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Issue 3 - Speyside – castles and whisky

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002

 

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Speyside – castles and whisky

Gavin D Smith explores the history and wonder of one of Scotland's most popular tourist destinations

Famed throughout the world for its malt whiskies, Speyside comprises vast expanses of rich, fertile farmland and bleak, dramatic areas of moorland, punctuated by the pagoda roofs of distilleries and the towers of castles. Indeed, Aberdeen & Grampian Tourist Board market the area as ‘Scotland’s Castle and Whisky Country’. There is an abundance of both, and so much else to see, besides.

For the purposes of malt whisky classification, acclaimed writer and broadcaster Derek Cooper in The Whisky Roads of Scotland defines Speyside as being those parts of the counties of Banffshire and Morayshire which constitute ‘… a golden triangle in the north-east corner of Scotland centred on Elgin, Rothes, Keith and Dufftown’.

The Spey lies at the heart of the region, and is renowned as one of Scotland’s finest salmon rivers. It is also the country’s fastest-flowing river, and second in length only to the Tay. It rises in the high country of Badenoch, South West of The Cairngorms, a dozen miles from Dalwhinnie, and flows by Aviemore, Grantown, Craigellachie and Rothes to the sea between Elgin and Buckie.

As well as being attractive to the angler, the rivers of Speyside are also of great significance to the distilling industry, with the Findhorn, Lossie, Fiddich, Livet and Avon providing an unrivalled source of water, perfectly suited to whisky-making.

Some 50 distilleries – around half Scotland’s current productive total – fit into the Speyside category, making whisky production, and all the ancillary roles associated with it, a major employer in an area otherwise dependent on farming and tourism for much of its income. A number of towns and villages such as Dufftown, Rothes and Keith are very much ‘whisky communities’, and each is home to several distilleries.

The ‘capital’ of Speyside is the royal burgh of Elgin, the attractive, historic administrative and commercial centre of the region. Nearby is Lossiemouth, birthplace of Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, James Ramsay Macdonald. The documented heritage of Elgin begins in 1150, when King David I made reference to ‘my burgh of Elgin’. The king constructed a castle on Ladyhill, which survives in ruined form today, and which served as a base for hunting expeditions in the rich countryside close by.

Elgin Cathedral, sometimes known as ‘The Lantern of the North’ was founded in 1224, but sadly this magnificent structure only survived intact until 1390, when it was burnt down by Alexander Stewart, an outlawed son of Robert II, known as The Wolf of Badenoch. The roof was stripped of lead in 1567, and on New Year’s Day 1640 the rood screen, noted for its ‘starris of bricht golde’, was demolished. The central tower collapsed in 1711, but the striking ruins remain to give a sense of what this noble structure must have been like in its heyday.

By the first half of the 18th century, Elgin was a thriving centre for agricultural commerce and a range of other economic activities. The arrival of the railway in 1858 led to the burgh virtually doubling in size, and the development of the rail network through the north-east proved very beneficial for businesses of all kinds in the area. It provided a comparatively fast and efficient link to central and southern Scotland.

Historically, the Grants have been one of the most influential clans in Speyside, and the family still has a significant presence there today. Not much has happened around the region without a Grant being involved at some stage. One notable feature of Speyside is the number of ‘planned’ settlements it can boast, and the Grants have been responsible for the development of several of them.

Aberlour – properly known as Charlestown of Aberlour – was founded in 1812 by Charles Grant, but in 1765, Sir James Grant had founded what remains the largest of the planned towns, Grantown-on-Spey. Prosperity came quickly. Grantown soon established itself as an important market town, with woollen and linen goods being produced there, destined for export markets as far distant as West Africa.

Sir James lived at Castle Grant, which has been the principal residence of Clan Grant since 1693, and is situated a mile north of Grantown. He was widely known as ‘The Good Sir James’, as he sold his Edinburgh townhouse in order to buy grain to feed the starving people of Strathspey after disastrous crop failures during the late 1700s. Sir James can be credited with great economic improvements to the area’s economy during the second half of the 18th century.

On the death of Sir James Grant in 1811, he was succeeded by Sir Lewis Grant, who also became Earl of Seafield. The Seafield family had been responsible for founding New Keith in 1751, though the origins of the town date back to AD700, when St Maelrubha converted its inhabitants to Christianity.

Keith was the birthplace of Jesuit missionary John Ogilvie, hanged in Glasgow in 1615 for refusing to take an anti-Catholic oath. Canonized in 1970, John Ogilvie became Scotland’s first saint since the Reformation.

New Keith was the earliest Georgian planned settlement in the north of Scotland, and it subsequently became an important industrial centre for linen manufacture, and even tobacco processing, in addition to the distillation of whisky.

Dufftown was founded in 1817 by another member of the aristocracy with local connections, James Duff, Earl of Fife, whose intention was to create employment in the hard, recessionary years that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Mortlach Church in Dufftown was founded in the 6th century, though the present structure dates from the 12th century, and it is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Scotland.

Lovers of history, fine landscapes and the occasional dram find Speyside a place to cherish. Few visit the area only once.