Location: Glenlivet, Moray

Grade: Easy hill walk

Distance: 7 miles/11km

Time: 3-4 hours

I was delighted to be involved in the launch of Glenlivet’s three Smugglers’ Trails a few years ago and spent some time exploring the remoter quarters of Glen Livet, climbing high on to the Ladder Hills that separate this remarkable whisky-producing glen from Donside to the south.

Corbett-baggers will be well aware of the riches of the area – Carn Mor, 2639ft/804m, is the highest of the Ladder Hills, and in the east the whisky hill itself, Ben Rinnes 2759ft/840m, and its neighbour, Corryhabbie Hill 2561ft/781m, stand close to the march with another famous whisky producing glen, Glenfiddich.

Glen Livet is a fine area for both walkers and whisky enthusiasts and one walk worth considering is the longest of Glen Livet’s Smugglers’ Trails, the 11km Robbie MacPherson Trail.

According to local legend, Robbie was one of Glen Livet’s most renowned whisky smugglers. During the longer winter months, he would store his illicit whisky in camouflaged pits dug in the hillside. When the snows thawed the more mature, smoother spirit would be ready for transportation out of the glen.

Before distilling was legalised by the Excise Act of 1832 there were reckoned to be 200 illicit whisky stills operating in the confines of Glen Livet – and the distillers and smugglers did a roaring trade. Pack trains of laden ponies would regularly leave the glen, with an armed guard, and make their way down to the coast to the ports of Banff and Buckie, or over the high passes of the Ladder Hills into Donside or the Cabrach. It wasn’t unusual for the whisky to reach places like Edinburgh where it was enjoyed by the nobility who referred to it as “The Real Stuff”.

The trail leaves the Glenlivet Distillery and passes the ruins of the 16th century Blairfindy Castle. This small castle was built by the Earl of Huntly in 1586 and is an impressive stronghold, which is thought to have been built as a hunting lodge, possibly with the purpose of controlling the main access to Gordon country from across the Ladder Hills.

Footpaths and tracks lead past another well-known whisky distillery at Tomnavoulin before following the Allt a’ Choire past fields of sheep and lambs to the farm at Westertown where a track climbs the hillside, goes through a wood and then traverses the heather-covered hillside to reach the ridge that connects Carn Liath with its southerly neighbour, the 1800ft Carn Daimh.

Unfortunately we were hit by a hailstorm as we approached the summit but once the clouds cleared the splendour of the views rewarded us for our soaking.

The village of Tomintoul lay below us and beyond it the swell of the Cairngorms dominated the scene, the high tops still snow-capped. To the south the Ladder Hills rose from the Braes of Glenlivet and in the east were Ben Rinnes and Corryhabbie hill.

With the green fields and blocks of conifers it was hard to imagine the Glen Livet of Robbie MacPherson’s day, when this place was remote and well sequestered from society. It’s now owned by the Crown Estate and it looks, in comparison to yesteryear, like a prosperous place which blends modern agricultural practice with good wildlife management.

The varied nature of the landscape provides many opportunities for watching birds and other wildlife. You’ll see crossbills, siskins, redpolls, goldcrest and long-tailed tits in many of the woodland areas, and black grouse on the woodland margins.

Mountain hares are commonly seen on the hills and red and roe deer can both be seen on the higher slopes and in the woodlands. This mix of countryside and open moorland provides ideal habitat for a variety of birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk, hen harrier and merlin while buzzards are frequently observed in the sky.

From Carn Daimh we followed the high ridge past Carn Liath before beginning a gradual descent back to the Glenlivet Distillery, passing the monument at Upper Drumin that marks the site of George Smith’s first legal distillery in Glen Livet and Josie’s Well, whose mineral rich waters still supplies the Glenlivet distillery, the oldest legal distillery in Scotland. It’s sobering to sit by the spring and consider that from this simple source of water bubbling up through the ground over six million bottles of whisky are produced every year.

Cameron McNeish


Map: OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 36 (Grantown and Aviemore)

Distance: 11 km./7 miles

Approx Time: 3-5 hours

Start/Finish: The Glenlivet Distillery, Glen Livet (GR: NJ196291)

Information: Grantown-on-Spey TIC, 01479 872242; Glenlivet Estate, 01479 870070, www.glenlivetestate.co.uk .

Route: Leave the distillery grounds, cross the road and pass the houses at Castleton and the ruins of Blairfindy Castle. At the end of the road go through a gate onto a grassy track. Follow this for a kilometre to Blairfindy. Follow the road for a short distance before leaving it on the right to follow another footpath, above Tomnavoulin, to Eastertown. A farm track now leads to Westertown, where a track goes through a gate on the right and climbs up to a block of woodland on the hillside above. Go through the woods and contour on a hill track across the hill to reach the saddle of a ridge between Carn Liath in the N and Carn Daimh in the S. Climb to the summit viewpoint of Carn Daimh, return and continue N, past Carn Liath, and down to Upper Drumin. Take the road past Blairfindy Lodge back to the distillery.