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 of which anywhere in the world, and is home to some of the most famous, best selling Scotch brands.
The hiking trail begins at Buckie, passes by 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 sea-lions, 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.
The other great pull of the Speyside Way, as already mentioned, is the vast abundance of distilleries along the way. The clean and pure water that runs through the Spey is used in the distillation and cooling process of some of the world’s best whiskies. Not all distilleries are open to the public, and some are located far off from the Speyside Way, such that you would need additional transport to reach them.
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 - although we didn’t make it to there. Book your whisky tour in advance, the more you pay for your tour earns you more options to sample at the end. You’ll get shown around the whole building, 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.
A favourite of mine would definitely be Aberlour. It’s a family run business, housed in a beautiful slate tiled building, along 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. 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. A good guide to checking these out can be found here. We decided to camp for most of the route. There are great campsites in Fochabers and Craigellachie, and also a free campsite next to the old Ballindalloch train station. There’s also camping options at Grantown, although we opted for a hotel by this point.
If 100+ kilometres isn’t enough for you, then there are extra trails and hikes you can pick up. From Craigellachie, you can 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 - a recommended stopping off point for some great food. This additional circuit will add around 15km to your hike, but is definitely worth it. There’s the also the Tomintoul spur which 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. We did it 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 sea lions 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 days 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 8-hours to complete in total. Upon reaching civilisation once more the path first passes Craigellachie, a small town next to the river with a great restaurant and bar called The Highlander Inn, which unsurprisingly has a great selection of whiskies. During the evening, you can also see the fisherman wading out to catch the salmon that are swimming upstream, or 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 the town of Dufftown, the heart of Scotch whisky in Scotland. Here there are castles, and Highland cattle, before you reach 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, who 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 or see 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 of some facing out onto the water. In Carron we found an old phone booth full of snacks and fizzy-drinks, with a pay-as-you-like box, perfect for those on long hikes.
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, but as it’s very much older a lot of the facilities and architecture is still in a classical-style, 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, where there is essentially nothing. 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, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you could go there with this expectation in mind.
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 own — 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. (I totally undersold Anagach Woods, which was extremely beautiful, but after seven hours on the road, the whole thing just started to pass by without thought).
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, and there are absolutely no inclines. From Nethy Bridge to Boat of Garten, you pass through a protected forest with an osprey sanctuary. The closer you get 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 on 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.