It’s a new year and a new entry into my Scotland Itinerary Ideas series of articles that provide you with suggestions, ideas, and travel hooks for various regions around Scotland. The focus today is on one of my favorite areas of Scotland: Speyside and Moray. I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, as I’ve found that kind of specificity is often lacking in travel writing. However, now is the time to provide information at a higher level to help you in your trip-planning, idea-generation phase.
These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles will collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
Speyside and Moray
There is no homier place in all of Scotland than Speyside and Moray. Wedged between the Cairngorm mountains and the North Sea, the landscape is a beguiling mixture of rolling foothills, thick forest and riverlands, and beach-studded coastline. My visits to this gorgeous, green region always seem to be sun-dappled, full of good cheer and just the right amount of liquid gold. There’s so much whisky here you’d think the wide, relaxed River Spey was made of the stuff, but it is the work of man’s modern alchemy and the primary way of life for the people who live here. This region is a mecca for whisky-lovers the world over, as the many whisky festivals attest, and it is no stranger to tourism – not by a long shot – but rarely have I felt such a right and harmonious energy. Whatever you are not – not a whisky drinker, not an outdoorsy person, not a walker – here you will become.
Speyside and Moray? Hobbiton on Earth I dare say.
Things You Can’t Miss
The Malt Whisky Trail. Speyside’s Malt Whisky Trail is a good introduction to the region’s distilleries. Founded as a local marketing initiative to promote the region’s whisky heritage and encourage tourism, the trail leads visitors on a well-signed tour of a cooperage and eight distilleries, including Benromach, Cardhu, Dallas Dhu (museum), Glen Grant, Glen Moray, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, and Strathisla. There are many more distilleries not part of the trail, but the Malt Whisky Trail serves as a convenient starting point for explorations of the region’s pride.
The Speyside Way. The Speyside Way, one of four official long distance walking routes in Scotland, runs for 80 miles from Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park all way to Buckie on the Moray coast, including a spur that runs up to Tomintoul in the mountainous foothills. As the name indicates, most of the path follows the course of the River Spey with well-marked signs showing a thistle inside a hexagon. A nice feature of the Speyside Way is that it’s broken up into eight different sections so you can tackle a part of the Way without feeling compelled to complete the whole thing. The fourth section, from Craigellachie to Ballindalloch, is an appealing 12-mile hike that takes in Aberlour and Ballindalloch Castle (see below) with easy access up to Cardhu and Cragganmore distillery.
Local pub culture. As I perused my memories of Speyside and Moray, I came to the happy realization that much of my time there was spent in pubs or at festivals drinking whisky. There’s a reason – some of my favorite pubs in the whole world can be found in and around this area’s pretty towns. That’s lucky, too, because it does rain here and what else is there to do but shake off the damp in places like the Highlander Inn or the Mash Tun (see Food & Drink below for more information).
Speyside and Moray’s beautiful villages. Speyside and Moray are packed with some seriously beautiful towns. Places like Aberlour, Forres, Rothes, and Grantown-on-Spey situate the vibe of the region in appealing small-town charm. These are compact places that won’t take more than a couple of hours each to explore, but you’d be remiss to just plow through them between distillery visits. Take a moment to window shop and nibble on some shortbread, why don’t you?
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Distillery gems not on the Malt Whisky Trail. Some of my favorite distilleries aren’t on the official Malt Whisky Trail, and they deserve a special mention here for those looking to expand their whisky palate. Balvenie distillery stands just next door to Glenfiddich in Dufftown and makes my top five list of favorite distilleries. Up the road a short distance is Aberlour distillery, which puts on one of the best tastings ever. Glenrothes distillery produces excellent vintage whisky and might have the most beautiful stillhouse in all of Scotland. Glenfarclas is a worthy visit for the history lesson and delicious sherried drams they produce. Benromach deserves a second mention because they’re so small and making whisky second to none. Finally, though you won’t be able to visit the distillery, Mortlach is a whisky you must order in one of the pubs. Trust me.
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. One of Scotland’s great whisky festivals should be near the top of any visit to Speyside. Every May the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival offers a deluge of whisky-related events in and around Speyside and Moray over the course of several days. From a grand opening dinner to distillery visits to guided tastings, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival can turn a novice whisky fan into a serious aficionado in record time. I loved the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival so much that I spent months writing about my experience, and I was awarded International Ambassador of the Year for 2013 by the festival board for my work.
Findhorn Bay and the Moray coast. The beautiful sandy beach at Findhorn Bay, just north of Forres, looks like it belongs in the Caribbean or the South Pacific. The River Findhorn flows into this sheltered bay before leaking into the North Sea, and the water is filled with people canoeing, sailing, and engaging in various watersports I can’t name. All along the Moray Coast you can find interesting seaside towns and beaches, places like Burghead, Cullen, and Spey Bay – not to mention distilleries like Glenglassaugh. Keep your eyes peeled for bottle-nosed dolphins, enjoy a round of golf, or explore the Culbin Forest while you’re here.
Canoeing the River Spey. The River Spey isn’t just a resource for distilleries, it also serves as a hub for recreational activities in the region. While I would recommend trying your hand at fly fishing, the beats of the Spey are highly regulated and very expensive to fish on, even for a few hours (if you can manage to reserve the slot). Instead, consider going canoeing with Dave Craig at Spirit of the Spey. He’s the Spey’s most experienced river guide and his outings provide a unique way to take in the beauty of Speyside. Is there a better idea than a combined canoeing/distillery visit journey? The answer is no, in case you were wondering.
Ballindalloch, Balvenie, and Brodie castles. This trio of castles in Speyside and Moray are well worth your time and effort to visit. Ballindalloch is a beautiful Z-plan castle between Grantown-on-Spey and Aberlour built in 1546 and whose pheasant-studded grounds are open to visitors in the summer. The castle is still lived in today by Clare Nancy Russell, the Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire. Meanwhile, Balvenie castle is a moody ruin overlooking Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown. Brodie castle, just west of Forres, is a gorgeous NTS property with its own ghost. You can even stay overnight – I did, and I had the whole spooky castle to myself!
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Hire a Caterham and explore the back roads. Speyside and Moray’s most beautiful countryside can be found on the small white roads reaching through the region, and I can’t think of a better way to explore them than with one of Highland Caterham Hire’s classic Caterham 7s. Riding along with Boyd Stokes, the owner of HCH, between Fochabers and Grantown-on-Spey will be a life highlight for me. I’ve no doubt it will be one of yours, too.
Clamber over Pictish ruins at Burghead. The small seaside village of Burghead occupies a headland jutting into the North Sea. This place was once the seat of power of the northern Picts, then known as Torridun, and you can still see the walls of the fort beneath the rolling grasses. This is such cool history and makes for a great stop along a path that takes in the Moray coast.
Visit austere Pluscarden Abbey. Out in the wilderland south of Elgin and Forres, by the eaves of Monaughty Wood, stands pristine Pluscarden Abbey. Pluscarden is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery in Black Burn glen, a beautiful rural and hallowed space. Follow the path through the woods to the abbey and you’ll certainly see monks wandering deep in thought. This is a great place to clear your mind.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. Speyside and Moray are gorgeous places and it’s difficult to go wrong when choosing a base for your stay. In a perfect world, I would find a place like Trochelhill Country House B&B within the Aberlour-Dufftown-Craigellachie whisky triangle, but I have yet to locate such a place. Still, Fochabers is a nice location between Speyside proper and the Moray coast. Cardhu Country House in Archiestown is probably the best situated and makes for a highly enjoyable stay directly in the heart of Speyside. Down the Spey into the Cairngorms National Park, Grantown-on-Spey and nearby Cromdale make for an excellent base in the south. Keith, Huntly, and Forres also function as peripheral bases.
Transportation. Transportation to the Speyside and Moray region is easy and fast from the central belt via train, bus, or car. While I always recommend a car for the flexibility it provides, Speyside and Moray might be one of the only places in all of Scotland where a combination of walking the Speyside Way and taking buses could suffice, depending on the extent of your intended exploration. Of course, not needing a car is a doubly good idea here where whisky reigns over everything. Still, a car is a fast way to zip down the A95, A96, and A941, not to mention the numerous and beautiful back roads.
Food & Drink. Foodies and barflies will be quite happy in Speyside and Moray, which are overflowing with characterful pubs and highly rated restaurants. A couple of my favorites stand across from each other in Craigellachie: The Quaich Bar and the Highlander Inn. The Quaich Bar offers more than 700 whiskies in a classic tartan smoking room while the Highlander Inn is a convivial haunt to drink away the stress of drinking all day. Just down the road hides the tiny Fiddichside Inn, a traditional bar attached to the proprietor’s house with tables along the River Fedich just before it joins the Spey. Aberlour is home to the excellent Mash Tun, which serves delicious food in addition to loads of whisky and real ales. Forres is home to two stunning hotels serving delicious food and drink, The Cluny Bank Hotel and the Knockomie Hotel. Don’t miss out on the Mosset Tavern while you’re there. Beyond this selection you’ll find plenty of pubs serving traditional grub and loads of drams. This is Speyside and Moray, after all.
I hope this article has given you some ideas for ways to fill your days in Speyside and Moray. When in doubt about what to do, just sit and relax. Like a hobbit would do.