When it comes to bucket list items, I have to admit this wasn’t on it. Not because it’s not really cool, but because it never occurred to me that I’d ever do it! Yet, just a few weeks ago, there I was, having a glass of whisky with John Mackenzie, the 5th Earl of Cromartie, Laird of the Mackenzie Clan in his home, Castle Leod (rhymes with cloud in case you were wondering).
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I got was an Earl who is such a nice guy and such a great storyteller that I was put at ease immediately. He started showing us around the castle giving us a history of the items, not just how they related to the castle, but how they related to his family as well. That was probably the best part of the visit. We’d seen other castles, but at this one, we were hearing from the owner about how this item was acquired by his great-grandmother or another item had been in his family since the 15th or 16th centuries. It gave it such a personal touch!
In the very small, but lovely Great Hall, the Earl offered us either a glass of whisky or an elderflower cordial. Both were great. At that point, he told us about the portraits in the room. Again, the portraits had such greater meaning knowing that these were his grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., many of whom he had associated stories giving greater insight into them as people rather than just pictures on a wall.
The grounds of the castle have been turned into an arboretum. One of the Earl’s prized trees is a Giant Sequoia, which was planted in 1853 to celebrate the first birthday of Frances Mackenzie. The most impressive to me was a Sweet Chestnut, which has lived to the ripe old age of 465 years. That’s right. This tree was planted in 1550! Recently, Outlander author Diana Gabaldon added a small rowan tree to the collection.
The castle is open to the public select weekends throughout the year, but the Earl will allow private tours like we had on occasion. One of the other perks? Well, let’s just say that at one point I joked, “Normally when we visit castles, we have to stop when a door says ‘Private. Do Not Enter.'” The Earl’s response? “You can enter if the owner says it’s OK,” and off we went through the door.
One of the other things one gets when touring a castle with its owner is insight as to how much upkeep is required on these large, old buildings. While one can inherit a title and a castle, one does not necessarily inherit the finances required for the maintenance of said castle. Right now, the Clan Mackenzie Charitable Trust is in the midst of raising the $1.5 million needed for external repairs. At the end of our tour, we gave a required donation to the trust, but after my visit, I wanted to do more. When I got home, I made a larger donation and became a Guardian of Castle Leod. I now have a lovely certificate and if I ever get back, will see my name on the shield inside the castle’s front entrance. Visit the Castle Leod website to find out more about the repair/restoration project or to make a donation.