The Restless #RiverSpey

To see a selection of this month’s ‘Focus On’ images please click here

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 staggering diversity of wildlife.

Garva Bridge
The River Spey and Garva Bridge

Its voyage results in an ever-changing landscape as each year the river, swollen with snow melt, unleashes a massive volume of water, which subsequently carves new channels and islands, generating its own course and one that is perpetually evolving.

Lonely little Loch Spey, which sits above Loch Laggan in Lochaber, beneath the big, rounded Monadhliath, marks the beginning of the River Spey and a wild and wonderful 107-mile journey.

Scotland’s fastest and second longest river quickly descends alongside General Wade’s historic road then underneath Garva Bridge, the oldest bridge spanning the Spey.

It then carves its course through the scenic splendour of Badenoch & Speyside, one dominated by the remarkable barrier of the immense Cairngorm plateau.

The hills reduce in size as the River Spey enters Moray, renowned the world over as whisky country.

From here the backdrop is more understated as the river twists and turns towards the coast, eventually spilling into the North Sea at Spey Bay, in-between Lossiemouth and Buckie.

Creag Bheag
Speyside from Creag Bheag above Kingussie

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 is looser 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, altering its shape and route to whatever the Spey decides.

The derivation of the name Spey is unclear with several suggestions as to its meaning, including Hawthorn river or, perhaps more pertinently, Vomit or Gush. Certainly the speed at which the River Spey travels means this may be the appropriate label.

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.

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 northeast and formed a redoubtable force against the Roman advance.

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 the likes of Braeriach, Meall a Bhuachaille, Craigellachie and Buckie.

Whisky has become synonymous with the river and pumps millions of pounds into the local economy annually, and Moray is its spiritual home.

The River Spey
Spey Bay

Originally hailed for its medicinal qualities whisky has now become one of Scotland’s major exports and fundamental to the survival of the towns and villages along much of the River Spey, particularly when it travels through Moray.

The mild climate, pure, clear spring water and abundant supplies of fragrant golden barley provide the ideal ingredients for the ‘water of life’.

The Spey supports a plethora of whisky distilleries (over half of all the distilleries in Scotland) including Glenfarclas, Cardhu, Aberlour and Craigellachie as well as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the 2 biggest selling whiskies in the world.

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Focus On: The Monumental #RiverTay

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Ben Lui
Ben Lui and the Allt Coire Laoigh, the source of the River Tay

The River Tay may be unique to all of Scotland’s rivers in that its source lies many miles from where its course, as the River Tay, actually begins.

A small lochan at the head of the Allt Coire Laoigh, some 700 metres up on the southwest slopes of Ben Lui near Tyndrum, is regarded as the source.

Yet it takes over 18 miles for the rivers Cononish, Fillan and finally the Dochart to reach Loch Tay and then another 14.5 miles (the length of Loch Tay) before the River Tay makes its first appearance when it spills from the eastern fringes of Loch Tay at Kenmore.

Cutting its sinuous course the River Tay eventually reaches the North Sea a few miles east of Dundee with its mouth bounded by Buddon Ness in Angus and Fife’s Tentsmuir Point.

This 120-mile journey makes it Scotland’s longest river and the 7th longest in the UK. It is an immense river in every respect.

As well as its length, the River Tay’s carries the largest volume of water of any river in the UK with its catchment area extending over 2000 square miles. Upon reaching the 23-mile long Firth of Tay, it carries more water than the Thames and Severn collectively.

Consequently the River Tay flows through a wide-ranging landscape initially characterised by dramatic wild mountains and steep sided glens.

When it crosses the Highland Boundary Fault Line at Dunkeld the landscape softens, reaching its upper tidal limit at Perth, and continues onward into fertile countryside, containing some of the richest farmland in Scotland, to conclude at the coast.

River Tay
The River Tay at Dunkeld

The River Tay’s two cities, Perth and Dundee, are both delightful urban environments to explore.

The river was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus as Taus, during the 1st century AD, then by the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as Tava. Later the Roman title was possibly Tamia. However its present day derivation of strong, silent or flowing seems to stem from the Brythonic Tausa.

Over the centuries the earliest Stone Age and Neolithic hunter-gatherers exploited the River Tay in search for food with more definite roots being planted during the Iron Age – the clearest evidence of how people lived during this period can be seen when visiting the superb Crannog Centre at Kenmore.

Around 1500 years ago the Picts built several hill forts along the Tay, the best example adorning the summit of Moncrieffe Hill on the outskirts of Perth.

In AD83, as the Romans slowly edged their way north through Scotland, they paused at the confluence of the River Tay and River Almond and established a fort called Bertha, the precursor of Perth, which would subsequently grow a little down river.

The Romans also headed some 20 miles east where they utilised the panoramic vantage point of Dundee Law.

The River Tay is definitely a sum of all its parts, its wild mountainous terrain, coastal and woodland fringes and urban settings, all adding something to its magnificent journey.

Broughty Ferry
The outflow of the River Tay near Broughty Ferry

 

Focus On: North #Argyll

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Mull from McCaig's Tower, Oban
Mull from McCaig’s Tower, Oban

Sitting with the boundaries of North Argyll is a spectacular portion of Scotland’s renowned west coast (including several beautiful and easily accessible islands), scenic countryside, wildlife rich woodland, forestry and gardens, several iconic hills and mountains, and a litany of beautiful lochs and rivers. The biggest conurbation is the bustling fishing port of Oban, where many of the iconic Caledonian MacBrayne ferries that service the islands sitting off the Argyll coast are caught. Oban is also a fine place for a wander.

Add to this the Crinan Canal, described as the most beautiful short cut in Scotland, a truly exceptional array of flora and fauna and some of the most important historical sites in Scotland and you have a beautiful and fascinating walking destination.

Argyll means ‘Coastland of the Gaels’, referring to the early Gaelic speaking Scots, who populated much of Scotland’s western seaboard. It was where Irish settlers, known as the Scotti, arrived in the 6th century AD, and these people eventually gave their name to Scotland.

300 years later and the Gaels of Dál Riata amalgamated with the Picts of eastern Scotland and established the kingdom of Alba, after which the control and influence of Dunadd rapidly weakened.

The Argyll landscape and its relationship with human beings were inextricably entwined even before the Scotti arrived. Kilmartin Glen, near Lochgilphead, contains several burial cairns and standing stones constructed around 4-5000 years while the rock carvings at nearby Achnabreac are believed to date from the same time.

Furthermore Castle Dounie, near Crinan, and Dun a Cuaiche, above Inveraray, hold the remains of Iron Age forts. More recently the landscape has been moulded by humans for the benefit of agriculture, fuel, timber and tourism.

The landscape of North Argyll has many facets; great muscular mountains like Ben Cruachan, low-lying agricultural plains along its centre and little islands cast adrift from the mainland yet only requiring a short ferry journey into a more peaceful, timeless backdrop.

The elongated sea lochs of Etive, Fyne and Linnhe bite into the coastline while their freshwater cousins, including Loch Awe and Loch Avich, puncture huge swathes of forest and woodland.

Loch Fyne, Inveraray
Loch Fyne, Inveraray

North Argyll is also home to some of the finest remnants of the renowned oak woods that used to cloak much of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Superb examples can be found at Crinan, Dalavich and Glen Nant. The history of these woods date back some 9000 years when oak, along with birch, elm and hazel, began to colonise this rough, rocky setting, aided in no small part by a warm, moist climate.

It is a landscape full of wildlife; dipper, kingfisher, pied flycatcher, redstart, woodpeckers, red squirrel, guillemot, tern, redshank, ringed plover, turnstone, golden and white-tailed sea eagle, lichens, mosses, bluebells and orchids just a tiny proportion of what may be seen.

Therefore, wherever you are in North Argyll you travel through history, making walking here an intriguing, enthralling and beautiful prospect.

Loch Etive from Ben Cruachan
Loch Etive from Ben Cruachan

#Cornwall: An Inspirational Landscape

Piskies Cove
Piskies Cove

To see a selection of this month’s ‘Focus On’ images please click here

Cornwall’s extraordinary landscape has inspired generations of artists and writers, including Dylan Thomas, Sir John Betjemen, Daphne du Maurier, Barbara Hepworth and Stanhope Forbes, all of whom have been stimulated by the region’s coastline and countryside.

And it is easy to see why – Cornwall’s rugged shoreline, gorgeous sandy beaches, turquoise waters, meandering rivers, attractive woodland and wide open countryside all combine to form one of the UK’s finest and beautiful regions.

Many of the cliffs that form a barrier along much of the Cornish coast are between 250 and 500 million years old. Within these rocks can be found the tin and copper that have shaped much of Cornwall’s economy for thousands of years.

For the last 12,000 human beings have exploited Cornwall’s rich resources. Around 10,000BC Mesolithic hunter-gatherers settled along the coastline around Lizard and the higher ground of Bodmin. 4000 years later saw a marked increase in population and consequently many fortified settlements and monuments were built, along with important developments in agricultural techniques.

The Rumps
The Rumps

Agriculture, fishing and mining became the dominant industries and over time Cornwall was known as Cornovia, Cornubia, Cernyw and Kernow with the language eventually evolving into Cornish.

However, perhaps the key moment in Cornwall’s history came in 1201 when King John granted the tin miners of Cornwall a charter, which allowed them special privileges (such as not paying the normal rate of tax), known as a Stannery Parliament.

At its peak mining employed about 30% of Cornwall’s male workforce and in the early 19th century the region was the greatest producer of copper in the world. However when tin and copper prices plunged during the early 20th century many miners had to emigrate to find work. In 2006 Cornwall’s mining areas gained World Heritage Site status.

A number of the beautiful towns and villages strewn across Cornwall (including St Ives, Mousehole, Gorran Haven, Port Issac and Mullion Cove) were built around their harbours, underpinning the value of Cornwall’s other key industry – fishing.

The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were boom time, with millions of fish caught (especially pilchards) and ports flourishing at the likes of Falmouth, Fowey, Looe, Padstow, Penzance and St Ives.

Such were the amounts of fish caught that it couldn’t last and trawlers had to land mackerel, cod and hake when the pilchard industry crashed during the 20th century. There are still many working harbours along the coast today but on much a smaller scale.

Today tourism has become Cornwall’s contemporary industry and vital to its economy. St Ives, Truro, Falmouth and Newquay remain the most popular destinations for the many millions of annual visitors drawn to the outstanding natural beauty, mild climate, distinct culture and history.

And you can add an astonishing array of flora and fauna; gannet, fulmar, cormorant, shag, kittiwake, razorbill, guillemot, puffin, Bottlenose and Common dolphin, porpoise, Manx shearwaters, chough, teal, greenshank, dunlin, bar-tailed godwit, curlew, oystercatcher, wigeon, heath spotted orchid, birdfoot trefoil, yellow primroses, pink sea thrift and purple heather are a fraction of an almost endless list of what can be seen at different times of the year.

St Ives
St Ives

Focus On: #Galloway, The Land of the Foreign Gael

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The Galloway Coastline from Criffel
The Galloway Coastline from Criffel

The Galloway Coastline is very much part of Scotland’s windswept western seaboard and has a great deal to offer, particularly to anyone with a fervour for coastal walking.

Mountains, hills, lochs, woodland, beaches, rivers and cliffs line the spectacular coastline, which begins its journey near Gretna in the east and travels west through some of Britain’s finest scenery, crossing Dumfries-shire, Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire, before turning south through the remote landscape of The Machars and into the Rhins of Galloway, culminating at the Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s southernmost point, a journey of over 200 miles.

En route the wildlife is astounding, from the smallest lichen to the mighty Basking Shark (and everything in-between), while the outstanding scenery extends to Ayrshire, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Kintyre Peninsula and the mighty Lake District mountains.

Galloway is the 3rd largest region in Scotland and one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe; as of 2011 Galloway has approximately 148,000 inhabitants with a population density of 60 people per square mile. Compare that to the Scottish average of 168 people per square mile and you will understand why a real sense of space and freedom pervades when walking in Galloway. There is definitely room to breathe.

With its history, complexities of language, cultural heritage and remoteness to much of Scotland, Galloway has a distinct feel to it, one that is hard to put your finger on – spend time walking the hills or coastline and it may become clearer.

Historically the western half of the region was known as the Kingdom of Galloway and during the Dark Ages was an independent, Gaelic speaking kingdom.

The Mull of Galloway
The Mull of Galloway

Over the centuries Galloway was subsequently divided into three distinct counties; Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire to the west and Dumfries-shire to the east. The region’s history extends back many thousands of years with much evidence of iron-age forts, crannogs and early Christian sites, whilst a magnificent array of abbeys and castles were built from the 12th century onwards and with such a lengthy coastline strong trade links were established with England and Europe.

The name Galloway didn’t appear until the 11th century and was named after a people, known as the Gall Gaidheil, a race that developed in Scandinavia and in the Hebrides during the 9th century. It was a simple migration of people that led the Gall Gaidheil into southwest Scotland around this time giving rise to the name Galloway, which means amongst the Gall Gaidheil or Land of the Foreign Gael.

Prior to this, the main languages within the region were British and Anglian and certainly this mixture, which also includes Norse, can be seen in the names of the towns, villages, rivers and hills along the coast.

The two largest towns in Galloway have their roots in Gaelic – Dumfries translates as Fortress of the Woodland and Stranraer as Place of the Fat Peninsula. The wonderful hill of Criffel, rising above the Solway Firth a few miles from Dumfries, means Raven Hill from the Norse Kraka-fjell – the raven is the sacred bird of Scandinavia.

The Solway Firth also has Norse origins and translates as Firth of the Muddy Ford whilst the River Dee in Kirkcudbright (Gaelic, Divine River) and Kirkcudbright itself (Scots/Old English, Church of St Cuthbert) further illustrates the fascinating historical and linguistic relationship language has with the Galloway Coastline.

With such a vast coastline you would expect a superb array of birdlife and Galloway really excels; curlew, cormorants, dunlin, greenshank, redshank, knot, barnacle and pink-footed geese, oystercatcher, shags and sandpiper are just a selection to be found on the beaches, estuaries and mudflats whilst the cliffs are home to the likes of fulmars, gulls, puffins and razorbills.

#Queensferry – Royal Crossing

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The coastal town of Queensferry, standing on the south bank of the Firth of Forth just a few miles west of Edinburgh city centre, is perhaps best known for the iconic structures of the Forth Road and Rail bridges, which span the Firth of Forth, linking Edinburgh with Fife.

However there has been a crossing here for centuries. When Queen Margaret (wife of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland) established a church at Dunfermline during the 11th century she paid for a ferry service to transport pilgrims, on their way to St Andrews, across the Forth Estuary at its narrowest point. Subsequently the village of Queensferry began to grow.

The monks of Dunfermline Abbey initially operated the ferry service and a variety of ferries ran for several centuries. During the 1950’s the Queensferry service was the busiest in Scotland with four ferries annually carrying 1.5 million people, 600,000 cars and 200,000 goods vehicles by 40,000 ferry journeys. However the opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964 effectively ended the ferry service and when opened it was the longest suspension bridge in Europe, utilising 39,000 tons of steel.

Preceding this was the Forth Rail Bridge, one of the finest examples of engineering in the world. It took 4000 men seven years to build at a cost for £3.2 million and when opened in 1890 it had required over 54,000 tons of steel and 6.5 million rivets yielding a length of over 8000 feet.

The Queensferry Crossing will open in 2016 to carry motor-cycles, cars and heavy goods vehicles, relieving the pressure on the Forth Road Bridge, which will continue to take public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.

Queensferry Harbour has also long been a focal point to the town and already existed when the town achieved Royal Burgh status in 1641.

Several industries have since taken place in and around its confines including fishing, whisky distilling and soap making. Herring used to be gutted, salted and packed here before being exported to Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

The island of Inchgarvie, which sits a little out on the Firth of Forth is named after the garvie, a local name for the young herring that brought wealth to the town.

The 18th century saw brandy being smuggled into the harbour while Queensferry’s first whisky distillery, Glenforth, was established in 1828.

During the 17th century Covenanters, rebelling against the introduction of Bishops into the Presbyterian Church by King Charles I, were forced to hide in the attics and cellars of the houses around Queensferry Harbour before taking the towns fleet of ships at high tide and embarking on a journey to the more tolerant Low Countries where they could freely practice their faith.

The Forth Road Bridge
The Forth Road Bridge
The Forth Rail Bridge
The Forth Rail Bridge