As you may know, I have had the Speyside Way on my to do list for some time. However time is proving quite elusive at the moment, so when a week finally became available, I decided I would try out my new Duomid and expand the trail to fit the brief time available. I can now see the advantages of backpacking, but I have found that the lack of an accommodation schedule has slowed me down on my last two trails, without daily distance targets to adhere to.
This 65 mile trail is one of the original four officially designated long distance routes in Scotland, and also one of the family of Scotland’s Great Trails. It stays fairly close to the River Spey, a renowned salmon river, linking Aviemore in Strathspey and the Cairngorm foothills, with Buckie on the Moray Coast. There are optional spurs added from Craigellachie to Dufftown and from Ballindalloch to Tomintoul. The option to begin or end the route at Newtonmore was apparently introduced in 2015, although I opted to begin at Aviemore in line with my slightly older map. Although it generally consists of leisurely walking, the website says that there are climbs to 300 metres on Ben Aigan to Red Sheugh. The beginning of the trail has views to the south of the Cairngorms and the Lairig Ghru cleft, and to the west of the Monadhliath Mountains. Many whisky distilleries are situated along the route of the old Strathspey railway.
In previous posts I have always included a planning section which usually involved a schedule of the campsite, hostel or B&B logistics for each day. However with this walk I admit that the plan was to have no plan, to warm up gradually, to carry as much food as possible, and to try and camp along the whole trail using the Duomid. This is the kit list I used for the walk and this is how the daily distances turned out:
Aviemore to Boat of Garten – 6 miles / 9.5 km
Boat of Garten to Grantown on Spey – 9 miles / 14.5 km
Grantown on Spey to Woods of Knockfrink – 9 miles / 14.5 km
Woods of Knockfrink to Blacksboat Station – 9 miles / 14.5 km
Blacksboat Station to Craigellachie (Curtailed by heavy rain) – 10 miles / 16 km
Craigellachie to The Earth Pillars – 10 miles / 16 km
The Earth Pillars to Buckie – 12 miles / 19.5 km
Aviemore to Boat of Garten
I spent most of this day on the train changing at Edinburgh for Aviemore, where I arrived at about 4pm. As it was a warm sunny afternoon, I decided that I would just start walking until I found somewhere reasonable to camp for the night.
The trail was easy and gentle across the moorland, with views of the distant mountains on the horizon.
I found a stretch of river just outside Boat of Garten where it would be feasible to pitch late and leave early without causing any disturbance, so I tweaked the tent pegs around until I fitted on the small flat piece of river bank and, once I had eaten, I quickly fell asleep.
Boat of Garten to Grantown on Spey
Waking early the following morning, I was greeted by the sight of the sun causing clouds of steam to rise from the river as I broke camp. This was the first sign that it was to be another hot and sunny day.
Moments like this are a privilege really, and it raised my spirits for my first proper day of backpacking towards Grantown on Spey with sunshine and blue skies.
More leisurely tracks and clear signposting made this a very relaxing day. The only thing I had to worry about was ensuring that I found a good pitch clear of the town.
I wanted to be near Grantown on Spey so that I could buy a couple of things the next morning. When I happened on a wooded spot to the south of the town it seemed ideal. I enjoyed my evening of watching people on the other side of the river going for evening walks, and kids pushing each other in the river to huge rounds of applause from their friends. Once they had all gone indoors I pitched my tent and had a relaxing evening of listening to the radio before settling in for the night.
Grantown on Spey to Woods of Knockfrink
The following morning it was obvious that it was going to be another hot day. I don’t generally perform very well in the heat, so my trip into the pleasant town of Grantown on Spey turned into a morning as I stocked up on a few things. At about lunchtime I set off again along the wooded track which gave valuable shelter from the hot sun.
To the north of Cromdale the trail intermittently follows the former Strathspey railway line as far as Craigellachie through the heart of the Speyside whisky producing region, with distilleries lining the route along the river.
I lost track of time a bit as it was a very pleasant evening to be walking. I had hoped to stop at the Burn of Dalvey and seek permission to camp by the burn which was on farmland, but I couldn’t find anyone to ask, so I eventually pressed on. Here the route takes a detour around an estate which turned out to involve barbed wire corridors. There was quite a discrepancy between the map and the signage, but a bit of a saga ensued after I rang for advice. My tired reasoning was simply that it was better to ring for advice now than ring for help later.
As nobody knew the answer to my query anyway, and it had begun to get dark, I had no option but to continue along the rocky barbed wire corridor for another mile or two until I found a short section which was flat enough and just wide enough for my tent. As I settled down for the night, the cows in the field alongside gradually lost interest and wandered off to let me get some sleep. This pitch was purely utilitarian rather than glamorous, but I suppose some camps must be this way in the scheme of things.
Woods of Knockfrink to Blacksboat Station
A quick exit was necessary the next morning to avoid any confrontation with the farmer. I then spent the first part of the morning answering calls to reassure people that I was fine, and reiterating that I had rung the night before solely for advice. It had never been my intention to cause any alarm.
Once the dust had settled on that, I pushed on to rejoin the river into Ballindalloch.
There was a tempting campsite with a loo, tables and benches at the centre of the village in Ballindalloch, but after a rest I decided that I would continue to another designated site further along the old railway track at Blacksboat Station.
As soon as I sat down at the table and got my stove out at about 6.30pm, it began to rain. I realised that I quite looked forward to getting in to the spacious, dry Duomid. So began another evening of the usual rituals accompanied by the sound of the rain beating down on my tent. This continued all night and all of the following day.
Blacksboat Station to Craigellachie
The next morning as I packed up and donned my waterproofs, I was reminded of my first long distance walk along Hadrian’s Wall Path when I wasn’t prepared for the rain. This time I was determined to be waterproof from head to foot before I continued along the broad railway track in the rain.
As long as I am dressed for it I don’t have any objections to walking in the rain per se. The ground had been really dry when I set off on the trail, so it was quite pleasant to observe how everything seemed to get visibly greener as the day passed.
It was only when I reached Craigellachie that I reached the end of my psychological endurance, having been out in the rain for almost 24 hours. When I realised that everything in my waterproof jacket pockets was wet due to a zip problem, and that the navigation on my phone had stopped working, I made the decision to enquire about a room for that night.
It felt a bit strange to be indoors again but a hot shower, a pub meal and a night on a comfortable mattress soon made the world seem right again.
Craigellachie to The Earth Pillars
Feeling rested and physically warmed up, I enjoyed this day where the trail climbs gradually into the Wood of Arndilly along a broad track.
After a few miles the walker emerges at a viewpoint revealed by the felled trees where several Sunday strollers had gathered for lunch and enjoyment of the view towards the Moray Firth.
I then descended for some pleasant walking alongside the Wood of Cairnty and the Wood of Ordiquish, until I reached the little car park for a viewpoint and geological feature known as the Earth Pillars a couple of miles to the south of Fochabers.
I decided to take a look at whether it might make a good camp with a view. I sat for a while to savour the view and once it began to get dark I pitched the tent and began to prepare some food.
The Earth Pillars to Buckie
The final stretch of the route drops down onto the coastal plain, following suburban woodland tracks and gorse lined avenues towards the mouth of the river at Tugnet.
Tugnet reminded me a bit of Bowness on Solway on the Solway Firth at the end of Hadrian’s Wall with its wild and empty peacefulness.
Having opted to do the walk in the wrong direction I had to finish via the slightly depressed outskirts of Buckie, but I was pleased to find that there was a little garden for walkers to ponder their achievement or the journey to come.
71.7 miles / 115.5 km
1,796 m / 5,892 ft ascent
295 m / 968 ft maximum height
Observations about the trail
It is worth noting that I did the Speyside Way in what is generally regarded as the wrong direction; northward from Aviemore to Buckie, and I did not do the Tomintoul Spur this time round. The disadvantage of this direction is that the final stretch between Spey Bay and Buckie is not a very good ending for the walk.
There is quite a lot of road walking on the Speyside Way but they are very quiet, single lane estate roads or they have footpaths running parallel to them. For the most part it is a leisurely trail which is well signposted and on good tracks including well surfaced cycle tracks and old railway lines. In places the Way allows cycling, riding and dogs, but there is a section between Cromdale and Ballindalloch, which passes through farmland with livestock, where none of these things are permitted.
In these sections walkers are much more tightly controlled than I am used to, following a long barbed wire corridor which is about 1.5 metres wide through many gates along the field margins. There are often lovely looking farm tracks running parallel to these corridors, but walkers are prevented from using them. Countryside and Access Codes become a bit superfluous in the face of such tight route management, but I assume it is done to ensure good relations with the farmers along the route. The detour around the estate between the Burn of Dalvey and Allt Eoghainn is longer in reality than the route indicated on my map, and the terrain is rougher than the rest of the Way, so it is worth allowing some extra time for this section.
There are said to be ticks present in parts of Speyside so it is worthwhile taking precautions on the route, especially if you are camping.
For information I referred to the Walk Highlands website, the Rucksack Reader, the Harvey Trail map and the LDWA GPX download although the route is mostly fairly obvious and well signposted.
Backpacking the trail
I used a combination of stealth camping and some small campsites without facilities which have been created along the old Strathspey Railway line between Ballindalloch and Craigellachie. There is plenty of water available from the many burns which flow into the Spey, but there are also towns and villages about every five miles where you can fill up and resupply if needed. The longest section without any facilities is probably between Craigellachie and Fochabers, but there are some houses along this stretch.
Apologies if I have made any mistakes with the Gaelic names.
In memory of Margaret.