It’s more than just whisky in Moray!
Reasons to visit Moray – a weekend in the north east
Moray goes hand in hand with whisky. Dominated in tourism circles with chatter about heavenly Speyside malts, it is hard to look past Scotland’s most concentrated distillery congregation when reflecting on this north eastern segment of the country. And yet, I’m going to try. The latest in my ‘weekend in…’ series will look at the range of standout interests making up my top reasons to visit Moray, one of our most under hyped but incredibly rewarding regions.
It begins with a nod to the wealth of historical incentive on offer throughout these parts. Starting in the town of Elgin, the 13th Century Cathedral is one of the finest ruins in the country and one that, to me anyway, bears a strong resemblance to fabulous Melrose Abbey in the Borders. In its day one of the most beautiful and intricate structures in Scotland, there is still a distinctive atmosphere to the place and its eerie surrounding graveyard. The presence of the River Lossie to the north adds further to a memorable image.
Selecting from the numerous additional ruins in the area is hard going for this castle fanatic but another great standout is medieval Spynie Palace. In an excellent state of repair, the historical home to the Bishops of Moray has a peaceful setting overlooking the gentle rural landscapes north of Elgin. They picked their spot well. With origins from the 12th Century, Spynie boasts a large courtyard area and is dominated by the plain, yet practical, David’s Tower. It’s time for another comparison as I am reminded of the island fortress of Loch Leven Castle in the appearance of the Palace ruins.
Going even further back in time, the gigantic standing stone of Sueno puts those piddly wee things in Outlander to shame. At over 20 feet tall, Sueno’s Stone dates from the 9th Century and is easily the most impressive of its type that I have seen. Resembling the famous Bayeux Tapestry, the carvings tell a story to set the imagination on fire. An array of warriors clearly depict an epic battle, although the specific meanings are not known with any certainty. Naturally, it has its own place in literary history too as it is said to be at this spot that Macbeth met the three witches who were to wreak such havoc on his mental health. In the legend, the witches were imprisoned within the stone for their evil-doing and should it break, they would be released. There’s a consideration for house prices in the area…..
Opening a newer chapter in Scottish history, the stately-home style of castle is epitomised with the grandeur of Brodie Castle near the town of Forres. Decadent, formidable and ostentatious, Brodie is a fabulous example of wealthy family life in the 16th Century. Richly furnished, art adorned and with 71 hectares worth of grounds, the Clan Brodie did alright for themselves.
After something of a history overload, the focus turns to the appeal of the Moray coast. Boasting some of the Scottish mainland’s top beaches, little Lossiemouth is the best place to start. A vast stretch of soft, golden sand and ice cream on standby – it’s the classic Scottish day at the seaside. The Moray Firth is also one of our best locations for dolphin spotting and a jaunt down the coastline to Spey Bay and the Scottish Dolphin Centre will be well rewarded. While I was not so fortunate as to see any on this visit, it is still a magnificent spot for watching the sunset over the din of crashing waves. Image no.3 below courtesy of the Dolphin Centre on a more fortuitous day.
Ok so I’m not going to ignore whisky completely, I’m not mad. There are countless options in these parts when it comes to distillery visits and the standard is consistently excellent across the board. Personal and characterful, the choice for which and how many to visit is down to you. Personal taste will no doubt lead you one way more than another but having visited the big boys at Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Macallan my view is that there is little to choose between them (unless you are an absolute whisky nutter in which case I surrender, I’m probably not qualified to lead you any further). I do however feel the need to champion little Dallas Dhu Distillery for something a little different. No longer functioning, a tour around this relic is something of a wander down malt memory lane. Intimate and evocative, there is a rare opportunity here to immerse yourself in the distilling process through your mind’s eye. You can also freely take photographs, unlike many of the functional distilleries where you risk exploding yourself.
Rural Moray stretches south into Cairngorm National Park, and along this drive I suggest a stop at the picturesque Craigellachie Bridge. With Glenfiddich Distillery within a stone’s throw and the River Spey passing beneath, this is where the Speyside whisky processes all begin. The way that some people talk about Speyside I’m almost surprised not to see folk queueing up to be baptised in the stuff. Fishing opportunities abound in these parts as well and this would always be my leaning when selecting from local menus.
Continuing south, the Old Military Road passing through the pretty village of Tomintoul is dotted with yet more fabulous Highland scenery. Bikers – motor and push alike – love this stretch, and with good reason. I’ve even seen paragliders and other such daredevils cruising around taking advantage of the spectacular high-altitude landscapes. Following the A939 south and exiting Moray you will pass the likes of star-shaped Corgarff Castle and then the heart of the Cairngorms, including the Royal hub of Braemar, before emerging into Perthshire on the other end. A drive to remember!
If looking for accommodation in the area, Elgin is probably the most geographically convenient spot to see the above attractions and will also offer good dining (and drinking!) options. If you are looking for a bottle of the good stuff, you will struggle to beat Gordon & MacPhail’s in the town centre – you’ll have your head spun and your wallet stung with the range on offer. As for getting around, there are regular buses that charge around throughout Moray, but a car will make your life an awful lot easier. One thing to watch out for in these parts is pronunciation. Being a Glaswegian, I made more than one ignorant blunder on one of my earlier visits, generating some understandable ridicule in the process. Moray is pronounced ‘Murray’, Craigellachie is ‘Craig-el-ah-kay’ and Spynie is ‘Spine-ee’ to name but three of the potential traps.
You can trace my own reasons to visit Moray over a weekend on the interactive map below and listen to my Radio Scotland broadcast on the region by clicking play above.