Wednesday, 21 November 2012


There were many raised eye-brows and quizzical looks from passers-by as I unloaded, on to the pavement in the centre of Glasgow, a 15 foot open-canoe. I had arrived at The Arches to bring to the Glasgow Whisky Festival the perfect way ~ by canoe~  to truly experience Speyside and, en route, partake of Scotland’s greatest export ~ visiting some of the many distilleries peppered along the Strath of the majestic River Spey.

Once tethered to its trolley, everything I required for the day fitted neatly into the boat ~ table, lap-top, data-projector, screen, roll-out banners, whisky for sampling ~ even purpose-built trestles for canoe to sit on and a handcrafted, wooden table top which fits snugly inside the canoe to form the perfect whisky-serving area. The Festival’s excellent helpers came in the form of members of the Glasgow Whisky Club. Young Bobby who helped me roll my loaded canoe into the venue surmised that somewhere in the boat I had actually succeeded in including the kitchen sink.

My good friend Willie Gibson had travelled by train from ‘the other side’ ~ Edinburgh(!), in time to help set up and support me on the Spirit of the Spey stand throughout the day ~ with, we hoped, occasional breaks for us to visit and liaise with other exhibitors at the Whisky Festival (~ never happened!!). Willie is, by anyone’s standards, an eminently well qualified helper on a Spirit of the Spey stand at Whisky Festival. A long-standing member (~ let’s not get into the falling over bit!) of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, Willie appreciates fine malts.  Also, an active member of the highly successful Carnethy Running Club,, Willie has in the last eleven years brought various Carnethy members, as well as friends to paddle with me on, mainly 4-day river journeys, from Kincraig to Spey Bay. Willie, along with his friend and Carnethy colleague Nick MacDonald are my two most loyal Spey clients ~ both now having completed with me 12 Spey Descent from Loch Insh to the Moray Firth, plus various other odd days here and there. (Nick sorry you could not be with us on Saturday ~ definitely next year!) Willie normally paddles as a double-act with his wife Cathi and Nick with his daughter Sarah. However, we did organise one Boysie trip during which Willie & Co all paddled solo.

Another helper for the day was my Glasgow-based Social Media coach/adviser Louise Wightman. Louise kindly stayed for a couple of hours to support us on the stand which was fantastic because, once the doors of The Arches opened Festival visitors poured in to sample their first ‘pouring’ of golden elixir.

Many were attracted to our stand by the sight of a canoe and in the background, bringing Speyside to Clydeside ~ rolling, action pictures on our ‘big-screen’. As well as pouring and talking whiskies, throughout the afternoon we were able to extol the virtues and pure joy of paddling the beautiful River Spey, learning paddling skills/techniques; being at one with nature; witnessing wildlife ~ birds and animals unperturbed by our silently gliding by; meeting and talking with fellow river users ~ including anglers and their tweed-clad ghillies and along the way, whilst in Speyside being able to sample Speyside malts and visit some of the many wonderful Speyside distilleries.

On our ‘canoe-bar’ we were able to offer visitors to our stand contrasting malt expressions ~ from the top end of the Strath, Badenoch we had, produced at the small, picturesque ‘Speyside’ distillery close to Kingussie their 12 year old and also, very popular with the Scandinavian market, their 8 year old ‘Drumguish’. From Glenfiddich we were also offering ‘Rich Oak’, finished in American and Spanish new-make oak casks ~ well liked by many who visited our canoe-bar. The Balvenie flag-ship malt, favourite of many ladies and very often the malt that bring people to realise they actually can and do like whisky ~  ‘Doublewood’ was popular as ever, as was the Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel bottled at 47.80%. However, reckoned by many to be ‘Best Dram at the Festival’ was The Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean Cask ~ finished in new-make oak casks seasoned over a long period with three fine rums, blended by the guru himself ~ The Balvenie Malt Master of now 50 years ~ David Stewart.

Willie’s and my hope to visit various other exhibitors at the Festival did not bear fruit. Especially following the departure of Louise, things went like the proverbial fair, with folks wanting to know more about the expressions we had on offer and details relative to this fantastic idea ~ to many a new and exciting concept ~ of paddling the Spey, en route, incorporating whisky experiences ~ What time of year?; How long?; How many?; How much?; How to book? Can I bring my staff? & so on.

Answers to many questions can be found on at but the short answer is ... ‘almost anything is possible’. A day’s coaching for family/friends; corporate days with a difference; (~ having to work in tandem in steering an open-canoe provides natural, non-contrived team-building.) Also, Journey’s over several ( 2 to 7) days.

One should though be fully aware that Journeys with Spirit of the Spey are more than just about learning to canoe. Yes, client comfort, confidence and safety is paramount, thus competence through learning basic skills is required and this is done with a highly qualified, experienced canoe-coach. However, Spey Journeys with Spirit of the Spey are unique, memorable, experiences. Some who have paddled with me have said it was ‘a spiritual ...’, even ‘life-changing’ experience.

The traveller, coached and led by the Spey’s most experienced River Guide, is provided with an intimate introduction to lovely Lady Spey ~ her history ~ social & natural; culture; people; places. During this unique journey clients stay in first-class guest-houses/hotels. (Possible Speyside accommodations include Tigh na Sgiath, Grant Arms Hotel, Cragganmore House, Cardhu House, Craigellachie Hotel but to name a few.) We realise that clients may not mind getting their feet (or even, sometimes, a ‘little more’!) wet during the day but we want to make sure you have a warm and comfortable environment throughout the evening and overnight ~ with, during the evening, a delicious dinner and a few exquisite malts ~ just to ensure a good night’s sleep. Then, the next morning starting out warm and dry ~ refreshed and fuelled by a hearty Scottish breakfast, ready to fully enjoy a new day on a new and contrasting section of the wonderful River Spey. This is Scotland’s most beautiful and ideal canoe-touring river ~ with more than half of Scotland’s malt distilleries and their delicious, golden expressions awaiting our company.

I hope I might, in the very near future, have the pleasure of your company on The River. I would consider it a privilege to share with you the River Spey ~ outside my family ~ my life’s greatest passion.

Many thanks to all who helped make our day with ‘Spirit of the Spey’ at the Glasgow Whisky Festival such a successful event, especially ~ Willie Gibson,
The Balvenie UK ,
Speyside Distillery
Mark Connolly at The Good Spirits Co
The Glasgow’s Whisky Club member/helpers
‘Whisky Boys’ Nicola & Jim

Hotels mentioned ~

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Cairngorms Business Partnership Conference


From the stage of the MacDonald Aviemore Resort auditorium, Cairngorm Business Partnership (CBP), chairman, Duncan Mackellar kicked-off the proceedings by extending a warm welcome to the 130+ delegates attending the 2012 Business Conference. 

Alan Rankin CEO of CBP then outlined the programme and procedures for the day and later explained existing and unveiled the launch of new membership benefit schemes in partnership with the Business Conference sponsors, the Route Organisation.

Mid-morning, Sandra Middleton; Sustainable Business Programme Manager with the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) delivered a thorough, indeed inspirational presentation, clearly outlining the aims of the CNPA and how sustainable business development is an integral part, essential for the future well-being, of any National Park. Sandra gave a compelling vision for the future of nature and people thriving together.     

After Sandra’s excellent presentation, delegates rotated through three very different workshops which extended into the afternoon, following an excellent buffet lunch.

Workshops ~

i) There was an introduction and full explanation as to how members could effortlessly maximise savings through the CPB recently forged link with the Route Organisation.

ii) As always, social-media guru Rene Looped of TuMinds enthusiastically waxed lyrical about how best to utilise and ensure effective use, thus generate business from the various media options ~ Facebook, including use of PicMonkey & adding features to allow ones website to become ‘mobile friendly; Twitter ~ the key being to be friendly by retweeting and honing in on key words to see what potential clients might planning. However, Rene’s main message for this session was to get one’s business ‘mobile friendly’ by ensuring existing and potential customers could easily find your business. Certainly influential in modern business promotion comes through ‘recommendation’ on sites such as Trip Adviser. A key phrase used by Rene was ~ ‘good reviews make for easy choices’. Reading a good review takes away a lot of the uncertainty for potential guests. It’s all now very much ‘Word of Mouse’!  

iii) Two young ladies from the Energy Saving trust delivered a double act on how to access new grants, advice and cost savings schemes on energy efficiency, including low/neutral carbon vehicles.

‘Making it Happen’ was an amazing address to delegates delivered by the Olympic Park Manager ~ London 2012, Clive Stephens. Clive Stephens has been involved in the running many businesses of varying size. Before taking on his senior role Olympic Park he managed Alton Towers. He had concluded that fundamentally, although the actual nature of our respective ‘Parks’ were rather different, the actual management strategy and modus operandi were fundamentally the same ~ all with a mission to provide the best possible ‘customer experience’.

In sharing his model for project/business success, Mr Stephens listed several key essential factors including ~

  • Creation of a vision for the business with clear aims and objective ~ led from the top
  • Fill the structure with the most important resources ~ the best people and allowance of time ~ do not take shortcuts
  • Train staff well, giving people wide ranging skills
  • Foster teamwork and collaboration through detailed planning and rehearsal to ensure processes are effective and staff confident, able to adapt to change/remain calm in the event of any challenges
  • Investment in people and planning will pay dividends. 
Never having been to the Highlands before, Mr. Stephens was clearly very impressed by the Scottish landscape and quality of service provision within the Speyside/Cairngorms area. He began his talk by sharing with his audience the big ‘Wow! Factor’ he had experienced when stepping on to the platform at Aviemore Station and finding himself compelled to rotate through 360 degrees to fully  appreciate the vista. Clive stated very clearly ‘l’ll be back’!

Clive Stephen’s reaction to his first experience with the Scottish Highland for me echoes the experience of so many delegates who attended the 2010 Adventure Travel World summit held in Aviemore. Very few of the delegates had ever been to Scotland before. Indeed many people, includes Scots, had doubts about Scotland as a viable Adventure Tourism destination. However, ATWS showcased Scotland as a most excellent Adventure/Wildlife Tourism Destination to a worldwide audience, in a way never done before or since. Delegates were blown away by our Highland scenery and huge range of high quality outdoor activities available ~ walking both low level & mountaineering; canoeing; kayaking; sailing; golf; biking ~ on & off road; wildlife watching; snowsports, etc., ~ with something for everyone and all within easy travelling distance.

As one of our French lady guest recently exclaimed, ‘I never realised that Scotland was such a big(!) small country. Next time I am coming back for a month!’

Once people have experienced Scotland’s ‘Wow-Factor’ they, like Clive Stephens want to come back.

With the Cairngorms National Park, our vision must focus upon attracting the visitor to Scotland ~ they will then want to come back and will also enthusiastically tell their friends in all sorts of ways ~ by word of mouth and by word of mouse!


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. ( 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!  (

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! (

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 ( 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  

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

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.

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.


Monday, 23 July 2012

Spey Day, 10th July 2012 ~ Advie to Knockando

The Spey District Fishery Board (SFB), jointly financed by Government and funding from Spey Angling Estates, has wide ranging responsibilities linked to ensuring the protection, conservation and enhancement of the Atlantic salmon and Sea Trout. The District covered by the Board stretches from Loch Spey, the source of this majestic river 107 miles all the way along the coast to Lossiemouth, plus all the many Spey tributaries, including the Feshie, Nethy, Avon. The SFB area actually extends 3 miles out to sea and SFB Bailiffs deploy a fast (RIB) boat to patrol along the shore for monitoring duties, including looking out for any illegal fishing activities in the Moray Firth off the mouth of the river.

On the main-stem of the river, SFB bailiffs and biologists also make frequent use of open-canoes for their important research work on the river ~ monitoring fish stocks, tagging programmes and sea-lamprey studies, as well as counts of saw-bill ducks (mergansers & goosanders). To ensure staff members are competent, thus safe on the river SFB staff undergo training before undertaking any of the Board canoe-based work.
The day lacked the blue skies and sunshine we had hoped for, however despite the slight mizzle and overcast nature of the day my students arrived at our meeting point at Knockando, well togged up and clearly raring to go. As many of my outdoor activities colleagues say ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather ~ just bad clothing’!

The well maintained station at Knockando, now with the name ‘Tamdhu’ on the traditional sign-boards, is owned by Ian Macleod Distillers who recently purchased the Tamdhu distillery from the previous owners, Edrington. Having been closed for since 2009 Tamdhu started production again earlier this year.
Leaving one vehicle parked by the lovely old station, which was to be our egress-point at the conclusion of our journey, we drove to our start point for the day ~ upstream near Advie on Tulchan Estate. Once we packed our kit for day ~ spares paddles, bailers, dry-bags and of course lunch into the canoes, we had a short ‘land-drill’ session just to cover some essential, basic strokes and we soon on the river ~ slightly swollen by the rain of the previous days and overnight.

Having done a little bit of kayaking previously and short spells on flat water, for these SFB staff this was their first time paddling open canoes on moving water. However, clearly having listened well during our shore-based session, I could see I had star pupils who paddled with instant competence and were keen to learn more.

We soon encountered or first anglers of the day ~ two young men, who were I think slightly startled by our appearance from the upstream mist, as they stood on the bank waving their long wands, as if divining the air for guidance as to the best place for them to start their over-water ballet with rod and line. Smiles and pleasantries were exchanged as our canoes glided silently by. By now hardly even noticing the incessant drizzle, we continued to practice strokes en route and discuss the wonderful miscellany of wildlife close to us as we paddled downstream ~ herons, dippers, wagtails, buzzards and later below Blacksboat Bridge a lovely roe deer doe, grazing close to the waterside, only raising her head to watch us pass her picnic spot.

Once into Ballindalloch Estate, from the river one gets a first view of Ben Rinnes. This lovely, most easterly of Moray’s larger hills is situated close to Aberlour. It has towards its summit some significant tors and just by its lower slopes ~ a distillery producing a rather fine malt, bearing the same name as the rather fine hill. When I finish writing this, I may even treat myself to a wee Ben Rinnes in front of the fire.

To our right, hidden by trees, we passed the Cragganmore Distillery and then Ballindalloch Station ~ once a hive of steam-train activity with barley being brought by train to the Cragganmore granary. Hogsheads of whisky from the distillery being loaded into trucks ~ which like the hundreds of cattle bought and sold in the sadly now demolished local cattle mart, would be taken by train along the eastern Speyside line and on to Perth and the Central Belt. Oh! Dr. Beeching what have you done!?

We then paddled beneath the recently refurbished bridge ~ constructed by a Dundee steel company in 1864 to carry the Speyside railway but saw no more trains after 1964, when the said Dr. Beeching brought his axe firmly down upon so many Scottish rural rail routes. However, with its mighty horizontal supporting timbers recently replaced, this bridge now serves as a river crossing for pedestrian travellers ~ walkers, bikers and horses on the Speyside Way.

About a mile downstream of the old rail bridge, rising on the southern side of Cairngorm Mountain, the River Avon contributes to the mighty Spey its waters from the high Grampians. Not visible from the river but just upstream and to the east of the Avon is Ballindalloch Castle the impressive, historic home of the MacPherson Grants. Although open to the public through the summer months, this lovely fairy-tale castle is still the residence of Lady Claire MacPherson Grant and family.

One house we do see clearly from the river is another fine Ballindalloch property ~ Pitchroy House with its pristine white-painted stone work and lovely decorative turrets. Pitchroy House heralds our approach to one of the best known and exciting sections of rapid-water on the River Spey. This piece of white-water is visible from high up on the A95 almost a mile away. Blacksboat Rapid is affectionately known by paddlers as the Washing Machine. My star pupils, however, did not blink an eyelid and expertly guided their craft through the turbulence on this fast water chute ~ which consists just water and air bubbles!

We moved on past Blacksboat Station ~ once the next stop down the line from Ballindalloch. Platform building here is now a house and the bats that used to live in the roof of the waiting roof now have their own custom-built, slate-roofed bat-house! Then we’re under the bridge leading to Marypark, where once there was a ferry (boat) operated by a man called Mr. Black ~ hence ‘Blacksboat’. 

Soon we are paddling into beautiful Knockando Estate. Although the first Knockando fishing pool we come to has the slight less than attractive name of ~ ‘Slobs’ ~ no one has yet been able to tell me why! Then on our way through ‘Poolarder’ pool we encounter young Bill, the ghillie who taught Ewan Macgregor to cast (there must be a pun in their somewhere!) for his part in the lovely film ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’. On by Stoney Island and we reach one of my favourite locations on the Spey ~ ‘The Pouches’. Having almost finished our trip for the day, my little team draw up on the bank beside ghillie’s fishing hut and I decide to reward my team ~ and my old friend Sandy the ghillie ~ with a dram of Handcrafted Speyside malt ~ Wm. Grant & Sons do it well!! A very fitting end to another fine trip on the beautiful River Spey ~ with star paddlers whose new found and well honed paddling skills will, I am sure, be of great assistance in the canoe-based river studies of the Spey Fishery Board. Many thanks for a great day on our wonderful river. 

Dave Craig July 2012.