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December 21, 2010

The Whisky Train

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

It is something of a blessing in disguise that I have not yet had time to recount my time aboard the Spirit of Speyside. With four inches of snow smothering everything outside I welcome any opportunity to recollect warmer times.

This is the most northerly heritage railway in the Scotland, although it was not for this reason that I dragged my parents along for an out-and-back rattle between Dufftown and Keith. It touts itself as ‘The Whisky Line’, and so I could not pass it up.

On my squeaky, grim-faced ride from Strathisla back to Dufftown in April the road hugged this single-track line for part of the way, bridges leap-frogging rails and the river Isla for a number of miles. The sun had appeared, and arable, wooded Speyside was showing itself very handsomely. I wanted to see what it was all about, having come across listings in the guidebooks one finds in Bed and Breakfasts.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

A little bit of history first, however. The railway is one of the principle factors explaining why so many distilleries were built in the region. The plentiful raw materials dictated the location of a distillery in the first instance, but the train made distilling economically viable post-Excise Act, allowing the whisky which was ultimately produced to be transported to the markets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and indeed the rest of the world with relative ease. Many distilleries were built beside, or had sidings constructed for them, from the main branch lines. The Speyside Way follows the echoing clatters of steam trains past, and many bridges over the Spey would have conveyed engines.

Salvaged and run by volunteers, the Keith & Dufftown Railway was opened in 2001, and operates on a dedicated timetable throughout the year. If you are planning your own visit, however, it is always worth checking the website in advance, although booking is not necessarily essential, and wasn’t for us as we pulled into the station at Dufftown on a Saturday in September.

I had been on the station platform before – in April as I left Dufftown on the way to Cardhu following a concerted effort to find out exactly where Balvenie is. Diving down a side road after Glenfiddich, behind some warehouses which had unfortunately collapsed due to the chronic winter weather, I passed under a bridge and then turned left – Balvenie Castle lying to my right – to be met with the various Balvenie buildings. Reflecting on how dearly I would have liked to have been rummaging around inside, I returned to the road, only to notice a puff of smoke from the pagoda heads – they were kilning malt! The best view then of Balvenie in its entirety had been from the platform, and so it was on this occasion.KDR4

Besides the waiting room and information points, there is also a railway carriage (static) kitted out as a cafe, and it serves wonderful scones, if you like that kind of thing. The train itself is not quite steam train romance, but it is comfortable, and feels very authentic. With a screech of the whistle and a shudder of machinery we were away on the eleven mile stretch to Keith.

Balvenie and Glenfiddich are obviously highly visible distilleries from the train track, but so is the silent – but still standing – Parkmore just on the other side of the Fiddich Viaduct – sixty metres above the river in question and one of the most-time consuming and expensive areas of the restoration project. Forest, glades and open fields slide past your window – this is a very leisurely ride. On the left as you aim for Keith is the man-made Park Loch. Teaming with wildlife (they list buzzards, red squirrels, deer and many others on the website) this is a very picturesque section, and one can only imagine the scene in winter when they run their ‘Santa Specials’: for the kiddies, mainly. Other animal life include the inmates of a donkey sanctuary. Look out for them.KDR6 Parkmore

On the approach to Keith, Strathmill is highly prominent, and is the first distillery to sup at the River Isla, which rushes alongside the train for a considerable portion of the ride. At Keith Town station you can either alight and explore Keith (don’t miss Strathisla Distillery) or get out and stretch your legs and savour the relaxing procession back to Dufftown. Please note, it is useful to check which station is that of initial departure. We could have hopped on at Keith, but we would have had to wait a few hours before there would be another train to take us back again. Our journey had a fifteen minute pause at Keith prior to the return leg.

The Keith & Dufftown Railway website.

KDR5 Strathmill

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