Exploring Speyside Things to see and do in Speyside and beyond

The early eighteen hundreds. Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverly Novels’ will soon bring the romantic myths and legends of the Highlands to every hearth where books are read. Meantime Charles Grant, Laird of Elchies, has a scheme he hopes will bring work and prosperity to the impoverished Highlanders of his day. His idea is “to collect a number of Mechanicks and other industrious people into some centricall spot.” True to his word, in 1812, Charles Grant founded Charlestown of Aberlour.

The village celebrated its bicentenary in 2012, and its generously wide streets, attractive granite stone buildings, decorative parks and gardens and bustling high street, bookended by Aberlour Distillery and the world-renowned Walker’s Shortbread bakery, remain true to Charles Grant’s visions of two hundred years on. The key to its longevity and appeal can be found within the colours of the village’s own unique ‘Aberlour Tartan’. Here we find blue for the Spey, Scotland’s finest salmon fishing river; green for the lush hillsides that feed the iconic black Aberdeen Angus cattle; gold for the wheat that makes the shortbread and the barley that makes the malt whisky; purple for the heather and the thistle that grows in abundance amidst an unspoilt landscape.

No surprise then that Aberlour is known as the ‘larder of Scotland’ and the Dowans Hotel provides the ideal base from which to fully explore all that Speyside has to offer. The surge of the River Spey echoes all around the hotel gardens and a short walk finds the Speyside Way, skirting the river along the course of the old North of Scotland Railway Line, so the going is easy, but the flora and fauna is nonetheless thrilling and at times unexpected. Look out for pine martins, red squirrels, red and roe deer and long-eared owls, perhaps a heron or an otter, trying to snare an Atlantic Salmon as it leaps its way upstream and bellies across the freshwater pearls that dot the river bed.

A brisk diversion from the Speyside Way takes the more adventurous traveller to the foot of Ben Aigen, where over twenty miles of mountain-bike trails criss-cross mature woodlands of Scots pine and birch before heading off up to the summit. Or there’s the ‘Mountain of Moray’, Ben Rinnes, 2775 feet with its attendant sgurrs reminding us that it once belonged to the Cairngorms, the hardy hill walker rewarded with views across the Moray Firth to the Black Isles and perhaps a kestrel or a buzzard hanging on the wind and wheeling in an open empty sky.

There is plenty of sport to be had too. Keeping up a tradition that dates back to the days of Queen Victoria, private estates like the Knockando Estate and Rothes Estate run game and clay pigeon shoots and have berths on the River Spey for salmon fishing. It may be a ‘fisherman’s tale’, but local records claim that a 48 ½ lb salmon has been caught off the riverbank in Aberlour! Swap the waders for plus-fours and you will find excellent golf courses hereabouts at Dufftown and Rothes and the championship course at Castle Stuart is only an hour’s drive away. There’s also horse-riding and canoeing available locally and skiing and snow-boarding on the Cairngorms.

For the less energetic Speyside offers lots of opportunities for sight-seeing. Just along the Spey stands Thomas Telford’s pioneering Craigellachie Bridge, built in 1814 of cast-iron and supported by castellated stone turrets, it’s truly a gem of the nation’s industrial heritage hiding away here in the Highlands. As is the nearby Knockando Woolmill, which dates back to 1754 and is the oldest district working mill in Northern Europe.

Travel a couple of miles south, and a couple of hundred years back in time, and discover the sixteenth-century Ballindalloch Castle, built in the classic Scots baronial style and still the family seat of the MacPherson Grant family. Or simply take a stroll around Aberlour and visit the many independent cafes, delicatessens, arts and crafts and gift shops the village has to offer. Not forgetting to visit the Walker’s Shortbread store and purchase your shortbread fresh from the bakery.

And of course, no visit would be complete without sampling the ‘liquid gold’ for which the region is famed. Speyside is the home par excellence of Scotch whisky and Aberlour lies at the heart of the famous ‘Whisky Trail’. Hardly a corner can be turned without seeing the charcoal stained stone bonded warehouses and pagoda roofs distinct of the distilling industry.

Speyside is home to many of the most famous, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Cardhu amongst them, but also lesser known distilleries such as Ben Rinnes, Glenfarclas, Tamdhu and the village’s own Aberlour. Then there is the Speyside Cooperage with its distinctive pyramid towers of casks, denoting that this is where the distilleries source their barrels.

Many of the local distilleries have visitors centres and shops and offer tours where you can take ‘a nosing’ and discover how the peaty water of the Spey, the design of the copper stills, the lineage of the oak casks and the advent of time all work their magic to create the unique flavours and aromas of each individual malt. Then return to the Dowans Hotel and put your new knowledge to the test. Our bar stocks over five hundred (eventually over 600) single malt whiskies ranging from a familiar twelve year old Glenfiddich to a rare and exclusive (and almost priceless) fourty year old Macallan.

Thanks to Alba Fishing and Visit Scotland for the use of the photographs.