Friday, 27 September 2013

Lifting The Spirit ~ The Grain Train

Every morning at around 8.15am and from our lovely Victorian home here in Newtonmore I hear, emanating from the railway line just 400 metres away, the rumble to the Tesco train. Each day (except Sundays) travelling north at this time and returning south at around 3.50pm the robust engine draws 20 container trucks, each displaying in its side tarpaulins either the name Stobbart Rail or the very clever LESSCO2 in the Tesco colours/decal design. 

I have to confess to feeling somewhat emotional every time I hear, and in particular when I see, this train go by on the main line between Grangemouth and Inverness. Apart from anything else I take some comfort from the fact that, because of the wisdom of someone in the Stobbart/Tesco organisations, in conjunction with some government support, there are each day, 20 less big trucks moving up and down on the A9 trunk road ~ the major artery which has witnessed far too many deaths, particularly in recent years. Then I start to wonder why other supermarkets and other large organisations are not following the excellent example of Stobbart/Tesco in putting more freight on to our railways. 
There has been much deliberation lately on how to tackle the growing number of tragic accidents occurring on the A9. The Scottish Government has now pledged to have the A9 upgraded to dual-carriageway by 2025. Indeed, work is due to start between Kincraig and Aviemore in 2015. However, 2025 is a very long way off with a lot of upheaval and driver frustration between now and then.
Average-speed cameras are also being muted as a method by which accidents rates may be reduced. ‘Average speed’ means just that ~ ‘average speed’. Such a system may work on some UK routes which are already dual-carriageway or motorways, where traffic generally moves along at an ‘average speed’. However, this type of camera system on the A9 could have a very negative effect. Because of the hold ups on the A9 due to slow moving traffic, mainly HGVs, drivers are compelled to drive at a variety of speeds throughout their journey. Thus A9 drivers, having perhaps driven for some time behind a lorry travelling at 40 or 50 miles per hour, to ‘make up time’ and even release potential, pent-up frustrations, once clear of the impediment, may then ‘average out’ their speed by their driving at any rate ~ maybe, even for a time of up to or over 100 mph! The A9 as a trunk road has its faults, particularly the confusing changes in carriageway types. However, bad driving through misjudgements, tiredness, frustration and indeed ‘madness’ must take the blame for the majority of accidents.
Since, through my Spey Canoe Journeying work, I have become increasingly involved with the whisky industry, I have been amazed by just how many whisky-related bulk-carriers and tankers there are travelling on the A9 and A95 ~ known as the Whisky Road. The bulk-carriers are bringing malted-barley north from places such as East Lothian and Arbroath. Then these lorries take draff south to be converted into cattle-feed pellets. (Draff is the barley husks left over from distilling which still contain proteins.)  The tankers carry new spirit or matured whisky to bottling plants mainly in the Scottish Central-Belt. Some south-bound tankers on the A9 contain pot-ale, a residue from whisky-stills, which provides a highly palatable and nutritious feed for cattle. (There is nothing wasted in the Scotch whisky industry!) 
I recent spoke with our local Highland Councillor, Mr David Fallows about the possibility of even the whisky related raw materials and finished products going back on to the railways. (I thought it might be called the ‘Grain Train’ project.) David confirmed that as with the LESSCO2 initiative such transport matter require the co-operation of all the stake-holders ~ the industry, individual companies and the government. It was the advice of our wise councillor that to get up-to-date information on railway freight initiatives I should contact Frank Roach of HITRANS. 
Before I got round to contacting Frank, imagine my surprise and elation when, just days after speaking with David Fallows, our local paper the ‘Strathspey & Badenoch Herald’, carried the headline ‘Whisky takes to the rails in pilot project’ ~ relative to the ‘Lifting the Spirit’ initiative.
Designed specifically to reduce lorry numbers of our roads, for the first time since the 1980’s, trains transporting whisky have already been twice a week leaving Elgin station. Each single train = 29 lorries less on A95/A9. The plan is for these trains to carry goods in both directions. HITRANS have secured funding for the project and HIE (Highlands & Islands Enterprise) are investing £30,000. Several Scotch whisky producers are working together on the trial. These include Chivas Bros.; Diageo; Dewar’s; Whyte & Mackay. //
This is indeed great news and definitely lifted my spirits! I do hope the ‘Lifting the Spirit’ project is a huge success. Perhaps the ‘Rails to Grantown’ fundraising efforts to extend the Strathspey Steam Railway on past Dulnain Bridge and into the Grantown-on-Spey West Station could gain momentum if the hard-working volunteers could work together with distillers.  Grantown is also close to Speyside distilleries and, when linked into Aviemore, a more direct route to the Central Belt than even the 200 mile round trip from Elgin via Aberdeen. 

Who knows what this could lead to! We have just witnessed the celebration of 150 years of the Perth to Inverness Highland Main Line ~ a great feat of engineering including tunnel and viaduct construction at Killiecrankie and rails laid through Druimuachdar Pass, the highest main line in Britain.
We are soon to celebrate (not!) in 2015 the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the Highland railway network by a certain Dr Beeching. Perhaps it is time to heal some of the gaping wounds inflicted by Beeching’s axe. Maybe as well as rails into Grantown-on-Spey we can see the reopening of the Nethy Spur to the Speyside East line ~ once the major artery pulsing through Speyside for the transportation of barley, whisky, cattle and people. Willie Robertson, the long-time tenant farmer at Ballindalloch, sadly passed away just three weeks ago, regaled me in past with tales of over 1000 cattle (~ stirks, milk-cows, calves, bulls) at a time being sold at the only recently demolished, octagonal, wooden cattle mart at Cragganmore. Once sold the beasts were herded across the road and on to trains bound for the Perth cattle sales.

Great for local industries, including tourism ~ visitors would delight in travelling on, ideally a steam-train
puffing its way through beautiful Speyside, with stunning views of the majestic River Spey. A huge project

perhaps but many of the parts and features of the Speyside line still exist in the form of embankments,

cuttings and even some bridges. And, after all, only a very small percentage of the Speyside Way long-

distance route actually follows the route of the old railway! 

Maybe the ‘Mash Tun’ in Aberlour will indeed, as per its deeds, require to once again be called the ‘Railway Hotel’.
(Sorry, I’ve just woken up. Was I dreaming!?)
Slainte Mhath tae ‘Lifting the Spirit’ project.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The lovely summer of 2013

If even just 4 years ago anyone had said I would by mid-2013 have 3,800+ followers on Twitter, my response would have gone something along the lines of “Don’t be so silly!” “I don’t even like the name or the idea of something called ‘Twitter’”. However, rather amazingly, @spiritofthespey now has in excess of 3800 Twitter followers!

I have concluded it is best not to ‘twitter’ on Twitter. People take most notice of worthwhile tweets ~ often Re-tweeting items they rate and find interesting ~ and more likely to ‘Follow’.  Having been introduced and coaxed into Twitter mainly by my VPR Louise (Twitter name @Approach_Coach) and also Rene Looper (@tuminds), I have realised one of the advantages of Twitter is that it is easy ~ even I got into it without too much effort but also and most crucially ~ it is quick to execute. One simply puts together a few well chosen words within the character limit and/or takes a relevant/clear picture, which, if there’s a reasonable signal, can be sent instantly ~ job done!
For me certainly ~ blogs are not quite so easy and ‘instant’. Rightly or wrongly I need time to consider content and will want to include a couple of links and some nice pictures to help tell the story. Also, along the River Spey, internet connection is not too reliable. Indeed, it’s very hard to find a signal from a canoe in the middle of the river. In the villages along the way contact is very spasmodic and even in some of the lovely hotels we stay in en route during our canoe/whisky journeys, wi-fi is not always reliable.
Because of factors detailed above and the fact I have been on my knees in my canoe for the greater part of the summer, my 3000+ Twitter followers have had opportunities to keep up with what I am doing via my many Tweets sent at opportune moments. However, I am now acutely aware that I have not written a Spirit of the Spey blog for over 4 months.
Summer of 2013 has indeed been a wonderful in terms of weather and temperatures. Water levels have been very low and my boats have taken quite a ‘scratching’. However, apart from 1 location at Dipple above Fochabers and another at ‘Cumberland’s Crossing’ below Fochabers, we always know of or can find a navigable channel. Lady Spey has revelled in the warm and generally very calm conditions. She has looked stunning in her summer dresses ~ all of lush, vibrant colours. First the bright yellows of the broom and gorse usually fronted through late June/July with rich blues of lupins which have, in the last decade, become well established along the riverbanks. Now Lady Spey is draped in late summer greens as the still plentiful leaves are now beginning to be tinged with patches of ochre and gold. *
Currently I am off of my knees and out of my boat and have been, for the last few days, sitting at my desk catching up on administration ~ scaling my email mountain ~ rather than my preferred option of paddling my canoe in the company of the beautiful Lady Spey. It was my intention to, sometime this week, take the opportunity to put together a brief resume of at least some of my Journeys with clients and other exploits through the wonderful summer of 2013.

However, my resume of the summer may now have to wait until after Wednesday 18th, when I get back from my next 5-day ‘At One With Nature’ Journey ~ starting Friday from Kincraig, camping en route to the sea, with students from Edinburgh University. This is always a great trip to be involved in, working with such lovely, interested/interesting students from the world’s 5 continents ~ all coming together to take part in these highly regarded degree courses delivered by the Faculty of Outdoor, Environmental and Sustainability  Education, School of Education, University of Edinburgh.

In the meantime, pictures of canoe/whisky Journeys from the Summer of 2013 can be found on the ‘Spirit ofthe Spey’ Facebook page. I would invite you to view the many photographs and perhaps even do me the honour of ‘Liking’ the page!

Friday, 31 May 2013


 Following on from its successful, highly acclaimed debut in 2012, The Whisky Stramash returned again to Edinburgh’s historic Surgeons’ Hall on May 25th & 26th.
Scott Martin who co-founded the event along with Darroch Ramsay said “We wanted to create an event with a difference ~ something that would excite whisky aficionados but also attract new drinkers’. And it certainly did that! Once again, in inventive and innovative ways, exhibitors at The Stramash brought the wonderful, indeed rapidly developing world of whisky, to experts and beginners alike. 
There was a massive array of dream-drams on display and on offer for sampling! Harviestoun Brewery in celebrating its 30th Birthday, revealed its latest high strength brews, some matured in ex-whisky casks.
There were a number of interactive experiences. As well as an attractive but ‘static’ stand The Glenfiddich set up a replica Warehouse 47. Guided through this virtual-reality whisky experience by Glenfiddich UK Ambassador, Jamie Milne visitors to the event could imagine they had been transported to a distillery. A very real part of the experience, however, was when Big Jake ~ a master cooper of 29 years, based at Wm Grant’s Girvan plant, started hammering hard the hoops of a cask he had partially dismantled to rebuild for Stramash guests.
Meanwhile Burns Stewart distillers, took guests back in time with a Deanston Distillery vintage photo wall, dressing the visitors as distillery workers from bygone days, before their being brought forward to sample some exquisite 20th/21st Century expressions.
Douglas Laing and his pal Big Peat were there also, wooing visitors with smokey drams and tasty chocolate mousse laced with some of Big Peat’s own make.
The ‘Spirit of the Spey’ canoe/whisky stand was sandwiched between the two latter distillers of distinction ~ Douglas Laing and Burns Stewart. With two 4-hour sessions on Saturday and another from 1pm till 4pm on Sunday our exhibit went like a fair. Once the doors opened to the public we were inundated with folks with a thirst to know more about whisky and also to learn of canoe journeys on the majestic River Spey ~ 1-Day Coaching tips to 5 day canoe/whisky journeys, with distillery visit and whisky tastings, staying en route in lovely hotels. 

Malts we had on offer for visitors to sample at the ‘Spirit of the Spey’ stand, included ~ the new, highly acclaimed Balvenie Doublewood 17yo; the very fine 15yo Glenfiddich Distillery Edition ~ non-chill filtered and bottled at 51% proof. However, most popular from our selection by a long–shot was the Balvenie Caribbean Cask ~ 14 years in a first-fill bourbon cask and finished in a virgin European oak, which David Stewart, malt-master extraordinaire, has previously carefully seasoned for 4 years with 3 selected Caribbean rums. Introduced to the Balvenie core range and launched to the world during a journalist canoe trip on the Spey in September 2012, this exquisite expression, smooth on the palate, bursting with exotic fruits and warm, lingering after-taste will, I confidently predict, become one of the most highly acclaimed off-the-shelf malts in the entire history of Wm Grant & Sons whisky-making.   

The Edinburgh Whisky Stramash 2013 was a great, energy filled event filled with fun and friendship and a lot of great whiskies to be sampled and savoured. Well done to organisers, especially Darroch and Scott, Many thanks to them for their help but also colleagues from within the whisky industry who supported me with advice and stock for this most excellent event. Special thanks go too to my two great pals, Willie and Nick who gave up their entire weekend to work tirelessly on my busy ‘Spirit of the Spey’ stand. I couldn’t have done it without you guys!

Slainte Mhath and here’s tae Whisky Stramash 2014!! 

Thursday, 30 May 2013


Saturday May 4th: Day 2 of ‘Feeling it on the River; Tasting it in the Whisky; Holding it in your Heart’

Whisky Festival visitor spirits were not dampened by the heavy rains which fell in Speyside through Friday, May 3rd. However, by the Saturday morning river-water levels had risen markedly and whilst continuing to remain serene, Lady Spey looked particularly majestic, appearing as if she was in a bit of a hurry to get to the Moray Firth!

In keeping with the international flavour of the Speyside Whisky Festival, my guests for this Saturday trip were 4 lovely whisky aficionados from Switzerland. Femke Sijtsma.

Also with us ~ it was lovely to meet for the first time with another of my whisky Twitter contacts ~ @girl_Whisky, from the Netherlands, free-lance journalist,

Once again we met by my tipi nestled by Thomas Telford’s lovely bridge by Craigellachie. All togged-up, with water-proofs, buoyancy aids and armed with paddles, our trusty Tawse Taxi whisked us off to our start point at one of the Spey’s other picturesque bridge at Carron.

After a short land-drill ~ mainly to practice paddle strokes and their effect in controlling our 15’ canoes ~ and an entertaining chat with a very nice Laggan House fishing client we launched, first into a bank-side eddie and then off downstream on to the swift flowing river, leaving the arch of Carron bridge well behind us as my group of competent, smiling paddlers ably employed their new found stroke knowledge and skills. 

Just round the bend we pass, on the right bank, Carron House ~ sitting elegantly beyond the green sweep of manicured lawn on its elevated location above the river. Then river left we can clearly view the red-stone, turrets of another fine example of Scottish architecture ~ Laggan House ~ now owned and rented on a time-share basis, which includes owners acquiring fishing rights on the Laggan beats.

Because of the higher level and brown colour of the water, we encountered very few anglers on our journey. However, Delagyle ghillie Willie Mearns is out and about with clients who want to make the best of their last day of their 6-days fishing on the Spey. Fishing for salmon is not permitted on a Sunday. Willie Mearns is due to retire in September, at the end of the 2013 fishing season. Willie seems quite glad to be hanging up his waders but I will miss my banter with Willie, usually around his tidy fishing hut, before going on to tackle the turbulent rapids, known as ‘The Potts’.

Safely through The Potts, I suggest to my wee group that we might think about stopping for a little light refreshment before we reach Aberlour. I offered Tea or coffee ~ even hot-chocolate. However, surprise! surprise! a ‘warming’ wee dram seemed to be much more appealing drink of choice! So, out came my special metal case, lined with close-cell foam which cradles my 7 Glencairn nosing glasses and on this
occasion a bottle of the ever-popular Balvenie Doublewood 12yo.

After our break for ‘reflecting and refueling’ we glide on downstream under the Aberlour foot-bridge, viewing high on the hill river left the mighty Macallan bonded warehouses. Speeding along effortlessly on the fast flowing current of this magnificent river, we are soon back at our tipi where for the next almost 2 hours my group enjoy a delicious picnic-lunch, followed by a dram ~ or three or four or five ~ including a
Macallan 12 yo; the very popular 14yo Balvenie Caribbean Cask and highly acclaimed by visitors at the 2013 Festival Awards, the recently released Doublewood 17yo. Both are now part of the ‘new look’ Balvenie core range of fine malts created by malt-master of 50 years ~ David Stewart ~ his role to be taken over in the future by present Glenfiddich maestro, Brian Kinsman.

Monday 6th is my final day of helping Festival visitors discover the ‘True Spirit of the Spey’, through short canoe journeys on the river with lunch drams en route and a full tastings ~ up to 6 expressions ~ once off the river. An unofficial Festival day, actual paddler numbers for the Monday were a little unclear. There was mention of a Brazilian representation, once again highlighting the ‘international draw’ of the Speyside Whisky Festival. However, instead of Brazil my clients were a lovely couple, Dawn and Marty from Aboyne in Deeside. Having been brought up in Stonehaven the Dee was my ‘home river’ until, as an impressionable 14 year old, I met and fell in love with the attractive, alluring Lady Spey.

Because Dawn and Marty were not booked into any afternoon Festival activity we decided to again head upstream to Knockando, where upon arrival we found all was quiet following the previous day’s big launch of the Tamdhu distillery and the special release of the new Tamdhu 10yoSingle Malt ~ welcomed with mixed response by whisky aficionados.

It was a glorious day when we decanted all the gear out of the trailer and down to the riverbank. We were
drenched in war, sunshine as we went through our strokes practice and soon off downstream again on the wonderful, sunlit River Spey. Carron Bridge was our lunch spot on this lovely day and we watched a great many walkers, striding out on the Speyside Way now carried, along with the road by this magnificent steel arched bridge.

After another nice al fresco lunch and a wee dram w were once again back on the water, heading for Craigellachie and some more drams for Marty and Dawn to try, back at the tipi. I was grateful to Craigellachie Fishing’s Ghillie, Dougie Ross for his co-operation in terms of his being very happy for me to pitch the tipi in his area of cut grass by the Telford bridge and also for working the day for his angling clients around my canoeing/whisky ‘comings and goings’. It was great to be able to share some drams from my tipi with Dougie and some of his lovely angling guests.

This very pleasant day of sunny weather, spent with my lovely folks from Aboyne, finishing with the sharing of drams by my beloved river, brought a very pleasant finale to the 2013 Speyside Whisky Festival. Even as I headed home with boats and kit packed into my trailer, I began to already look forward to inviting even more Festival visitors to experience the ‘True Spirit of the Spey’ at #dram2014!