The history of the Tomintoul and Glenlivet area has been largely shaped by the development of the agriculture, tourism and whisky industries over time.
The farming landscape evolved most radically in the era of agricultural improvement in the late 18th century. The results of these improvements are very visible today in the pattern of rectilinear fields and farms which currently define the landscape. The land became more productive through introducing new crops, new methods of rotation, new, longer leases and even new styles of farmhouse. Land was cleared and drained to bring more of it into cultivation. Farming in Glenlivet is hard, with harsh winters, rough hill land and little good arable pasture, but the people are hard-working, rugged and connected to the land and have made a living in this place, from one generation to the next.
The whisky industry in the area has evolved from a clandestine activity to becoming one of the most iconic, global Scottish brands. During the early 1800s, as many as 200 illicit stills were at work along the Livet glen, with each farm housing a hidden sma’ still. The secluded hills and deep hidden glens provided the protection for producing illegal spirit, with excise-men trying to enter the Glen spotted long before they arrived! The spirit was smuggled out over the Ladder hills for Perth, Blairgowrie and Edinburgh often with the excise-men in hot pursuit.
Even as an illegal spirit, Glenlivet whisky became renowned but it also played a key role in the legalisation of whisky production and became one of the first licensed distilleries. The area continues to be famous for its fine whisky, marketed on the quality of the landscape and natural environment in which it is made.
A planned village
As well as being the highest village in the Highlands, Tomintoul is a remarkably well-preserved example of eighteenth-century planning, its layout virtually unchanged in nearly 250 years. The 4th Duke of Gordon founded the village in 1776 along the military road built by William Caulfeild – now the A939. It was intended that a linen industry would support the village, however the linen industry did not catch on in the Highlands and from the village’s foundation, the people were instead dependent on the produce of their land and cattle to support them.
Since its creation, travellers and visitors have always stopped off in the village of Tomintoul, offering a welcome break along the high, and sometimes challenging road connecting Strathspey and upper Speyside to Deeside and Donside. When Queen Victoria travelled through Strathavon and the Cairngorms in 1860s, this heralded the start of tourism in the area, attracting people from the cities and the south to visit Tomintoul and Glenlivet for its peace and health benefits. Four hotels were built in Tomintoul to accommodate visitors, whilst sporting estates were created to cater for shooting and fishing parties. Tourism continues to play an important, and growing, part of the local economy, particularly since the designation of the Cairngorms National Park, and with the Glenlivet Estate diversifying into providing new activities such as mountain biking.
Find out more on the history and heritage of the area in the archives of the Thistledown newsletter.