Whisky is a word derived from the Gaelic ‘usquebach’, meaning water of life. Speyside whiskies are shaped by the granite Grampian Mountains that give rise to soft water. These granite mountains also cradle lochs and provide plenty of river pools and waterfalls that then merge into wider slower swoops of river. The landscape is a playground for outdoor swimmers as well as a source of whisky.
Loch an Eilein Castle is on an island just a 70-metre swim from the shore of Loch an Eilein. This sheltered loch is set in a forest and swimming to the castle is not too tough. By contrast Lochindorb Castle on an island in Lochindorb is more of a challenge. Lochindorb Castle is 300 metres from the shore, and Lochindorb is exposed on higher ground without sheltering trees. This makes swimming to Lochindorb Castle and back more suited to good weather in summer.
Despite being very much inland and brimming with freshwater, Loch Morlich feels like a seaside experience with its generous 1km of sandy beach. In June, snow can still be seen on surrounding mountain tops. It is big enough to accommodate a water sports centre – so if going for a long distance swim be mindful that there may also be sailing boats, windsurfers, canoeists and kayakers enjoying the water.
The Green Loch
Much Speyside swimming is through water tinted the colour of whisky by tannins from trees. Tannin is one of the flavour and colour elements added to whisky via the wood barrels that whisky matures in. A striking exception to Speyside’s golden brown waters is Lochan Uaine, also known as the Green Loch. According to legend the water colour is due to pixies washing their clothes in it. A more boring explanation attributes its colour to mineral content. Pixies or not, it certainly is a magical loch, only half an hour walk up the mountain from the nearest parking spot, but watch out for the branches of submerged trees.
To get there, drive south of Aviemore and past Loch Morlich on your right. Go through Glenmore and take the road to the left following signs for Glenmore Lodge. Park where the road ends at the foot of a well-marked track through the forest, which leads to Green Loch.
Loch Insh’s northern end, near Insh church, is perfect for a mellow sunset swim – it is open and unshaded even when the sun is well past its zenith. The loch is shallow and has a muddy bottom – swim southwest past the island to find deeper water. Alternatively, swim out of the north end of the loch into the river Spey with a tow float for clothes or leave them hidden downstream.
In Scotland deer stalkers and anglers use ghillies – personal hunting or fishing assistants with expert local knowledge. On one of our swims in the Spey, which is renowned for salmon fishing, we met a friendly ghillie. He spotted us from the opposite bank, waved and brought out a thermometer to measure the water temperature. At the end of September on a hot day of sunshine the river was still only 11 degrees Celsius, so be aware of the risks of cold water when swimming in local rivers.
A good swimming spot upstream of the Spey is in one of its tributaries, the River Feshie at Feshiebridge on the B970. It is easiest to get in the water from the gently sloping bank just downstream of the bridge in Feshiebridge. Swim upstream into a large river pool and swim hard when it almost becomes an endless pool as the river narrows towards the bridge. Renowned for its clear water it is also a charming combination of bridge and dappled light from trees. Best of all it is close to the Potting Shed Tearoom and its array of amazing cakes.
Dalwhinnie is located within the southern edge of Speyside but marketed as a Highland whisky. It is Scotland’s highest distillery and near it are two lovely river swims.
In Strathmashie Forest go to Drum An Aird car park on the A86 just south of Strathmashie House. From here a path leads through the forest and past a wide pool in the River Pattack, which is topped with a small waterfall. If you skinny dip here be aware you may be spotted by walkers who stop at the viewpoint above the waterfall.
In contrast to the shelter of the forest and wide pool in Strathmashie is the deep water of the narrow River Truim where it dashes under a bridge before going over the falls of Truim. Head from Dalwhinnie to Aviemore on the A9, watching out for the easily missed turn off to the Falls of Truim on the east side of the road just before Etteridge. Park in the small car park and then walk down to the bridge where you can get into the river. Post-swimming, if you have a designated driver, stop for the distillery tour and whisky tasting at Dalwhinnie.
Well known for white water kayaking, the Findhorn also has some good spots for swimmers. At Dulsie the river runs through a rocky gorge.
On the downstream side of Dulsie bridge walk along a path through the vegetation to access the water. On the opposite bank and a little downstream of the access point there is a waterfall. It is chilly Scottish water but, set among green ferns growing on the rocks, it looks tropical.
Another swim spot in the Findhorn is just after its confluence with the River Divvie. Near the bridge over the Divvie on the B9007 just south of Logie a footpath passes along the edge of a field, through forest and leads you to where the two rivers meet. Just downstream of this is a small sandy beach where it is easy to get in the water. Swim upstream to the rock islands, which are perfect for clambering up for a view of the river. Here the forest surrounding the river is largely composed of beech and oak, the whisky barrel’s favourite.