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Enjoy & Learn

Visiting the Chief of the Clan Mackenzie

Scotland–castles, lakes, or, should I say in the local dialect lochs, one of them with a hypothetical monster, whisky, but... sequoias?

In a little wooden booth off the long avenue lined with beautiful old trees a cheerful lady collects fees for entering the grounds of ancient Castle McLeod. “But you’re the first visitor we’ve had for a while on a bike!” are her welcoming words. A nice short conversation follows, in which she explains where I can go and what I can visit. “It’s a private venture; I run it with my husband. You’ll meet him at the entrance to the castle so you’re free to ask any questions…” But I know from the brochure that the castle is the family home of the Earl of Cromartie, Chief of the Clan Mackenzie. Was I just talking to the Duchess?

The castle, some 30 km northwest of Inverness in the north of Scotland, has been the family’s residence for 500 years. Their dramatic and colorful lives were linked with the great events of Scottish history and the characters that shaped it, among them Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). The name itself could be connected with the local Viking chief Leod, who was based at a big local Viking settlement in nearby Dingwall.

I first walk past the tower, and the newer extensions in the back where the couple now lives with their two sons, Colin and Alasdair, to see the giants. There are two redwoods, as the sequoias are also called, behind the house. I stop in front of two enormous reddish-brown towers with a feeling of standing before two skyscrapers rather than trees. A mere 57 meters high, with a girth of 10 meters, these are babies among sequoias–just 150 years old, planted hundreds of years after the first planting took place on these grounds. They are the largest at this latitude in the world.

Visiting the tower–the oldest part of the castle, and the only one open for visitors for a few days in each summer month–is a family experience. The smiling, vigorous earl explains the details of the old (and once the only) door to the tower, and later on in the written comments to the exhibits, tells some family stories, interweaving them with Scottish history. In the Great Hall I am greeted by a lady of a similar age, who must be his sister or cousin, and when I look around the drawing room with an enormous billiards table, the Cromarties’ son runs into the room to chat with his grandmother: “So, how has it been Grandma? Many tourists today? Shall I bring you a cup of tea?” It feels as if I was the guest of the family, maybe for afternoon tea, but definitely not a tourist in a museum. A short chat about the stuffed birds on the walls (“You’re not allowed to do that any more, are you…?”) or my inviting the elderly lady to Poland (“We also have many interesting castles; in Cracow we have a magnificent royal one!”) adds to the homey atmosphere.

When outside again, I follow the tree walk. A path mowed in higher, wild grass leads me in curves around specimens of some more or less exotic trees, with a carefully written explanation of each species next to it. First on the path is the oldest recorded tree planted in Britain by human hand–a Spanish Chestnut, still healthily growing and beautiful. I pick one leaf as a souvenir. The leaf in hand, I cycle slowly back through the nearby picturesque Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer–hoping to visit it next time I am here.

Janusz Madej


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