"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 9 January 2012

The River Spey and the Old Railway

Although Elgin is included in the SWA region known as Speyside it actually sits around six miles west of the Spey's final stages, the River Lossie being the main watercourse through the town.  My journey from here heads inland towards the heart of Speyside but before turning south I felt obliged to embark on a short pilgrimage to where this mighty river disgorges into the Moray Firth.  I have often followed Barnard to see the source of distillery water supplies but he didn’t record a visit to this outpouring of waters so I would be without his thoughts to guide me.  At least I could drive to this location so it should be less tortuous than my last pilgrimage - the climb up to Loch Uigeadail!

River Spey looking north from Fochabers Bridge
Barnard mentions the Spey a few times on his journey through the area but never provides an extensive description or eulogy.  He was travelling a decade before the major expansion of distilleries in the region and many of those in this next section of my travels were built towards the very end of the 19th century.  This was before Speyside became a regional classification of whisky (most of the make from this area was described by Barnard as Highland Malt) and the aura of Speyside was yet to be fully infused/enthused into the wider whisky world.

In the mid-1800s adding the suffix ‘Glenlivet’ to your distillery or whisky name was the way of trying to identify with the then prestige brand name of the area.  Many distilleries around here are recorded by Barnard as such, or with the location ‘Glenlivet District’ which was used as far afield as Glen Lossie Distillery near Elgin, 20 miles away from Glenlivet Distillery.  I don’t recall him commenting on this anywhere, it was just accepted as standard ‘doffing of the cap’ practice for this area in the 19th century.

An English translation from the Latin of John Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas of Scotland records the following description of the River Spey that encapsulates some of its majesty:

“The Spey, huge, most clear, most rapid, largest of all after the Tay, emerges from a small loch of the same name, in the ridges which lie between Badenoch and Lochaber. For the most part it is carried in a rushing course to the north-east, girded by high mountains on all sides and crowned with woods, increased by many rivers and innumerable burns from the precipices of the mountains, until it approaches within six miles of the sea, then turning directly to the north, cutting through plains and cultivated land, and causing much damage to the neighbouring fields, it reaches its mouth.”

I turned off the main road at Fochabers Bridge, the closest traffic crossing to the mouth of the river, and drove the five miles along its east side to the small village of Spey Bay.  You don’t see too much of the river when driving along as the road turns away from its banks to avoid the wide flood plain that is often inundated.  The River Spey is the fastest flowing river in Scotland and increases in speed as it approaches the sea, and the power of the river on its last stretch to freedom has been gently channelled in some places and left to wander in others.

Where the River Spey meets the sea
This short detour from the distillery trail was well rewarded.  At the mouth of the river the open water of the Moray Firth stretches to the horizon, its colour changing from a dark, rich indigo near the estuary, the peat in the water adding to the hue, to a softer sea green as your gaze drifts northwards away from the shore.  The Scottish Dolphin Centre is sited here, those fabulous marine mammals being regular visitors to the Moray Firth, and there is a Wildlife Centre that celebrates the rich diversity of fauna and flora that thrives here.  Perhaps the last whispers of the water of life produced along its way carry down to nourish the environment and entice the returning salmon upstream to spawn.

The power of the Spey is evident and a display board provided by the Scottish Wildlife Trust shows how the meandering river mouth changes the shape of the shoreline as the spate floods force their own route from year to year.  The bay is lined with boulders to protect the coast, surrounded by banks of smooth pebbles that have tumbled and worn their way down from the central Scottish massifs over the millennia since the glaciers retreated.  The shingle also extends upstream to form ‘rakes’ in the tidal basin, carried here in the power of the floods and deposited as if the river was trying to build a dyke to contain itself, only to be burst open at a different point the following year.

Spey Bay looking towards the Bin of Cullen
To the east is the hill called the Bin of Cullen, a landmark to mariners who have navigated their way along this coast for centuries, from the distant fishing port of Fraserburgh inward to the Highland capital of Inverness.

Although Barnard didn’t record visiting Spey Bay he did once arrive in its vicinity.  His visit to Inchgower Distillery began with a train journey to ‘Fochabers Station’ and then onward by horse drawn carriage.  He describes the route taken from the station but there are a few anomalies in his report that led me to research some of the railway network, and in so doing opened up a whole world of new features to consider.  Where the Standing Stones of our ancestors were a common theme through the North East of Scotland, as we arrive in Speyside the railway will become a connecting theme between a number of different locations.  Ironic that!

An extensive rail network once opened up more of the region to distillers as grain, coal and casks became easier to transport in larger volumes to and from further destinations.  The major expansion in the railway took place in the 1850s and 60s, particularly with the opening of the Strathspey Railway in 1863 connecting Dufftown to Boat of Garten (and from there the main Highland line) and which, as its name suggests, followed the course of the Spey for much of its route.  Railway halts and sidings were built for direct access to a number of new distilleries.  This industry that surged through the landscape only lasted for a century until lines were closed and the rail track lifted in the late 1960s.  However, evidence of the network still remains in close proximity to some of the most famous distilleries of the land and I will explore just a little of it as the journey progresses.


Barnard’s journey was at a time when many separate railway companies still ran their own sections of the network.  The Fochabers Station mentioned above was on the Great North of Scotland Railway Co. Moray Coast Line, at a point less than a mile from Spey Mouth and around 3 miles from the village of Fochabers.  He didn’t loiter here though as his carriage was waiting, and as he travelled inland from the station he records that “the valley of the Spey lay mapped out at our feet, and the river, now a roaring stream, winding through the wooded hills and rocky cuttings, rolled in furious haste to reach the sea.”

One thing that confuses me about this is why he would have gone to that station?  The sequence of reports in the book appears to suggest that he travelled from Keith that morning, but if so, why stop at Fochabers?  If he went all the way round via Elgin then the branch line from there continued on past Fochabers to Port Gordon and Buckie which were both much closer to the distillery.  If he took the Buckie and Portessie Branch Line that went directly north from Keith then he could disembark at any one of Drybridge, Rathven or Buckie stations all of which were even closer.

Perhaps he just wanted to see Gordon Castle and the area around Fochabers, but there is another possibility we can consider.  I wonder if he actually made this trip direct from Elgin when he stayed there before moving on to Keith, and the report then appears out of sequence to keep a more logical geographical order in the book.  Even if this is true the question still remains - why stop at Fochabers, if indeed that was where he did stop?  There are two further possibilities to consider under this theory:

First, there is a newspaper report dated 21 May 1886 that I have yet to research but which apparently records flood damage to the Spey Viaduct at Garmouth, just a month after it opened.  The viaduct carried the railway over the river near its mouth and can just be seen on the right of the photo below (click to enlarge).  Its central span is 368 feet long and the approaches on either side each have three spans totalling over 300 feet, all necessary to cross the meandering and unpredictable channels of the river.  Throughout 1886/87 local newspapers record regular flood damage, changing river patterns and strengthening of embankments to ensure the ongoing survival of the viaduct.  This may have meant that Barnard had to stop at Garmouth on the west side.

Final stretch of the River Spey before its mouth, railway viaduct far right
Second, his journey from Elgin could possibly have been before the Spey Viaduct opened to passenger trains on 1 May 1886 which would mean a terminus at Garmouth was inevitable.  Some clues in his earlier descriptions suggest that this stage of his journey was in summer rather than spring but we have found before that his descriptions can be a little bit misdirecting.  Either of these possibilities mean that he would have to stop at Garmouth on the west side of the river, but perhaps misreported the station name as Fochabers which was at the opposite end of the viaduct.

Either possibility would also make sense with regard to his description of his immediate carriage journey inland from the station, towards Gordon Castle and Fochabers village.  He describes that they soon reached some thick plantations and crossed a rippling burn through the trees, features which better match map detail from that time of the west side of the Spey, the Garmouth side.  Even more convincingly he then records “crossing the new bridge over the Spey…we reached the beautiful and picturesque village of Fochabers”.  To do so he must have come from the west side of the bridge which would tie in with travelling the road down from Garmouth.

But then he goes and spoils my whole reasoning by stating that, while travelling up the Spey, “behind us rose Benaigen and the rugged and massive hills of Benrinnes”, which were, of course, not behind but in front of him!  This means that anything he recorded here could just be scene setting with no thought for accuracy of route.  Ah well, it was an interesting theory I had for a while, but as Barnard himself states at this point “we were now in the midst of scenes which no pen could justly describe or pencil delineate, but which have left traces on our memories never to be forgotten.”  Except, perhaps, after a few whiskies?

To complicate my research further a separate Fochabers Branch line was opened in October 1893 and the station at the end of this, situated at the west end of the Fochabers Bridge on the opposite bank of the Spey from Fochabers village, was also named Fochabers when it opened.  This station was renamed as Fochabers Town a year later but the first Fochabers Station, the one that Barnard states he arrived at, continued to be called Fochabers until 1918 when it was renamed Spey Bay (I am desperately resisting the urge to just say ‘Foch it’ here and forget all about it!).

Remains of original 1806 Fochabers Bridge on left with main span from 1852
The first Fochabers Bridge was opened in 1806 and was a four arch masonry bridge possibly designed by Thomas Telford.  However, in an event that we will encounter a few more times on our journey along the Spey - the wonderfully named ‘Muckle Spate’ of August 1829 - the eastern half of the bridge was washed away.  The wide cast iron span in the photo here was fitted in 1852 and this was the main crossing until a new bridge was opened alongside in 1971 to cope with the increase in traffic on this busy road connecting Inverness and Aberdeen.

The coastal railway line was closed and dismantled in 1968 but the Spey Viaduct remains and is now part of the 50 mile Moray Coast Trail that connects Forres and Cullen.  I will return to Inchgower Distillery at a later date, as Barnard did, as now the journey heads south of Elgin to three of those distilleries built in the last decade of the 19th century.


The railway information here is mainly sourced from www.railbrit.co.uk and the newspaper articles are recorded at http://libindx.moray.gov.uk.  Additional information from RCAHMS and maps held by the National Library.