Spirited Steps | A Scotch-Fuelled Journey On The Speyside Way
After the year we've just had, we could probably all do with a big walk and a glass of whisky
‘Can you hear that?’
I shake myself out of the heady reverie of pine and gorse scents, sunshine, and the River Spey’s tumbling rhythm to focus on a persistent buzz coming from the forest behind us.
We stand, transfixed, as the reverberations around the trees grows in intensity, guttural noises accelerating into mechanical growls. Flashes of blue, green, and red emerge over the hill, rally cars only a few hundred metres to our right.
The aggression of their noise is matched only by the billows of mud in their wake. They pelt down the hill and speed out of sight before the dirt hits the floor. Following a moment’s silence, the birds pick up their melodies again as if nothing has happened.
“They pelt down the hill and speed out of sight before the dirt hits the floor”
My husband John turns to me, shrugging: “Hate to say it, but I think they’re going to nab the last tickets at today’s distillery tour before us.”
I snort and roll my eyes, focusing on the trail ahead. We’re quickly learning that despite it’s outwardly sedate demeanour, the Speyside Way trail is buzzing with activity. Take a slow pace, and the trail unveils its surprises.
The Speyside Way is one of 26 ‘official’ long-distance routes in Scotland. Stretching from the coastal town Buckie, the trail follows the River Spey as it meanders through river valleys and characterful villages with even more colourful histories.
Before depositing hikers into the mountainous landscape of the Cairngorms National Park in Aviemore, the Speyside Way climbs through forests, abandoned railway stations, and numerous Scotch whisky distilleries that make ideal spots to rest the legs and exercise the taste buds. After a year spent indoors, the Speyside Way might just be the perfect post-pandemic adventure. I mean, who isn’t dreaming of long, leisurely days outdoors finished off with a stiff drink right now?
Whereas hikers may rush to complete Scotland’s more popular trails, the Speyside Way is not a trail to race to the finish. Measuring 65 miles in total, with a 15-mile detour to Tomintoul, it’s an excellent route for families or easy-going hikers. Those who take their time to immerse themselves in Speyside’s nature and history reap the rewards.
“Those who take their time to immerse themselves… reap the rewards”
Our journey had started in Buckie, after several hours on a bus from Inverness Airport. Eager to stretch our legs, we wandered along the coast, waving at bobbing seals before stopping at the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay. Housed in an 18th century fishing station, we surveyed the coast for bottlenose dolphins and whales alongside the researchers, before continuing our journey along the River Spey.
The entire River Spey is a dedicated Site of Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation, supporting habitats for wildlife that are rare or endangered in the rest of Europe, alongside Scotland’s famous export, salmon. With few other hikers on the Speyside Way, we observed pine martens, otters, Highlander cows, osprey, and other birdlife with no interruptions.
The river also supports Scotland’s other famous export: Scotch. The Speyside region has the biggest concentration of malt whisky distilleries in Scotland. More than 50 whisky distilleries access their water from the river Spey and its tributaries, and a huge number of them can be found within a short distance of the village of Craigellachie.
With that many distilleries to hit, I’m not sure what’s going to give out first: my legs, or the space in my rucksack. I decide this is a problem for ‘future Kirsten’.
“With that many distilleries to hit, I’m not sure what’s going to give out first”
Our morning starts at The Macallan, one of Speyside’s most famous whisky distilleries. From the outside, Macallan’s visitor centre has been designed to resemble Scotland’s ancient hills. However, on first inspection, there’s no denying that it does also resemble the Teletubbies’ residence somewhat.
Inside, it’s all enormous copper stills and oak casks. After a lengthy tasting session John and I stumble out into the sunshine, eager to continue our tipsy journey to Aberlour.
Compared to Macallan, Aberlour distillery is smaller but more snug and homely with its cheery red paint and brickwork. A tour is just starting, so we hurriedly pay and latch onto the back of the group.
“Aberlour has been producing whisky since 1879, however whisky, or uisge beatha, has been made in Scotland much longer than that,” the tour guide explained.
“Written records show whisky was produced as early as the 15th century, but when the Scottish Parliament enforced taxes on whisky in the mid-17th century, many producers resorted to illegally distilling and distributing it.
“Throughout the Speyside region, distillers disguised stills in the hillsides and smugglers developed networks of secret trails to avoid the exciseman, or taxman. They even hid their whisky in churches and coffins to deter them!”
“Perfect whisky smuggling terrain, I think to myself”
Secret whisky trails? My ears perk up at this. Visions of silent steps along overgrown trails illuminated by moonlight spring to mind. Turning my head, I note Aberlour’s surrounding forests and numerous burns. Perfect whisky smuggling terrain, I think to myself.
“Can we see some of the trails on the tour?” I ask eagerly.
The guide laughed. “Not here I’m afraid, but you can walk old smuggling trails at Glenlivet Estate near the Glenlivet distillery. Some of the old smuggling trails are known, some may still be undiscovered.
“There’s an old settlement called The Cabrach in Speyside, which was hugely active in illegal distilling and smuggling back then. Lucky for us though, we have a slightly easier journey to getting a glass of Scotch. Follow me inside.”
It’s midday before we stop at Blackboat station and ease the bags off, our backs slick with sweat.
‘I almost regret buying all that whisky. Our bags weigh a ton now,’ I puff.
Every distillery tour the day before ended with an inevitable secondary tour around the gift shops. With the longest stretches of the Speyside Way ahead of us, my shoulders were feeling the extra millilitres of weight.
“We just need to get on and drink them”
Sprawling on the grass, John turns to me. ‘We just need to get on and drink them,’ he says with a smile before tossing me a sandwich. I turn to take a closer look at the station. Along with the River Spey, the Speyside Way incorporates large tracts of the former Strathspey Railway lines.
Once delivering passengers and goods throughout the region, the Strathspey Railway even served the distilleries. While the railway gradually fell out of disuse, the small stations and carriages for the railway continue to exist on the Speyside Way. Some are abandoned, but several have been converted into teahouses and accommodation for hikers. Many of them have been converted into campsites for hikers, such as Blackboat.
Nature has since reclaimed the lines, with grass blanketing the tracks, fringed on both sides by thistle, hogweed, and gorse. The spots of forests we traverse through grow more wild as we approach our final destination of Aviemore.
Compared to the start of our journey, the forests are dense and dim. The tight rows of pine and birch mute the loudest of bird calls and only the strongest beams of sunlight can find weak points in their web of branches.
Striding out from the forests on our final day, we were met with an amber-hued track lined with tall bushes of blooming gorse. I turn to John and smile. “It’s like the Yellow Brick Road.”
“Only the strongest beams of sunlight could find weak points in their web of branches”
The path descends, and soon we’re surrounded by panoramic views of the Monadhliath and Cairngorm mountains. Our pace slows to a languid stroll as we gaze, captivated, at the peaks. Bees and butterflies hum away in the gorse blossoms, too engrossed in pollen and nectar to pay us any mind.
All too soon we find ourselves in Aviemore station, at the starting/finishing point for the Speyside Way (depending on your route). I turn to John.
“So, what do you feel like doing now?”
He gazes around the station and then looks at me with a grin. “I hear Cairngorm brewery in Aviemore does a good tour?”
Do It Yourself
The Speyside Way runs for roughly 65 miles between between Aviemore and Buckie. For more information on it, pay a visit to speysideway.org.
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