Rivers have been at the centre of Scottish life for thousands of years. For the earliest settlers a river meant survival – a source of food, drinking water and transport. Over the centuries, villages, towns and all of Scotland’s cities have grown and developed along the banks of a river. From the Industrial Revolution, when Scotland was one of the manufacturing powerhouses of Europe, until the long decline of heavy industry in the 20th century, rivers were integral to Scotland’s economic development. As towns and cities attempt to reinvent themselves in the wake of that decline, rivers and riverbanks are crucial to regeneration, providing key destinations for residential developments, offices, leisure and recreation. Water activities such as rowing, sailing, kayaking, canyoning and fishing are increasingly popular, and wildlife is making a comeback as the environment begins to recover from pollution.
From source to sea, a river passes through a variety of landscapes – from mountains to hills, towns to cities, countryside to concrete – and the best way to discover the scenery, wildlife, architecture and history is to walk. The increasing number of paths and walkways along riverbanks present plenty of opportunities to explore. Whatever your ability – walking at high or low level, tackling tough terrain or a simple route – this series offers something for everyone.
The River Spey
The River Spey is a restless river, one filled with salmon and sea trout, bounded by vast tracts of woodland, backed by several of Britain’s highest mountains and surrounded by a huge range of wildlife. Its voyage results in an ever-changing landscape as each year the river, swollen with snowmelt, unleashes a massive volume of water, which carves new channels and islands, generating its own perpetually evolving course. Lonely little Loch Spey, which sits above Loch Laggan in Lochaber, beneath the big rounded Monadhliath, marks the beginning of the River Spey and its wild and wonderful 107-mile journey. Scotland’s fastest and second longest river quickly descends beside General Wade’s historic road and beneath Garva Bridge, the oldest bridge spanning the Spey. Once through Spey Dam, it enters Badenoch & Strathspey and a landscape dominated by the immense Cairngorm Plateau, where peaks such as Braeriach and Cairn Gorm dwarf everything in sight.
The hills reduce in size as the River Spey enters Moray, renowned the world over as whisky country. Against this more understated backdrop, the river twists and turns towards the coast, eventually spilling into the North Sea at Spey Bay, between Lossiemouth and Buckie. With a catchment of more than 3000 square kilometres, the River Spey passes mountains, great tracts of woodland, including the Caledonian pinewoods of Rothiemurchus, Abernethy and Glenmore, lonely lochs and flatter plains as journey’s end is approached. Early tributaries include the Markie Burn, the River Mashie and the River Truim, with the Feshie, the Druidh and the Nethy joining later on. Throughout its passage, the River Spey is a rural river which encounters no cities. Instead a selection of attractive settlements, including Kingussie, Aviemore, Grantown-on-Spey, Fochabers, Elgin and Portgordon, sit on or a few miles from its banks, with many fine walks radiating from them. For the hillwalker, there are plenty of choices along all but the final stages of the river’s journey. Big peaks on the fringes of the Spey catchment, such as A’ Mharconaich and Braeriach, take several hours to summit, whilst lower hills like Craigellachie, Meall a’ Bhuachaille and Ben Rinnes take less effort but still offer good walking and far-reaching views. The 25 routes in this guide have been chosen to illustrate the diversity of walking to be found on or near the banks of the River Spey as it travels from source to sea. Many of these routes are circular to take in the best of the scenery in the area that surrounds each stage of the river’s journey. The walks also highlight the wildlife, architecture and history to be found along the way. Deer, otter, golden eagle, osprey, ptarmigan, mountain hare, snow bunting, dotterel, wagtail, curlew, arctic tern, red-breasted merganser and goldeneye are just some of the wildlife that this landscape sustains, whilst buildings such as Ruthven Barracks, Elgin Cathedral and Loch an Eilein Castle are not only visually striking, they also have fascinating and often turbulent histories.
It has taken a long time for the River Spey to find its path – four ice ages, or several hundred million years, to be a little more precise. Over this almost unimaginable timescale, the river system has slowly weathered and moulded its course over a bed of schists, gneiss, granite and sandstone – and this amalgamation of rock types makes the River Spey one of the cleanest in Scotland. As it hits the wide alluvial plain of Strathspey the riverbed loosens, with the Spey pushing soil and sediment along. When Spey Bay is approached, the river begins to pick up speed, dragging enormous amounts of shingle with it, which alter its shape and route. The derivation of the name Spey is unclear. It appeared on Ptolemy’s map of Scotland as Tvesis in 150AD, but it took another 1300 years before it was referred to as the River Spey. One suggestion as to its meaning is ‘Vomit’ or ‘Gush’, from the pre-Celtic word squeas. Certainly, the speed at which the River Spey travels means this may be a more apt label than it would first appear. Its clean, fast-flowing waters would have made the River Spey an appealing means of transport for the earliest Stone Age and Neolithic settlers who began to utilise its environs (although not the Cairngorm Plateau) some 6000 years ago. Salmon and trout, game birds and berries and nuts from the surrounding woodland would have provided a rich source of food. Like much of Scotland, the Bronze and Iron Ages saw people lay down more definite roots and by the time the Romans marched northwards around the 1st century AD, several small settlements existed. The Romans had little success in establishing themselves in the North East of Scotland, with the Cairngorm forming an almost impenetrable barrier, although it is thought that the battle of Mons Graupius in 83/84AD, which saw a superior Roman army defeat the Caledonians, could have been fought near Elgin. It was The Picts who were most successful in settling in the region, particularly in the great Caledonian pinewoods of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy. Along with the Gaels, they were the dominant race in the North East and formed a redoubtable force against the Roman advance (it was the Romans who purportedly named the Picts, meaning ‘the Painted People’, alluding to the face paint the Picts sometimes wore). Many of the hill and place names along the River Spey reflect the languages of the Picts and Gaels. Aber translates from Pictish as ‘Mouth of the River’, and so Aberlour and Abernethy have their roots in the Pictish language, whilst Gaelic can be seen in names such as Braeriach, Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Craigellachie and Buckie. From the time of the very first settlers, fish have been something of a lifeline for many of those who have lived near the banks of the Spey. During prehistoric times, salmon were fished at the mouth of the Spey and it is the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s great salmon rivers – it is also acknowledged as the premier sea trout river in the country. Hugely popular with anglers, fishing on the River Spey is vital economically to many of the communities along its length. The river also led to the creation of the Spey Cast. It is different from the normal fly cast, as it is double handed. When developed during the 19th century, it prevented anglers from catching the woodland overhead along narrower sections of the river. Traditional overhead casting couldn’t avoid this and the Spey Cast is now used worldwide. Other industries such as shipbuilding and timber exports were already big business (as was cattle thieving, which had been prevalent along the Spey since the 14th century), although these are now consigned to the past. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries, with the building of many bridges across the Spey (prior to this it was mainly forded or crossed by ferry), General Wade’s road network and the arrival of the railway, that towns and villages such as Kingussie, Aviemore and Grantown-on-Spey developed around various water-driven mill industries that utilised the power of the Spey. Today, it is the outdoor industry that draws people to the river and its environs – walking, cycling, skiing, canoeing, white-water rafting and wildlife watching are just a few of the recreational pursuits enjoyed on or near the Spey. After spending the day outdoors, a dram is the obvious way to relax and whisky has become synonymous with the Spey, pumping millions of pounds into the economy annually, with Moray as its spiritual home. Originally hailed for its medicinal qualities, whisky is now one of Scotland’s major exports and is fundamental to the survival of the towns and villages along much of the River Spey, particularly in Moray. The mild climate, pure spring water and abundant supplies of fragrant golden barley provide the ideal ingredients for the ‘water of life’. The Spey supports over half of all whisky distilleries in Scotland, including Glenfarclas, Cardhu, Aberlour and Craigellachie, as well as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the two biggest selling whiskies in the world.
How to use this guide
The 25 walks in this guidebook run geographically from the River Spey’s source at Loch Spey in the Monadhliath to Spey Bay where it empties into the North Sea. Wherever possible, the start/finish for each walk is easily accessible by public transport and, if not, there is car parking nearby. Many of the walks are also easily reached from villages and towns along the length of the river, with access to shops, places to eat, accommodation and public toilets. Each route begins with an introduction detailing the terrain walked, the start/end point (and grid reference), the distance covered, the average time to walk the route and the relevant Ordnance Survey (OS) map. Public transport information is also detailed, although this may change from time to time and should be checked before commencing any of the walks in this guide (travelinescotland.com). A sketch map shows the main topographical details of the area and the route. The map is intended only to give the reader an idea of the terrain, and should not be followed for navigation – the relevant OS map should be used for this purpose. Every route has an estimated round-trip time. This is for rough guidance only and should help in planning, especially when daylight hours are limited. In winter, or after heavy rain, extra time should be added to allow for difficult conditions underfoot.
Risks and how to avoid them
Some of the routes in this guidebook are challenging hillwalks while others cross remote terrain. The weather in Scotland can change suddenly, reducing visibility to only a few metres. Winter walking brings distinct challenges, particularly the limited daylight hours and low temperatures which, over higher ground, can fall well below freezing. Please take this into consideration before commencing any of the hillwalks in this guide. Preparation should begin well before you set out, and your choice of route should reflect your fitness, the conditions underfoot and the regional weather forecasts. None of the hillwalks in this guide should be attempted without the relevant OS map or equivalent at 1:50,000 (or 1:25,000) and a compass. Even in summer, warm waterproof clothing is advisable, and footwear that is comfortable and supportive with good grips is a must. Don’t underestimate how much food and water you need, and remember to take any medication required, including reserves in case of illness or delay. Do not rely on receiving a mobile phone signal when out walking in the hills and remote areas. It is a good idea to leave a route description with a friend or relative in case of emergency. There is a route for almost all levels of fitness in this guide, but it is important to know your limitations. Even for an experienced walker, colds, aches and pains can turn an easy walk into an ordeal. Those routes that venture into the hills or rough terrain assume some knowledge of navigation with use of map and compass, though these skills are not difficult to learn. Use of Global Positioning System (GPS) is becoming more common; however, while GPS can help pinpoint your location on the map in zero visibility, it cannot tell you where to go next and, like a mobile phone, should not be relied upon. A few walks in this guide cross hill or mountain terrain and in winter it is recommended that you take an ice axe and crampons – and know how to use them – on these. Such skills will improve confidence and the ease with which such a route can be completed. They will also help you to avoid or escape potentially dangerous areas if you lose your way. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland provides training and information (mcofs.org.uk). However, for most of the routes in this guide, proficiency in walking and navigation is sufficient.
Until the Land Reform (Scotland) Act was introduced in 2003, the ‘right to roam’ in Scotland was a result of continued negotiation between government bodies, interest groups and landowners. In many respects, the Act simply reinforces the strong tradition of public access to the countryside of Scotland for recreational purposes. However, a key difference is that under the Act the right of access depends on whether it is exercised responsibly. Landowners also have an obligation not to unreasonably prevent or deter those seeking access. The responsibilities of the public and land managers are set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (outdooraccess-scotland.com). The walks within this guidebook cross land that is only fully accessible due to the co-operation of landowners, local councils and residents. Some of the routes pass through farms, golf courses and streets, and near homes and gardens. Cyclists and horse riders often use the paths and tracks, and anglers and canoeists may use the river and riverbanks. Consideration for others should be taken into account at all times and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code must be followed. At certain times of the year special restrictions are implemented at low level and on the hills, and these should be respected. These often concern farming, shooting and forest activities: if you are in any doubt, ask. Signs are usually posted at popular access points with details: there should be no presumption of a right of access to all places at all times.
The right of access does not extend to the use of motor vehicles on private or estate roads.