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Blessings from Heaven: The journey to Scalan

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Scalan’s setting in the Braes of Glenlivet seems benign in good weather. But it is extremely remote and fierce winds and heavy snow are common in winter (photo © hidden europe).


We venture south, following Livet Water up into the Braes of Glenlivet. This area survived as an outpost of Catholicism in post-Reformation Scotland. At Scalan, on the lower flank of the Ladder Hills, a secret seminary trained priests in the 18th century until the time when a more permissive attitude to Catholicism meant that the Church could function more openly.

Many are the pilgrims who have made their way up the glen. For most of them the goal is the distillery. The Livet is a right-bank tributary of the Avon which runs down through Moray meadows and woodlands to join the River Spey. The reason you know of the River Livet, shown on some older maps as Livet Water, is that it’s given its name to one of the most celebrated way stations on Scotland’s malt whisky circuit. The fast-flowing River Livet is key to the success of the distillery known as Glenlivet.

This quiet glen to the north of the Cairngorms is gearing up to mark the bicentennial of the founding of its showpiece distillery in 1824. In truth, the distillery had existed long before, a shadowy operation with the residents of the glen playing cat and mouse with the authorities who were none too happy with the illicit production of whisky in remote communities across the Highlands.

Yet some who make the journey up the valley to Glenlivet venture beyond the distillery. Not many, and that’s a pity as the headwaters of the valley hide a remarkable fragment of Scotland’s religious history.

A landscape of faith

Leaving the famous distillery behind us, it’s a pleasant walk along the west flank of the Livet Valley up to Tomnavoulin, a village of perhaps a dozen families with its own distillery, one that has none of the cachet of Glenlivet, but still produces a decent single malt.

Beyond Tomnavoulin, there are multiple headwaters of the Livet of which the most interesting is Crombie Water which drains down from the Braes of Glenlivet.