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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.
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.
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.
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.
With the excess of the Christmas season approaching here are 10 simple and energetic walks, where you can remove yourself from the hustle and bustle or work off that extra portion of Christmas pudding.
St Abbs to Coldingham Sands: Unbeknownst to many, the Scottish Borders has a small, but magnificent section of coastline stretching fifteen miles from St Abbs to Berwick. Whilst this can be walked in one long day, the couple of miles between St Abbs and Coldingham Sands makes for an easy walk with a fantastic beach to enjoy. From St Abbs Harbour car park, steps lead up to Murrayfield, which turns southeast to join the Berwickshire Coastal Path. It is then simply a matter of following the path down into Coldingham Sands to enjoy the beautiful beach where its distinctive beach huts still survive. It is worth continuing south along the sands for a few hundred yards to Milldown Point and capture the superb view back to St Abbs. To return to St Abbs a short walk heads into Coldingham from where the B6438 can be followed northeast for a short distance to reach the path of Creel Road, which continues back into St Abbs. OS Landranger 67 Start/Finish GR NT919674.
Greenock Cut, Inverclyde: Greenock Cut is a magnificent walk of around seven miles above Greenock, utilising the 19th century paths and tracks near to Loch Thom that were built to supply fresh water for the residents of Greenock, Gourock, and Port Glasgow. The wildlife here is superb and the views breathtaking. From Greenock Cut Visitor Centre car park turn right onto a single-track road where the road immediately splits. Take the centre path and follow this past Shielhall Farm. An excellent path continues high above the River Clyde, passing some of the workers huts that were built during the construction of Greenock Cut. At Overton turn right and follow a broad track to a fork. Here keep right from where it rises high above Greenock and the Clyde Estuary. Go left when the track splits again and descend past Loch Thom and then back to the visitor centre. OS Landranger Map 63 Start/Finish GR NS247721.
Cathkin Braes, Glasgow: Cathkin Braes Country Park stands at the very edge of Glasgow and comprises of lovely woodland (home to roe deer and woodpecker) as well as bestowing possibly the finest view of the city. Beginning at the large car park on Cathkin Road a good path heads northeast into mixed woodland. It soon exits the woodland and swings left to run along the lip of a steep slope to reach Queen Mary’s Seat (supposedly where Mary Stuart watched the Battle of Langside). This is the highest point of Glasgow and consequently the panorama across the city to the Campsie Fells and the Southern Highlands is truly spectacular. From here turn 180° and make your way back into woodland. A right turn onto a path continues west into the Big Wood, eventually exiting at its western corner. Here make a right and follow a good path back to the start. OS Landranger 64 Start/Finish Grid Reference NS 619579.
Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh: Holyrood Park in Edinburgh has a multitude of great walks but perhaps the best is the climb onto Arthur’s Seat via the glorious Salisbury Crags. Good paths lead across this historic setting where the views are astonishing. Beginning outside the Scottish Parliament the pavement leads into Holyrood Park. Turning right it then merges with a grassy path, leading underneath Salisbury Crags to reach its base. A wonderful path then climbs along the edge of the crags where the views of Edinburgh Castle and the Firth of Forth are remarkable. Descend towards St Margaret’s Loch before climbing steeply all the way to the compact summit of Arthur’s Seat. Again the views across Edinburgh and along the coast are breathtaking. A steep descent heads down to Dunsapie Loch at Queen’s Drive, where a left turn heads back to the start. OS Landranger Map 66 Start/Finish NT 268739.
North Berwick and North Berwick Law, East Lothian: Coastal walking is fantastic during the winter months where strong winds can add to the walk rather than be a hindrance, and the beaches of North Berwick are wonderful for walking. Yellow Craig, a short distance west of North Berwick is a good place to start, in full view of Fidra; Robert Louis Stevenson is thought to have based Treasure Island on Fidra. It is an easy walk across the soft sands towards North Berwick and its harbour. A visit to the Seabird Centre is recommended before walking south along the B1347 to the base of North Berwick Law. A track traverses around the hill and it is only a short (yet sharp) ascent to her summit. Although less than 200 metres in height the views are incredible to Bass Rock, the Firth of Forth and the long ridge of The Pentlands. Retrace steps back to the start. OS Landranger Map 66 Start/Finish GR NT517855.
Cairnbaan to Crinan, Argyll & Bute: There can’t be many better ways to spend a few hours over the festive period than strolling along the towpath of the Crinan Canal, enjoying the rich variety of wildlife and lovely views. Cairnbaan lies only a few miles from Lochgilphead and is the start point of the route. The locks here are still manually operated and it is great to help out when opening and closing them. A towpath follows the line of the canal for five miles into Crinan and as little or as much time can be taken to walk along this wonderful section of Argyll. At Crinan the view stretching across Loch Crinan and the Sound of Jura to Mull’s jumble of peaks is one of the best in Scotland. From Crinan it is a simple matter of retracing steps along the towpath, enjoying the scenery, wildlife, and peace and quiet all over again, back to Cairnbaan. OS Landranger Map 55 Start/Finish GR NR908840.
Kerrera, Argyll & Bute: The island of Kerrera, lying a short distance from Oban, is a wonderful, unspoilt place. A walk around Kerrera takes a couple of hours but such is the extent of historical interest and superb views then a whole day can be spent exploring this gorgeous little island. A short ferry ride takes you back in time and onto a beautiful, tranquil location. My own favoured route is to follow the track southwest from the ferry passing beautiful Horseshoe Bay and towards the dramatic and historic ruins of Gylen Castle. The track then a path continues along the quieter west shore from where there is a magnificent view of Mull. After Barn-nam-Boc Bay a stiff climb leads to an amazing viewpoint. The vista is simply astonishing, encompassing the delights of Oban, the Lorn Coast and the great sentinel of Ben Cruachan. An easy descent returns to the ferry. OS Landranger Map 49 Start/Finish GR NM830287.
Loch an Eilean, Badenoch & Speyside: For many the high arctic plateau of the Cairngorms will be out of bounds during the winter months, such is the severity of weather that can persist during the season. Fortunately there is a wealth of low level walks to enjoy and a circuit of gorgeous Loch an Eilein is one of the best. The walk is only about three miles in length but it travels through the magnificent Rothiemurchus Forest, home to a myriad of wildlife, and also past the ancient remains of Loch an Eilein castle, which dates from the 14th century. It was once home to Alexander Stewart, better known as the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, who ransacked and burned, amongst others, the towns of Forres and Elgin, including its cathedral. Today the walk offers solitude and from the visitor centre a path circumnavigates the loch granting superb views of the wild and windswept Cairngorm Mountains. OS Landranger Map 36 Start/Finish GR NN897087.
Craigellachie, Aviemore, Badenoch & Speyside: Craigellachie Nature Reserve is home to stunning birch woodland and amazing wildlife including Scottish crossbill, wood warbler, lesser redpoll, orange tip, scotch argus, butterflies and the rare Kentish Glory moth. From Aviemore Railway Station turn left, walk along Grampian Road and turn right onto a road for Craigellachie Nature Reserve. Walk by a youth hostel then descend into the reserve. The path climbs gently into gorgeous birch woodland. Go right at a fork to reach Loch Pulardden. Bear left, follow the path around the loch then veer left to a junction, turn right and continue to a path on the left. Follow this to a waymark, turn right continue to the second birch pool. Bear right at the next waymark, then walk around the loch to a junction. Go left onto a stony path then take the first left where a narrow path descends through the woodland, eventually reaching a junction. Make a right, drop down a path to another junction near Loch Pulardden. Bear right, walk back down to the outward-bound path and retrace steps back into Aviemore. OS Landranger Map 36 Start/Finish GR NN896123.
Findhorn, Moray: Findhorn, sitting on Scotland’s north-east coast, is a beautiful, unspoilt village with a gorgeous sandy beach, lovely dunes and some fantastic views towards the mountains of Caithness. This walk is really a stroll around the village and onto its beach, which is guaranteed to relieve stress levels and blow away the festive cobwebs. The walk can be extended if you wish as you can walk the beach all the way to Burghead. At the entrance to the village a road runs northwest along Findhorn Bay passing the Royal Findhorn Yacht Club. At a boatyard turn left down onto the beach and walk along the lovely sand to reach the dunes. Walk over the dunes that in turn lead onto a beautiful stony beach looking over Burghead Bay. Turn right and enjoy this unblemished corner of Scotland. About a mile along the beach turn right from it into a car park and here quiet roads lead back into the village. OS Landranger Map 27 Start/Finish GR NJ039643.
Built along the banks of the lovely River Lossie is former cathedral city of Elgin. It is a beautiful place to walk around and has a long and turbulent history.
It is the ancient capital of Moray and the seat of the Bishops of Moray. Its name possibly translates as Little Ireland, which may give a clue as from where early settlers arrived.
It was granted Royal Burgh status by King David I in 1224 and was the northern boundary for Edward I and his army as they ransacked their way through Scotland in 1296. He stayed at Elgin Castle, which stood on top of Lady Hill – only a small section of the castle is still visible and the lofty Duke of Gordon monument now marks the site. The notorious Alexander Stewart, better known as the Wolf of Badenoch, raised Elgin and its cathedral to the ground in 1390.
Both were subsequently rebuilt and over the course of the next few centuries Elgin prospered, particularly during the Victorian era, when the railway arrived, and many of the fine buildings within the town date from this period, not least the stunning remains of Elgin Cathedral.
Elgin Cathedral was consecrated in 1224 and was known as the Lantern of the North. It quickly became the ecclesiastical centre of Moray and was thought to be Scotland’s second largest cathedral after St Andrews. After the Wolf of Badenoch had destroyed the cathedral the Bishop of Moray described it as ‘The Ornament of the Realm, the Glory of the Kingdom’.
It was extensively rebuilt during the 15th century but stood without real purpose after the Reformation of 1560, after which it fell into neglect with the central tower collapsing in 1711.
However Elgin Cathedral is still a splendid sight with the twin western towers and the 15th century octagonal Chapter House central to any visit.