THE extraordinary beauty of the Glenlivet Estate is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets.
This is a land of mountain and moorland hidden away at the edge of the Cairngorms National Park where spectacular salmon rivers flow to the sea.
Here, glorious glens dotted with distilleries produce some of the world’s finest malt whisky – and yet many tourists bypass the area completely in favour of the Highlands and islands.
That’s their loss, though. The lonely roads and isolated moors of this part of Scotland have a host of surprises in store, and perhaps the best way of savouring the vastness of the landscape is to take the picturesque route south from Tomintoul to Perth via Cock Bridge, Braemar and Blairgowrie.
Famed as one of the first roads in the country to be shut by winter snowdrifts, the A939 takes you through spectacular scenery with endless views over mountains and moorland.
With its rich history of military escapades and whisky smuggling, there’s plenty of history to read up on too, but for many it’s simply a chance to savour the isolation of a unique moorland landscape which provides a chance to glimpse the odd merlin, hen harrier or mountain hare, as well as the inevitable sheep and deer.
If you savour your home comforts, the perfect place to enjoy a little old-school hospitality at the start or end of the journey is at Effie’s tea shop in the heart of Perth.
Whether it’s wholesome home-cooked mince and tatties or afternoon tea, this elegant and ornately decorated haven in the High Street is ideally located to break the journey south, and a welcome touch of civilisation after the bleak beauty of the moors.
Autumn tends to be the best time to savour the journey north, partly because of high hopes that the weather will be forgiving, and partly because this is the time of year when the rare habitat of heathers, grasses, berries and mosses is at its most stunning and colourful.
Take your time to meander through this wildnerness, because this is not scenery you can savour every day: three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland is found in the UK and most of it is located in Scotland, so the management of such unique ecosystems is crucial for the welfare of local wildlife, as well as protecting against climate change.
Drive on past the Lecht and Glenshee ski slopes to the outskirts of Tomintoul and there’s no let-up in the endless vistas or glorious sense of isolation, not least as you enter the 58,000-acre Glenlivet Estate.
Nowadays it’s part of the Crown Estate, a huge £14bn property portfolio which helps to fund the Royal family, though three-quarters of the £340m-plus annual profits are surrendered to the Treasury.
Once owned by the Gordon family, today the estate boasts a range of visitor attractions, encouraging the development of recreation and tourism and welcoming those who come to explore and enjoy the countryside, helping support local businesses in the process.
Attractions include waymarked walks and a mountain bike centre, while those with a taste for malt whisky can pay a visit to a range of local distilleries for which Speyside is famous.
Those wanting to enjoy a more traditional seaside holiday don’t have far to drive to savour the picturesque harbours and fishing villages along the Moray Firth.
At the nature reserve at Findhorn Bay, birdwatchers can enjoy the landlocked tiday bay which is the largest of Moray’s three estuaries and internationally important for its waders and wildfowl.
Those eager to explore on foot can enjoy a 50-mile long-distance walking route along Moray’s magical coastline, from Forres to Cullen, which is well signposted and fairly easy terrain, given the magnificence of the views.
Sadly today’s visitors no longer get the chance to traverse the clifftop route by steam train, following the closure of the former Great North of Scotland’s Moray Firth coast route in 1968, but some of the line can still be traversed on foot or by cycle, and the views are unequalled.
Fishing villages like Findochty and Portessie provide a higgledy-piggledy array of brightly coloured coastal cottages interspersed with sandy bays, looming cliffs and rockpools perfect for closer exploration.
Generations of holidaymakers have enjoyed these blue waters, as well as grappling with the distinctive and sometimes impenetrable Doric dialect spoken by residents in “Finechty” and the surrounding villages.
Travel a few miles east and the beaches and harbour at Cullen provide one of the most dramatic vistas along this coastline, still framed by the impressive viaducts of the old railway line.
Travelling back inland, a couple of heritage railways hark back to the heyday of rail travel in the north-east of Scotland, with the Keith & Dufftown Railway providing services between the two towns, and the Strathspey Railway offering steam services from Aviemore to Boat of Garten.
Or if you visit in August, you could even enjoy one of the annual local agricultural highlights of the year, when the Keith Show provides a two-day programme of livestock competitions, sheepdog trials and massed pipe and drum displays.
Those who favour a more serene environment can visit the monastery at Pluscarden Abbey, joining the community of Catholic Benedictine monks for one of their services, or simply savouring a moment of quiet reflection in the secluded glen where the monks first established their base in the 13th century.
The 21st-century story of the monks’ efforts to restore the abbey to its former glory is one which has spanned decades, and is ongoing.
Today, Pluscarden claims to be a thriving place of training, worship, work and reflection where the physical labour of rebuilding goes on and when time and funds permit.
But if one final story encapsulates an even more awe-inspiring tale of struggling against adversity in the pursuit of one’s faith, it’s the extraordinary story of a secret seminary set up in one of the remotest glens of Glenlivet at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in Scotland.
Hidden deep in the Braes of Glenlivet, between 1716 and 1799 the Scalan seminary offered seclusion to the persecuted 18th-century Catholics, who trained more than 100 priests here, ensuring the survival of the Catholic faith.
Named after the Gaelic sgalan, meaning turf roof, the old college lies along a rough farm track that today forms part of the 4.5km Scalan Heritage Trail, a circular walk offering breathtaking views of the Braes of Glenlivet and the Ladder Hills.
As the Rev John Geddes, rector at Scalan in the 1760s and later to become a bishop, wrote: “The time by the goodness of God will come, when the Catholic religion will again flourish in Scotland; and then, when posterity shall enquire, with a laudable curiosity, by what means any sparks of the true faith were preserved in these dismal times of darkness and error, Scalan and the other colleges will be mentioned with veneration, and all that can be recorded concerning them will be recorded with care. . .”
Sitting today in the primitive chapel, located so remotely in the only round glen in Scotland, it’s hard to believe what courage it took in the 18th century to train new priests in this stark and majestic landscape, where snow can lie on the ground from October to April.
Today, there’s a signposted path leading 10 miles over the hills to Strathdon, once patrolled by prominent exciseman Malcolm Gillespie in his mission to catch whisky smugglers.
How strange then, that this small remote building should have played such a crucial role in helping to keep the Catholic faith alive, with around 100 young men travelling to Glenlivet to train before fanning out across the Continent to spread the word – and to dream of a day when the Mass no longer had to be celebrated in secret.
For more information about Scalan, see the website of the Scalan Association.