The Speyside Way

When I was but a wee lad, whenever I would spend time with my grandfather he would tell me about growing up in Scotland, he’d teach me Scottish history and we’d sing Scottish folk songs together. One of my favorites was “The Sky is Bluer in Scotland.” The chorus goes like this:

The sky is bluer in Scotland.

The grass is greener there, too.

The air smells sweeter,

the rivers are deeper,

The mountains a lovelier view.

And if you ever leave Scotland,

the country of your birth,

From your homesick cries,

you’ll realize It’s the finest place on earth.

So, one of the things I was most excited about experiencing in Scotland was nature. And we got to experience a lot of the beauty of Scotland’s natural world just by driving through the highlands and isles on our various adventures, and we walked a bit of the Fife coastal path, and I hiked a Ben with some friends in September as well. However, like CS Lewis says, “We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” Which is why from the moment we landed I began planning a long distance walking trip.IMG_5674 Hayley had no interest in such things. While she enjoys wildcamping out of a car for a night or two when necessary, walking and sleeping in a tent where ever we decide to pitch it is not her thing. So I enlisted a good friend and former student Matt, who was already planning an extended visit after he graduated from university in May. He’s gone backpacking in Oregon every year for the past three years, and did some backpacking in Africa last year as well. So I knew he’d be game.IMG_5625 We decided on the Speyside Way because Speyside is one of my favorite areas in Scotland, but not an area we had been to as much as I would have wanted this year,  I wanted to walk a long the River Spey and there happens to be a lot of distilleries in the region. Once we decided that we’d be wildcamping, rather than finding hostels, we didn’t really plan our trip until we were on the train headed into the Highlands. I tend to plan a little differently without Hayley. In the end we decided we’d start in Aviemore, because that’s where the train station is, and then walk to Dufftown, about 55 miles away, and end at the Glenfiddich Distillery, the largest in Scotland, and take the bus to Elgin where we’d take the train back to St Andrews.IMG_5650 The first day we walked 14 miles like was nothing. We stopped at a hotel in the tiny village Boat of Garten for lunch, and had dinner at a pub in Nethybridge, another tiny village Hayley and I stayed in the first time we visited Scotland. We ended up camping right on the bank of the Spey that night. The next day we woke up sore, and realized we probably pushed it harder than we should have the day before. After walking into Grantown for lunch and supplies for dinner and breakfast the next day, we slogged the rest of the way to Cromdale. By the time we reached Cromdale, we had walked seven and half miles, and had 10 more miles to reach Ballindalloch. Both of us were tired, and neither of thought we’d actually make it to Ballindalloch that day. I figured we’d just pitch our tent whenever we got feed up with walking.IMG_5627 Then unexpectedly, right as we crossed the bridge into Cromdale (a super tiny village. It doesn’t even have a store.) a woman with her toddler child pulled up in a car and asked if we were walking the Speyside Way. When we said we were, she told us that it was going to be very windy that night and if we wanted we could pitch our tent in their yard next to their stonewall. She also told us we could have a homecooked meal with her family, and offered to pick up any beer of our choosing for the evening. We gratefully took her up on her offer and followed her to her nearby home. It was probably the highlight of our trip. Erica, Charles, and little Charlie were incredibly kind, the food was delicious and the 200 year old former manse Georgian home was beautiful.IMG_5665 The next morning we hitched a ride from Charles to Ballindalloch in order to skip about 10 miles of the walk that seemed pretty uneventful on the map. From there we walked into Aberlour, passing about a half dozen distilleries along the way. It was by for the prettiest part of the walk, and we saw the most people on this section as well. In Aberlour we watched a local soccer match, tasted some Aberlour and ate at the Mash Tun where we met one of the most talkative and worst listeners I’ve ever met. Matt and I could tell you all about his career, his hometown, his favorite beers and least favorite beers. I’m not sure if he even heard our names. It was good times. After we found a place to pitch our tents, and after Matt almost died when he decided to run around the top of a tunnel opening, we visited one of the coolest and most depressing pubs I’ve ever seen, owned and operated by a WWII veteran and widower. The only time he’s left Speyside was for the War.IMG_5675 After camping in the rain, the next morning we walked into to Dufftown, opted out of a tour of the Balvenie distillery because it was going to be 25 pounds, and made our way to Glenfiddich. The Glenfiddich distillery is insanely huge, and has a very in depth touring experience. To be honest, we were most excited for the comfy couches in the cafe. The tour was great though, the vast distillery is beautiful. They were also very generous with their tastings. Afterwards we walked the rest of the way into Dufftown, visiting a field of Highland coos along the way. We hitched a bus ride up to Elgin, and ended up seeing our friend from the Mashtun again.IMG_5680 I had high expectations for this little adventure, and it delivered in every way. The Highland countryside is unparalleled as an idyllic setting, and getting to spend so much time with such a great friend out in nature was a rare pleasure. Even though we were both sore and tired (it’s really hard to get a full night’s sleep in a tent when it’s light out until 11:30 and sunrises at 3am), and I had blisteres all over my feet (I actually began the walk with blisters from walking around London and hiking around Skye the week before), and as much as I enjoyed my comfy bed and shower, I immediately wanted to go back. I hope it’s not the last time I get to walk and camp in Scotland. I’m sure it wont be. (btw, be sure to watch the video at the top. It’s rad)IMG_5708

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