Tuesday, 30 October 2012

From Spey to Thames

Although the sky was overcast, early morning in Speyside was lit by the golden radiance of rich, autumnal colours emanating from the departing leaves of summer 2012. Although only a gentle breeze, the large, rounded leaves of the once lush, riverside alders danced liked heavy, leathery feathers, downwards towards the surface of the now chilly waters of the River Spey.

Today, however, I am looking only at Lady Spey from above and at a distance as the train I am travelling on gathers speed on its route south to London. As we move towards Dalwhinnie, crossing the rail-bridge just upstream of Newtonmore, this is the last glimpse of my river I will have until my return to Speyside late tomorrow (Wednesday) evening.
Having in 2010 previously worked on the Spey with a small group of boys from St Paul’s School, situated on the banks of the River Thames by Hammersmith Bridge, I have been invited by the school’s Headmaster to talk to boys, parents and staff about the majestic Spey.
This evening I am to meet with parents of boys and the boys themselves, likely to take part in a wonderful, unforgettable Canoe Journey on the historic River Spey in the summer of2013. Tonight we will concentrate mainly upon matters relating to practical aspects of a Spey Journey extending over several days ~ dates; section of this beautiful river to be paddled; my provision of all specialist canoe/safety equipment; what the boys need to bring; transport arrangements ~ to Speyside and along the river; even whether en route we ‘stay close to nature' and camp or perhaps stay overnight in some of the well-appointed Speyside guest-house/hotel accommodations.
Tomorrow morning I am to address boys and masters at the school’s morning assembly. Here I will very willingly talking about the history, culture, working practices and the people of the Spey. Hopefully, the St Paul’s link with the wonderful Spey, with the boys taking part in this unique adventure will become an annual event on the St Paul’s calendar.
I would confess to today feeling quite excited about my journey south to the UK Capital and to be by the mighty Thames. Hopefully the boys from Thames Valley will be excited and inspired by their magical Journey north to Strathspey, and will in years to come, reflect fondly on their Spey Experience.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


Having emerged from the artificial lighting of underground, these Speyside 'country-boys' stood gazing up in amazement at the mighty Shard ~ piercing the clear sky like a spear-shaped glacier, its glass exterior gleaming in the October early morning sunshine.

Three of us had flown down on the Red-eye from Edinburgh to attend the fantastic TWE Whisky Show. Held annually, this prestigious event, Britain’s biggest whisky show is organised by The Whisky Exchange (TWE) at their extensive warehouse property, close to London Bridge, by the Borough Market in Southwark. (www.thewhiskyexchange.com) In addition to TWE massive on-line wines and spirits business, there are wall to wall bottles in the wonderful TWE shop. The brick-built building ~ including the interior ~ where the whisky show takes place, is somewhat (apart from the bricked up windows!) reminiscent of the fashionable, American warehouse-conversion, airy studio-apartments one sometimes sees some in movies (Demi Moore and ‘Ghost’ (?) come to mind).

Exhibitor stalls extend through spacious interior spaces on three floors. Most exhibitors represent Scotch Malt-whisky distillers/distributors, with a large number of the whiskies being from Speyside. However, this lavish event has a truly international flavour, showcasing whiskies/whiskeys from all parts of the UK ~ England, Ireland and Wales but also countries such as Japan, America and Finland. Certainly, visitors to this show, from all over the world, could freely sample some of the best whiskies available on our planet at this time.

Several older expressions were available for the delectation of the many discerning palates present. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society stand was an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful whiskies, veiled in the Society’s characteristic green bottle and each whisky given its own ‘secret’ number, with only Society members holding the ‘key’ as to its identity!

Over the three days at the show, I managed to sample from the SMWS offerings (~ all superb!) a Longmorn 20yo; Japanese, Yoichi 26yo and a lovely Glen Moray 39yo. The energetic buzz from around the halls over the three days carried particular mention of some of the ‘Dream Drams’ ~ Glenglassaugh Massandra Connection malts ~ especially the 39 year old and from now sadly dismantled distilleries ~ Islay’s Port Ellen 32yo and born in Stonehaven (as was I ~ but a few years after me!) a Glenury Royal 40yo.

Some Dream Drams were created by master-blenders just for this show. These included ~ from Glenfiddich, Brian Kinsman’s Experimental Cask 20yo. And, from Glenfiddich’s sister distillery, The Balvenie, now 50 years their malt-master, the legendary David Stewart had created (in the style of The Balvenie ‘Tun 1401’) a Dream Dram containing a marriage of malts from 2 x 1975 hogsheads; 1 x each 1974 & 1972 oak casks; a sherry butt from 1970 and another sherry butt from 1963. Truly inspirational, this expression was considered by many to be ‘The Dram’ of the 2012 Whisky Show.

Apart from the superb whiskies available, throughout the day, delicious food was available from the in-house bistro and free teas and coffees ~ including many exotic blends ~ were on-tap every day from the lovely folks at the ‘Weanie Beans’ stall. Himalayan Jade Green Oolong Tea became one of my favourite drinks at the whisky show!  (www.weaniebeans.com)

In terms of wining and dining, a particular highlight of the Show weekend was, for me, to be introduced to the wonders of the Athenaeum Hotel. From the genuine warm welcome at the front door our Athenaeum Experience was truly exquisite. This Mayfair hotel gently presents an ambiance of warm and relaxed luxury, made perfect by the very lovely staff and delicious food. I’ll be back! (www.anthenaeumhotel.com)

Throughout the whisky show there were many master-classes and open presentations by various eminent people within the whisky industry, including a series of talks from a Speakers' Corner, boldly named 'Meet the Maker’!

Next to the ‘meeting your favourite maker’ corner, the very attractive, welcoming Balvenie stand (www.thebalvenie.com) came complete with its own cooper, who throughout the three days of the show demonstrated the dismantling and reconstruction of, in this case, American oak bourbon casks integral to the maturation process of the precious spirit. This master of his craft, Robert, a skilled cooper with Wm Grant & Sons enraptured audiences with his expertise.
To view Robert in action go to http://youtu.be/Q_IKk8U9Jlw  

One of the most wonderful things I have found within the whisky trade is the universal welcoming, friendly nature of the people working in the industry. Present at the whisky show were a great many very influential men and women who have a passion for and possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of whiskies.

It was a pleasure during the 2012 Whisky Show, to meet many of these people, some for the first time ~ several I have paddled with on the Spey. Others, until the TWE Show, I had liaised only with via the now very powerful channels of Social Media. I take this opportunity to thank all the many people who continue to support my blossoming canoe/whisky journeys.
Thanks also to you, the reader, for taking the time to read this blog. I hope you and I may, in the near future, share the majestic Spey, with a few drams along the way.

If you have a passion for or would just like to learn more about whisky i) the Glasgow Whisky Show takes place Nov 17th.

ii) Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival ~ May 2013, offering an array of events http://www.scotlandwhisky.com/whisky-festivals/

iii) Join me on a unique Canoe Journey, blending open-canoeing on the Spey with whisky experiences. Incl. delicious food & accommodation in comfortable guest-houses/hotels en route. www.spiritofthespey.co.uk

Sunday, 14 October 2012

GREGOR’S GREAT GUYS ~ 29/30 Sept. 2012

There have been no blogs for quite a while from Spirit of the Spey. Life got particularly hectic mid-summer. I was busy in the river and in late August my wife Jude and I prepared for a trip of a lifetime ~ a safari holiday in Kenya ~ quite superb! No amount of preparation can have one fully ready for the magnitude of the Masia Mara, the lush loveliness of Lakes Navasha and Nukurra or the array of awesome animals appearing so relaxed, even whilst in close proximity of our open-topped Land Rover.
The Mara River fairly moved along past the area of our luxury tented accommodation at the most excellent Little Governor’s Camp. I did think it would make for a great for an African-branch of Spirit of the Spey. However, crudely disguised as large rocks there were some obvious, serious hazards moving around on or just below the surface of the water, which could have proven to be a little tricky indeed a danger for canoeing clients!!
Having to return to the UK on damp, windy days in the closing part of Sept., following such an awesome African Adventure, one might have concerns that life would be much less interesting, indeed positively dull back here in Scotland. However, for me this was not to be the case. I had to sort out canoes and kit for and could look forward to my next Spey Journey with ten great guys, due to arrive at The Beeches on the Friday evening.

From the Beeches we travelled on the Saturday morning to our start-point just downstream from Advie Bridge. Slight hiccup en route with our minibus but whilst the transport technicalities were being dealt with, much to the amazement and entertainment of those in passing traffic, the lads and I ran through a few ‘land-drills’ including stroke practice, complete with paddles in hand!

River-levels were reasonably high and once launched we were soon heading downstream through Tulchan Estate, the lads gaining directional stability very quickly, having retained quite a bit of skills knowledge from their ‘roadside class-room’.
This was the last day of the 2012 fishing season and I had rather expected to see a great many anglers making the most of their last casting opportunities. Whilst still travelling through Tulchan Estate the first of the few folks we met along the river was the very helpful ghillie Robert Mitchell. Robert confirmed for us that many fishing clients had already headed home. As predicted by Robert, for the duration of our trip we came across only a handful of ghillies, with in some cases, only their friends and/or family members making the best of the last few hours as guests of estate proprietors. Thus, with no fishing on Sundays we did not have to zigzag our way past the normal numbers of anglers.

First significant landmark on our journey was the very substantial bridge close to the disused Ballindalloch Station. Erected in 1864 by a Dundee firm, this sturdy old rail bridge, with its lattice-work steel sides, stopped proudly carrying passenger and freight trains following the savage Beeching cuts of the 1960’s. This rail-line acted as a life-supporting artery for the people and industries Speyside ~ particularly the distillers and farming communities ~ with trucks carrying coal, barley, livestock and many hogsheads of whisky. This bridge and disused rail route now, at least in part, forms the part of the Speyside Way long distance route. (The most picturesque section of the Speyside Way and certainly the part closest to the Spey is between Ballindalloch and Craigellachie.)

The lads got and thoroughly enjoyed their first taste of choppy water just downstream of where the River Avon shares its waters, gathered high in the Grampian Mountains, with the Spey. Some baling was required opposite the pretty Ballindalloch estate fishing hut by the Rock Pool.

More boat emptying was then needed after the Blacksboat rapid, aptly named the ‘Washing Machine’. This turbulent but fun, air-bubble filled, fast water chute occurs where the river suddenly reduces in width from around 100 to about 40 metres across, forcing the waters through this shingle sided channel. Two of the lads including Gregor the group organiser decided, once through the worst of the turbulence, to conduct an impromptu underwater study by turning their canoe upside down. However, they were soon safely ashore and having provided much entertainment for their paddling colleagues.

Our journey continued on past the disused Blacksboat Station, recently refurbished ~ complete with purpose built bat-house erected as a planning requirement to relocate the bats ‘evicted’ from their roof residence during the platform building  renovation. On under Marypark Bridge which replaced the ferry previously operated by Mr Black ~ hence the name ‘Blacksboat’.

Having encountered no fishers on Ballindalloch Estate we moved on downstream into Knockando Estate. Once into the area of Greenbank Pool we met up with Knockando ghillie, Archie looking relaxed and very ably executing his closing few casts. Archie informed us that Bill Drury, the regular ghillie on this section, was off to Canada for a bit of fishing and exhibition fly-casting engagements. Some of these expert casters can place a fly into jam-jar from around 100 yards! Bill Drury is well known in salmon fishing circles. You will find products bearing his name in angling supplies magazines. But Bill found international fame when recently coaching Ewan McGregor in the finer points of fly-fishing for his role in the film, ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’.

 A little way down-river, we paddlers came ashore at the hut by Pouches Pool to be greeted by Knockando senior ghillie, Sandy Smith. As it was the last day of the season and knowing Sandy enjoys a dram, I produced my little case containing a dozen nosing glasses and a bottle of golden elixir produced on Speyside. Being a smart, shiny metal box and because of its similarity to a gun-carrying case, it has become known as my James ‘Whisky’ Bond case! The lads were very happy to share a dram and a blether with Sandy, while Ron, the group entertainer regaled us for about quarter of an hour (at least!) with a fabulous narrative poem about two trout fishers. Trip Organiser, Gregor McNeish’s well known Dad, Cameron was recognised by Sandy and they then blethered together for about another three hours (at least!).
This was indeed a very pleasant interlude (which only really lasted for about half an hour) and soon we were off again down the river.

In the slightly more technical waters of the rapid below Tamdhu distillery another underwater study was completed, this time with two of our party competing for the Olympic open water swimming distance record. Once back in the boats we passed the distinctive pagoda of Knockando distillery and on downstream towards the lovely span of the steel bridge at Carron ~ once carrying both the road and the Speyside Railway. Just above the Carron Bridge, looking rather like a Victorian mill, are stark brick walls of Imperial Distillery, silent now for over 30 years but recently bought by Chivas Bros., will hopefully soon be back in production. Not too far from but not visible from the river, is the Diageo’s Dailuaine distillery and dark-grains plant where distillery leftover products including draft (wet chaff) and pot-ale (dregs from the bottle of the stills) are reprocessed and mixed with other nutrients to form cattle-feed pellets.

Once under the beautiful Carron Bridge, just by turreted Laggan House, we find a silent, lone ghillie drawing lines in the darkening skies, with the tip of his fishing-rod. Then, for me the very last fisher on the Spey of the 2012 season is the sociable Willie Mearns, ghillie on Delagyle Estate. After a brief chat with the ever cheery Willie ~ always offering cups of tea if I ‘didnae hae sae mony fowk’ ~ we now head towards the picturesque Victorian ‘Penny Bridge’, financed by the kindly James Fleming, once the developer/owner of Aberlour distillery. Mr Fleming also donated money for the construction and equipping of the Aberlour cottage hospital.

Between Aberlour and Craigellachie, river left we cannot see but can smell the aromas of baking shortbread from the world-famous Walkers’ shortbread family, still under the ownership and management of the Walker family. Whilst on the breast of the hill river left in the diminishing daylight we can still clearly see the modern bonded warehouses of The Macallan. By now, one night before being full, a beautiful moon has risen above the trees to the east and helps guide us to our home for the night, the majestic Victorian Craigellachie Hotel, complete with its world-renowned whisky bar.
Following a good night’s rest in the comfort of the hotel our little group makes its way back to where we left our boats on the bank under the shadow of the wonderful Thomas Telford designed bridge, complete with castellated end-towers and once carrying the main road north by Craigellachie.

Although the day began still a little grey and overcast, once past the confluence of the famous Fiddich and on through Arndilly Estates the sky begins to clear and as we reach the distillery-rich town of Rothes we are blessed with beautiful, blue skies.
Although a fairly small settlement Rothes is home to 4 working distilleries ~ Speyburn, Glen Spey, Glenrothes, Glen Grant as well as the once productive Caperdonich, previously part of the Glen Grant but now a part of a very productive engineering works producing items for distilleries, including copper-work for stills and also components for the off-shore oil industry.

Approximately four miles of riparian/fishing rights, known as Rothes and Aitkenways were sold on this part the Spey for a reputed six million pounds ~ not the land just the rights to let the fishing. A days fishing here will come in at around an average of £600 pp ~ just for the fishing. (By the way I can provide a full trip on the river, with all food and accommodation for around the same figure ~ with only your bar-bill for you to pay!)
There is a certain additional majesty to this part of the Spey, especially down through Delfur Estate. As we round the corner into the moody but picturesque pool called Sourden, on a knoll river-right is the elevated site of the medieval Aitkenways Castle, now with very little evidence of its existence. Up ahead are the tree-clad slope of Ben Aigan which overshadows the productive Delfur fishing-pools, Holly Bush and Two Stones. These pools have produced many of the Spey’s record breaking fish ~ some weighing in at 48 lbs!

Still on Delfur Estate, big rock to be careful of as we approach the steep-sided Otter Hole pool, frequently a tea/coffee of lunch stop for Spirit of the Spey groups. I ask if anyone needs a comfort or coffee stop. That does not seem to hold appeal from any of my intrepid travellers but then there is mention of ‘Balvenie’ and my ‘Whisky Bond’ case. So, bathed in the sunshine the group enjoy a small mid-day dram ~ some the Doublewood and others a peated malt.
As the group chat and enjoy their refreshment, we were joined by two ladies, who had walked down to the riverside from the main road, armed with cameras and were on an outing from the Elgin Camera Club. They too recognised our Mr. McNeish Snr. from the telly ~ had seen him on the ‘Adventure Show’ just a few nights previous. They too welcomed a wee dram whilst, between their picture-taking, being charmed by our very own ‘outdoor celebrity broadcaster’.

By the time we had reached Boat o’ Brig ~ once again site of a previous ferry, this time close to the mainline rail bridge (or brig ~ hence Boat o’ Brig) ~ the sun had warmed the air and many layers of clothing were being cast by the paddlers. Following Delfur Estate we passed through Orton and into Braewater ~ location of the stunning Redheughs.

These impressive riverside cliffs, although appearing crumbly are made up of solid compacted glacial deposit which was coloured terracotta whilst moving through an area of ferrous material as it was dragged eastward by the retreating ice-sheets.
Approach Fochabers the wind increases but luckily it is behind us and we make good progress towards Spey Bay. As the Redheughs disappear the surrounding land is now flatter ~ raised beaches comprising of mainly rounded shingle.

Once past Fochabers and the (also) world-famous Baxters’ food factory, one can begin to smell the sea. Seagulls and terns call and wheel above our heads. For a short time as the river takes one final right angle turn we have to contend with a strong headwind, as we pass the impressive Quarry Pool ~ another red cliff, this time around 50 feet high but different every time I pass, as its loose sand and gravels are eroded by the powerful Spey, especially when in spate condition. Even on this day when we pass, we hear and see small stones plummeting down the steep slope into the river.
The sweeping black arch of the Garmouth Viaduct, yet another disused railway bridge, heralds our final approach to the Moray Firth. As we head towards the ancient ice-houses at Tugnet and glide past slabs of turf, resembling a torn billiard table top ~ once fairway, played by golfers on the Garmouth course! ~ also undercut and eroded by the powerful water of the river.

As the waves of the North Sea come into view my paddlers realise we have a strong offshore wind, thus there will be no ‘wave-play on this day. However, all recognise we have arrived at Spey Bay ~ always a very satisfying feeling after days of sharing the fresh waters provided by the lovely Lady Spey.

I would extend my thanks to Gregor for setting up this trip for a great bunch of lads. And, thanks to the lads for their enthusiasm and the great craic! I know some of you are keen to return to complete a full Classic Spey Journey from Kincraig to the sea. I look forward to welcoming you back in the very near future.