Within minutes of landing, Dave Craig is unloading his canoe and a folding table, adorned with brightly coloured oil cloth, is set up on the banks of the river Spey. An unexpected feast of poached salmon and salad is laid out and we novice canoeists tuck in, but the real treat comes after lunch, when Craig opens a metallic case to reveal rows of whisky glasses nestled around a bottle of 12-year-old Balvenie DoubleWood. A generous dram is consumed by all seven members of our group and we go back on to the water infused with warmth and boldness.
For the Spey is not just Scotland’s second-longest river and a key spawning ground for salmon, it is one of the country’s key whisky-making heartlands. Craig runs a company called “Spirit of the Spey” that blends canoeing adventures on the river with whisky tastings and distillery visits in the surrounding countryside. I’ve signed up for a four-day descent of the river, starting at Kincraig, travelling through dramatic Highland scenery and finishing, 70 miles later, at the open sea. We will travel in open-canoes, stay in comfortable hotels and sample a lot of whisky en route.
Our first day on the trip is relatively easy, consisting of a gentle meander between the highland towns of Kincraig and Aviemore. However, there is an obstacle course of challenges in the form of eddying currents, overhanging trees and semi-submerged boulders.
As well as instructing us on paddling technique, Craig brings the river to life by recounting its history and myths. We hear about a warrior giant whose tomb stones are protected by a curse; we see the peak of Creag Mhigeachaidh and learn that it is known to some as “the groaning mountain” because the shifting winter snows have an audible presence and are prone to avalanche.
That night we leave the river and transfer by car to the Grant Arms in Grantown-on-Spey. My limbs are feeling stiff from the kneeling position in the canoe and I enjoy a long soak in a large, Victorian bath tub.
Late afternoon the following day, we pull up our boats on the bank and make a short walk to the Cragganmore distillery for a private tour, during which we learn some of the whisky-makers’ secrets. The distillery was founded in 1869 and until as recently as 1979 workers were treated to up to five drams a day, with everyone having their own metal cup, known as a dog, which they would dip into the casks of maturing whisky. After seeing the copper stills and the heavy barrels, the tour ends with a visit to “the Wee Room”, a comfortable old-fashioned parlour where guests taste the malts. Knowing that we do not have to do any more paddling today, we obligingly indulge.
When he founded Cragganmore, having previously managed the Glenlivet and Macallan distilleries, John Smith bought a substantial, turreted country house close by. Today it is a bed-and- breakfast owned by Tony and Helen Allcott, who are our hosts that evening.
The house has been sympathetically restored, its antique furniture and blazing fires providing the perfect setting for a lavish dinner: roast breast of wood pigeon followed by halibut with king scallops and finished off with a lemon and passion fruit soufflé.
Being hungover is probably not the best way to tackle the next leg of the journey, a stretch of water that includes the so-called “Washing Machine” and the “Knockando Rapids”. But when we set out the following morning, a few of us are feeling a little the worse for wear — the after-dinner, 21-year-old Balvenie PortWood catching up with us.
Nevertheless, the swirling river demands our full attention and drags us into the present. We paddle hard and make it to that afternoon’s distillery, Aberlour, without capsizing.
On our final day on the river, we are treated to the sight of a heron taking a fish in its mouth and we see a mother duck playing lame in order to distract us from her young. Just when it seems as if another single stroke of the paddle is truly impossible, we are buoyed by the sight of the sea at Spey Bay and by the presence of a seal that chooses to follow us into the waves. There is just one thing left to do. We all gather on the shingle beach for a final, celebratory dram before heading back to a more sober way of life.
Illustration by Matthew Cook
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