AMBASSADOR STORY: THE SPEYSIDE WAY

A walk through the heart of whisky country

Scotland is blessed with many wonderful long-distance walks, but there’s only one that takes you within touching distance of so many distinguished distilleries. SMWS ambassador Olaf Meier dusted down his hiking boots in July 2019 to tackle the route and enjoy some drams with friends along the way

ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY: PETER SANDGROUND

Following the tracks of the Strathspey Steam Railway

DAY ONE: FROM THE CITY TO SPEYSIDE

This scenic train ride heading north from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station is one I know well, having hosted regular member tastings in Inverness since 2007. On this occasion, though, my destination was Aviemore, where I, my SMWS colleague Julien Willems and Swiss friends and SMWS members Siggi and Juerg Burri had our sights set on Aviemore, and the start of the 98km (61 miles) Speyside Way.

The first glimpse of whisky country from the train comes when the pagoda roofs of Dalwhinnie distillery come into view, along with the rare sight of its wooden worm tubs. Shortly afterwards we arrived in Aviemore, in time for a refreshing lunch before setting off on the first stage of the Speyside Way, heading to Boat of Garten.

This is a gentle afternoon stroll of 10km (six miles) across heather moorland along the tracks of the Strathspey Steam Railway, which these days is run by enthusiasts. We were lucky enough to have the train pass us, at full steam, on its way to Broomhill – a sight to behold. Then, emerging through the trees, we arrived at Boat of Garten and settled into our B&B, The Boat House Guest House. The name Boat of Garten refers to the nearby site of the old ferry crossing on the Spey, although nowadays it is better known for its ospreys and capercaillies (if you are willing to get up early!) which can be seen at the Loch Garten RSPB Nature Centre.

BELOW: on the train to Aviemore with Julien

Swiss SMWS members Siggi and Juerg Burri

A reminder of just how far there is still to go...

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Arriving in Grantown

DAY TWO: BLISSFULLY MIDGE-FREE

After a full Scottish breakfast (no counting the calories when doing a long-distance walk!), we had 18 km (11 miles) ahead of us to Grantown-on-Spey. It was a glorious day and Julien and I, having lived in Scotland for many years, thought it was rather too hot – a rare complaint to have!

Talking of ‘complaints’, we had not a drop of rain during the whole trip and neither did we suffer from midges, even though I had been forewarned by one of the B&B landladies that the midges this summer were at their highest in years. In response, I immediately went out and bought midge nets and repellent cream for all of us, only to bring them all back home again unused.

Crossing the old military road connecting Perth and Fort George we walked into Grantown. Here we stayed in the same guesthouse, Willowbank, that I had stayed in on first walking the Speyside Way back in 2003. The owners have changed, and it is now run by a wonderful couple from the Netherlands. Once again, we were able to sit outside to enjoy our evening meal, unmolested by the notorious midge.

Cragganmore House B&B in Ballindalloch

Stepping stones mark the route

DAY THREE: FEELING THE HEAT

This would be the toughest stage, 21km (13 miles) consisting of numerous steep sections, boggy areas across farmland and stepping stones. While I was armed only with my faithful Rucksack Reader Speyside Way guidebook (the one I bought in 2003) and my even more faithful Swiss Army knife (given to me by my uncle when I was eight years old), my Swiss friends had come well prepared with a plethora of technical equipment I knew nothing about, including an app with the Naismith’s rule and an advanced guide to measure distances.

The heat was so intense that on approaching the steepest ascent we all looked up to the sky and prayed that the clouds would cover the sun. We had a well-earned rest and some refreshments, including a nip from our hip flasks. Some 15 minutes later the sun was blotted from view and we could not have been more thankful. So, if you only recall one piece of advice – trust me when I say always carry sunscreen, even in Scotland!

A highlight not to be missed on this leg is taking a short detour to Tormore distillery, famously the first distillery built in the 20th century following the Pattison Brothers crash of 1898. We ended the day at Cragganmore House B&B, which was the former family home of John Smith. He was a prominent character of his time, managing distilleries such as Glenlivet, Macallan and Glenfarclas before leasing land from Sir George MacPherson-Grant of the Ballindalloch Estate to build Cragganmore distillery in 1869. The rooms at Cragganmore House reflect this bygone era, with a welcoming free-standing Victorian bathtub for us weary walkers.

Once again sitting outside to enjoy the warm evening, this time with magnificent views across to Benrinnes, we had well-earned whisky as an aperitif from our ‘seemingly bottomless’ whisky flasks before partaking of a pre-booked three-course meal. What an absolute gourmet treat it was – Tony, an award-winning chef, and his wife Helen are the perfect hosts and retiring to the lounge we had a cup of coffee and another dram or two before we lay down to sleep the sleep of the just.

Time to get the sunscreen out

Setting sights on the next stage from Cragganmore

Sandy McIntyre, distillery manager at Tamdhu

DAY FOUR: MAKING TRACKS

Walking on the disused railway line, victim of the Beeching axe in the 1960s, along the Spey to Craigellachie made this a day of easier walking. Distilleries galore now, thanks to the railways (if anyone is lucky enough to have an old bottle of Cragganmore there is a train on the label). We had an appointment to keep at Tamdhu distillery, where we were fortunate enough to be shown round by distillery manager Sandy McIntyre.

As we set off that morning in glorious sunshine once again, we delighted to pass by the old railway station of Ballindalloch, before crossing over the Spey on the wrought-iron lattice girder bridge built in 1863. We then continued past Blacksboat station, another former ferry crossing point, to arrive at Tamdhu two minutes before our agreed rendezvous.

Tamdhu, founded in 1896, is now owned by Ian Macleod Distillers, who are focusing on maturing whisky in sherry casks. We were shown around the whole distillery as well as the cooperage and the warehouses and of course there were plenty of drams to be savoured. With such a wonderful and knowledgeable host as Sandy, my Swiss friends lost track of time and it was up to me to chivvy them along if we were to make any further progress that day. With a warm glow showing in our faces, we said goodbye and set off with a spring in our step.

A short distance from the distillery and we passed the old Tamdhu railway station, which Sandy is hoping to reopen once again as the distillery visitors’ centre.

A cask at Tamdhu, signed in chalk by the adventurers

Tamdhu’s station offices are set to become part of a new visitor experience

With such a wonderful and knowledgeable host such as Sandy my Swiss friends lost track of time, and it was up to me to chivvy them along if we were to make any further progress that day

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Next, we reached the little village of Carron where we stopped for a break overlooking the impressive new Dalmunach distillery, built on the former site of the Imperial distillery which was demolished in 2013.

We then carried on through woodland past Dailuaine Halt to Aberlour. Charlestown of Aberlour, as it is officially called, is the home of Walker’s shortbread and of course the renowned distillery. Another short break this time at the aptly named Mash Tun whisky bar and restaurant next to Aberlour train station. We sat outside sampling the local dram, looking across to the splendid suspension bridge over the Spey.

Sound advice for those not travelling on foot

Dalmunach distillery’s cathedral-like buildings

The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie

This brought back happy memories of many family holidays in the area. On one occasion standing on the bridge, we saw a fly-fisherman catch a huge salmon below us on the riverbank. Coincidentally on this very bridge the annual opening ceremony for the fly-fishing season takes place on 11 February, with a few words being spoken and the traditional pouring of a bottle of 12-year-old Aberlour into the fast-flowing River Spey below.

Moving on for the last section that day we soon found ourselves walking through the only tunnel on this railway line to Craigellachie. That night we stayed in the Highlander Inn, run by a good friend of mine Tatsuya Minagawa – with a wonderful whisky bar, although not quite as large as the SMWS partner bar at The Quaich, next door in the Craigellachie Hotel.

Tatsuya Minagawa at the Highlander Inn

An iconic Speyside view, with Speyburn distillery tucked away in the woodland

We soon found ourselves walking through the only tunnel on this railway line to Craigellachie

Tea in Fochabers

DAY FIVE: MOUNTAINS, MALTS AND AFTERNOON TEA

Our penultimate day saw us set off for Fochabers. On the outskirts of Craigellachie is the legendary Fiddichside Inn, a tiny bar where the previous landlord Joe Brandie served drinks for nearly 60 years until his death in 2017 – it reopened at the beginning of 2020.

Leaving the inn behind us we climbed through the beech wood of the Arndilly Estate toward the Boat o’Brig, around the shoulder of Ben Aigan. We enjoyed beautiful views across to Rothes with its distilleries, Glenrothes, Glen Spey and Glen Grant and right across the Moray Forth picking out in the far distance the conical shape of Morven.

I now need to share something with you that warmed my heart. On phoning to book the B&B, Kay’s Guest House in Fochabers, the elderly landlady Mrs Little required from me no deposit nor contact details – she simply wrote the booking in her diary and her final comment was: “When you come on time you will get tea.” We were on time and we were presented with an unbelievable spread, which was all included in the overnight price – an absolute gem, reminding me of the ‘good old days’ when I first travelled around Scotland back in 1983.

A breakfast dram the next day

Glen Moray’s stillroom

My good friend Graham Coull, the then distillery manager of Glen Moray, organised a taxi to pick us up and bring us to the distillery

Almost there...

DAY SIX: TO THE SEA

Our breakfast the next morning came with a glass of Isle of Jura whisky, which was fitting as this would be the last day of the walk as we headed to Spey Bay (although the official end of the Way is in Buckie).

Having walked along the Spey from Aviemore as it flows down to its mouth at the sea, I consider Spey Bay the natural end, and if you are lucky you might see bottlenose dolphins. Julien was inspired to take to the water while we had a celebratory dram sitting on the shingle beach, which just happens to be the largest in Scotland.

My good friend Graham Coull, the then distillery manager of Glen Moray, (where I ‘worked’ as an apprentice for a week in 2012), who now works for Dingle distillery in Ireland, organised a taxi to pick us up and bring us to the distillery. We enjoyed a chat with Graham and a few drams before the taxi took us to the station in Elgin and we journeyed back to Edinburgh via Inverness.

Spey Bay at last!

POSTSCRIPT: A SPEYSIDE TOP UP

For those who might by now have started to plan their own adventure as they search for their long-lost walking boots, I should mention there are two spurs off the Speyside Way well worth exploring. The first is from Ballindalloch via the Glenlivet distillery to Tomintoul, a strenuous climb with two 1,800 feet ascents. The second is a much easier walk from Craigellachie to the self-proclaimed ‘whisky capital of the world’ Dufftown – “Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown stands on seven stills.”

Although this was my second time walking the whole of the Way, it was a wonderful experience to share with Siggi, Juerg and Julien. During the long train journey back to Edinburgh I could not then help but recall the words from the ‘Speyside Whisky Song’ of my very good friend, and fellow SMWS Tasting Panel chair, Robin Laing:

“And the Spey runs sweetly from the mountains to the sea Through scenery so stunning and sublime There are angels everywhere, soaking up their share Aye and that's OK as long as I get mine.”