The beating heart of this beautiful area of rugged mountains, lochs, forests and fertile farmland is, however, the River Spey itself. The Spey is the second longest river in Scotland, and stretches for more than 100 miles from its mountainous source in Loch Spey, south of Fort Augustus, to its outfall into the Moray Firth, a few miles west of the fishing port of Buckie.
The river is notable for its fine salmon as well as its great whiskies, and also boasts one of Scotland’s four official Long Distance Routes in the shape of the Speyside Way. The Way runs from south-west of the holiday centre of Aviemore, on the edge of the Cairngorm Mountains, north-east to Buckie, generally following the course of the river after which it is named.
Following the Speyside Way, or dipping in and out of it, as it were, offers a fantastic chance to experience this beguiling part of Scotland close up, allowing you to observe so much more than if confined to a car or coach. It is also a first rate way to explore distilleries and gain a real sense of the landscapes in which they are located.
In total, the Speyside Way stretches some 65 miles, along with a 15-mile ‘spur’ detour. In general, the walking is relatively easy, with gradients at a minimum, and for the whisky enthusiast, the key section really lies between Ballindalloch, a dozen miles north-east of Grantown-on-Spey,
According to Moray Council countryside manager Jim Strachan, “We get lots of people looking for a nature walk with a distillery visit, and the majority of those who travel the route go to at least one distillery in the course of their walk. Some 2,500 people trek the whole Speyside Way each year, and at least 50,000 walks are taken in the ‘whisky section,’ along the old railway line.”
Strachan notes that the logo of the Speyside Way features a boot-print, in which are portrayed a distillery ‘pagoda,’ a river and a steam engine, bringing together the four themes of walking, whisky, the Spey and railways. “We point out to people the important links between the railways and whisky,” he notes.
The Ballindalloch to Craigellachie section of the Way is just over 10 miles in length, and utilises the track bed of the former Strathspey Railway, which closed during the 1960s, when so much of Britain’s rail network was dismantled under Beeching.
Walking this route helps the whisky-lover appreciate just how much the fortunes of whisky and railways were once intertwined.
It is fair to say that from the late 1860s onwards, the proximity of a railway line was second only to the availability of a good water supply when Speyside distillery developers were searching for suitable sites. The railway brought in supplies of barley for malting and coal for firing the stills, and in return removed casks of spirit to the blending and/or bottling halls further south.
Cragganmore, in the parish of Ballindalloch, was established in 1869, and was the first distillery on Speyside to be constructed close to a railway line, with the Strathspey Railway line from Boat of Garten, near Aviemore, to Craigellachie and Dufftown, having opened six years previously. Cragganmore’s founder, John Smith, had a private siding constructed to facilitate use of the neighbouring line, and was a great fan of this rapidly developing form of transport. Sadly for him, however, his 22 stone bulk ensured that he had to travel in the guard’s van as he could not fit through the carriage doors!
In 1887, one year after John Smith’s death, the first ‘whisky special’ train left Ballindalloch Station, with a load of no less than 16,000 gallons of whisky. Many more ‘whisky specials’ followed in the years to come, and some of the older locals in the area will gleefully relate stories of casks that were drilled into and emptied while in transit!
Today, Ballindalloch Station remains largely intact, serving until recently as a hostel for walkers on the Speyside Way. From Ballindalloch Station a ‘spur’ branches off the main Speyside Way, taking the walker 15 miles to Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands, by way of The Glenlivet distillery. The terrain of this ‘spur’ differs markedly from the more lush and arable land of the Spey flood plain and offers a real taste of the wild and rugged moorland countryside in which illicit distilling once thrived.
The main Speyside Way lies to the west and north of the River Spey, again using the old railway track bed, which leads to a preserved, white-painted railway station building which bears the name sign ‘Tamdhu.’ This was formerly Knockando station, latterly used for some years as Tamdhu distillery’s visitor centre. Sadly, Tamdhu is no longer in production, having fallen silent earlier this year. The station once served both Tamdhu and neighbouring Knockando distillery, while the much-visited Cardhu distillery lies just a couple of miles to the north, and is well worth
Both Tamdhu and Knockando were built during the great whisky ‘boom’ of the last decade of the 19th century, while Dailuaine, some five miles along the Way to the east, dates from 1852. It was the existence of established and thriving whisky-making ventures such as Dailuaine in this part of Speyside that helped justify the creation of the railway a decade or so later, and Dailauine’s own, small ‘puggie’ engine is now displayed at Aberfeldy distillery in Perthshire.
If Dailuaine is an example of a distillery which encouraged rail development in Speyside, then nearby Imperial is an example of one later located specifically to take advantage of the line. Imperial was built during 1897 by the owners of Dailauine, and was constructed in distinctive red brick form close to the existing Carron Station, and like Dailuaine, boasted its own railway siding. While the Diageo-owned Dailuaine is currently turning out some 3.2 million litres of spirit per annum, principally for use in the Johnnie Walker blends, the silent site of Imperial offers a poignant contrast of fortunes.
Close to Carron, a former combined rail and road-bridge made of cast iron and dating from the 1860s crosses the Spey, leading the Way walker towards the pretty village of Aberlour, with its eponymous distillery and the Speyside Way Visitor Centre, housed in the old railway station itself. For those walkers who have worked up a thirst by this stage, the famous Mash Tun bar, with its vast array of whiskies, is just a few yards from the Visitor Centre.
Jim Strachan explains that “The Speyside Way Visitor Centre in Aberlour acts as a ‘clearing house’ for whisky information in the village. You can find out which distilleries are open to the public, how much they charge, just where they are located, and so on.”
From Aberlour, the Way follows the Spey for less than two miles to Craigellachie, with its distillery and popular Speyside Cooperage visitor centre. Today Craigellachie betrays virtually no signs of the fact that it was once a busy rail junction, with lines from Elgin and from Keith joining the Strathspey Railway line here. The village, where the River Fiddich and the Spey have their confluence, is now best known for its Highlander Inn and Craigellachie Hotel Quaich Bar, and the remarkable and elegant cast-iron bridge over the Spey, designed by Thomas Telford.
While the Speyside Way heads north towards the coast at this point, it is possible to follow the route of the railway some four miles south-east to the ‘Malt Whisky Capital’ of Dufftown, with its six working distilleries, including Glenfiddich, which offers regular, free tours.
Dufftown is also home to the Keith & Dufftown Railway, which restored and reopened the 11 miles-long stretch of track to the market town of Keith, home to Strathisla and Strathmill distilleries.
It is possible to experience rail travel in the heart of Speyside, in addition to walking along the old tracks, with their ghosts of ‘puggie’ engines and ‘whisky trains’ long past.