Scotland owes a great deal to whisky and to the railway empire that dominated the development of this country. Scotch whisky has survived prohibition, wars, revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, and today you can drink it in more than 200 countries throughout the world. But that might not have been the case if it wasn’t for the railway network that crossed the country.
The banks of the River Spey (Scotland’s second-longest river) are a good place to start the story of whisky. People flock from far and wide to fish for salmon in these pure waters, but this water has other strengths. By the mid 1800s, a number of distilleries had sprung up along its course. As railway mania took hold in north-east Scotland, it was the arrival of the Strathspey Railway in 1863 that really made the difference for the whisky industry. New distilleries soon opened up next door to the railway, which offered great access to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and beyond.
Barrels of fun
From the remains of Craigellachie station, you follow part of the Speyside Way, one of Scotland’s great walking trails, along the path of the Strathspey Railway. Since the arrival of the railway there’s been no escaping the influence of whisky in Craigellachie. Surrounded by the rivers Spey and the Fiddich, the village has two distilleries and the distinctive site of Scotland’s biggest cooperage, where local professional coopers make whisky casks. The only sizeable town en route is Aberlour, which has two claims to fame: whisky and shortbread. This is where Joseph Walker opened his local bakery that now sells shortbread all over the globe. Next to the old station at Aberlour is the pub The Mash Tun, named after a vessel used in the whisky-making process. All in the name of research, I tried several tots of fine single malts here. The big taste difference comes from the ageing process. It’s the length of ageing and the choice of barrel that can determine everything.
By law, the label ‘Scotch whisky’ can only be applied if it has already been wholly distilled and matured in Scotland and spent at least three years in the cask. I’d like to tell you more – but I didn’t remember much after that tasting session.
A thriving industry
Continuing along this route you witness the past and present of this romantic industry: the Daluaine was such a significant distillery that it received its very own railway station. Crossing the Spey, you reach the village of Carron, once a bustling community beside the railway, but now a quiet spot next to the boarded-up buildings of the old Imperial Distillery. The Knockando and Tamdhu distilleries are both alive and well, but few distilleries remain in private hands.
However, it is unlikely that any of them would be here at all today if it weren’t for the railway. It enabled a greater amount of ingredients and distilled whisky to be moved in and out of the Speyside area. It also allowed far more malt whisky to reach Glasgow easily for blending and shipping, thus giving the world Scotch whisky.
Despite the presence of big business on Speyside, the atmosphere around the distilleries seems amazingly relaxed. I was expecting a throng of modern industry with lorries and fork-lift trucks, but it’s more gentle than that, with a great reverence for the past.
Three big players that shape this walk: the whisky, the railway and the river itself. The whisky relies on the Spey, the two industries relied on each other for business, and it was Scotland’s fastest-flowing river that gave the railway a valley route through the Scottish mountains.
HOW TO GET THERE
Craigellachie is situated between Inverness and Aberdeen. Take the M90 north from Edinburgh and then on to the A9 at Perth. After Granish village, turn right on to the A95 and follow to Craigellachie.
FIND OUT MORE
The Ben Aigan Restaurant
The Craigellachie Hotel,
Victoria Street, Craigellachie AB38 9SR
Fine dining with seasonal and local produce.
Victoria Street, Craigellachie AB38 9SR
Friendly and homely B&B.
Banffshire, AB37 9AX
01807 500 205
16th century castle known as the Pearl of the North.