Thursday, 19 April 2012

Spey Journey 9th to 15th April in summary...

I would like to thank all the people and organisations that helped make our Spey Journey 9th to 15th April so perfect. This was planned as a luxury trip, designed to maximise being on the river ~ at one with nature, enjoying the wildlife of the river and along the way visiting a few places of cultural and historical interest. Also, however, we wanted to ensure that following a day on the river, we would each night be tucked up in a cosy comfortable bed in a warm, welcoming accommodation which would have in the earlier part of the evening provided the hungry paddlers with a delicious dinner. Our mission was accomplished!

This Spey Journey began at the impressive Tigh na Sgiath Country House Hotel situated by Dulnain Bridge, on the Skye of Curr road. Having just arrived and in the process of completing registration, owner Ian Macdonald- Coulter welcomed us with a wee dram. The tasteful soft furnishings throughout give this lovely Victorian house built in 1903 an innate feeling of comfort and sumptuous living. The bedrooms are no exception. Our lovely room 'Ballindalloch, was exquisite ~ light and airy with lovely view towards the Cromdale Hills and extended into a quaint sitting area in the turret! The bath accommodated my 6'3" frame with room to spare! Dinner prepared by Ian's wife Elaine was delicious ~ with so much to chose from. Great breakfast choice also ~ I had probably my best kipper ever here! Tigh na Sgiath pretty much has it all.

Next day our Journey continued from Grantown-on-Spey under the A95 bridge built in 1931, on down through a 
splishy-splashy bit (technical term) to the very attractive, stone built Old Spey Bridge. With pleasant overhead conditions we paddled through Castle Grant Estate under, the distinctly in need of repair, Cromdale Bridge with on river right the imposing Cromdale Kirk and river left the attractive cottage and garden of probably the Spey's most friendly ghillie, Lionel Main. Many of my particularly English clients require a translation when Lionel and I have a riverside chat ~ often with us both on opposite banks ~ spickin like fowk like us spick.

Lunch was by the infrequently used Tulchan Estate fishing hut at the Gled Pool. Slight drizzle from the overcast skies but our piece of bank was lit by the happy large yellow daffodils 'tossing their heads in sprightly dance'. Not too many fishermen on the Tulchan beats. Ghillie Roddy and his client were both pleased having landed a large salmon that morning. Further downstream ghillies Lawrence and Robert tried to appear happy for their colleague's success when I did my El Postino bit by conveying the news of Roddy's client's good fortune.

Our place of repose at the end of this day was once the house of the pioneer of modern distilling, John Smith who, in 1969, founded Cragganmore distillery. Cragganmore House is run by Award-winning chef Tony Alcott and his wife Helen. Helen met us at the door and very kindly, spirited away for drying our wet footwear, socks and damp over-trousers. This is a lovely, 'quirky' house filled with Helen and Tony's personal antiques collection and historic prints and paintings. Once again we were lucky to be in a turreted bedroom, this time with floors than sloped at various angles, in various directions. The dinner prepared by Tony was simply superb. Presentation of each course was beautiful and the tastes exquisite. Popular with distillery tourists and Speyside way walkers, this is a lovely place to stay, with Cragganmore distillery right outside the back door. Tony does however provide these superb dinners for non-residents ~ well worth a visit.

Back on the river, we are now into the Spey's fastest moving water and more technical rapids ~ including the fast chute, affectionately known as 'The Washing Machine' and further downstream, the infamous paddlers' play-area at Knockando Rapid. This is a picturesque section of the river through Ballindalloch Estate, were close to the lovely castle (sadly not visible from the river) the River Avon flowing out of Loch Avon in the Cairngorm confluences with the Spey. A shorter day for us on the river, we had hoped to visit Cragganmore distillery in the morning. However, we learned just days before that the distillery is having a prolonged 'silent period' until early May to allow for essential maintenance, including boiler replacement. However, once at Knockando the skies cleared and we spent over an hour basking in the sunshine at this lovely location looking off downstream towards the picturesque Slioch Pool. Sadly my friend, ghillie Sandy Smith ~ always immaculate in his Knockando tweeds was on a rare day off (well Sandy says they are 'rare'!).

Sunbathing over we then walked up the hill to our third luxury abode of this trip ~ Cardhu House, a former 7 bed-roomed manse.  Owned and run by Tina and Norman MacGeoch. Norman is a builder to trade and has made an amazing job of renovating this fine stone-built house into a house of contrasts. Outside one views a beautiful stone exterior ~ an excellent example of 19th century Scottish stonemason craftsmanship, clearly recently pointed to perfection. However, once inside one could believe with the white walls, clean lines, window shutters but no curtains, minimal furniture and no clutter the rooms as that of a new build. There are, however, providing in tastefully fashion a 'Scottishness' in the form of attractive tweed soft furnishing on beds and cushion-covers. A nice dinner and breakfast were served in the spotless, airy dining room. Before and after dinner guests can sit by the warming log-fire. Being very close to Cardhu distillery Tina is always very happy to set up visits for her guests.

 Being previously a manse, lovely Cardhu House is situated right next to the most attractive, award winning, modern build Knockando Church. Complete with fine turret, the glass apex to the roof sheds excellent light to the interior of this most attractive church and illuminates the stunning stained glass windows which depict local scenes. After admiring the church we headed off down the hill to another historic gem in the form of the Knockando Wool Mill. A project many years in the making, the complete refurbishment of this still fully operational mill is a joy to behold. It's official opening will be in June once all the final exterior ground-works are completed and finishing touches are put to the repaired and refurbished machines, including huge looms. All credit must go to those folks who have had a passion to see this project to a final worthwhile conclusion and their efforts bear fruit. Visitors can enter the mill free of charge of by prearrangement pay a small amount for a guided tour. Alternatively, for just a few pounds more, visitors can actually try their hand at weaving on the ancient machines. 

Once afloat we steer a course on downstream towards the impressive Carron Bridge, designed originally to carry the main roads and the Speyside railway now still carries the road and the Speyside Way, since sadly in the 1960's the Speyside line fell victim to the axe wielded by Dr Beeching in his rationalisation of eth British Railway system. Having admired and drifted silently beneath the much photographed Victoria Bridge ~ a white painted, metal suspension footbridge ~ we stop at 'Sandy Hole' where we park our craft and walk towards the bustle of Aberlour's attractive village green ~ and into the cosy Pantry for some lovely hot soup.
Within 25 minutes of casting off from Aberlour we have passed below the huge warehouses of The Macallan and reach my favourite bridge on the Spey, the wonderful structure designed by Thomas Telford. Apart from the impressive arching span of the bridge the castellation at either end of the span are stunning.

From the bridge we walk the short distance from the river towards the grand frontage of the Craigellachie Hotel. Entering by the hotel's very sensible 'Sportsman's Entrance' we remove wet footwear and hang them in the warmth of the basement room we have entered. At the Craigellachie Hotel the welcome is as warm as the  cosy, comfortable bedrooms ~ many with a great view towards the Telford Bridge. Internationally famous is the Craigellachie's whisky-bar with the walls literally creaking with shelves loaded with all manner of whiskies ~ mainly from Speyside but others from around the world. Dinner in the Craigellachie Hotel is served in the stunning upstairs dining room, whilst the very ample breakfast is in another smaller room at ground level.

Last day on the river takes us through some of the Spey most expensive and most productive salmon fishing pools. Delfur estate in particular has a over the years landed some of the Spey's biggest monsters ~ pools with names of 'Holy Bush' but particularly 'Two Stones' have yielded salmon of up to 48 pounds. Once again only a few fishers on the banks as we quietly pass by. All anglers encountered were friendly and helpful to us in our passage downstream towards Fochabers and the Moray Firth. Soon we are gliding under the busy bridge on the main road through Mosstodloch and Fochabers. Hereafter to the sea, the channels of mainly shingle and peppered with the skeletal remains of large trees ripped from the riverbank in spate conditions.
Once through beneath the metal lattice-work of the Garmouth Viaduct, we are close to Tugnet and the rollers of Spay Bay, where the fresh meets the salt. The Spey is unique in that it is the only major Scottish river to confluence at a rural location ~ most others before gifting their waters to the sea travel through towns ~ e.g. the Tay through Perth and Dundee.

Once again i would thank all those credited above who helped make this Spey Journey so successful. Thanks also to the staff at the Spey Bay Whale and Dolphin Centre for allowing us to park our vehicle safely in their carpark for 4 days.

Having now completed in excess of 140 Spey journeys I still feel strong emotions when I arrive at Spey Bay. Clients voice great satisfaction having spent 3 or 4 days paddling this beautiful river and arrival at the sea is a great achievement. Once all canoes and canoe equipment is loaded up in the waiting vehicle then we head back up the route of our lovely river ~ home to Newtonmore, at the top end of Speyside ~ where Lady Spey is still but a mere young lassie.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Whisky Writers' Spey Journey - Final Part

Following a quick stop at Craigellachie Hotel for a change of damp footwear, our select little band were whisked off, compliments of Wm. Grant & Sons for lunch, at the lovely Malt Barn Restaurant within the picturesque, immaculate Glenfiddich Distillery site. Wonderful menu choices include delicious Cullen Skink and open sandwiches generously laden with tasty smoked salmon or juicy slices of steak.

After lunch Dr Dram (Andrew) acting as our chauffeur took us towards Glenfiddich’s neighbouring, pretty, quieter little sister ~ The Balvenie. Now in his absolute element, starting on the malting floors, Andrew captivates the writers with his enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of whisky production, especially The Balvenie and its ‘5 Rare Crafts’ ~ i) its home farm still producing some of the barley used in production ii) only mainland distillery still regularly operating floor malting; iii) own in-house coppersmith (Dennis ~ over 40 years service); iv) own in-house cooperage; v) longest serving malt-master, the hugely respected David Stewart. Balvenie distillery is indeed a very unique place producing excellent, truly handcrafted malt whiskies.

After our fascinating insight into production of fine malts, culminating in a visit to the wonderfully mystical Warehouse 24  filled with some of the oldest Balvenie treasures, we returned to the comforts of Craigellachie Hotel where we were served a very nice dinner. After our meal we retired to the marvellous whisky-bar where bottles of whiskies lining shelves have replaced any need for wallpaper redecoration. In this world famous inner-sanctum of malt-whisky varieties one can savour whiskies from many years, from across the globe but with few matching true ‘Scotch’ and especially the many superb Speyside malts.

After a hearty Craigellachie Hotel breakfast our little band returned to the beach beneath the beautiful Telford Bridge and headed off downstream towards the Moray Firth. With many of the consistently most productive fishing locations on this section we find ourselves ‘zigzagging’ between anglers looking to land the silver-coated, iconic but at times illusive Atlantic salmon, intent in heading upstream in this its home river to procreate. We are almost at Spey Bay before, as protocol demands we are required to sit upstream, waiting for our fellow river user to bring ashore his hooked salmon. Once landed he weighs his catch ~ around 6lbs and as is now standard practice in preserving fish-stocks returns this hen fish to the water ~ undoubtedly with a wounded mouth but alive.

Before reaching this point, however, we pass the village of Rothes ~ a small village but with 4 operational distilleries, another huge plant converting draff and pot-ale into cattle feed and also a large engineering works producing small components for distilleries but now mainly for the off-shore oil industry.

We are now into estates with pools that have over the years delivered some of the Spey’s mammoths. Just a few years ago the fishing rights (only) on the Rothes and Aitkenways estate sold for around 6 million pounds. Once rounding the corner by the elevated site of the ruined Aitkenways castle, we are now into Delfur Estate and into a lovely pool called Sourden. From here one gains a stunning open view towards Ben Aigan, this highest hill in this area. In the shadow of Ben Aigan, are the Delfur pools, Holly Bush and Two Stones, famous for their ‘track record’ over the years for providing big fish e.g. monsters @ 48lbs! At a picturesque location named Otter Hole we stop for our picnic lunch and our first taste of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society bottle containing another  fine malt ~ most appropriately named ‘Capering on a riverbank’!

As we approach the parallel road and rail bridges at Boat o’ Brig (‘boat’ indicates a ferry was operated here) high on the hill river right we can just see the chimney of Auchroisk ~ another in the Diageo stable. Once into Braewater Estate, part of Crown Estates the group are enthralled by the Redheughs ~ cliffs rising to 30 or 40 feet from the river. Comprising glacial deposit affected by ferrous rock these cliffs are a stunning deep red colour. This is where the group witnessed their second osprey flopping its way upstream oblivious to our presence. Other birds spotted close to hand on this trip included ~ golden eye and mallard ducks; mergansers; goosanders; dippers; oyster-catchers; buzzards, etc.

On to Fochabers and the world-renowned Baxter’s’ food factory is clearly visible on its elevated site river left. The ever-changing shingle banks, strewn with the mighty skeletons of trees brought to the estuary in spate conditions requires paddlers to be alert and change course with minimal notice since his section is seldom the same twice.

Arriving at the Moray Firth, where the fresh meets the salt is normally an emotional experience for all who have paddled the majestic Spey here sharing her waters with the North Sea. Quite often the experience is made even more special by the sighting of seals or even dolphins, drawn to the area by the numbers of salmon who have come back to their home river after many months, indeed years at sea.

Our chariot awaited us in the Tugnet car-park and once all canoes and kit were loaded we headed back to Newtonmore. That evening and overnight our writers shared in a ~ at The Cross experience ~ a positively superb restaurant with rooms. We were all welcomed warmly by Katy and David Young, owners of The Cross. The dinner was absolutely superb with stunning presentation, excellent tastes and textures. The Cross has gained several prestigious awards for its extensive range of wines. 

The superb hospitality extended by The Cross was a very fitting way to end this great trip. Thanks to all who made this a truly excellent journey ~ Jude at The Beeches, The Craigellachie Hotel, The Cross in Kingussie, Wm Grant & Sons but in particular Andrew (Mr Balvenie) and the writers, Nicola, Fiona and Alwynne who shared their memorable Journey on this, Scotland’s most beautiful and ideal canoe-touring river. I look forward to sharing a future Spey Journey with you ......

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Whisky Writers' Spey Journey - Part 1

Last week I had the pleasure of sharing the majestic Spey with a charming group of enthusiastic whisky writers. The group included London-based Alwynne Gwilt (@themisswhisky); from Falkirk, Nicola Young (@thewhiskyboys) and writing for the Scottish Malt Whisky Society magazine 'Unfiltered' ~ Fiona Russell (@fionaoutdoors). 

Also, taking part in this special journey, providing great support and depth of malt-whisky knowledge to the venture was The Balvenie UK Ambassador, Andrew Forrester (@balvenienotes). Andrew and I have worked together for some time now and he has accompanied me on the river on previous media trips. (Indeed Andrew’s own Stag Weekend in the autumn of 2011 was a ‘spiritual’ canoe journey on the Spey!)

Some travelling by train and others by road the writers’ group gathered in Speyside on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th April at our Victorian home The Beeches, here in Newtonmore. On the first evening the group were treated to a sumptuous ‘whisky-dinner’ which included ‘Fiddich Prawns’ and Shetland Salmon in a Balvenie cream-sauce. Then, sitting in front of a roaring log fire the writers were treated to a full, unabridged Andrew Forrester Balvenie tasting ~ delivered, as always with an obvious passion for the handcrafted expressions being explored and savoured by those present.

The week previous had produced in Scotland some record breaking high temperatures and I had hoped the writer's group could experience the lovely Spey in stunning sunshine, with the new voyageurs perhaps wearing shorts and t-shirts. However, this was not to be the case. Temperatures dropped, snow fell and, on our first morning,~ canoes and all kit loaded everyone was padded up in cosy fleeces as we headed towards our starting point at Knockando, in the shadow of the ghostly buildings of the presently deserted, soon to reopen, Tamdhu distillery.

Canoes unloaded and carried to the riverside, as we packed into the boats the food barrel and dry-bags for personal kit, Lady Spey smiled warmly as the clouds cleared and we were bathed in spring sunshine for at least half an hour. The brightness continued as we slipped our canoes into the clear Spey waters and stayed with us through the iconic Knockando fishing pools including Slioch, Vrennan, Island Rory and Craigsteel. The water levels were fairly low for the time of, meaning that a great many large stones were peeping above the water’s surface, requiring paddlers to be vigilant and react quickly to avoid striking the rocks. However, now on the water, with a pot-pourri of basic strokes learned, even those that had not canoed previously were becoming masters of their craft and any initial apprehensions had dissipated. 

The group weathered well the turbulent fast water if the exciting rapid oddly named ‘millionaires’. Next major feature high on the bank river left, glowering down upon Lady Spey is the austere form of Imperial distillery, mothballed several years ago and its derelict brick buildings giving the impression of an urban Victorian factory, even workhouse rather than a rural Highland distillery. However, the dower demeanour of the Imperial brick facade is soon forgotten as we round the next bend to be confronted by the fine steel spanning arches of the very attractive Carron Bridge. Once carrying the main road and also the Speyside railway – a major transport artery savagely slashed by Dr Beaching in the 1960’s – this fine bridge still carries the road but now instead of trucks laden with whisky, cattle, barley, even passengers its subsidiary roe is to offer walkers an elevated view of the majestic Spey as she flows swiftly below. The buildings hidden from the river at this time of year with the trees having no leaves one can sometimes see wisps of steam and smell the aroma emanating from the dark grains production unit attached to Diageo’s Dalluaine distillery. Along with a handful of other such processing plants, draff the spent husks of the barley taken from eh mashtuns and pot ale, the slurry draw from the bottom of the still are mixed together and formed into cattle feed – very little is wasted in eth production of the golden elixir we call whisky.  

With mysterious Carron House nestled above her fine lawns river right, my groups are always impressed by the fairytale like appearance of Laggan House standing proudly on its elevated position river left. Very soon we are in view of the picturesque Victoria Bridge which heralds our approach to Aberlour. On the hills beyond we can see the modern warehouses of The Macallan ~ looking rather more like James Bond installations, than whisky bonds!

A little further downstream, with the fine Victorian white-washed elegance of the Craigellachie Hotel ~ our home for that night, my paddlers are enraptured by the attractive span and castellated towers of Thomas Telford’s brilliantly engineered bridge. All this ~ and it’s only lunchtime on day one!

Part 2 will be posted soon .....

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


The Ballindalloch Bridge closure is very close to my heart, I would ask that we all help to create more awareness about this.  So, please send this message on to your contacts, tweet & generally help to spread the word.

Speyside footbridge in need of big repair and will cost thousands to reinstate but Speyside Way is integral to Moray economy/tourism.  

This information was posted by The Moray Council - please read below:

In order to make the bridge safe it has been necessary to close it to the public to allow essential works to
be carried out by Contractors.

As a result it is expected that the bridge will not re-open until 1st June 2012. Updates on timescales will be
available on the Speyside Way website
We appreciate this is a major inconvenience to Speyside Way users and apologise for any problems this
may cause. In the meantime you may wish to consider the following options:
1. Devising your own alternative route. There is no official diversion provided for this route. It is however possible to follow the B9102 and a minor public road between Blacksboat ( OS grid ref. NJ 182388 ) and the Cromdale Road bridge across the River Spey ( OS grid ref. NJ065289 ).

Please be aware though that this road is a single track with limited visibility and passing places. If you choose to proceed along this route please note that you do so at your own risk and caution should be exercised.
2. Free taxi. This is provided by the Moray Council as a pick up/drop off service at either end of the bridge only ie Blacksboat old station car park ( OS grid ref. NJ182388 ) and the B9137 road at Ballindalloch/Cragganmore ( OS grid ref. NJ167365 ).

This service is available between 9.00am and 8.00pm daily for the duration of the bridge closure. Telephone or email to make prior arrangements with one of the following taxi firms quoting the reference ‘Ballindalloch bridge closure’ :

Tawse Taxis tel 07725 995 277 E mail
C U There Taxis tel 01340 871 217 E mail
3. Public transport. This is limited but is available as follows:
a. Speyside Dial a Bus. Prior booking up to 1 day before is essential. Tel 01343 562 533 to book. Lines open 9.00am to 1.00pm Monday to Friday.
b. 338 (Maynes Coaches) and 33 (Speyside Community Bus) bus services. This is a ‘hail and
ride’ service along the A95 road operating daily except weekends. Times at the nearest points along the A95 are as follows:

Marypark going towards Tormore: 07:50 09:10 13:50 16:10
Tormore going towards Marypark: 08:15 0:954 14:27 16:30