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Issue 88 - The Restless River Spey

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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The Restless River Spey

Keith Fergus explores the banks of Scotland's fastest flowing river

The River Spey is a restless river, and its voyage results in an ever-changing landscape. Each year the river, swollen with snow melt, unleashes a massive volume of water which subsequently carves new channels and islands, and generates a course that is perpetually evolving.

Scotland’s fastest and second longest river travels through a magnificent landscape during its 107-mile journey (its catchment spreads for over 3000 square kilometres), one bounded by vast tracts of woodland, backed by several of Britain’s highest mountains and surrounded by a staggering diversity of wildlife.

The derivation of the name Spey is unclear. It appeared on Ptolemy’s map of Scotland as Tvesis in 150AD but it took another 1300 years before it was referred to as the River Spey. It may mean Hawthorn River or, perhaps more pertinently, ‘vomit’ or ‘gush’, from the pre- Celtic word ‘squeas’. Certainly, considering the speed at which the River Spey flows, this would be an appropriate label.

Its passage begins at lonely Loch Spey, deep in the heart of the wild Monadhliath. From here the River Spey carves its course through Lochaber, then the scenic splendour of Badenoch and Speyside, where the remarkable barrier of the Cairngorm plateau and great tracts of woodland – including the Caledonian pinewoods of Rothiemurchus, Abernethy and Glenmore – dominate.

The hills reduce in size as the River Spey enters Moray, a renowned region that is known across the world as whisky country. Now the backdrop is more understated as the river twists and turns towards the coast. When Spey Bay – in between Lossiemouth and Buckie – is approached the river begins to pick up speed, dragging enormous amounts of shingle with it, before it spills into the North Sea.

It has taken a long time for the River Spey to find its path: four ice ages, or several hundred million years, to be a little more precise. Over this almost unimaginable timescale the river system has slowly weathered and moulded its course over a bed of schists, gneiss, granite and sandstone and this amalgamation of rock types makes the River Spey one of the cleanest in Scotland.

It was the Picts who were most successful in settling along the river, particularly in the great Caledonian pinewoods of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy; along with the Gaels they were the dominant race in the northeast.

Consequently, many of the hill and place names beside the Spey reflect the languages of these peoples. Aber translates from Pictish as ‘mouth of the river’ and so Aberlour and Abernethy have their roots in the Pictish language. Gaelic can be seen in the likes of Braeriach, Meall a Bhuachaille, Craigellachie and Buckie.

Throughout its passage the Spey is a rural river with no cities en route. Instead a selection of lovely settlements, including Kingussie, Aviemore, Grantown-on-Spey, Fochabers and Portgordon sit near its banks.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, with the building of many bridges across the Spey (prior to this it was mainly forded or crossed by ferry), General Wade’s road network and the arrival of the railway, these settlements developed around various water-driven mill industries that utilised the power of the river.

When exploring the Spey’s margins an exceptional array of architecture, history and wildlife come to the fore – red deer, otter, golden eagle, osprey, ptarmigan, mountain hare, snow bunting, dotterel, wagtail, curlew, arctic tern, red breasted merganser and goldeneye duck are just some of the wildlife that the landscape sustains, whilst striking buildings like Ruthven Barracks, Craigellachie Bridge and Loch an Eilein Castle have fascinating histories.

Fish have also played a central role for those living along the river. During prehistoric times salmon were fished at its mouth and today it is the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s great salmon rivers – it is also acknowledged as the premier sea trout river in the country. Hugely popular with anglers, fishing on the River Spey is one vital aspect to the economies of the communities along its length.

The wooded banks along the river also led to the creation of the ‘Spey Cast.’ It is different from the normal fly cast, as it is double handed, and when developed during the 19th Century it prevented anglers from catching the woodland overhead along narrower sections of the river. It is now used worldwide.

Industries such as shipbuilding and timber exports used to be big business (as was cattle thieving, which had been prevalent along the Spey from the 14th to 17th Centuries), although these are now remnants of the past. Today it is the outdoor industry that welcomes people to enjoy the river and surrounding landscape – walking, cycling, skiing, canoeing, white-water rafting and wildlife watching are just a few of the Spey’s fantastic recreational pursuits.

And after spending the day outdoors, what better way to relax than with a dram. Whisky has become synonymous with the river and pumps millions of pounds into the local economy with Moray being its spiritual home. Originally hailed for its medicinal qualities, whisky has now become one of Scotland’s major exports and is fundamental to the survival of the towns and villages along much of the River Spey. The mild climate, pure, clear spring water and abundant supply of fragrant golden barley provide the ideal ingredients for the ‘water of life.’ The Spey supports a plethora of whisky distilleries (over half of all the distilleries in Scotland) including Glenfarclas, Cardhu, Aberlour and Craigellachie as well as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the two biggest selling single malt whiskies in the world. Perhaps the best way to find out more about the wonderful array of whiskies available is to attend the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which takes place each year on the first weekend of May and includes hundreds of events across the region, or the new Spirit of Speyside Distilled Festival that will take place in Elgin from the 9–11 September this year.

And so the River Spey may well be the perfect river; walking, cycling, canoeing, fishing, mountains, gorgeous lochs, invigorating coastline, wildlife rich woodland and whisky are in abundance – what more does anyone need?

Top Five Places To Visit Along The River Spey

Highland Folk Museum, Kingussie
This open air museum includes reconstructed buildings, an 18th Century township and a 1940s working farm.

Ruthven Barracks, Kingussie
In August 1745, 200 Jacobites tried to capture Ruthven Barracks but were beaten off by a force of just 12 Redcoats who were victorious with the loss of just one man.

Rothiemurchus, Aviemore
The forest is supposedly home to some 10 million trees and has a number of fabulous walks as well as an incredible array of wildlife.

Aberlour Distillery, Charlestown of Aberlour
In 1879 James Fleming founded Aberlour Distillery, designing the buildings and much of the machinery himself.

Spey Bay
Spey Bay is the largest shingle beach in Scotland, home to over 400 species of plant and 120 bird species.

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