The Spey is a major river that can usually be relied upon to give reasonable water levels at all seasons. Probably one of the most beautiful rivers in Britain, flowing past the Cairngorms, through Badenoch and Strathspey and into the Moray Firth at Spey Bay. Whilst, before venturing on to the Spey unguided one should be a proficient paddler, there are very few highly technical rapids on the river. On sections downstream of Grantown-on-Spey there is a good number of entertaining Grade II rapids.
Truly a ‘water-path’, this river is navigable for most of its length ~ from source at Loch Spey (where the Spey shares its water shed with the turbulent River Roy). A major hazard occurring above Laggan Bridge is the Spey Dam, which like the River Roy steals the Spey's waters and takes them westward (to help power an aluminium smelter). However, good water-levels and much portage are required to make the very highest reaches navigable. Approx 1km upstream of Garva Bridge is a short Grade III rapid requiring care and at Garva Bridge the rapid is impassable in low water conditions and Grade III standard if ‘navigable’. Although Laggan Bridge is a fairly good access point, Newtonmore is normally recognised as the highest reasonable starting place unless river is fairly high. Roads run close to the river throughout its length.
In addition to that contained within the Scottish Land Reform Act, which allows for responsible pedestrian; cycle; horse and non-motorised boat access, there is a public right of navigation on the River Spey. ‘Navigation’ extends to movement over the water, up, down and across stream.
Canoeists can start a scenic, leisurely paddle from opposite the campsite at Spey Bridge just above Newtonmore. The stretch to Kingussie can be shallow but offers a variety of small, fun rapids ~ ideal for a first time experience on moving water. Apart from a couple of minor rapids below the Ruthven Bridge at Kingussie, the river meanders slowly through the Insh Marshes, an important bird sanctuary, and into Loch Insh ~ a major pool in the River Spey. Fallen trees and overhanging branches are the main hazards on these upper sections.
Below Aviemore there are some short, easy rapids but once past Boat of Garten the river moves slowly through very flat land. This slow moving stretch continues to around Broomhill Bridge. (Just below Broomhill, at Boat of Balliefurth ~ GR. 013245 ~ is an ideal, easily accessed campsite.)
The majority of rapids throughout the length of the Cairngorms National Park area are Grade I (Laggan to Delliefurie Burn below Cromdale). However,on the approach to Grantown-on-Spey, the river becomes rocky and once through the road bridge the water starts to move more decidedly seaward. We have now moved into the prime fishing beats of the Spey. Going under Advie Bridge it is worth, in low water conditions, moving river right to under the second ‘arch’, beyond the middle support, to avoid the rows of post stumps remaining under the left ‘arch’ from a previous bridge structure. From Ballindalloch the river offers a variety of Grade II rapids.
The Ballindalloch to Knockando section includes the best of the white water on the Spey. Suitable for and popular with proficient paddlers, this is the single most paddled section of the river. Please alleviate any potential parking problems at the Ballindalloch site by moving vehicles on down to Knockando, where there is ample parking space. Alternatively, one can access the bridge from river right close by the bunkhouse situated in the old Ballindalloch Railway Station. The shuttle on this section is very easily done by bicycle using the Speyside Way, making for a shorter journey, on the return to Ballindalloch from Knockando. As well as being environmentally friendly, using bicycles in shuttles here can avoid potential parking problems at the Ballindalloch parking/launch area as it minimises vehicle numbers and requires no vehicles to be left at the start point.
Downstream of the bridge at Ballindalloch the River Avon (pronounced Aann) enters the Spey from the right. Here, a more interesting Grade II rapid on a double bend introduces the heavier section of the river. Next is Blacksboat Rapid (GR. 181380), a location where the river bed drops fairly sharply and, particularly in low water conditions, the Spey's waters are funnelled into a straight, fast flowing, turbulent water chute providing a real, natural roller-coaster ride. Running parallel with the river at this point, and on downstream to Spey Bay, is the Speyside Way. This is a scenic long-distance footpath stretching to Aviemore, with a spur to Tomintoul, following part of the route of the dismantled Strathspey railway line and from Tugnet along the coast, almost to Buckie. Some 800 metres below Blacksboat Rapid is the disused Blacksboat Station, which now serves as a very basic camping area at the side of the Way. No facilities are available except for a cold-water tap, situated on the side of the large, old goods-shed.
One is now in an area where small places are big in worldwide terms of malt-whisky names. In a little over two kilometres below Blacksboat Bridge the river bends and one can see the chimneys of the Tamdhu Distillery, signalling the approach to Knockando ~ probably the best known of all Spey rapids (and a fine malt!). At Knockando the river provides interest in most conditions although, as with many of the Spey rapids, it can become a little "washed-out" when the river is high. The access and egress point is immediately below the rapid on the left bank with a steep path leading up to the old disused railway platform. For ease of loading and unloading and carrying boats it is possible to park on the old railway line by the top of the access path. However, as the railway line is now part of the Speyside Way the track should not be obstructed.
At the instigation and subsequent provision of ground by Knockando Estates, linked with funding from sportscotland, in May 2002 a new toilet and changing rooms facility was opened at Knockando Rapid, for use by paddlers and walkers. This is an excellent example of an estate working hand in hand with the governing bodies of sports. Many thanks are extended to the Wills family for their forward thinking and co-operation. Situated river left, half way up the riverbank, by the steps just below the end of the rapid, the unit comprises a male and female changing area and “composting toilet”. Please endeavour to leave the facility cleaner than when you arrived. Any “foreign objects” dropped down the toilet will completely negate the composting process. However, a handful of the sawdust (provided in bins) should be thrown down the toilet after use. To ensure long term access to this key facility, we must make every effort possible to use these facilities with all due care and respect.
The scenery from Knockando to Fochabers is some of the most picturesque on the Spey with an interesting variety of rapids. This is an extremely pleasant, entertaining section underestimated, indeed unknown to many paddlers. Many appear to assume that only the Ballindalloch to Knockando section offers white water. In the final twenty miles to the sea the river passes through steep, tree laden banks, past stunning red cliffs and pinnacles of ancient, iron-rich glacial deposit. Then one moves into flatter land but still presenting a number of entertaining rapids and very few slow pools. There are many key salmon fishing pools on this section.
BEWARE ~ At Craigellachie, if landing at the Boat of Fiddich Pool, because of sharp brick-work underwater from a fallen wall, avoid cutting in above any angler fishing high up in the pool. Rather give a wide berth towards river-left before landing downstream of the black fishing shelter (river-right). On the approach to Boat o’ Brig beware of a large boulder situated in the middle of the flow, at a left-hand bend know as ‘Otter Hole’. Then on the Braewater Estate approx. 1½ miles above Fochabers, after the final section of red sandstone banking, look out for on river right two large croys (~ man-made rock dykes built out into the water). These obstacles are probably the most likely to cause boat wreckage on the whole of the Spey. However, with care, they can be avoided. Many large uprooted trees present on the section below Fochabers ~ requires care in choosing lines through the ever changing single banks. In approaching the lower, tidal section, in certain conditions, severe turbulence can occur, thus making paddling quite difficult. It is inadvisable to enter the sea in conditions of off-shore winds. This said, for most of the time this whole final section is a very pleasant approach to the waves at Spey Bay, where the fresh meets the salt.
(In addition to the O.S. maps listed at the start of this guide, Harveys Maps have produced an excellent waterproof map (ISBN 1-85137-337-3) which covers the length of the Speyside Way. This publication would be a valuable asset for anyone navigating the Spey, downstream of Aviemore.)