Photos: Yvonne Hartmann
The Speyside Way, a.k.a. The Whisky Trail, is a 107km hiking route that connects the Northern coast of Scotland to Aviemore which sits in the Cairngorms. It follows the River Spey through an area of Scotland that’s well known for its rich selection of whisky distilleries. A whisky heaven, Speyside has around 50 distilleries, the greatest concentration found anywhere in the world, and is home to some of the most famous, best selling Scotch brands.
Buckie – Aviemore
The incredible and scenic hike begins at Buckie where the Spey meets the sea, and journeys through the Highlands, passing farmlands, woods, Scottish villages, and old train lines. In places the fauna reflects the sky, as angry blues and purples carpet the ground, creating a near mirror image of the turbulent clouds that pass overhead.
With relatively few ascents, the hike is a relatively smooth one, that gives you a rare glimpse through time with its industrial-era relics and buildings strewn across the way. There’s plenty of wildlife around, include harbour seals, deers, pheasants, hawks and the like on the way. The main challenge happens to be the hike’s greatest attribute – in that the area is so isolated, with certain stretches lacking any stores or restaurants, such that you really need to be prepared.
And as it’s Scotland, make sure you’re ready for all types of weather conditions.
Scotch whisky has something of a mythical status. The fire water concoction made from fermented grain and distilled for years in wooden casks, has a rich, oak temperament, and a smoothness that only gets better with time. It is without question that Speyside produces some of the world’s best whisky, and the secret to this lies within the River Spey itself. Its clear and refined water is the main ingredient behind the local malts. That, and years of tradition. Along the way you will visit numerous, legendary and award winning distilleries, although make sure to take note, as not all are open to the public.
Within walkable reach of the Speyside Way are Aberlour, Glenfiddich (the world’s best selling single-malt), Cardhu, and Cragganmore. With a little extra effort, more time and more hiking, you can also get to Glenlivet, Glenrothes, Glen Grant, Macallan. You have to book your whisky tour in advance in order to ensure you get a place. And the more you pay for your tour the you more options you get to sample at the end. You’ll get shown around the whole factory, taken through the distillation process, and if you’ve visited a good-one, you’ll get taken to a private sampling room where you can taste the whiskies in the proper surroundings.
One not to miss would definitely be Aberlour. A family-run business, Aberlour is housed in a beautiful slate tiled building, alongside a gentle flowing spring. At the end of the tour you get to sit in the main boardroom to sample four-different whiskies, one of which is exclusive to the distillery itself (don’t miss out on the exclusives, as they’re not available to buy anywhere else!) Sampling the drams in opulence, and being walked through how each one is made is such a rewarding experience, that is made to feel so personal thanks to the great team that work there. The sherry-casked, distillery exclusive is a beautiful, well-rounded drink too, and a great prize for those who make it there.
Where to stay
The hike itself can take around six-days to complete, but accommodation options that are within walking distance form The Whisky Trail are limited to plush hotels and BnBs, which can make the whole trip rather expensive. Should this be your thing however, there are several towns along the way where you can stay. We recommend this great online accomadation guide here for those who want to found out more.
I would personally recommend camping as there are great campsites in Fochabers and Craigellachie, along with a free campsite next to the old Ballindalloch train station. The campites are within easy walking distance of the Whisky Trail and are all perfectly equipped with everything you need.
If 100+ kilometres isn’t enough for you, then there are extra trails and hikes you can pick up. From Craigellachie, you can (and should) hike over the hills into Dufftown where you’ll find the Glenfiddich distillery, and then hike back into town along another old railway line, to The Highlander Inn – the definitive bar and hotel for anyone visting the area. This additional circuit adds around 15km to your hike, but is definitely worth it. Dufftown is the self-proclaimed capital of Scotch Whisky, so not going there is like visiting Rome and not seeing the Vatican.
There’s the also the Tomintoul spur, a route that connects Ballindalloch to the Glenlivet distillery across wild moorland. This 20km hike comes well recommended, although we didn’t find the time to fit this in. In addition, the Speyside Way has recently been extended by around 30km up to Newtonmore, however after Ballindalloch there are no more distilleries to visit, so if you’re in it primarily for the Whisky, then Aviemore is your best end point.
How we did it
Buckie – Fochabers 18km
OK, enough of the basics. Let’s get really into it. We did the walk in over six whole days, starting in Buckie on a Saturday afternoon in late September, arriving in Aviemore on Thursday late afternoon. To get to Buckie is relatively easy from Inverness, involving a simple train and bus connection. Buckie has the feeling of a rundown, seaside town, where the locals put their washing out to dry next to the water. Walking out the town towards Spey Bay, we passed a whole bunch of harbour seals just idling around on the coast, bobbing up and down the beach. Apparently there are dolphins and orcas around as well, but we didn’t see any.
From the bay, you follow the fast flowing river down towards Fochabers, where there are great vantage points to see the Spey in full flow. Fochabers is a small town with just one bar, one cafe, one supermarket, and only one place to eat – the award winning local fish & chip shop. (It’s actually pretty decent!)
Fochabers – Aberlour 21km
The second day’s hike takes you through woodlands, up over hills and farms, and through a detour that sadly takes you away from the river. Here you can already see the rich amount of beeches and firs. There’s also an abundance of wild raspberries and blackberries, ripe for picking. The hike into Aberlour is long, and somehow feels longer than it should. In fact, this 21km took us around eight-hours to complete in total. Upon reaching civilisation once more the path first passes Craigellachie, a small town next to the river that is home to The Highlander Inn. During the evening, you can see the fisherman wading out to catch the salmon that are swimming upstream, and observe their silhouettes standing still against the fast pace of the water.
Aberlour – Dufftown – Craigellachie 15km
Here comes the fun part. Starting the day at Aberlour distillery, we hiked off above the village, through desolate woodlands, and down through tree nurseries into Dufftown, the heart of Scotch whisky in Scotland. Here there are castles, and Highland cattle, and of coure, the grand Glenfiddich distillery. One of the biggest, best distilleries around (the 12 year is the best selling single-malt across the wold), while remaining independent, Glenfiddich is a grand institution, whose owners aren’t shy of sharing their greatness while showing you all the best spots in distillery. There’s also a great tasting at the end, where you get to sample the 12, 15, and 18 year.
Once done, you walk up to the still-running, vintage railway station, and walk along the tracks back to Craigellachie. Here we set ourselves at The Highlander, where the pie is something you cannot miss if in Speyside, along with a few drams of course.
Aberlour – Ballindalloch – 16km
After two nights in Aberlour, we walked along the river and along the old railway line. From this point on the distilleries come thick and fast. Every few kilometres you start to see the church-like spears of the old malting houses that come to define the distilleries outer facades. Look a little closer and you can see the copper stills facing out onto the water.
Here we took a detour to the Cardhu distillery which is open to the public (as sadly, Knockando isn’t). Cardhu is a much smaller distillery compared to most, and is still has a very classical aesthetic, which makes it worth the visit. The owners also have some domesticated Highland-cattle on site, which are open to being hand-fed. From here we hiked down to Ballindalloch, an old destitue train station in the middle of nowehere. Having set up camp, we walked an extra 2km to the The Delnashaugh Hotel for some food. The owner very kindly offered to drive us back to the campsite for free – we heard that this is a thing he does quite often, (just in case you were wondering how to get back!)
Ballindalloch – Grantown-on-Spey 21km
Out of everything, this was for sure the hardest section, and in retrospect it’s difficult to really understand why. We started the morning at Cragganmore distillery, following the old railway line down until the path took us over the hills and into the Cairngorms. It’s one of the most visually stunning parts of the trek, as you go through forests, across streams and into farmland thick with purple heather, haunted woods, and wild vegetation. Passing Cromdale, through fields and into Anagach Woods, a protected forest with a thick canopy. Grant Town — one of the largest towns on the path — eventually comes into view. There’s nothing much to distinguish this Scottish village, but when you need to stock up on supplies and get something to eat, it does the job.
Grantown-on-Spey – Aviemore 28km
Sometimes leaving the longest section to the end feels like the most sensible thing to do, until you actually come to doing it. It consists of mainly forest trails with zero inclines. From Nethy Bridge to Boat of Garten, you pass through a protected forest with an osprey sanctuary. Your proximity to Boat of Garten is signalled by the coming and going of a passing steam train, as it moves off in the distance. Once there, crossing the Spey once more, you can visit the renovated old station, and see the steam train in action.
From Boat of Garten to Aviemore, there are more protected woodlands, full of deciduous trees and thick heather, with the mountains painted onto the background landscape. At times it feels more like Colorado, albeit with more purple and blues. Once through the forest the path takes you gradually into Aviemore, a sleeper-ski village, albeit with more life than anywhere else along the way. Like most trails, there is no end point, or to show where it begins. Or that it has now been extended further by another 30+ kilometres. The Old Bridge Inn sits on the river here, it’s a great restaurant and should definitely be the end point to your journey.