Piers Bowser


A River Spey Descent

Piers Bowser

A River Spey Descent

Come away with me to the birthplace of the River Spey in the Monadhliath Mountains where the curlews’ cries carry across the wide open moorland of the Corrieyairack Forest. Watch as she wends her way by shallow pools and pebbly riffles through the rough lands of Laggan, down to Newtonmore and Kingussie where young men lock horns at the ancient game of shinty. Here we find enough depth to launch our canoe into the river as she swings past the ruins of Ruthven Barracks that have stood since 1721, guarding the Highland pass though Drumochter to the lowlands beyond.  We turn northwards into the drowned land of Badenoch, home of the lapwing, redshank and snipe, and drift lazily through the marshes; past the willow scrub that lines the water’s edge, until eventually we emerge onto Loch Insh.

At the northern end of this lovely loch with its backdrop of the Cairgorm Mountains, we pass an island where a pair of ospreys nest in the tall Scots pines, and catch sight of St Eunan’s wooded knoll where sits a simple white harled  kirk that has been a place of Christian worship since the 7th century. Inside the church is an ancient bronze bell which was believed to have magical healing powers. According to legend, St Eunan used to ring this bell to call to worship the Swan Children of Lir, a brother and sister who were half child, half swan. It is said that Eunan’s bell was once taken south to the lowlands of Perth, but the bell tolled the name of the saint’s hillock at Loch Insh: 'Tom Eunan', 'Tom Eunan', ‘Tom Eunan’ till, like a wild swan, it broke free and flew back to its loch side home.

As we glide under the wooden bridge at Kincraig, the waters of the Feshie rush down from the Cairngorms to meet us. Nearing Inshriach, we see the awesome sight of an osprey plunging into a pool, just ahead of us.  The brown-backed hawk hauls herself out of the water with her powerful wings; a hapless salmon dangling from her merciless talons. From here to Aviemore the Spey flows with currents strong enough to undermine its shingle banks and topple trees into the river, creating ‘strainers’ capable of snaring the unwary canoeist.

We pass Aviemore on the left bank and hear the hoot of a steam locomotive entering the Victorian station of this popular tourist town.  We shun the delights of its garish gift shops, preferring to linger in the wide pastures of the strath that are dotted with sheep and highland cattle.  Perhaps it is the leisurely pace of the river’s progress here that has given us the dance time of the Strathspey – the reel that we step to so slowly and deliberately.  We time our paddles to the Strathspey’s steady beat: ‘You’ll tak the high road and I’ll tak the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.’ We reach, pull, rotate and feather our blades as the boat glides smoothly round broad bends, past the alders and silver birches that shiver in the breeze. 

Beyond the old ferry crossing at Boat of Garten, the river becomes wider and straighter, so we hoist our sail and run before the wind on a warm, south westerly. Over to the east the woodlands of Abernethy and Rothiemurchus once merged to form part of the Great Caledonian Forest that covered such a huge area of Scotland that it was said that a red squirrel could travel the 50 miles to the sea without ever touching the ground. These days the remaining pine forest is still home to red squirrels, pine martens, capercaillies and crossbills. These Speyside forests have provided timber for so long that archaeological excavations of the area of the Great Fire of London in 1666 have uncovered wood bearing the Rothiemurchus mark. In the early 19th century there was a system of dams and sluices on the tributaries of the Spey that released the flow of water that was required to float the logs downstream. Gangs of skilful woodsmen who lived along the riverbanks guided their timber rafts downstream to the shipyards of Garmouth, by the sea.

The Spey now shakes herself from her slumber and runs rapidly towards the picturesque old stone bridge at Grantown which once carried the military road that linked Braemar to Fort George on the Moray Firth. From 1754 onwards it played its part in ensuring that the rebellious Jacobite clansmen who had risen under Bonnie Prince Charlie never took up arms again against the Hanoverian King. 

From here to the sea the excitement of the journey grows as the Spey proves her prowess as the fastest flowing river in Scotland, and shows her credentials as one of the finest salmon rivers in the country. She combines these accolades with the fame she shares with nearby distilleries that produce five of the finest malt whiskies in the land: Macallan, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, Glenfarclas and Balvenie, not to mention Glenlivet, Cardhu, Glen Grant, and Cragganmore. These famous whiskies evolved over time from the farmers’ wee illicit stills of the 18th century that were hidden among the rocks and heather, away from the prying eyes of the exciseman.  Today this region has grown to produce half of Scotland’s whisky. In Dufftown, to the east, they proudly boast that Rome may have been built on seven hills, but Dufftown was ‘built on seven stills’.

We have to concentrate now as the River Avon comes tumbling down towards us from Tomintoul, the highest village in the highlands, and our slender boat bounces down a run of rocky rapids. We have a wee moment to draw breath in the long pool at Ballindalloch before braving the ‘Washing Machine’ at Blacksboat where we pitch and toss through its turbulent haystacks of white water and soaking spray.

As we descend through a cleft in the hills beneath Ben Rinnes, the sides of the glen close in around us.   We have our helmets on now and powerful currents create strong swirling eddies that can capsize us if we’re not careful.  It is summer time, when the river levels are lower, so we set our boat to the left, crossing on a collision course to a rocky island then, with a bow rudder to the right; we thread ourselves deftly down a narrow chute between boulders. Down, down, down we go, riding the rodeo rapid until we are swept over the final rocky ledge into the pool below.  High above us on our left is the tiny station of Knockando where they used to load the steam train with barrels of Cardhu malt whisky and woollen blankets from the water mill, woven for the soldiers of the Western Front.

We weave past fly fishermen waist deep in water who cast their long looping lines towards us. The iron span of Carron Bridge comes into view where once a clumsy workman almost ended my life when he accidentally dropped a heavy board from the high girders, narrowly missing me and my fragile craft.  Soon the river opens up with grassy banks on either side, and a slender white suspension bridge signals that we have reached Aberlour. The sweet scent of freshly baked shortbread wafts our way.

A grey heron rises from the shallows with slow wing beats and a harsh croaking call as we pass the turrets of Telford’s bridge at the cliff-side cooperage village of Craigellachie.  Further on, sitting among fields of barley, the flood prone town of Rothes, with a population of just over a thousand souls and three distilleries, boasts an impressive ratio of whisky barrels to spirited inhabitants.

We can almost smell the sea now as we reach the red earthen pillars rising by Lord March’s pool where, as a teenager, I fished one misty morning with Willy Gordon, the local ghillie, and saw two roe deer swim across the fast flowing current that now carries us past the elegant village of Fochabers. Passing the beats of Gordon Castle estate, we enter the low lands where the sand martins skim across the surface and my father used to take me fishing for sea trout by its shifting shingle banks and jungles of giant hog weed. Here the river is for ever changing its course, braiding through islands of pebbles that are constantly being pushed and pulled by the competing powers of the writhing river and the tidal currents of the sea.

Finally, we pull our boat out onto the green sward by the grassy, whale backed humps of the old ice house from where the salmon fishermen of the crown estate rowed their grey and black flat bottomed cobles and released their nets in the river. Beyond the fishing station, the shingle beach roars and rumbles rhythmically in the waves as the Arctic terns pipe their warning cries, while out in the bay dolphins and seals search for seafaring salmon seeking the smell of the Spey.

Piers Bowser © 2021