The Speyside Way

How best to follow a last year’s successful long distance walking family holiday? With another one of course! This year we picked out the Speyside Way, an 87 mile route that largely follows the River Spey from Newtonmore, through the Cairngorms National Park to finish at Buckie on the Moray coast. Slightly shorter than the Kintyre Way with generally much better paths and, since we chose to travel Southwest to Northeast, the prevailing wind behind us as well as an overall slight downhill gradient, we planned out a rough 5 day schedule. Iain booked time off work for the first week of the school summer holidays, and we hoped for decent weather! Last year, we had ended up walking in a heat wave, but this year the forecast was for a wetter first couple of days, then overcast but dry for the rest of the week. We’d learned a few things from last year too so were able to pack a little bit lighter – less spare clothes, no swimming stuff (apart from the end we wouldn’t be near the coast), and no trainers to change into. We did have Spud the dog with us for the first time – and the longest walk he has ever done was around 10 miles. With all of the kids a year older and stronger, and Isla now used to carrying a heavy pack after completing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Silver Award – it should be easy, right?

On Saturday morning we packed our final few bits and pieces and hopped on the bus into Perth to catch the train North. When the train arrived, we piled on with all our gear – and found it was packed! We ended up crammed into one of the vestibule areas until past Pitlochry, when we were able to get seats for the second half of the journey up over Drumochter. We were the only people getting off the train on the single platform at Newtonmore. The cloud was down and a light drizzle was falling, so we put our jackets on, hoisted our rucksacks for the first time, and set off.

Day 1: Newtonmore – Uath Lochan (11 miles)

Half a mile from the station led to the official start of the route – a marker stone on the main street of Newtonmore. The rain didn’t amount to much, and we had good walking conditions for the first 3 miles along the pavement and cycle path to Kingussie. From here, the Way turns off the main road and we got to see a Shinty match in progress before passing Ruthven Barracks, climbing gradually on a windy minor road. We left the road as the Speyside Way joins up with the start of the Badenoch Way and heads along good gravel paths and tracks through woodland past the villages of Drumguish, Inveruglass and Insh.

From Insh, the route joins a forestry road and makes its first major climb up through Inshriach Forest. By now it was around 4pm and for the first time, the heavens opened and we were drenched as we plodded up the hill, hoping for some shelter among the trees. The climb was less than a mile, but seemed to last much longer! On the way back down the other side, the rain slackened off but the ground was sodden and we all got wet feet. We arrived at Uath Lochan and decided it was time to find a spot to camp for the night. After scouting a couple of spots but finding them too boggy or too small for our tent, we arrived at the forestry commission car park and found a good location at the edge of the parking area.

The tent was soon up, and the midges weren’t too bad as we got some water on to boil for cups of tea, hot chocolate or juice, and pot-noodles for tea! Everyone was tired and mostly dried out as we bedded down for the first night of the trip. Although it was summer it got colder than expected in the night – more layers than expected were required for insulation, as our sleeping bags were rather lightweight and we didn’t bring camping mats to save weight!

Day 2: Uath Lochans – Nethy Bridge (21 miles)

After a relatively successful first night’s sleep, we were all awake by about 6am – it had been light since before 5. Iain was turfed outside with Spud to boil the kettle for a cup of tea, while inside the tent everyone else ate breakfast and tidied up.

It wasn’t long at all before we had the tent down, everything packed up and were ready to head off again. There hadn’t been much more rain overnight, but the ground was still damp and it was quite overcast as we set off the short forest track and onto the road to Kincraig. A path merging in from the direction of Feshiebridge was where Iain and Julie had run a loop from Coylumbridge last year, so the next day’s walking would be on familiar paths. We had a quick snack stop in Kincraig (very quietly as it was around 8.30 on Sunday morning!), and for the first time (but not the last) a little bit of foot taping was applied to avoid the risk of blisters as Iain had made the mistake of sleeping in slightly damp socks 🤦‍♂️

After a twisty rollercoaster of a route through the woods out of Kincraig, the way runs parallel to the main railway line almost all the way to Aviemore, and we were rewarded with a view of a passing LNER service making the long journey down to London. The early morning clouds rolled away and soon we all had jackets off as we arrived in Aviemore after about 10 miles of walking, conveniently in time for brunch. We had researched ahead (partly a strategy to motivate the kids) and identified Cobb’s Cafe as a dog-friendly and gluten-free-serving all-day-breakfast venue. As it turned out they had dropped the gluten free options from their menu, but we all still had more than enough to fill us up for an afternoon’s walking. We also took advantage of the water fountain just along the high street to refill all our bottles, which were close to empty after a day on the trail.

The next obvious section of the walk is the 5-and-a-half miles to Boat of Garten. The Way passed underneath both the main railway line and the heritage Strathspey Railway, which it then follows quite closely most of the way to Boat of Garten. We caught a glimpse of a steam train running through a cutting in the woods, and then left the railway behind as we followed first a track, then a road down into Boat of Garten. Sadly both the village shop and the cafe were both shut on a Sunday, so we had a DIY tea break on the benches outside the station, and made use of their ‘facilities’ in return for a small donation. We didn’t have time to stop and visit the model railway museum, but we timed our stop perfectly to see the train pull up, take on water, then head off again towards Broomhill.

After Boat of Garten, we had planned possible camp spots either in the woods near Loch Garten, or either side of Nethy Bridge. In the end we arrived a little bit too early at Loch Garten to want to stop, but the last “few” miles over to Nethy Bridge proved quite hard work for Lewis and Angus! In the end, we found a passable camp-site and then stopped just before the village, leaving Iain to run ahead to see if anything better was available within walking distance. He returned (eventually!) having found a nice spot by the River Nethy, just downstream of the village, but most importantly also had bought chips from the hotel to power everyone for the last half mile to the camp site. We also found that the community centre had a very clean, tidy, and importantly, 24/7 open public toilet!

After pitching the tent, the evening’s dinner consisted of canned beans and sausages. Everyone was hungry and tired after a long day on our feet and we were all bedded down to sleep by about 8pm!

Day 3: Nethy Bridge – Garvault (18 miles)

Our second morning on the Speyside Way was bright and dry. We had a good routine now of Iain outside making tea while everyone else packed up inside the tent. Before long we were all loaded up and made a quick detour back into the Nethy Bridge to visit the aforementioned loo and to fill up water bottles at the nearby standpipe. At 8am, the village farm shop opened so we bought (and ate) a punnet of locally-grown strawberries. We were back on route and walking shortly after 8am, and the route followed the old trackbed of the disused Strathspey railway – the first section of many to come! Easy walking for the first 4-5 miles, although we had our first encounter with what we named the “jaws of death” – a particular kind of metal stile/gate which had a habit of slamming shut on the heels of the unwary user. Consider yourself warned if you pass this way!

We crossed the Spey again on one of General Wade’s many bridges and a short stretch of tarmac led into Anagach Woods. We sheltered here for a few minutes from a heavy shower, but it didn’t amount to much and we arrived in Grantown-on-Spey in time for a tea break. Unfortunately both of the coffee shops that were dog friendly were both closed on a Monday, and the one that was open wasn’t dog friendly, so we had a takeaway and sat on a bench in the square. Once everyone was refuelled, Julie went to the shop to restock our provisions and Iain went in search of some new footwear for Angus, who was complaining of sore feet as his boots were a bit on the tight side! Although Cairngorm Outdoors no longer seems to be in business, the local bike shop stocked some new socks which promised a padded sole, blister proof and water resistant. Placebo or not, Angus was very happy with them and his feet seemed much better after swapping into them.

From Grantown, we headed across the golf course and back down into Anagach Woods. Another hour’s walk along some very nice woodland trails led to re-crossing the Spey and rejoining the railway alignment outside Cromdale village. Just past the old station (now converted to self-catering accommodation) we stopped at a convenient bench to eat the lunch we’d picked up in Grantown earlier. A bit of a wind was blowing across us, so we didn’t stop long. Although it was no longer raining, the next mile of the railway path was quite overgrown with long, damp grass and we all got wet feet.

Leaving the railway, we crossed the road and headed into what is definitely the toughest section of the route. There are several stiff climbs, firstly on dry stony forestry roads, then muddy trails. As we dropped out of the woods we were unfortunate to corner a group of five sheep at the end of a fenced-off lane. Eventually they decided that as we got closer the lesser of two evils was to charge past us, hopping surprisingly high on the way! Now we were mostly in farmland, but the going was tougher. A lot of the SW here runs in fenced-off lanes between fields, and in a lot of places there are tumble-down walls which are now partly overgrown making it difficult to pick your way between the rocks and grass, not to mention lots and lots more “jaws of death” to negotiate. A hawthorn hedge had also been recently cut back at one point, leaving thorns all over the path. Rhona managed to tread on one, and we eventually managed to remove the inch-long spike that had pieced the sole of her boot right through to her foot! After a couple of hours of this, everyone was tired and we took a rest stop at a very nice viewpoint, looking back up Strathspey. We even unpacked the stove and made a cup of tea to keep us all going.

We had originally hoped to make another 20 mile day to stop near Cragganmore, but it was clear that the tough terrain had taken its toll, and by the time we started climbing up through the Garvault plantation we had resolved to keep our eyes open for the first viable camping spot. After a short walk down the forest road, we found a wide, fairly flat clearing to the side of the path and pitched the tent at around 6pm. We were all very ready to get our damp socks and shoes off and have some food – this time it was cans of soup from Grantown. We heard a couple of other walkers pass by as we were already zipped up inside the tent, ready for another early night!

Day 4: Garvault – Woods of Arndilly (20 miles)

With our morning routine now pretty slick, we were ready to set off by 7.30am. There was a bit of rain around as we made our way down from the hillside, and across farmland to reach the old railway path again. Lots of long grass, boggy in parts, and even the railway path was covered in long grass initially. The rain came on heavily for about an hour and spirits plummeted at the prospect of another day (and one to come) on wet and sore feet. There was no real option but to keep moving, although we were entertaining serious thoughts about abandoning the trip at Aberlour, the next major town.

In hindsight, it was good we had camped where we did as there didn’t seem to be any good spots until we reached a designated camp site at Cragganmore, about 3.5 miles in to the day – a distance that would certainly not have been feasible the previous day! Here at least the path turned back to well maintained packed gravel, and the rain gradually faded away and the sun came out. By mid morning it was starting to get quite warm, and we stopped at a bench at Blacksboat Station. We were in need of filling up our water bottles as we had not resupplied since Nethy Bridge, but although the Cragganmore site and Blacksboat both had standpipes, they were marked as unsuitable for drinking. Fortunately, the forestry ranger workshop were able to top us up from their own supply with more than enough to get us to Aberlour.

The walk to Aberlour (or Charlestown of Aberlour to give it its full name!) is easy and gradually downhill but a long way – ten miles from when we joined the railway path. Along the way we passed the Knockando, Tamdhu and Dalmunach distilleries but the best surprise was in the small village of Carron. A sign on the SW promised a snack bar and pointed towards an old red phone box across the road. Inside was an array of canned drinks, water, crisps, chocolate and cereal bars – and even a box of dog biscuits! We helped ourselves, left a note in their guest book, and made a note of their paypal address so we could send a donation as soon as we were back in phone signal! Thank you Carron Community Association for this amazing facility 👏👏👏

The last three miles to Aberlour still seemed to take forever, but we arrived in time for a late lunch at the Gather’n cafe (also a wool shop!). They were very welcoming to a family of 6 tired and smelly walkers with huge rucksacks and dog in tow, and the food was great – huge burgers, all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, paninis and toasties (plus dog biscuits for Spud). Totally recommend anyone to pop in if they are passing! Now fed, under a hot sun and feeling more positive we restocked again at the local co-op for the remainder of the trip.

A couple of easy miles further along the railway path (including some dramatic cuttings and a tunnel) led to Craigellachie, where we stopped for an ice cream. A word of warning though – the local convenience shop is about half a mile off the route! From here we left the railway path and joined a minor road that rose gradually above the river past the Arndilly Estate. With over 16 miles in his legs the uphill was too much for Spud and he ground to a halt. Most of the rest of the day was walked with him slung across Iain’s shoulders! We left the road on a forest track up towards Ben Aigen, on the lookout for a good camping spot. The rangers who had given us water in the morning had suggested there were good locations up near a viewpoint at the top of the climb. I’m not sure that they had anticipated we had a single large tent rather than several smaller ones, but once we reached the view point we eventually found a clearing that was big enough – just! – to take the tent.

Apart from there being quite a lot of flies, it was a lovely spot to camp, and the viewpoint faced North giving us our first glimpse of Spey Bay and the Moray Firth. With about 20 miles left of the Speyside Way we knew that a good day’s effort would be enough to take us to the finish, so we bedded down for the final night in the tent, aiming for a good night’s sleep before an early start in the morning.

Day 5: Woods of Arndilly – Buckie (20 miles)

For the final morning, we were up and walking not long after 7am! Spud was still not that keen on walking, so we had re-arranged our bags so he could be fitted in one of the boys’ rucksacks and carried on someone’s front. Julie, Isla and I all took turns throughout the morning. The first three miles descend gradually on forestry tracks and paths under damp skies before briefly coming out on the banks of the Spey at Boat O’ Brig. The route turns back inland though, and makes its last significant climb up to run alongside Woods of Cairnty on a minor road. This road continues pretty much straight for another five miles, passing the Earth Pillars viewpoint, through Ordiquish and into Fochabers. On entering the town, Spud seemed to get a bit of a second wind and was happy to walk for the rest of the day! We detoured slightly from the official route here, instead passing via the public toilets and down the main street to pick up some lunch in the Coop. Rejoining the SW in the park on the far side of the town, we stopped at a picnic bench to eat our lunch.

The next section of five miles to the promontary of Spey Bay has quite a distinctly different feel to the rest of the route. Although it does still wind in and out of woodland, the soil becomes sandy and more coastal plants and trees can be seen. The paths were generally good and descend very gradually, following the river quite closely. Along the way we passed the “10 miles to go” mark, and everyone was motivated to keep up a good pace. Angus started to tire a bit was we got closer to Spey Bay and the sun shone down, although there was a bit of a breeze picking up too. Before too long, the barrel-vaulted profile of the Tugnet ice houses and the Spey Bay visitor’s centre came into view. We stopped here briefly for an ice cream, drinks and to apply more sun-cream ready for the final six mile stretch to Buckie.

Leaving the coast behind, our route turned slightly inland to pass behind the Spey Bay Links golf course. We wove our way through a stretch of woodland, which had clearly been decimated by the storms earlier in the year, but a passable route through had been cleared. Less pleasant was a short stretch where we passed close by and downwind of the local landfill! Emerging from the woods, we joined the track bed of the disused Moray Coast Railway and followed it for about a mile. Without much warning, the weather changed and what had been a nice cooling breeze turned into a driving rain squall, blowing cold and hard across us from the sea on our left. Conditions were pretty wild as we passed through Portgordon and on into Buckpool – on a good day the views would have been great, but we had our hoods up, heads down and marched on. The rain finally stopped as we made our way into Buckie. Turning inland for the last time, up a short rise into the town and we arrived at the official end of the Speyside Way near Cluny Square. 87 miles and 4-and-a-half days of walking and we had made it!

Homeward bound

We’d worked out that if we could make it to Buckie in time to catch the 4.30 or 5.30pm bus we’d be able to make it back to Inverness for a connecting train home. In the end we made it with about 20 minutes to spare – just enough time to pick up some well deserved chips, before catching the bus. Earlier in the day, we’d checked our travel plans and made the unfortunate discovery that due to the Scotrail staff dispute and resulting timetable changes, the later trains from Inverness were no longer running, and there was no way we could make it back in time to make our connection! A quick replan followed (all done while walking in the rain) and we were able to make our way home via a change of bus in Fochabers, heading now for Aberdeen, train from Aberdeen to Dundee (thankfully staff accepted our tickets), and finally the Ember bus to Bridge of Earn where we finally arrived home just before midnight! All’s well that end’s well and we managed to avoid having to make an unplanned extra night in the tent.

Looking back, the Speyside Way was a very different experience to the Kintyre Way – although it is shorter and mostly easier walking, it is generally much less remote. This made the logistics easier and we were able to pack a bit lighter. Strangely it didn’t feel that much easier – perhaps due to the wet weather and resulting wet and sore feet that most of us had at one time or another. Still a great achievement for everyone though, and although he is a year older this time we believe Angus is still the youngest known walker to complete the route end-to-end… and maybe Spud is the youngest dog! Anyone know differently?

We’ve not decided for sure, but maybe next year it’s time to try something different – and we’ve been looking at the Hebridean Way, but by bike this time. We shall see! Before then we’ve got lots more adventures to come this summer with ultra races for both Iain and Julie, and probably a spot more camping too if the weather is good.

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