin and walking from the train station on one side of the town to the bus station on the other side (which seemed an odd bit of town planning). A 45 minute bus ride which passed through Fochabers and we were at Buckie. The Speyside Way (which on this section was also the Moray Coast Way) followed the coast for a couple of uninspiring miles along a footpath to another small coastal town, Portgordon. The only real interest was the small seal colony just before we got to Portgordon and the numbers of sandbags in each seaside residence, testament to the storm surges in the area. On reflection we would have been better off getting off the bus in Portgordon rather than Buckie. Soon after leaving Portgordon, the Way left the coast and headed along an old rail track (we missed the waymark showing the divergence from the coast and had to be re-directed by a local across a field). A single track took us behind a golf course through forest before we emerged at Spey Bay. Refreshments were available at the Golf Club and at the Wildlife Centre at the other end of town and where the Spey River meets the sea. From the river mouth it was a further five miles along the river and through plantations to Fochabers. We broke our journey periodically to watch fly fisherman casting on the river which mainly seemed to involve a two handed hoik with a large rod and heavy wet line – very different to the technique we used in New Zealand. Just before we got into Fochabers the path entered a beautiful beech forest and then passed by a picturesque village cricket pitch before we arrived at our destination, the Gordon Arms Hotel.

Speyside Way, Fochabers
Speyside Way, Fochabers

Day 2 Fochabers to Abelour (15 miles, 24km). A look at the map before we set out revealed that there was a long section on the tarmac at the start of the day’s walk and another section before getting into Craigellachie (which was 2 miles out of Abelour). As I hate walking on the road we decided to catch a taxi from Fochabers to the Boat o Brig car park (there is nothing else there except a bridge and a car park) to skip about 4.5 miles and first tarmac section. From Boat o Brig the Way left the river and headed up hill to follow a ridgeline in a plantation above the river. It seemed the point of the day was to give a few intermittent views of the river below. The highlight of the day was seeing a pine marten (which unfortunately didn’t wait around for me to take the camera out). Eventually the forestry tracks gave way to country lanes and we descended to the small town of Craigellachie (two hotels and not much else). From Craigellachie it was a short walk along a disused rail track to Abelour. Our accommodation, the Mash Tun was right next to the old railway track and by the time we got there it was already filled with tourists and locals enjoying meals and drinks. Abelour has a number of shops and is famous for its whisky (Abelour) and shortbread biscuits (Walkers).

Day 3 Abelour to Ballindalloch Station (10 miles, 16km). A very easy day along the old disused rail line, the main feature of which were the old stations and the various distilleries right on the Way including Tamdhu and Knockando. There was only basic accommodation and no food at Ballindalloch Station so we had booked in at the Delnashaugh Hotel, a further few kilometres walk on the side of a busy road following the Tomintoul Spur (this spur provides Speyside walkers with the option of walking past the Glenlivet distillery and up to Tomintoul, Scotland’s highest village (30 miles return)).

Whisky Distillery, Speyside Way
Whisky Distillery, Speyside Way
Old rail station, Speyside Way
Old rail station, Speyside Way

Day 4 Ballindalloch Station to Grantown on Spey (14.5 miles, 23km). The hardest day on the Way and most of it was spent nowhere near the Spey. After we retraced our steps to Ballindalloch Station we followed the old disused railway for a while before leaving it to head up hill in what can only be described as a people enclosure – a set of barbed wire fences on either side of a path designed to protect the walker from cattle. They were a feature for most of the day and after ripping my jacket on some barbed wire I felt that I would rather have taken my chances with the cattle. The track was up and down, across stepping stones and through areas ripped up by cattle and sheep which made the walking slow going. At about midday the rain started pelting down and to make matters worse we bumped into group of English people heading along the Way in the opposite direction, one of whom was pretty quick to tell us that they were more than half way for the day which meant that we had more than half to go. We eventually made our way out of the people enclosures back on to the old railway from where it was a short walk into Cromdale, the site of a battle in 1690 which effectively ended the Jacobite rebellion. As it was still raining we decided to catch the bus from Cromdale to Grantown on Spey, cutting out a couple of miles along the rail track. Grantown on Spey has a lovely square called “the Square” and quite a few restaurants and accommodation options.

Day 5 Grantown-on-Spey to Boat of Garten (10 miles, 16km). The day’s walk was effectively in two parts – a walk along the old railway to Nethy Bridge followed by a walk through old Caledonian pine forest to Boat of Garten. The observant will have noticed that there are a few places with names which begin with “Boat”. The word ‘boat’ refers to the ferry which used to operate in each of the relevant places to cross the River Spey before the advent of the bridge system.  Boat of Garten is known for its still operational steam railway and the nearby osprey breeding reserve.

Day 6 Boat of Garten to Aviemore (6 miles, 10km). Our last day on the Speyside Way was an easy walk of about two hours along forest paths with the snow capped Cairngorm Mountains as a constant backdrop to the ski resort town of Aviemore.

Speyside Way between Boat of Garten and Aviemore
Speyside Way between Boat of Garten and Aviemore
Cairngorm Mountains
Cairngorm Mountains

 

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