Peat Reek & Pot Still Tour
Sunday 1st May 2016
We were up bright and early to make our journey along the beautiful Speyside Malt Whisky Trail to our destination Glenlivet Hill Treks.
The directions provided by, our tour guide and owner of Glenlivet Hill Treks, Charlie Ironside were perfect, as you would expect from an ex policeman. We had no trouble finding our rendezvous point arriving with 10 minutes to spare and we were greeted by a smiling Charie stood proudly between his Argocat and Land Rover.
Charlie informed us that we may have a slight delay as the other half of our tour party were being lead a merry dance by their sat nav. Charlie eased any worries that we may have had by stating that time wasn’t an issue and we would still get the full days experience regardless of a later start.
We needn’t have worried as Daisy and Do soon appeared on the horizon and after a brief introduction and explanation of what to expect during our day, we were invited to jump in the Land Rover and taken on a tour of the Glenlivet Estate. It became apparent within a few minutes of being in Charlie’s company, that not only did he have the perfect soft highland brogue for drawing in visitors to his tales of yore but he was also a font of knowledge and loves what he does.
As we traversed the Glenlivet estate in our steel chariot Charlie explained about how the ‘Crown Estate’ who own large sections of the land in this area, work. He shared stories, facts and folklore from the past to the present relating to whisky production both legal and illicit. He explained about local wildlife, flora and fauna and and showed us many points of interest, including ‘Josie’s Well’ (Glenlivet’s water source or should we say one of them) We heard various stories about why it is called ‘Josie’s Well’ during the day, my particular favourite involved naked dancing
We were taken to the stunning ‘Packhorse Bridge” which straddles the river Livet. Only two of the bridges 3 original arches have survived, the other arch was ripped away by floodwater during the great “Muckle Spate” of 1829.
Charlie explained that Glenlivet Distillery recently rebranded using the iconic “Packhorse Bridge” as their logo. He also showed were the ongoing modernisation of the distillery includes the erection of a smaller scale packhorse bridge on site.
Spotting wildlife when out on tours can be very much a game of chance. At times it seems the harder you look the less likely you are to see anything. Fortunately for us the wildlife gods shone down good fortune on us and whilst we were just making our way back from Blairfindy Castle, more of which in a moment, two brown Hare’s ran across the road in front of us and into an adjacent field. We stopped and watched in amazement as they performed their courting ritual and proceeded to chase and box one another. Its at this point I have to admit that I was so transfixed and mesmerised by the scene of nature I was witnessing, that I completely forgot to grab my camera and take some photos and therefore the moment will be consigned purely to memory.
Blairfindy castle was built by the earl of Huntly in 1564 and its said that its main function was to keep an eye on who and what was passing through the area, especially any illicit whisky movements. The building isn’t safe to go inside or even get close to, it has metal bands wrapped around it like a steel corset supporting it and stopping it falling down. Its a shame because it really is a beautiful building.
Once the Brown Hares had decided they didn’t need an audience for their rituals, we made our way back to the rendezvous point and changed mode of transport.
All aboard the Argocat.
This 8 wheeled, potentially amphibious craft, makes its way across the tracks and hilly terrain slowly and surely, at times turning on a sixpence. Due to its high torque, low speed design it leaves very little evidence of its journey across earth and stone tracks and heather patches. If you are like me a lover of certain 2 stroke exhaust aromas you will love the gentle occasional waft that passes your nostrils courtesy of the Argocat.
We set off from the rendezvous point leaving the Land Rover and Bothy over our shoulders, the foothills of Blairfindy and Glenlivet our destination and within seconds we were next to the site of original Glenlivet distillery licenced by George Smith in 1824. Charlie went on to explain how the commisioning of a legal licenced distillery in the heartland of illicit distillation didn’t exactly enamour George Smith with local illicit whisky distillers. The only evidence of the original sites existences nowadays is a stone plaque erected on the site next to one of the many water wells dotted across the valley.
We continued on up a steep track, through gates and barriers of varying designs and stages of life, until we reached the foot of the hills and stretched before us was a carpet of deep woody brown heather, which we slowly moved across. Charlie navigated the Argocat easily across small ditches and burns. Stopping to explain the land and wildlife management & conservation policy and techniques of the area. He explained the reason for the annual heather burning at springtime, to encourage growth of new heather and prevent the heather from being smothered and taken over by other grasses & weeds. We reached close to the summit of our chosen peak and made the final few hundreds yards by foot reaching the tall cairn at the top where the wind joined us.
Despite the wind it was an amazingly peaceful and quiet location with stunning 360 views across the valley and beyond to the Cairngorms. Charlie pointed out the rivers Avon & Livet cutting their way through the landscape and providing much of the life source for the area. From the cairn he directed our gaze towards Drumin Castle which was peaking from the trees in the far distance. Drumin Castle was allegedly built by the infamous ‘Wolf of Badenoch’ at sometime in the 1370s.
Time for some geography; the geology of the Glenlivet area mainly consists hard metamorphic schists and quartzite, mixed with coarse grained granite and calcium rich lime stone rocks.
Despite changeable weather we remained dry throughout the tour and I could have sat at the top of the hill next to the cairn, taking in the stunning vista and wonderful tranquil atmosphere all day long.
However it was time to make our way back to our green 8 wheeled chariot and head back down from whence we had started. Our adventure was far from over though in fact it had barely begun. As we retraced our steps Charlie created images in our heads of illicit distillers plying their trade across this vast area and staying one step ahead of the authorities.
All this talk of whisky had built up a thirst, so as we pulled up next to the site of the original distillery, where a small picnic area carved from tree trunks awaited us. Charlie pulled out a whicker basket complete with bottle of Glenlivet Founders Reserve 1824 and whisky tumblers. It would be rude not to!
There was something rather surreal about sitting in the peace and quiet, the sun breaking through the clouds, grasping a glass of founders reserve and performing the ritual dance of site, sound, aroma, taste at the site of the first licenced Glenlivet distillery, maybe that’s what made it taste so good? I imagine the spirits ( no pun intended) present in the valley turned a head as they heard the screech and pop of the cork as it was liberated from the bottle by Charlie and raised a rye smile on their faces. Slainte
Time to climb back aboard the Argocat and make our way to the ‘Peat Reek Bothy’ where we would take on more of the welcome sunshine in the most charming and rustic of settings.
Not before we met more wildlife in the form of a male grouse, preened and colourful and obliging enough to hang around whilst we got out cameras out to take pictures. We arrived at the Bothy and were greeted by Susan, Charlie’s wife who had prepared and carried our picnic lunches to the Bothy. Each lunch had been lovingly prepared and placed in insulated whicker baskets, complete with name label of the recipient.
My lunch choice was ‘Laird’s Lunch’
Rich succulent select pieces of wild game, venison, pheasant encased in a crisp short pastry served with our homemade chutney, mature cheddar and a hunk of wholemeal bread and salad. This was rounded off with a freshly baked piece of cake. Yes it tasted as lovely as it sounds and looks.
Our lovely homemade picnic lunch was accompanied by a choice of coffee, tea, whisky (this time a Glenlivet 15yo) and of course water.
The Bothy is a cosy warm welcoming shelter, in a glorious setting and has all you need for a brief sojourn into a bygone era. The interior resplendent with an illicit still, whisky, highland and countryside artefacts. Venture outside and you have your own picnic table, fire pit and all the trappings to ensure complete relaxation and contemplation. If this wasn’t enough, should you require to spend a penny, you can do this in an outdoor loo with a view.
Charlie & Susan bid us a temporary goodbye and left us to enjoy our splendid lunch, explore our surroundings and enjoy the company of our fellow travellers. I could honestly have spent the rest of the day at the Bothy just relaxing, chewing the fat and of course enjoying a few more drams. Indeed should you feel the urge to just picnic at the Bothy without the tour that is an option on the website and one I believe I will be taking advantage of in the not to distant future.
Charlie appeared in the distance just as we had vacated the Bothy to stretch our legs and absorb the sights and sounds. The sight of Charlie approaching from the distance towards the Bothy brought to mind visions of illicit distillers stealthily approaching their hives of illegal production. Charlie then played us recordings made in the 1950s from historic Scotland. These recordings were of local characters who were old enough to remember the illicit trade. They spun their yarns for the interview in their deep local dialect rolling their Rs in rapid machine gun style. It was a wonderful soundtrack that provided a verbal picture of people and places and the perfect way to finish our time at The Peet Reek Bothy.