River Spey

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Spey (the Tuessis of Ptolemy), a river rising near the centre of the southern part of Inverness-shire, and flowing first E and then NE through that county, and thereafter NE through the county of Elgin, or on the boundary between Elginshire and Banffshire-with a few stray excursions for short distances into the latter county-till it reaches the sea near the centre of Spey Bay between Lossiemouth and Portknockie. It is the most rapid river in Scotland, and in point of length and volume of water is inferior only to the Tay-including the longest tributary among the head waters of that river as forming the source-while the area of its drainage basin is inferior only to those of the Tay and Tweed. The Spey and the smaller streams flowing to it drain all the south-eastern part of Inverness-shire except the extreme S (nearly ¼ of the area of the whole county), all the eastern part of the county of Elgin (nearly half the whole area), and all the upper, and the greater portion of the central district of Banffshire (also nearly half the area of the whole county). The NW side of the drainage basin begins at Corrieyairack, which divides the upper waters of the Spey from those of the Tarff flowing to Loch Ness; and from that mountain the line of watershed stretches away to the north-eastward along the Monadhliadh Mountains, which divide it first from the Loch Ness basin and then from that of the Findhorn. At the N end of these heights the line strikes across the Slochdmuick Pass, and keeps north-eastward along the heights of Braemoray, to the E of the Knock-these separating it from the valleys of the Divie and Dorbock (Findhorn basin). At Knockando it turns eastward along the Mannoch Hill, and, passing to the N of the village of Rothes, follows a north-easterly and northerly course to the sea. The heights last mentioned separate the Spey basin from that of the Lossie. On the SE side, beginning at the sea, the line passes southwards, to the E of the village of Fochabers, to between Mulben and Keith, where it curves first south-westward and then south-eastward round the source of the Isla, and thereafter follows mainly a south-westerly direction, first along the high ground between Glen Fiddich and the upper waters of the Deveron, and then between Glen Livet and the upper waters of the Deveron. At the upper end of Strathdeveron it becomes identical with the boundary between the counties of Banff and Aberdeen, and follows that line along the heights round the head of Strathdon which separate it from the middle part of the valley of the Avon; and farther S along those that separate Glen Avon from the upper part of the valley of the Dee, by Ben Avon (3843 feet), Beinn a Bhuird (3924), Beiun a Chaoruinn (3553), and Ben Muich Dhui (4244) to the point on the S W slope of Cairn Gorm, where the counties of Inverness, Banff, and Aberdeen meet. From this the line of watershed is identical with the boundary line first between the counties of Inverness and Aberdeen, and thereafter between the counties of Inverness and Perth, as far as the Athole Sow. This line has been already described in dealing with Inverness-shire. The separation is, in the former case, from the basin of the Dee, and in the latter from that of the Tay. From the Athole Sow the line passes northwards close to Loch Ericht, round the N end of that loch, and back along the opposite side as far as Meall Cruaidh (2941 feet), whence it again passes northward between the Mashie Water (Spey) and river Pattack (Loch Laggan), round the N end of Loch Laggan to Carn Liath (3298). Thence it passes with a curve to the NW up the slope of Creag a' Chait to the top of Carn Leac (2889 feet), and from that across the Pass of Corrieyairack (2507) to Corrieyairack itself (2922). The total area of the basin may be taken as about 1300 square miles. The principal subsidiary valleys contained in it are those of the Dulnain on the NW and the Avon on the SE; and the whole length of the river from source to sea, following all the windings, is 107 miles.

The source is a small stream which rises about 1500 feet above sea-level on the SE side of Creag a' Chait, 7¾ miles E by S of the N end of Loch Lochy, and close to the watershed between the E and W coasts of Scotland, the head waters of the river Roy which flows to the Spean coming from the same shoulder. About 1 mile from the source this head-stream expands into the small Loch Spey (3 furlongs by 100 yards, and 1142 feet above sea-level), and from this the course is eastward for 15 miles, till beyond Cluny Castle it turns to the NE, and then more to the N as it approaches the sea. The total length of the course, inclusive of windings, in Inverness-shire, is 53¾ miles; for 5½ miles thereafter it forms the boundary between the counties of Inverness and Elgin; for more than 22 miles chiefly from the mouth of the Avon at Inveravon to Boat of Bridge, it is more or less the boundary between the counties of Elgin and Banff; and over the rest of the distance it is through Elginshire. Thirty-three and one-half miles from the source the river expands into Loch Insh (1 x ½ mile, and 721 feet above sea-level). Within 4 miles of Loch Spey the river receives a very large number of tributary streams-forming the minor head waters-of which the chief are a stream (S) from a height of 3000 feet from Coire a Bhan-eoin W of Carn Liath; another (N) from about 2600 on Carn Leac, the Allt Yairack (N) from the Pass of Corrieyairack. and the Allt a Chaoruinn (S) from Carn Liath. In the E and W part of the course the other principal tributaries are the Markie Burn (N) from Glen Markie, Mashie Water (S) from Strath Mashie, and the Allt Breakachy (S). About 2 miles below the point where the river turns to the NE it is joined by the Truim, from Glen Truim, at the battlefield of Invernahavon; and between that and Loch Insh are the Calder (N) at Spey Bridge near Newtonmore, the Kingussie Burn (N) at Kingussie, the river Tromie (S) from Glen Tromie, and the Raitts Burn (N) at Belleville. Half-a-mile below Loch Insh is the Feshie (S) from Glen Feshie, and between this and the point where the river quits Inverness-shire are the Druie (S) from Rothiemurchus Forest and Glenmore, at Aviemore; Milton Burn (S) at Kincardine; the Nethy (S) from Abernethy Forest and Strath Nethy; and the Dulnan (NW). In the upper part of Elginshire the Spey is joined by a large number of streams, but none of them are of any great size, the chief on the NW side being the Craggan, Cromdale, Dellifur, Tulchan, and Gheallaidh Burns, and a little above the latter is the Avon from the S. Between this and Boat of Bridge the chief tributaries on the Elginshire side are the Allt Arder, Knockando Burn, Ballintomb Burn, and the burns described in the account of the parish of Rothes; and on the Banffshire side Carron and Aberlour Burns, and the Fiddich, the latter joining at Lower Craigellachie. Below Boat of Bridge the basin narrows and the side streams are small, the largest being the Red or Orbliston Burn (W) above the bridge at the village of Fochabers.

The Spey has but little commercial importance, as no part of it is properly navigable, though there was formerly, and is to some extent still, a natural harbour suitable enough for small vessels, at the mouth of the river at Kingston. This was, however, rendered inconvenient, first by the shifting of the river mouth steadily westward subsequent to 1831, and still more so in 1860 by the cutting of a new channel at the point where the river now joins the sea-an operation rendered necessary by this shifting. Shipbuilding is still carried on at the mouth at both Kingston and Garmouth, and timber is still taken in rafts or ` floats ' down the river from the woods along the middle reaches, though not to the same extent as of old. The Spey is the third salmon river in Scotland, ranking next the Tay and Tweed. The fishings are in the hands of 7 proprietors on the lower waters and 13 on the upper waters, the total rental being about £8000 a year, of which the Duke of Richmond-whose fishings extend from Boat of Bridge to the sea-has nearly £6000, the other 19 holding the rest among them. The upper fishings are poor, except when floods enable the fish to get readily past the cruive on the Richmond waters. The fishings have recently fallen off in value, their rental in 1875-76 having amounted to £11, 332. No trout fishing is allowed from 15th April to 1st June, in order to protect the smolts on their way to the sea, and the net fishing closes on the 26th August, but the rod fishing not till the 15th October.

The channel along the lower part of the course often shifts, a process rendered particularly easy during floods by the loose nature of the shingle, of which the bottom and sides are composed. The shingle is constantly being moved down the river, and it is probably from boulders thus carried down that the great gravel ridges to the W of the mouth of the river have been formed. From the large extent and high lying character of the sources of the Spey itself, as well as of its principal tributaries, the river is subject to sudden and heavy freshets. The greatest was that of 1829, the damage done by which was enormous. There is a graphic description of the after appearances all along the course of the river from Kingussie downwards, in Sir Thomas Dick Lauder s Account of the Moray Floods. In winter and spring large masses of ice are carried down by the river, but from the rapidity of the current it is seldom that any portion of the lower part of the river is frozen completely over, though this certainly happened near the mouth in 1854. At Kingussie, Fochabers, and elsewhere there are beautifully marked river terraces. As regards scenery, Macculloch places the Spey-and Probably rightly-below all the great branches of the Tay, the Forth, the Dee, the Isla, and the Earn. The course, from the source to about the mouth of Glen Truim, lies through an upland glen with nothing of grandeur or even picturesqueness about it, the base from which the surrounding hills rise being too far above sea-level to allow of their height telling with full force. From about Cluny Castle downwards trees begin to make their appearance along the lower heights, skirting the valley, and though some portions between this and Loch Insh are still bleak-looking, the general appearance of the country decidedly improves, though even about Kingussie and Belleville, it can hardly be said, notwithstanding the fine mountain screens, to be pretty or picturesque. About Loch Insh still farther improvement takes place, and the Queen, who passed it on the way from Balmoral to Grantown in 1860, speaks of the loch itself as ` lovely. though not a wild lake, quite the contrary; no high rocks, but woods and blue hills as a background. ' From this onward by Kinrara, Loch Alvie, and Aviemore, there is more wood, that on the E extending to a height of 1500 feet, and forming part of the great Rothiemurchus and Glen More Forests. Kinrara itself has long been famous, both for its beauty and for its associations with the beautiful Jane, fourth Duchess of Gordon, and her son the last Duke. ` Though many splendid landscapes,' says Dr Macculloch, in one of the few grudging paragraphs he gives to the beauties of the Spey, ` are obtained along the roadside between Aviemore and Kinrara, constituted by the far-extended fir-woods of Rothiemurchus, the ridge of Cairngorm, the birch-clad hill of Kinrara, and by the variety of the broken, bold and woody banks of the Spey, no one can form an adequate idea of the beauties of this tract, without spending days in investigating what is concealed from an ordinary and passing view. By far the larger proportion of this scenery also is found near to the river, and far from the road; and the most singular portions of it lie on the east side of the water, and far beyond it, in places seldom trodden and scarcely known. This too is a country hitherto undescribed, and therefore unseen by the mass of travellers; though among the most engaging parts of the Highlands, as it is the most singular: since there is nothing with which it can be compared, or to which, indeed, it can be said to bear the slightest resemblance. Much of this depends on the peculiar forms and distribution of the ground and of the mountains, and still more on the character of the wood, which is always fir and birch; the latter, in particular, assuming a consequence in the landscape, which renders the absence of all other trees insensible; and which is seen nowhere in the same perfection, except at Blair, and for a short space along the course of the Tumel. Of this particular class of beauty Kinrara is itself the chief seat; yielding to very few situations in Scotland for that species of ornament which, while it is the produce of Nature, seems to have been guided by art. A succession of continuous birch forest covering its rocky hill and its lower grounds, intermixed with open glades, irregular clumps, and scattered trees, combines the discordant characters of wild mountain landscape and of ornamental park scenery. The Spey, here a quick and clear stream, is ornamented by trees in every possible combination, and the banks beyond, rising into irregular, rocky, and wooded hills, everywhere rich with an endless profusion of objects, and as they gradually ascend, displaying the dark sweeping forests of- fir that skirt the bases of the farther mountains, which terminate the view by their bold outlines. To wander along the opposite banks is to riot in a profusion of landscape, always various and always new: river scenery, of a-character unknown elsewhere, and a spacious valley crowded with objects and profuse of wood.' From Aviemore - close to which are the beautiful birch-clad crags of Upper Craigellachie - downwards the banks are often very bleak and bare, but at many points where they are well wooded - and this is not now so rarely the case as- it once was - the scenery is good, more particularly about Boat of Garten, where the great Abernethy Forest stretches away to the E, and farther down about Aberlour and Lower Craigellachie, and from this almost all the way down to Fochabers. From Craigellachie downwards there are a series of fine fertile haughs chiefly on the W side of the river.

The Spey was, in the early period of Scottish history, the boundary between the province of Moray and the Scotia of that time. The first part of the course of the river lies in the district of Badenoch, from Upper to Lower Craigellachie is Speyside pure and simple or Strathspey, and below Lower Craigellachie are the haughs of Rothes, Dundurcas, Orton, and Dipple. Strathspey is the home of the Grants, whose motto of `Stand Fast, Craigellachie,' was taken from the crags at its upper and lower extremities. It has given name to a peculiar dance somewhat slower than the reel, and which is said to have been first practised in the district. See also the articles on Laggan, Kingussie, Alvie, Rothiemurchus, Duthil, Abernethy, Cromdale, Knockando, Aberlour, Rothes, Boharm, Bellie, and Speymouth; Sir Thomas Dick Lauder's Account of the Moray Floods (1st ed., Edinb. 1830; 4th, Elgin, 1873); and Longmuir's Speyside (Aberdeen, 1860).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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