The Braes of Glenlivet sit in the heart of whisky country, where the fresh water of the Speyside rivers fuelled illicit stills, salmon spawn and the rolling hills provide shelter for those who may want to go about their business away from prying eyes.

Remote, peaceful, surrounded by God’s beauty and a scattering of crofts and farms, in the turbulent times of the 18th century, it was the perfect place for Catholic priests to train and worship in secret. 

Their clandestine community thrived in an age of anti-Catholic laws and riots, to become a place to quietly explore their faith in peace. 

As time passed, the seminary at Scalan – from the Gaelic for a turfed roofed shelter – became a farmstead with mill buildings that rattled with a threshing machine powered by a wooden water wheel. 

Scalan’s significance during a time when Catholicism was a proscribed faith was not entirely lost; its restored seminary building has become a place of pilgrimage for many Catholics and the site of an annual mass.

Now the group of historic buildings that sit alongside are also to be reborn, in a major project that will see the Scalan seminary site become a visitor attraction, which celebrates both its religious and agricultural heritage. 

The plans, which have been approved by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), include the restoration and repair of two “time capsule” mill buildings linked to the 18th-century seminary building. 

A major element involves the restoration of the 19th-century L-shaped North Mill’s timber waterwheel and reinstatement of the north lade to enable manned demonstrations for visitors.  

The neighbouring 20th-century South Mill will also be renovated, although its iron waterwheel will be for display only.

While the seminary building – previously renovated and returned to its original layout – has high significance for Roman Catholics, the mill buildings are regarded as rare and special with original mill machinery, horse stalls and fittings, timber panelling and original clay floors. 

The restoration is expected to adopt a largely “hands off” approach designed to retain the mill buildings’ character, rather than modernising centuries-old features. 

As a result, historic graffiti at the site dating from as far back at 1874 will also be preserved.

Meanwhile, initial concerns that restoration of the mill workings could create sediment and silt which would adversely impact on salmonid and otters, have been allayed by initiatives designed to minimise the impact. 

The plans have been described by The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland as “an exemplary project to conserve an important group of historic agricultural buildings”. 

Scalan became of major importance during the early 18th century when Jacobite activity saw penal laws rigorously imposed. 

The first seminary on the site was established in 1716 by Bishop Thomas Nicholson in a croft building at a point when anti-Jacobite feelings were at a high. 

In the wake of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, the college came under frequent attack and was burned to the ground by the Duke of Cumberland following the Battle of Culloden. 

The seminary was rebuilt several times, with the latest building constructed in the 1860s. 

It was used until the late 19th century when it was replaced by a larger seminary at Aquhorties near Inverurie and later Blairs College near Aberdeen

Conservation work on the seminary building was carried out in the 1990s and it has been open to the public to visit and for regular events.

The latest project to renovate its mill buildings is being funded by Tomintoul and Glenlivet Landscape Partnership (TGLP), a four-year, £3.6 million Heritage Lottery funded programme to regenerate the Tomintoul and Glenlivet area.

It is working with lead partner, Crown Estate Scotland, and the Scalan Association. 

Amy Woolvin, Community Cultural Heritage Officer for TGLP, said: “This hidden away site in the Braes of Glenlivet has played its role within the national history of Scotland whilst also providing a unique insight into the everyday lives of those who lived and worked there during the 20th century. 

“We are keen to conserve the mill buildings, share the life of this site and continue its story for locals and visitors to enjoy and be part of.”

Cairngorm National Park Authority planning officer Stephanie Wade said: “The proposed works look to help preserve the historic fabric and integrity of the mill buildings while giving members of the public greater accessibility to the site."

She continued: “It is very much supported by both Historic Environment Scotland and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the plans meet with our own policies around the reuse of old buildings and our support for cultural heritage projects.”

Peter Argyle, planning committee vice-convener, described the site as “historically and culturally significant”.

“Making the site safe and easier to access will result in this hidden gem being a must-see for visitors to the area,” he added.