Visiting the Chief of the Clan MackenzieScotland–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.
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