The Braes of Glenlivet lie in a remote and little known corner of the northern foothills of the Cairngorms. Though less than five miles from Tomintoul as the golden eagle flies, the area is accessed by a minor single track road which leaves the B9008 at Knockandhu, and proceeds for some three miles into a broad bowl set into the Ladder Hills: mountains which rise steeply to over 800m or 2,600ft just a short distance to the south east.
If the Braes of Glenlivet are remote and little known today, they were still more so in the past, before roads were built and rivers bridged. This allowed the area's population to largely sidestep the changes brought about through much of the rest of Scotland by the Reformation of 1560 and retain its Roman Catholic faith. One consequence of this was the presence between 1717 and 1799 of a Roman Catholic Seminary at nearby Scalan, in the most remote corner of this most remote area.
The Seminary moved to a more easily accessible location in Aberdeenshire in 1799, and the last priest left Scalan in 1808. This meant that the area's predominantly Catholic population of around 1,000 (it is much lower today) had no resident priest and had to walk several miles north to worship at Tombae. The distance was less of a problem than the need to cross the unbridged River Livet, which was often simply impossible. The answer was obvious: the Braes of Glenlivet needed its own church.
The problem was addressed by the Abbe Paul MacPherson, who had returned to his native Braes of Glenlivet after retiring as Rector of the Scots College in Rome. By now a relatively wealthy man, he obtained the grant of 10 acres of land from the Duke of Gordon and paid for the building of a church, a priest's house, a school and a churchyard in the tiny hamlet since known as Chapeltown. He also arranged for the appointment of a priest to serve the church and the residents of the area. The church was completed in 1826. Abbe MacPherson himself was recalled to Rome in 1834 at the age of 78, and resumed his Rectorship of the Scots College, remaining in post until his death in 1846 at the age of 91.
The church went from strength to strength, with the economy of the Baes of Glenlivet receiving a boost after the priest in charge persuaded the Duke of Gordon to build a road from Knockandhu in the middle years of the century. It was the Rev Colin McKenzie who oversaw the replacement of the original church with its slightly larger successor in 1896/7. The official opening on 8 September 1897 was attended, as a photograph still on view shows, by the Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh and the Bishop of Aberdeen.
Today's visitor finds a church that is externally austere in an attractive sort of way. It also has a tower, something that seems to have passed the Ordnance Survey by as they identify it with a symbol for a church without a spire or tower. It seems possible that they have simply failed to update their mapping to take account of the replacement church completed here in 1897, as its predecessor was indeed as marked on their maps. The church is obvious from the road, but if you find yourself passing Braeval Distillery, Scotland's highest, then you have gone just a little too far.
A sign on the church door gives information about obtaining the key. What you find inside is simply glorious. A large nave finished in green, pink and polished wood leads through to the sanctuary, complete with a scarlet and highly decorated ceiling. The words of the Lord's Prayer, in Latin, are displayed in large lettering around the base of the roof of the nave. At the entrance end of the church is a choir gallery. Along the walls of the nave are the Stations of the Cross, each donated by a different family living in the area. The church can seat 350, though the combination of declining population and declining church attendance means that it is seldom full. These days Chapeltown is joined with Tombae and Tomintoul under a single priest in charge.
The sanctuary is particularly magnificent, in large part because of the reredos. This features a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour over the tabernacle, supported by pictures of St Alphonsus and St Bernard. The wording around the base of the scarlet ceiling spells out "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth".
Back at the entrance end of the church, the space under the gallery is home, on one side, to an organ and to the font, while on the other is a statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. A further statue of her appears on the tower, above the main door to the church.
Visitor InformationView Location on Map
Grid Ref: NJ 242 210
Key available locally: see sign on door.