walkhighlands

Following the River Spey from its source to the sea

Date walked: 18/04/2024

Time taken: 9 days

Distance: 198km

This is a report on my nine day walk following the River Spey from its source at the top of the Spey valley all the way to the sea at Spey Bay. The first four days were wild camping in remote country; and the second half followed the Speyside Way, an official long distance footpath with waymarks and signposts. So a walk of two halves to borrow a footballing cliché.

Day one - 18th April 2024
Manchester to Glasgow to Roy Bridge by train
Roy Bridge-Brunachan NN 323 901. 12.3 kms


I caught the 7.25 train from Manchester to Glasgow Central and walked to Glasgow Queen Street to catch the 12.22 train to Roy Bridge. It is a lovely journey through Scottish Highlands, but slow. I arrived at 15.50 and was the only passenger to disembark.

Finding the route was no problem, and I set off following a quiet single track road heading gently uphill along Glen Roy with the River Roy on my left. The weather was blustery with occasional showers, but not bad for Scotland. Within 15 minutes I spotted my first deer, and shortly afterwards passed a plaque commemorating the battle of Mulroy in 1688.

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Deer in Glen Roy
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Plaque for the battle of Mulroy

After a few kilometres the ‘parallel roads’ appeared on both hillsides. These are not man-made, despite their remarkably straight lines along the contours of the hills, but were created thousands of years ago by glacial action.

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Parallel Roads

After 3¼ hours I found a spot to pitch my tent for the night right by the River Roy. The rain became heavier and the wind stronger during the night, so I was glad to be inside.

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First night by the River Roy

Day two - 19th April 2024
Brunachan to Gava Bridge. 24.1 kms


I did not have a good night. My inflatable mattress deflated leaving me cold and uncomfortable. Wind and heavy rain didn’t help either, but thankfully it had stopped raining by the morning, though it was still cold. I decided to skip breakfast as I planned to stop at a bothy later and have something to eat and drink there. When the road ended the route continued as a good track past Brae Roy Lodge and Roy Falls before an unclear path headed off to the left towards Luib Chonnal bothy where I stopped for a well-earned break.

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Roy Falls

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Luib Chonnal bothy

There was a good view of White Falls in full flow with snow capped hills behind.

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White Falls

I then had a decision to make. The weather was cold and blustery, and my deflated mat meant another cold and sleepless night ahead. Also, right behind the bothy was the river Allt Chonnal which was in spate, so unsafe for crossing. A notice in the bothy indicated a bridge about a kilometre upstream, and then a return on the other side to pick up the onward path, which the guide book described as being ‘very wet and boggy’ for 6 kms (on top of the 2 kms upstream and back down).

So should I stay the night in the bothy to get a better night’s sleep and see if the river was crossable in the morning; or backtrack towards Roy Bridge and hitch hike towards Aviemore; or continue with my planned route? I decided not to wimp out and see how it went, which proved to be the correct decision.

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Bridge over the Allt Chonnal

The walk upstream to the bridge and then back down was extremely slow going, but when I finally rejoined the path behind the bothy, now on the other side of the river, it was not as bad as the guide book suggested. I have certainly had worse on the Cape Wrath trail! The path led up to the bealach crossing from Glen Roy into the upper reaches of the Spey valley. This pass is the watershed between the east and west coast of Scotland. Loch Spey came into view, a significant moment as my plan was to follow the river Spey from here all the way to the sea.

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Loch Spey from which the River Spey flows

The river is quite insignificant at this point, but over the ensuing days will grow in size and grandeur till it reaches the sea.

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The River Spey close to its source ...

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... and close to its end at the sea

The rough, boggy walking finished at a private bothy, Shesgan. By now the weather had improved and I stopped outside in bright sunshine for a hot drink and some snacks. From here on the walking was easy, the landscape magnificent and the weather glorious. Herds of deer were spotted. One of the best days I’ve had walking in Scotland. I was so pleased I did not wimp out earlier in the day.

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More deer

The path became an estate road and at 18.45 I arrived at Gava Bridge, a beautiful old bridge crossing the River Spey.

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Gava bridge

I pitched my tent right next to the river and settled down to eat and sleep.

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My second night

Day three - 20th April 2024
Gava Bridge to Unnamed bothy. 30.6 kms


I had another bad night because of my deflating mattress, and I set off early without any breakfast as I was heading for Laggan to get something to eat. It was a quiet and peaceful walk along an easy road with further sightings of deer. There was no wind at all and as I reached the reservoir behind Spey dam the hills opposite were perfectly reflected in the water. Snow capped hills were visible in the distance and highland cattle in the fields. Scotland at its best.

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A perfectly still river Spey behind the Spey dam

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Scottish cattle

I arrived at Laggan at 11am ready for my delayed breakfast. I was last here when completing the East Highland Way when I camped in the graveyard behind the church!. There is a lovely, clean community-maintained toilet which was just across the road from the cafe, which was friendly and welcoming and served up a delicious breakfast. But I must press on as I have another long day.

From Laggan I proceeded along a quiet, narrow road passing an impressive memorial to Ewan Macpherson, the last Jacobite fugitive to reach France in 1755; and then shortly afterwards an equally impressive boulder marking the official Centre of Scotland (although there is dispute as to the exact centre depending how it is defined and measured).

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Cairn to commemorate Ewan Macpherson

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The centre of Scotland

I crossed over the river Truim, the railway line and the busy A9 to pick up an estate road to Phones where I turned left onto General Wade's military road. In the era of the Jacobite rebellion, General Wade identified a lack of roads as an obstacle to moving troops rapidly to respond to uprisings. By 1740 over 300 miles of road had been constructed, and a further 800 miles were built under his successor.

The road led in a straight line north east in the direction of Newtonmore, but I stopped the night at a bothy. It is a private estate bothy and inside are strong instructions not to name it or reveal its location. It is close to civilisation, so they don’t want to encourage use by those who might abuse it, and result in the estate closing it down. It certainly was a lovely bothy, clean, tidy and even with fresh flowers inside. I met a chap outside who was part of the team who look after it, and he reassured me I would have a quiet night.

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Unamed bothy

If only. As I settled in and secured a sleeping spot two men arrived to celebrate the birthday of one of them. Laden with coal, drink, food and music. Shortly after, younger women started arriving until there were eight of them on a hen-do. At this point, I decided to decamp and pitch my tent outside, even though it meant another night sleeping on the ground.

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My night outside the bothy

I discovered in the morning the eight ladies were all outdoor pursuit instructors of various kinds, and the bride-to-be had said she did not want a conventional hen-do in a town centre, but a day in the countryside followed by an overnight in a bothy. They picked this one because of its reputation for being quiet!!

Day four - 21st April 2024
Unnamed bothy to Aviemore. 29.8 kms


I was up at 7am to a wonderful cloud inversion in the valley below. The bride-to-be was on a chair outside where she had spent much of the night because one of the birthday men was snoring. So I was glad I had vacated the bothy in favour of my tent. I went in to make some breakfast with the loud snoring still reverberating. Slowly the women awoke and eventually the hungover men.

I set off in the rain heading towards Loch Insh and passed close to the impressive Ruthven barracks atop a hill. This is another relic of the Jacobite rebellion, completed in 1721 to house men and horses to travel along General Wade’s military roads to quell any uprisings. But in 1746 the retreating Jacobite troops, after the defeat at Culloden moor, set fire to it leaving the ruins of today.

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Ruthven barracks

The route was clearly marked along well maintained forest paths. This extension was opened more recently than the original Speyside Way which started in Aviemore. The walking became so much easier compared with the previous three days. The path passed by the magical Uach Lochan before arriving at the watersports centre at Loch Insh. I was last here on the East Highland Way, and before that with my son for a watersports holiday.

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Uath Lochan

I stopped for lunch and a rest before continuing to the village of Kincraig and heading north-east. The next section used to require walking along the B9152, but the newer extension offers comfortable walking parallel to the railway for some 12 kms on a quiet, undulating path all the way into Aviemore. The sun was shining and it was t-shirt weather.

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Arrival at Aviemore

I stayed at the Premier Inn which offered the opportunity to dry my tent, wash some clothes and have a shower. In the evening I ate at the Old Bridge Inn. Highly recommended, but you need to book. Aviemore has a surprising dearth of places to eat for such a busy tourist town.

Day five - 22nd April 2024
Aviemore to Grantown-on-Spey. 25 kms


I slept well in a proper bed after three nights on the ground with my deflated mattress. After breakfast, my first task was to buy a new mattress. Mountain Warehouse sorted me out with a self-inflating mattress, though quite bulky and extra to carry. But absolutely worth it for the rest of the nights in my tent.

From here on the walk changed in character. I was now following the original Speyside Way official long distance footpath on mostly easy trails or paths with generally (though not always) clear signposting and waymarks. The more recently opened section from Newtonmore has clear and well-placed signposts and waymarks; but the section from Aviemore onwards is less well-marked with old signs not always clearly visible.

The path wound through pleasant woodland before joining a long, straight metalled road which led all the way into Boat of Garten, past some very posh houses. The village shop offered a welcome break selling food, coffee and yum yums (a Scottish sugary type of doughnut).

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Village shop in Boat of Garten

The pretty village centre has a station for the steam railway (not running when I was there) and an attractive secret garden.

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Steam railway station

On leaving Boat of Garten, I crossed the Spey (now growing in size) but missed a turning so had a couple of miles of unpleasant road walking instead of on paths through forest. I eventually picked up the correct path and continued the short distance into Nethy Bridge and crossed over the bridge spanning the River Nethy. It is a pretty village, and as I was making good time I stopped at the bustling cafe for tea and cake.

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Nethy House cafe

From here on it was a straight path following the old railway line. Just before entering Grantown, I passed the Spey Valley Smokehouse established in 1888, though on a different site some two miles away. The path crossed the Old Spey Bridge and I headed into the town centre and out the other side to a smart campsite about a kilometre further north. It was mostly static vans and tourers, but very quiet. A welcoming envelope was pinned to the reception door telling me where to pitch. I was the only tent there, and practically the only person on the whole site.

In the evening I headed back into town and searched out The Craig Bar. This was an entertaining evening with a jovial landlord, but don’t be easily offended as he has strong views which are not politically correct. However, he serves excellent pie and chips and good beer. I returned to my tent in good spirits.

Day six - 23rd April 2024
Grantown-on-Spey to Ballindalloch station. 23 kms


It was a cold start to the morning and the forecast I had seen on the television in Aviemore said a cold snap was coming, so I decided I needed a bit more clothing. So after packing up the tent, I returned into the town centre and found a charity shop where I purchased a fleecy top and a woolly hat for £14. Better equipped, I returned to pick up the Speyside Way once more.

It wound its way on a pleasant track through woods emerging above open pasture to arrive at an impressive iron bridge across the River Spey and then to the outskirts of Cromdale. But the path turns left before entering the village and follows the old railway line.

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One of many fine iron bridges spanning the Spey

Cromdale station has been lovingly restored, and the owner and his father-in-law were doing minor repairs to the platform edge. I stopped to talk and was shown round with great pride by the owner explaining how it has been converted into a holiday home. He has photos showing its restoration and stories of its history transporting whiskey from the distilleries. He was also keen to reveal the small touches he has added such as a Thomas the tank engine bedspread and ‘Platform 9¾’ cushions (from Harry Potter). After a delightful half hour I continued following the route of the old railway line, axed under the Beeching cuts.

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Cromdale station ...

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... now restored to a delightful holiday home

After a couple of kilometres and across the A95, the most difficult section of the Speyside Way begins. It is variously described in walk reports as dangerous, overgrown, muddy and restricted between fences. So I set off with some trepidation. And it was indeed muddy, with frequent chain gates (which I’ve never seen elsewhere) and in places walking along field borders hemmed in by barbed wire fences.

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Muddy overgrown path

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Annoying chain gates

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Hemmed in pathway

After about 3 kms, I decided to take the option recommended by some to divert off the path and drop down to the A95.This entailed about 5 kms of road walking, but there were grass verges and not a great deal of traffic. Nevertheless, not the most pleasant part of the trip. But neither would the proper route have been.

I picked up the trail again as it descended steep muddy ground to reach the River Spey. One of the few sections where the Speyside Way actually goes alongside the Spey! The path followed the old railway line once again, and I wondered why it could not have been followed all the way from Cromdale.

I was struggling with a sore ankle which felt like an old skiing injury had flared up, and a groin strain which occasionally was giving me a really sharp stabbing pain. I decided to see how I felt in the morning. In my head I started planning alternative options such as walking to the road and hitching either to my next stop or even my end point in Fochaber.

I arrived at the old station at Ballindalloch which is private, but immediately adjacent is a small, free camping area for Speyside Way walkers with a modern clean toilet building, opened (I learnt the next morning) just a month previously. I ate in my tent and prepared for a cold night, glad to have my new mat.

Day seven - 24th April 2024
Ballindalloch station to Craigellachie. 21 kms


I slept well, but two passers-by commented: ‘You must have been cold last night’, so it was obviously an unseasonably cold night. An Australian couple half my age, walking north to south, stopped to chat. They were staying at B&Bs and using a baggage transfer service, so were impressed that I was camping and carrying all my gear!

I packed up and moved gently to test my sore ankle and decide if I felt I could continue. It was better than last night, and the next stage was along the old railway line, so flat and easy walking, so I decided to press on, though once committed it would be ten miles before I reached a point where I could once again access the road. Within half a kilometre the route descended to the River Spey and then crossed the River Fiddich, a tributary of the Spey, on an impressive metal girder bridge.

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Crossing the river Spey

From here the route was pleasant walking following a well-surfaced track close to the Spey. I passed Blackboat station, a reminder of the railway heritage, and then distilleries. For the first time I met other walkers on the Way. Up until now I had seen almost no one. However, no one else was carrying a full rucksack, so they must have been day walkers or staying in accommodation. I felt suitably smug! After 17 kms, I arrived early afternoon at the small town of Aberlour. The Victoria bridge built in 1902, is an attractive, delicate, pedestrian suspension bridge crossing the River Spey.

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The Victoria suspension bridge

I stopped for a late lunch at a friendly café on the High Street and enjoyed a bowl of Cullen Skink. A welcome opportunity to relax. My ankle was holding up well and my groin strain had only tweaked a couple of times, so I decided to continue a further four kilometres to Craigellachie.The Way continued along the old railway line always following the river, visible to my left. It entered Craigellachie along a cutting and through a tunnel which concealed the town, so I emerged at the far end without realising I had arrived.

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Approaching Craigellachie along the old railway line

My plan was to camp in Fiddich Park, but finding it proved tricky. It is not well signed and looks more like a wood than a park. It offers free camping for walkers, but it has fallen on hard times. The toilet block was locked and the water tap had the handle removed. I pitched my tent on a piece of open grassland and hoped I was in the right area. I was surprised when seven further tents arrived. I had hardly seen another soul walking, and no one camping. Where had they all come from? I discovered the next morning they were canoe instructors paddling the Spey prior to the season starting.

I searched out the recommended Highlander Inn for my evening meal, and was not disappointed. I treated myself to a local Scotch as a treat. I was feeling pleased I had continued my walk, when last night at this time I had been contemplating having to abandon it.

Day eight - 25th April 2024
Craigellachie to Fochabers. 21 kms


It rained during the night, but fortunately was dry for packing up. Today promised to be considerably more up and down compared with the previous couple of days following the old railway line. The path followed a quiet lane heading steadily uphill and passing Arndilly House with spring daffodils in abundance.

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Spring daffodils

After about 8 kms the path left the road and turned along a forest path heading up towards Ben Aigan. At this point the weather turned from cold, bright sunshine to sunshine and showers. Unfortunately, the showers were driving snow, hail and sleet! Squally showers drove through with force, followed by periods of sunshine.

The path climbed steadily to its high point and then began a steady descent before turning sharp left and heading down into the valley. At this point it skirts the Speyside Gun Club with warnings to stick to the path. The red light was illuminated and the sound of gunshots echoed around. I did not linger!

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Warning sign. Note the illuminated red light further on

The path continued to rise and fall, very steeply in places and passed beneath yet another sturdy iron girder bridge. The Victorians knew how to engineer these things.

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Sturdy Victorian engineering

A narrow lane turned into a minor road leading into the outskirts of Fochabers. I had trouble locating the campsite as the symbol on the map was not in the correct location, but I eventually arrived. It was another site mainly for campervans and statics, and I was the only tent there. But very clean and with good facilities.

I headed into the town centre to buy food supplies, decide on options for eating in the evening and to locate the bus stop for getting to Inverness tomorrow. On my return I showered and changed into clean clothes before heading back into town to buy fish and chips at the award winning chippie to eat back at my tent. Unfortunately, on my return I was bitten by a dog from a neighbouring caravan which drew blood and ripped my waterproof trousers.The lady owner applied a plaster to my leg and did reimburse the cost of new trousers on my return home. But not what one expects. I sorted out my kit ready for tomorrow, as I had a busy final day.

Day nine - 26tht April 2024
Fochabers to Spey Bay and return. 17 kms
Bus to Inverness and plane to Manchester.


I had originally planned to walk to Spey Bay today and continue on the Speyside Way to Buckie, then get the bus to Inverness where I would stop overnight and fly home the following day. But the flight was in the early evening, so I reckoned if I was efficient, I could get to Spey Bay and return to Fochabers in time to get an early afternoon bus to Inverness and catch the plane home that same day. Thus avoiding the cost of a hotel in Inverness (always very expensive) and having a spare day to fill wandering around Inverness before heading out to the airport.

So, I was up early, got my tent down and my rucksack packed and left all my kit at the campsite whilst I walked to Spey Bay and back without a pack. It proved a rather disappointing morning. I had envisaged a riverside path as the Speyside Way approached the sea, following the river as it reached its climax and poured into the Moray Firth.

But no, the path was unclear and meandered through woodland and then headed inland, with barely a sight of the river. And the river broadens out into an estuary which means it slows down and shingle banks appear midstream, depriving it of the majesty and grandeur evident higher up.

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The River Spey as it approaches the sea

In places the path was hemmed in alongside farmers’ fields and did not offer a fitting climax for my journey from the source to the sea.

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The disappointing path on the approach to the sea

Also, I was pressed for time and conscious that I must not miss my flight from Inverness in the early evening. So I got to within sight of the seaside buildings at Spey bay but decided not to go the final half kilometre to dip my toe in the sea. I was behind my planned schedule and very conscious of the need to get back to Fochabers. Fortunately, on my return to the campsite a ranger in a 4x4 vehicle caught up with me on the track and I hitched a lift. He kindly took me all the way back to the campsite, saving me a good hour of walking.

I collected my rucksack, caught the bus from the town centre to Inverness and then the bus to the airport, arriving in good time. The airport has been considerably improved since I was last there, and is now a pleasant place to wait, unlike previously. The flight was uneventful, returning me to Manchester and back to meet my wife and enjoy a shower, beer and a meal. A successful trip completed.

Conclusion.

Some people have complained the Speyside Way is not sufficiently challenging or exciting. Certainly, if you want wild camping and the great outdoors, it is not going to be satisfying. But it is a wonderfully scenic walk, along mostly easy paths (though not always) and passes through pretty villages and small towns. You see Victorian bridges, distilleries, disused railway stations, forest and farmland.

My extended trip offered the best of both worlds, with the first four days being wild camping in remote countryside, providing solitude, challenge and wonderful scenery; followed by the gentler landscape and easier paths and trails of the official Speyside Way. I would thoroughly recommend it.

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Activity: Scrambler

Long Distance routes: West Highland Way    Speyside Way    Skye Trail    Cape Wrath Trail    East Highland Way    Affric Kintail Way   



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Statistics

2024

Trips: 1
Distance: 198 km

2023

Trips: 2
Distance: 160.2 km
Ascent: 1810m

2022

Trips: 2
Distance: 360 km

2021

Trips: 1
Distance: 147 km

2019

Trips: 1
Distance: 128 km

2018

Trips: 1
Distance: 113 km


Joined: Feb 12, 2018
Last visited: Jun 15, 2024
Total posts: 24 | Search posts