The Restless #RiverSpey

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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.


In the Heart of #TheTrossachs

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Loch Katrine and Loch Arklet, which both sit in the heart of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, have been the source of Glasgow’s drinking water since 1914.

Loch Katrine
Above Loch Katrine

They are separated by a wild expanse of moorland where tangible evidence of this engineering marvel exists and a fantastic walk links both bodies of water.

The route begins from Stronachalacher (which translates from Gaelic as ‘The Stonemason’s Point), on the banks of Loch Katrine (itself possibly meaning ‘The Dusky Loch’), only a couple of miles away from Glengyle.

Here, in 1671, one Rob Roy MacGregor was born. He was involved in the Jacobite uprising of 1688 and became a folk hero, chiefly because of his feud with James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose. Rob Roy died at Balquhidder in 1734.

In 1817, 7 years after writing his epic poem, ‘Lady of the Lake’, Sir Walter Scott published ‘Rob Roy’, a somewhat exaggerated account of Rob Roy MacGregor that romanticised his life. Just like ‘Lady of the Lake’, Scott’s book contributed greatly to the popularity of The Trossachs.

Leaving Stronachlachar, a private road runs above the loch, soon crossing an aqueduct. This flows from Loch Arklet and was opened in 1914 to provide extra water for Loch Katrine, which had supplied Glasgow’s water since 1859.

The 34-mile Loch Katrine/Glasgow aqueduct was an incredible feat of engineering, as it required no pumps, the water’s flow wholly driven by gravity.

Loch Arklet
Loch Arklet and the Arrochar Alps

The road provides easy walking for a further 3km where it reaches a waymarked footpath on the right. Yet it’s worthwhile keeping on for another 100 metres to the striking Royal Cottage. This was built as accommodation for Queen Victoria when opening the water scheme in 1859.

However a local story states that a 21-gun salute smashed all the windows and therefore she couldn’t stay overnight.

Walk back to the waymarked path which climbs away from Loch Katrine. Continue over moorland, passing a ventilation shaft, a legacy of the aqueduct’s construction. Turn right at the next shaft, following a narrow path to the walks highest point.

This spot has a wilder air and presents a superb view to Ben Lui’s magnificent profile, while to the southwest rises Ben Lomond.

Back at the main path continue as it traverses beneath Tom Ard, eventually descending to a forestry track. Turn right and follow this to a path on the right, just before the B829.

A wonderful section of the walk continues across moorland, following the route of the Statute Labour Road that once ran between Aberfoyle and Inversnaid.

Walking along the old Statute Labour Road

The paths and roads alongside Loch Arklet have been used for centuries. The old Military Road (which the B829 runs along today) was built around 300 years ago to serve the Inversnaid Garrison. Soldiers were stationed here to guard the road and keep control of local rebels and cattle thieves, who would have had superb knowledge of the local topography for their illicit deeds.

In due course a stunning view across Loch Arklet and the Arrochar Alps grabs your attention and once at the B829, an easy walk returns to Stronachlachar.

Away with the Fairies: Beinn an t-Sidhein

Beinn an t-Sidhein (pronounced Ben Shee-han) rises above the attractive village of Strathyre, in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

It is thought that Strathyre means ‘twisting valley’ and certainly the River Balvag winds its way through Strathyre’s tight confines.

Beinn an t-Sidhein
Strathyre from Beinn an t-Sidhein

It was part of the main droving route between the Highlands and Lowlands during the 17th century while Strathyre village became a popular tourist destination with the arrival of the Callander to Oban railway in the 1870’s.

The poet Duguld Buchanan was born in Strathyre in 1716. He helped the Reverend James Stewart of Killin translate the New Testament into Scottish Gaelic and wrote an important collection of Gaelic religious poems. A monument dedicated to Buchanan stands in the village.

Folklore is prevalent in many mountain names, including Beinn an t-Sidhein, which means Fairy Mountain.

Robert Kirk, who was born in 1644 near Strathyre, in Aberfoyle, documented many of these stories during his life. However it wasn’t until 1815 (over 120 years after his death) that Sir Walter Scott published Kirk’s work in a book called The Secret Commonwealth. It is still in print today.

A good path climbs steeply through Strathyre Forest onto open hillside where there are striking views of Loch Lubnaig. It is approximately 3½ miles long and is thought to translate from Gaelic as Loch of the Bend. The Corbett of Ben Ledi rises steeply from its southern edge.

After negotiating a boggier stretch of path the top of An t-Sidhein is attained.

At 546-metres An t-Sidhein grants a breathtaking view. The rounded shape of Beinn an t-Sidhein rises a little to the north, with Strathyre and the River Balvag, hemmed in by steep hillside, drawing the eye to Loch Earn and the huge bulk of Ben Lawers. However it is the view east to Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin and west to the long line of jagged Crianlarich Munro’s that really catches the eye.

An t-Sidhein
Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin and Beinn Each from An t-Sidhein

The path then extends across rougher, heather clad moorland onto Beinn an t-Sidhein 562-metre summit and an incredible panorama across a mountainous landscape.

The lonely landscape of Glen Buckie sits way below Beinn an t-Sidhein while beyond Stob Binnein, Ben More, Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean, above Crianlarich, take centre stage.

Beinn an t-Sidhein
The Crianlarich Mountains and Glen Buckie from Beinn an t-Sidhein

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

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.

#Lismore – Gardener’s World

Lismore is an idyllic island that stands out on Loch Linnhe and a short distance across the Lynn of Lorn from Port Appin in Argyll.

A short passenger ferry journey (bikes are also allowed) transports you onto the island at Point and into a more peaceful, laid-back world. Achnachroish (where the Oban car ferry docks) and the idyllic Port Ramsey are the island’s main settlements and much of its history can be discovered in the superb Lismore Heritage Centre.

Lismore’s name derives from the Gaelic lios-mor, meaning ‘the great garden’ and its fertile landscape is due to its Dalradian limestone geology, which has helped nurture an abundance of wildflowers including primrose, bluebell, wood sorrel, dog violet, purple and common spotted orchid, silverweed, tormentil and meadowsweet. Hen harrier, buzzard, dunlin, oystercatcher, shags, guillemots and migrating common and arctic terns is a selection of birdlife.

There is also a very good chance of spotting golden eagle and white-tailed sea eagle when on Lismore as it lies under what is thought to be an eagle ‘highway’, one that travels from Mull in the west to the Tay Estuary in the east near Dundee. Successful introduction of both species has taken place in both locations in recent years.

Lismore’s industrial history lies firmly in its limestone quarrying. Much of it took place at Salean, on the island’s north coast, and the remains of this small, industrial centre can still be seen here. The stone was quarried and shipped out on locally owned smacks (a traditional fishing boat) for agriculture and building mortar between 1826 and the 1930’s.

Many of the buildings date from early days of the quarry, including a manager’s office, workers cottages, a shop and a cottage on the pier. It is a very atmospheric, evocative spot, hemmed in on its southern side by the quarry and with some lovely sea views.

Port Ramsey Bay, Lismore
Port Ramsey Bay, Lismore