I don’t often walk long trails in one hit, indeed the Cotswold Way is the only example that readily springs to mind. In 2022, I nearly walked the Speyside Way in one go – 83 of its 86 miles – but for some reason I decided against repeating the initial stage, three miles of cycle path beside the A86, which I had walked in 2019.

For the 83 miles, I had my LDWA colleague Graham Smith for company. A few months before, we’d found out that the Way was on both our to-do lists, so we agreed to find a date to accomplish it.

Graham (left) and me at Tugnet, just six miles to go

Wednesday 15 May 2019: Newtonmore to Kingussie, three miles

This was part of my TGO Challenge for 2019. That day, I wasn’t thinking about the Speyside Way, but rather the trek through wonderful Glen Feshie that would come later.

As mentioned above, it’s a cycle path beside an A road. I think you call this a missed opportunity; if only the Speyside Way could leave the village by the banks of the river itself!

Indeed there is such a path from Newtonmore station, which I had taken in my 2017 ‘try-out’ for the Challenge, part of the village’s Wildcat Trail, but it deposits you back on the main road in the village.

Maybe there’s a recalcitrant landowner being a pain, for what we have now is no way to start / end a trail of this status.

(Graham lives in Tain north of Inverness, so on the day below he had to make an early start for the train to Newtonmore while I had the simple luxury of strolling down from my B&B and meeting him in Kingussie’s memorial park.)

Thursday 21 April 2022: Kingussie to Aviemore, 17 miles

Graham was nicely on time after his walk from Newtonmore and we met as arranged in the town’s memorial park, which had been spruced up a bit since I was last there. For me, this was the third time I’d set off south from here, over the Spey and past Ruthven Barracks, and the third time I’d done so in spring sunshine.

But there was some variety. In ’18 I’d stuck to the road to Tromie Bridge; in ’19 I’d taken the Badenoch Way through the nature reserve; and this year we religiously kept to the Speyside Way, which sort of split the difference between them.

From Drumguish though I was in entirely new territory. After a brief lunch stop by the B970 at Insh we had many miles through the Inshriach Forest, punctuated by some little lochans with distant views to the Cairngorm massif; while when views opened north, I tried to work out which of the Monadhliath tops was the Corbett of Geal-charn Mòr, a possible target for my TGO Challenge the following month. A more immediate target was the Old Post Office café in Kincraig, safely reached.

From here to Aviemore, the Way spends several miles close to or beside the Highland main line railway; not as dull as it might sound, for the Way dipped up and down while the railway maintained a level(ish) course, sometimes above us, sometimes below. Finally, we ducked under a bridge, and had the rather prosaic entry to the town along the B9152.

The Corbett of Geal-charn Mòr across the Spey

The Old Post Office café at Kincraig

Beside the Highland main line

Friday 22 April 2022: Aviemore to Grantown-on-Spey, 17 miles

The Way takes a clever course around Aviemore’s northern outskirts before ducking back under the Highland main line and then the Strathspey Railway, a heritage steam line. We would be following this latter most of the way to Boat of Garten, though not at quite as close quarters to yesterday. At one juncture I could hear a steam train coming and rushed up a little bank to see it; still a kid at heart.

This was to prove perhaps the best of the five days Graham and I walked together. It’s a good mix of heath, forest and open country; where it follows roads, the Way has a dedicated, off-tarmac path; and the two villages of Boat of Garten and Nethy Bridge split it up into convenient thirds.

We had a stop in each. The village shop in the first does take-out coffees, and we had enough time to wander down to the station and see the train I had bounded up the bank to see come back in. In Nethy Bridge, we gorged out on a really big sandwich each, washed down with fizzy elderflower.

But I was a bit worried what might lie beyond Nethy Bridge, for this was our first few miles on abandoned rail track. Often, I’ve found, these are gravel-surfaced or hard-surfaced, no fun for the feet. But not here; we trod on grass. There were many more miles of old rail track to come. Hooray, I thought, it will all be like this.

A lovely bit of old rail line north of Nethy Bridge

It’s worth noting that the Way does not enter Grantown-on-Spey directly, but kinks round just before it. I can’t imagine many Speyside Way walkers avoid it however, and nor should they, for quite apart from its services, it’s one of the most handsome of Highland planned towns.

Saturday 23 April 2022: Grantown-on-Spey to Ballindalloch, 15 miles

A pretty saunter through Anagach Woods brought us to Cromdale, and another stretch of grassy old rail track, before we went up into Tom an Uird Wood. Here we met another pair of Speyside Way walkers, though they were walking sections as day walks rather than the whole thing in one go – indeed we weren’t to meet anyone else who was doing this, which we found rather surprising.

Cromdale is one of several beautifully-preserved stations on the Way

In Tom an Uird Wood

It’s just out of the forest, over the Burn of Dalvey – we had lunch sitting on its bridge – that the problems start. Now I say problems. In the great scheme of things they aren’t, but they are petty and annoying all the same. For a couple of miles, until release is granted by the Woods of Knockfrink, there’s no opportunity to get up a stride. It took us an hour, which for simple rural lowland walking it shouldn’t.

V-gate leading to constrained path with tree in the middle of it

The Way is often constrained on a narrow path between barbed wire fences, with a rutted and/or rocky surface beneath one’s feet. Every couple of hundred metres or so, there are those awkward V-shaped stiles to push through. Often, you’re directed onto awkward ground when there’s a perfectly acceptable track or pasture alongside. Perhaps someone in the local Estate begrudges the access rights that Scotland as a nation allows. Nobody likes that someone, you feel, and they don’t care.

But it ends. As I said, an hour. Let it go. After a brief stretch by the A95 – the Way plays hide-and-seek with this quite a lot – there’s a boggy but rather enjoyable downhill stretch leading back to the old railway, and you’re just a mile from the official wild camp site at Ballindalloch, or as the OS map insists, Cragganmore.

Sunday 24 April 2022: Ballindalloch to Boat o’Brig, 20 miles

Remember what I said about the pleasant grassed old railway tracks? Not any more they’re not.

From Ballindalloch, signs proudly announced the climate-friendly upgrading of the trackbed. What this means is that we had twelve unrelenting miles of hard surfacing all the way to Craigellachie, save for a stretch around Tamdhu where they haven’t yet got past laying the preparatory sand. If you’re on a climate-friendly bike, this is great news. If you’re on climate-friendly feet, curse on.

Well, at least there are the distilleries. We were in the heart of the Speyside whisky appellation here. We’d already been close to Balmenach and Cragganmore distilleries, and would now pass Tamdhu, Knockando and Dalmunach, with Cardhu, Dailuaine, Aberlour and Craigellachie close by, and Macallan just across the river. It would have been much better if those beside the Way did tours or even tastings, but with this our longest day of distance we’d probably not have stopped anyway.

Tamdhu distillery

Dalmunach distillery

The Square at Aberlour

As the Speyside Way visitor centre in Aberlour was disappointingly closed, we popped into town for invigorating soup in a café; the sun had eventually poked through quite pleasantly the two previous days, but today remained resolutely dreich with the requisite bits of drizzle from time to time. Still, from Craigellachie we could let the rail track go (it has to be said we let some pretty riverine views go too), and look forward to three miles on roadbound tarmac instead.

What a relief it was later, to get off onto a proper commercial forestry track instead! Normally these are a bit so-so in place of narrower delights, but in comparison to road and rail these woods around Ben Aigan were heaven (and indeed, later, rather narrower). We found out that we’d dodged an access bullet here; the day before, there was a motor rally here, with the woods closed to walkers. I have no idea what the work-around would have been.

At the day’s start, we’d left one of the official wild camp sites, and at Craigellachie had passed another. Going on to urban Fochabers would have meant a 25-mile day, and anyway I wanted a ‘proper’ bit of wild camp finding before my TGO Challenge the next month. In planning, I’d identified the area around Boat o’Brig as a possibility. There’s a car park here, and Google Earth showed a bit of grass beside it with room for a couple of tents.

Alas now there are some saplings here too, so we needed a plan B. I went off to check some pasture by the Spey that had looked good from the hill while Graham knocked on the nearest door. We met back at the car park to compare notes. Yes, the cottage could let us camp in their field, but it looked rather tussocky and boggy, so we went and had a look at my field. It wasn’t at all bad, and we settled in.

Monday 25 April 2022: Boat o’Brig to Buckie, 16 miles

Just five miles to Fochabers, and it’s all on road. OK, it’s a Scottish minor road with next-to-no traffic, but by now we were beginning to think that the Speyside Way could do with a bit less of the hard stuff (not the whisky of course) – 20 miles out of 25 from Ballindalloch to Fochabers.

The Way does not pass directly through the centre of Fochabers, a sort of mini-Grantown, but we went in anyway, though we couldn’t find a café that was open so made do with a takeout coffee in the square. On the way out, there’s a rather nice memorial garden in honour of Fochaberians who have made their mark on the world, and a cricket pitch too.

Beyond Fochabers the Spey is clearly a river in search of the sea. In the river’s last five miles, the Way keeps off of roads and railways and passes through three woods, Bellie, Warren and Culriach, the first clearly popular with Fochaberians and the last two in the stewardship of Forests & Land Scotland. It’s an intricate route, weaving this way and that, the river playing hide-and-seek.

Finally, the outlet, something of a spectacle with gravel beds, rapids and dislodged trees. It’s a notable feature of the river that it’s never tidal; it’s fierce-flowing, and the briny stuff doesn’t have a chance to inch upstream.

This is Spey Bay, or perhaps more precisely, the hamlet of Tugnet. It’s home to the Scottish Dolphin Centre, which hosts not only a café but that walker’s delight a gift shop late on the trail with the all-essential ‘I’ve really missed you’ pressie on clear display. A local here warned us about fallen trees in the next woods, and as we had barely seen any in the previous 80 miles, we didn’t know whether to believe him.

He was right though. From Tugnet and beside the local links golf course, the Way runs through a strip of pine woodland that had been devastated by the winter storms in a way that nothing further inland had been. Mature trees had been as matchsticks to the gales; one’s sense of horizon, or more particularly the vertical, went awry. Thankfully, teams had been in with chain saw and shovel and forced a way through for the Way, albeit not quite on the original course and with some close encounters with trunk and foliage.

Spey Bay

Devastated trees in the last woods

A mile of old rail track (the best sort, grassed) took us near to Portgordon, and then bits of road, pavement and track all the way to Buckie. Only it wasn’t a joy-filled rush to the finish for me; my right calf, unaccustomed to so much walking for so long (it was, after all, my longest continual walk for nearly three years) was tensing up, and ended the day painful and quite unco-operative. Buckie, and a welcome cup of tea in the last café of the trail, could not come soon enough.

The end, nearly