On my fifth day of walking, somewhere among the drooping boughs of the primeval pine woods, I lose my binoculars. The Scottish weather is having an indecisive afternoon, wavering between sharp downpours (stop, pull waterproofs from backpack, tog up) and baby-blue spring skies (stop, disrobe, stuff waterproofs into backpack). During one of these trailside costume changes, I rest my binoculars on the heather understorey and neglect to pick them up again. When the drizzle abates and I realise what I’ve done, it feels like I’ve been cleaved from a travel companion.
On the Speyside Way, you see, there’s plenty to train your lenses on. I’m walking the trail in its 40th anniversary year, and the past four decades have seen the rural 65-mile route established as one of the most downright enjoyable hikes in Scotland. It broadly follows the River Spey, from its mouth on the Moray coast to its upper stretches in the Cairngorms National Park. The elevation gain is modest, the wildlife’s superb, and there are some 20 whisky distilleries en route. To which the correct response is: best get your boots on.
“You’re doing the Spey Way?” asks a local at the Grant Arms in Fochabers, where I spend my first night on the trail. When I confirm, he raises his glass and nods as if greeting an old friend. “It’s good to have walkers back, I’ll tell you that.”
The sentiment is very much mutual. I’ve spent the bulk of the past 18 months trudging the same old close-to-home lanes, so the prospect of following a six-day path across a shapely swathe of northeast Scotland is a giddying one. The trail begins by winding west from the small port town of Buckie, where the breeze comes fresh from Scandinavia and the shoreline is busy with swallows and oystercatchers. Mottled harbour seals lie fat and happy on the rocks, basking in the salty sunshine. Soon the signage turns me inland, and I meet the river for the first time.
The Spey is a force to be reckoned with. It is the fastest-flowing river in Scotland and the largest “near-natural” river in Britain, essentially meaning it’s always been free to do its own thing, carving channels and flooding plains as the mood takes it. The river is renowned principally for its salmon – a fact that attracts both anglers and ospreys – and its whisky, which benefits from the character imbued in the water by the region’s peaty terrain. Here at the coast, some 107 miles from its source in the Monadhliath range, it flows wide, clear, and glossy, an icy-to-the-touch inlet surging into the Moray Firth.
For the next six days, although the river itself is often hidden from view, my path rarely strays far from its banks. Some Scottish hiking trails buck and rear across the map, climbing ridges and bagging peaks. Others take the low road, rambling from place to place with nothing more than the occasional ascent to negotiate. The Speyside Way is one of the latter, sticking mainly to hummocky woodland, grassed-over railway tracks and pheasant-flown moorland: not so much a mountain slog as a weeklong country bimble. My luggage, incidentally, is being transferred on ahead of me, making the walk an unburdening experience in more ways than one. No complaints here.
The trail saunters first to Fochabers, then Craigellachie, then Ballindalloch (charming historical villages all, but not easy to pronounce after a dram or two), with each day covering between ten and 13 miles. These relatively simple chunks give the perfect excuse to spend lots of time sat on tree stumps with packed lunches and binoculars. I watch dippers and grey wagtails bobbing in and out of chuckling streams; roe deer springing through groves of towering larch; yellowhammers glowing as buttery-bright as the flowering broom they’re perched in; a cuckoo, newly arrived from the Congo, singing its two-note salute across the valley.
At regular intervals, the pagoda-style rooftops of whisky distilleries poke above the riverside, wafting a malty fug across the path. On day three, I stop off at Aberlour’s handsome 142-year-old HQ. The site is still fed by a clear spring running down from the hills, and the barley it uses for malting is grown within a 15-mile radius. Pleasingly, the distillery also sits minutes away from the Walker’s Shortbread Factory. I ask if whisky goes well with shortbread. “This is Speyside,” laughs my distillery guide. “Whisky goes well with everything.”
Some of the best-known brands in the world are scattered on or close to the Spey, among them Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and – sometimes topping £1,600 a bottle – The Macallan. Tasting single malts here in the region is a special experience. When you’re sipping on a glass in the evenings, looking out across the river and watching thigh-deep anglers casting lines in the gloaming, the drink’s colours, aromas and flavours somehow become inextricable from the scenery.
I wind on along the trail, fuelled by guesthouse breakfasts of tattie scones, making further overnight stops in Grantown-on-Spey and Boat of Garten. When I cross into the Cairngorms National Park, snow-patched whaleback hills start filling the horizon almost immediately. The pine forests on this stretch are the real deal: dense and needle-strewn, part of the ancient tree cover that once cloaked the country. I find myself moving slowly.
On my last day I need to cover just six miles to reach Aviemore, the trail’s traditional endpoint. With time on my hands, I decide to walk back into the glorious Abernethy woods before continuing along the route. The trees close in. Woodpeckers drum. Red squirrels skitter through the canopy. Then I turn a kink in the path and there they are, hung by some benevolent soul on the branch of a Caledonian pine: my binoculars. Chuffed beyond reason, I see this simple kindness as a message. Namely that on the Speyside Way – possibly while a slight whisky hangover dissipates into the Highland air – the more you can stop and stare, the better.