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Issue 39 - Leod and clear

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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Leod and clear

Charles Douglas visits Castle Leod, near Strathpeffer, headquarters of the Clan Mackenzie

From its name you might imagine Castle Leod to be associated with Clan Macleod and you would not be wrong, although it is today the ancestral seat of the Mackenzie earls of Cromartie, and has been for almost four centuries.

Occupying a magnificent setting below Ben Wyvis and overlooking the Cromartie Firth in the North East of Scotland, Castle Leod's parkland boasts some of the finest trees in the land, the star attractions being the largest tree in the United Kingdom, a Wellingtonia, and a Spanish Chestnut which was planted in 1550, the earliest known planting date of any tree in Britain.

The red sandstone L-Plan tower house, originally built around 1480, was modified in 1606 by Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Tarbat who, in the year before, had married his cousin Margaret Macleod of Lewis. When this lady inherited the Charters for the MacLeod land on the island of Lewis, the fortunes of the Mackenzies seriously took off.

At the same time, this inheritance settled a long-standing feud between the two clans over the west coast Baron of Coigach. In celebration of their union are carved, in the northern elevation of the castle, the initials RMK and MMC together with the date 1616, marking the finishing of the major alterations to the building.

Although it has seen both good times and bad, Castle Leod has weathered the passage of time superbly. That it was built for defence can be seen from the eight foot thick walls, and the number of gun loops and arrow slit windows of the façade. The same sturdiness is also evident indoors. A mural staircase in the thickness of the wall was seen as an alternative to the more common turnpike stair. Massive locks in the oak doors ensured protection.

Sir Roderick (or Rorie), being charged with the education of his nephew, heir to the Mackenzie Chiefship and now extinct earldom of Seaforth, became known as the Tutor of Kintail. Two generations later, it was his grandson, Sir George Mackenzie, lawyer and statesman, who was created Earl of Cromartie by Queen Anne in 1702.

Unfortunately, when his grandson, the 3rd Earl, and his great grandson John, supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, the family's estates were forfeited to the British Crown.

On the wood panelled wall of Castle Leod’s original dining room is a fine portrait of John Mackenzie, son and heir of the 3rdEarl, who, although convicted of treason, was later pardoned. Following his release from the Tower of London, he fled abroad and was loaned money by the Old Pretender to buy a uniform in order to enlist in the Swedish Army where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and became an Earl Marischal of Sweden.

He was later made Count Cromartie by the Swedish King. Such was his reputation that, on his return to London in 1777, he was invited to raise a marching regiment of Highlanders to fight in the American War of Independence. He then served in India under his Black Isle neighbour, Sir Hector Munro.

Castle Leod was restored to John Mackenzie in 1784 on the payment of £19,000, and as a reward for his loyalty he was styled Lord MacLeod by George III.

On his death, however, the castle was inherited by his cousin Kenneth Mackenzie. In the absence of a male heir thereafter, it then passed through the female line to Anne Mackenzie who, in 1849, married the Marquess of Stafford, who was later to become 3rd Duke of Sutherland.

Over this period, Castle Leod, more or less abandoned, fell into disrepair and by 1814 was being described as “Quite a ruin... deserted by crows.” Happily, by 1851, a single storey addition to the east and a low wing to the north had been built.

Lady Stafford was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria who restored her family title, making her Countess of Cromartie in her own right. Her second son became Earl of Cromartie under the second creation, and thereafter the inheritance and title once again passed through the female line to the present Earl's great-grandmother.

However, from the Clan point-of-view, the ancient chiefly line of earls of Seaforth died out in the early 19th century as prophesied by that curious mystical character of two centuries earlier, Kenneth Mackenzie, the Braham Seer. Clan Mackenzie was therefore without a chief for more than 150 years until the 4th Earl of Cromartie, the current earl's father, was recognised as such by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in 1980.

It was he who first encouraged the creation of a Mackenzie Museum in the old kitchen.

Castle Leod is today the home of John Ruaridh Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Cromartie, Chief of Clan Mackenzie, who prior to inheriting the estates, was a geologist and explosives consultant.

Do not expect to find great opulence at Castle Leod. Instead, the old fortress remains a classic example of a Scottish laird’s castle, its interiors homely and welcoming, with fine wood-paneled rooms hung with family portraits from centuries past. There are several large-scale antique maps to study, as well as many fine antique furnishings and historic artefacts to admire. A Historic Scotland grant in 1992 has repaired the leaky roof and work on the upper floors is still underway under the aegis of The Clan Mackenzie Charitable Trust.