Discover the Cairngorms on the NE250

Enter the Cairngorms on the North East 250 driving route and, mile by mile, you’ll start to unlock the dramas – and the secrets – of this very special part of Scotland.

Discover the secret ways used by smugglers on the Glenlivet Estate and maybe sample a legal dram yourself
Discover the secret ways used by smugglers on the Glenlivet Estate and maybe sample a legal dram yourself

From the towering mountains to the tucked away and hidden glens, the landscape keeps gifting as the journey through the southern reaches of Speyside continues and stories of whisky, smuggling, underground religion and rebels emerge from the cover of this deep country.

The vast expanse of the Glenlivet Estate starts to unfold, with the distillery of this most famous malt sitting at its heart.

Back in the day, before whisky started its own journey to become one of Scotland’s most profitable exports, the surrounding hills and river banks provided natural hiding places for illicit whisky making, with many deeply-distilled legends of the characters behind the “Real Stuff” forged in these parts.

Illegal stills

Perhaps up to 200 illegal stills operated in this glen before the Excise Act of 1823, with pack trains of heavily laden ponies shifting the spirit back up to the ports of Banff and Buckie or over the high passes of the Ladder Hills.

If you fancy getting closer to these extraordinary stories, you could leave the car and walk these routes, with the Glenlivet Estate publishing a guide to the Smugglers Trails, which will take you in the footsteps of figures such as Robbie Macpherson, a prolific whisky smuggler and illicit distiller who lived at Corrhabie.

More tales of these cat and mouse times – where excisemen roamed in search of fleet-footed illicit whisky makers – are emerging at the Glenlivet Distillery, where archaeologists have been digging at the site of the original, illegal distillery operated by founder George Smith.

Visit the highest village in the Highlands at 1164 ft, where a pleasant stop off can be had. It was built by the Duke of Gordon in the 18th Century

Smith then became the first distiller in Speyside to go legal, a move that made him so unpopular that he bought two pistols to protect his property from his foes in the glen.

Hidden spaces

It was not just whisky making that found a natural hideaway in Speyside, but religion too. Turn off the B9008 for Scalan and you will find a secret seminary for priests who were driven underground following the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century.

A one-kilometre walk from the car park at Scalan will lead you into the Braes of Glenlivet, where the old farmhouse that was home to the ‘heather priests’ can be found. The college was repeatedly attacked by Hanoverian soldiers but the college stood firm, and played a key role in keeping the Catholic faith alive in the north of Scotland.

Back on the B9008 and you’ll come to Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands at 1164 ft, where a pleasant stop off can be had. It was built by the Duke of Gordon in the 18th Century to create new opportunities for living and working in a bid to break the lucrative hold illicit whisky making had on the surrounding area and its people.

From Tomintoul, we continue south on the Lecht Road, the A939, which some have described as one of the best driving roads in the UK. Built after the 1745 Jacobite uprising to give easier access into the north of Scotland, the road peaks and troughs until you climb all the way up to the Lecht Ski Centre.

Castle stronghold

Then, the road falls away and stunning Corgaff Castle – with its star-shaped defensive wall – soon comes into view and strikes out in white from its heathery backdrop. It’s worth a stop at the viewpoint above to get the full sense of the castle’s setting with public artwork The Watchers, by sculptor John Kennedy, giving added reason to stop and savour the surroundings.

The castle’s location – both stunning and strategic – gives a strong sense of why Corgarff has been such an important and sought after site since it was built in the 16th Century, with the noble residence later becoming an army base for capturing Jacobites and smugglers who moved through the hills.

Corgarff was hotly contested during the Jacobite risings, with rebels burning the stronghold to the ground in 1689 to keep it out of the hands of government forces. Later, the beginning of the 1715 rising saw Jacobite leader the Earl of Mar march to Corgarff to arm his men.

After Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in 1745 to launch his attempt to return the Stuart line to the throne, Corgaff was again used as an ammunition store for the cause with Jacobite weaponry held here.

It was quickly seized by government forces, with the castle then becoming a garrison for the British Army, who were stationed right in the heart of the key route north. Today, you’ll see the room shared by the soldiers – complete with beds and hanging uniforms – and graffiti on the ceiling as they left their mark on their lonely outpost.

From Corgarff, the road, now packed with tales and beholding views, continues. A good coffee at Goodbrand and Ross coffee shop at the bottom of the hill gave a moment to pause and look back on the remarkable road through a remarkable landscape just driven.

Go your own way

Made up of six engaging and exciting sections, the North East 250 is perfect for a short break, or explore each section individually as a day out – it’s a route planned with flexibility in mind.

You can choose to follow the route clockwise or anti-clockwise, or plan your own adventure and Go Your Own Way. Where will you go?

Find out more and plan your next road trip today by clicking here.