The Castle

Castle Leod

The main L-Plan Tower being the oldest part of the Castle, believed (although remodelled in 1606) to have been built on the site of a very ancient Pictish fort about the 12th century, making it the oldest intact castle in Britain. Evidence points to a defensive stronghold on this site from the times of Norse occupation, when the swamp-like, low lying strath of the River Peffery allowed boats to sail from the nearby Dingwall (Norse, thing= parliament, Norse, vollr = field) to the fortress, built on a man-made mound here, perhaps with a mooring and small dock.

This magnificent, compact, L-Plan tower house (the red sandstone walls in many places are 7 – 8 feet thick) was the result of the extending and remodelling of an earlier castle. The work carried out in circa 1606 by Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Coigach, the progenitor of the branch of the Mackenzies who were to go on to become Earls of Cromartie and later Clan Chiefs. An additional section was later added in the re-entrant angle to accommodate a larger staircase and extra bedrooms. The Castle has remained the seat of the Earls of Cromartie ever since. The grounds also boast some magnificent trees, including the Spanish or Sweet Chestnut planted in 1550 for Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, Mary of Guise, and a Giant Sequoia which is the largest tree in Britain in terms of bulk and has a claim to be the largest in the world at its latitude.

In 1605 Sir Roderick (or Rorie) Mackenzie married Margaret MacLeod, heiress of Torquil MacLeod of Lewis. This proved to be an extremely astute and opportune betrothal, since it not only brought her immense wealth into the family but also settled once and for all the bitter and often violent feuds between the MacLeods and the Mackenzies over the west coast Barony of Coigach, which thus passed into the Mackenzie family. They were to hold it for a further four centuries.

In circa 1606, Sir Rorie modified and added on to the existing structure of Castle Leod (Leod is probably derived from the Norse name, not Rorie’s wife’s maiden name, which was a happy coincidence), creating a magnificent, compact, red sandstone L-Plan tower house. Two dormerheads on the Castle’s northern elevation boast Sir Rorie’s and his wife’s initials, RMK and MMC, together with the date 1616 – probably marking the 5-storey L-Plan castle’s completion or perhaps the date of its major additional building.

Certainly, it was not long after Castle Leod was finished that this substantial addition was built in the re-entrant angle of the traditional L-shape; it was to the same roof height and transformed the Castle’s shape to nearly square, although one of the L-wings (the south) remained projecting a little at one corner. Both L-wings had each boasted a crow-stepped gable end with corbelled parapet walk, all left intact, the gable end of the re-entrant addition marking a fine side-by-side pair with that of the west L-wing, the pair flanked by charming conical-roofed corner turrets, or bartizans.

The Scottish Highland clans’ inter-feuding of the time had led to most castles of the period being built with no ground floor entrance to the main body of the castle. And so it had been with the original L-shaped Castle Leod; a ladder stairway had risen one floor up the outside of the building, a type of entrance easy to defend in a violent siege, with the stairway being withdrawn or simply destroyed. Castle Leod indeed boasts other effective defensive measures such as walls seven to eight feet thick, iron grilles still remaining on some lower windows, and a copious supply of splayed gun loops and arrow-slit windows. Even the “new” ground floor entrance (incorporated into the south facing side of the re-entrant addition when it was built) is guarded by shot-holes. Apart from extra bedrooms, the re-entrant addition also made room for a fashionable, straight flight of stairs leading up from the ground floor inside the Castle.

Forfeiture of the estate, following the 3rd Earl of Cromartie, George Mackenzie’s support for the ill-fated 1745 Jacobite uprising, led to the Castle’s darkest days, although there had been reports of it being in a run-down state earlier in the same century, when the estate was badly debt-ridden. When the Cromartie estate was forfeit a part of the Castle was painted pink to signify its part in the Jacobite Rising. By 1814 and the time of Castle Leod’s complete renovation by the Hay-Mackenzie heirs of the family, it was described as “Quite a ruin…deserted except by crows”, although this may have applied more to the upper floors.

A single-storey addition to the east and low wing to the north were added in 1851, with a two-storey west wing being added to the latter in 1874. Some rebuilding of these wings took place in 1904, with a further extension added in 1912. This Victorian and Edwardian part of Castle Leod is occupied by the present Earl and Countess of Cromartie.

The principal part of Castle Leod, the 17th century building itself, retains the distinct, homely charm and historical ambience that one would expect of the seat of such an important Scottish Clan. The rooms, some wood-panelled, boast many Mackenzie portraits from past centuries, as well as antique furnishings and some fascinating, large-scale antique estate maps; other antique artifacts and many original fittings are to be found around the castle. All are now safely kept under a completely watertight roof which was rescued, at enormous expense from its parlous, leaky state as recently as 1992. A grant towards this work was received from the government body Historic Scotland.

It is felt sure that, within the impetus provided and enthusiasm shown by the present Earl of Cromartie and his family, together with the support given by the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK and the Clan Mackenzie Charitable Trust, including the recent addition of a Visitor Centre and picnic room on the ground floor of the old tower and a delightful new arboretum in the grounds (taking inspiration from the unique and distinctive heritage of its more ancient specimen trees), the Castle can only go from strength to strength, putting itself and the Mackenzie Clan firmly on the map. Mackenzies, their descendants and Clan Mackenzie Society members, indeed all visitors, are welcomed, not only from this country but also from abroad – the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all the other far-flung corners of the globe where the Clan’s roots have successfully found their way and burgeoned over the centuries. In the 21st century Castle Leod can finally and proudly proclaim its place as the centre of the worldwide family of Clan Mackenzie.

The above essay is an updated version of an article written by Mark Courtney for the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland’s Magazine in the last century.

The Owners of Castle Leod

Regarding the earliest date relating to Castle Leod: sometime between about 400 and 500 AD a Pictish Fort is believed to have been established on the site of the Castle. The area was an important centre of Pictish culture, evidence for which is the Eagle Stone, which is a Class I Pictish symbol stone and was originally located further down the valley in the old churchyard of nearby Fodderty, before it was moved to Strathpeffer. It had previously been used to mark the burial place of the local Munro clan killed in a battle with the MacDonalds in 1411. The Mackenzies’ local prophet, Coinneach Odhar, known as the Brahan Seer, is supposed to have foretold a great flood across the strath if the Eagle Stone fell three times and after it had fallen twice it was decided to set it in concrete to its present position.

The Eagle Stone

Research by local historians suggests that the Castle was originally stone built in the twelfth century by the Norse Earls on the site of the Pictish fort. The Norse Jarl of Orkney and Caithness, Thorfinn II, established himself in the area around Dingwall in the eleventh century, following his victory at Torfness (in around 1030). This was the battle at which King Duncan was believed to have received the death wound that carried MacBeth, Mormaer of Ross and Moray (and Thorfinn’s half-brother), to the throne of Scotland: forming the opening scene of Shakespeare’s famous play. The site of the conflict is now believed to have been in the vicinity of the Castle – certainly near Dingwall and most likely below Knockfarrel, the vitrified Pictish Iron Age fort which faces the Castle, since the waters of the Cromarty Firth extended further up the strath then. In 18th century descriptions of the area Knockfarrel was romantically described as a “Fingalian fortress”.


Thorfinn’s great-uncle was named Liotr, or Leod, and it is thought that his kinsman, Jarl Olaf, probably built himself a stronghold at Castle Leod: to this day the hill behind the house is called Knockowlah (or Olaf’s hill) and westward he had his farm spreading up the valley over the present day golf course, Ulladale. Olaf’s followers also left a settlement at Kinellan, but apparently stopped at Coul, which was then a marsh. They also established a tax centre at Scatwell, just beyond Achilty, where the Gaels had to pay taxes for the land which had once been their own. These places all went on to become the landholdings of Mackenzie cadets.

So how do we explain the Mackenzie presence here?

From around 1463 until after 1471 the Castle is known to have been in the possession of Alistair Ionraic, the powerful Chief of Clan Mackenzie. It may be no coincidence that a link can be made between this Alexander “the Upright” and the earlier owners of the precise area in which the Mackenzies first established themselves in Easter Ross, by means of the tradition that the Mackenzies’ 14th century ancestor, Kenneth of Kintail, married Morba, daughter of Alexander MacDougall of Lorn, since Kevin McKenzie has established that Morba was a direct descendant of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, and his wife, Ragnhildis, daughter of Ingibiorg, the wife of Olaf Bitling, King of Man, and thus a direct descendant and heiress of Thorfinn. Since we know that the stronghold was built on the site of a Pictish fort, one could arguably then take the line of its owners further back, through Thorfinn’s grandfather, Hlodvr, to a Pictish Mormaer of Caithness. A dowry from such a marriage would have fitted the natural pattern in this period by which land was transmitted between families through a line of heirs and heiresses.

In 1491 Alexander’s eldest son, Kenneth Mackenzie, known as Kenneth “of the Battle” defeated Alexander MacDonald of Lochalsh in the combat known as Bhlair-na-Parc, or the Battle of the Park, which took place nearby close to Strathpeffer.

There has then been some confusion over the 16th century Mackenzie ownership of the Castle, since what was known then as Culteleod consisted of two halves, one half of which was acquired by the Chief, John Mackenzie of Killin. The problem was highlighted by Malcolm Bangor-Jones in his article for the 2002 edition of the Clan Mackenzie Magazine when he stated that “unravelling these transactions is not straightforward” and it is not possible to determine precisely who was in actual possession of land that was repeatedly wadsetted (or mortgaged), regardless of crown charters. Indeed, the Register of the Great Seal of Scotland only makes reference to “half of Culteleod” being acquired by “Joanni Makkenze de Keantalle”, and this appears most likely to be the eastern section of land which accompanied the Davidson’s patrimony of Delny in Dingwall and we know that the Origines Parochiales Scotiae stated that the lands in which George, second Earl of Seaforth was served heir to in 1633 included “Cultealeod” at a time when the Mackenzies of Tarbat were in certain possession of the western half that included the Castle of that name.

However, the answer can be found in a manuscript history belonging to the Mackenzies of Gairloch which clearly states that Castle Leod was part of the paternal estate that Hector Roy (or “Red” Hector) inherited – along with adjacent Achterneed and Kinellan, as well as Brahan, Allangrange, Fairburn and both Scatwells. Hector Roy was a younger son of Alexander the Upright and the progenitor of the Mackenzie lairds of Gairloch, who acted as Tutor of Kintail, which meant he was effective regent of the Clan during the minority of his nephew, John of Killin. Indeed, this was still a period when the system of primogeniture, by which the elder son always succeeded, had not been fully established and Hector Roy’s evidently disputed succession to these core Mackenzie lands might be seen as a late instance of the ancient Gaelic system of tanistry whereby a minor was superseded by the most able male relative in the interests of clan stability, although the element of uncertainty often led to the opposite. 

A manuscript in the collection of the Mackenzies of Gairloch, entitled A Genealogical Series of the Family of Gerloch, dated 1776, states of Hector Roy ‘s son, Hector Cam: “From his father he had Castle Leod, & other lands in Strathpeffer as a patrimony. He married a Daughter of Mac-Kay of Far, Ancestor of the Lord Rae, and by her had two sons, Alexr and Murdow. They were both succeed by a son of the former, a sloathful man who doatingly bestowed his Estate on his Foster (child) Sir Rodk McKenzie of Coigach, in detriment of his own Children tho very deserving of them.” This explains how the Castle came into the Cromartie branch of the Mackenzies, in whose ownership, of course, it remains to this day. (From Hector Cam, incidentally, were descended the family of Bishop Murdo Mackenzie of Moray and Orkney, Dr James Mackenzie of Drumshegh and Murdo Mackenzie the Hydrographer).

The possession of the Castle by Sir Roderick Mor Mackenzie is commemorated in the carved stone lintel above the main entrance of Castle Leod which alludes to Roderick’s marriage to Margaret MacLeod, the heiress of Coigach and probably marks the completion of the work over the last decade of the 16th century when the Castle was significantly extended and remodelled.

During the minority of the Mackenzie chief – the first Lord Kintail’s son, Colin – who succeeded in 1611, it was his uncle, Roderick Mackenzie of Coigach, who, as another “Tutor of Kintail”, was to enhance to a significant degree the standing of the family. As the clan’s regent at that time he built a reputation for being “terrible and ruthless”, and a Gaelic proverb famously says that “there are but two things worse than the Tutor of Kintail, frost in spring and mist in the dog-days.”

From 1626-1658 the Castle passed to Roderick’s son, Sir John Mackenzie of Tarbat, the 1st Baronet and then between 1658 and 1714 it was in the possession of Sir John’s son, Sir George Mackenzie, subsequently Viscount Tarbat and 1st Earl of Cromartie, Secretary of State for Scotland to Queen Anne, a prominent intellectual and statesman who was instrumental in bringing about the Act of Union between Scotland and England in 1707. His reputation has suffered somewhat from historians relying heavily on the writings of his political opponents. To quote the highly partisan Sir George Lockhart of Carnwarth, for example, “so extremely maggoty and unsettled” was he “that he was never much to be relyed upon or valued.” “Slippery as an eel” was another description. However, he was undoubtedly an accomplished survivor in these remarkably troubled times whose perceptive insight into Highland politics made him invaluable to successive monarchs and won him an Earldom. His reputation is beginning to be restored in the more balanced writings of recent historians and his pre-eminence as a figure in British history cannot be underestimated.

George Mackenzie, Vicount Tarbat and later 1st Earl of Cromartie

“May wee be Brittains”, he famously declared, “and down goe the old ignominious names of Scotland, of England. Scot or Scotland are words not known in our native language; England is a dishonourable name, imposed on Brittains by Jutland pirates and mercenaries to Brittains, usurping on their Lords. Brittains is our true, our honourable denomination.” Whether one is sympathetic to the Union between Scotland and England or otherwise, Cromartie’s genuine conviction as Secretary of State for Scotland in bringing it about is evident in his words to the Earl of Mar in 1707 after his dream finally came to fruition: “I labourd (and with as much heat somtymes as discretion) in it for 40 years, through good report and ill report. I was often scornd by some who now glory in it. I am farr from repenting it: it hath in it the true nature of good: it is good in its worst view. But no sublunary thing is at first perfect. It is ane infant as yet, and needs a nurse. It was exposed as a Moses, in a flotiing basket, recovered unexpectedly, and by a king’s daughter; and now more then that, I pray God shee may pitch on good nurses.”  No longer an infant but in what some might now describe as its dotage, time can only tell whether the Union will again benefit from those good nurses it is most certainly in need of!

Contrary to the reputation given to him by his enemies, from his letters George comes across as a charming and affable character whom the Duke of Queensberry and Lord Renfrew, amongst others, appear proud to have counted as a close friend. A member of the Royal Society with eclectic interests and tastes, particularly in the sciences and in architecture, he was evidently an erudite intellectual.

Following George’s death in 1714 (the same year as his beloved patron Queen Anne – that “King’s daughter” he referred to with affection when he compared the Union to Moses) – the Castle was in the possession of George’s son, John Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Cromartie, who from his tailor’s bills and from his appearance in his portrait seems to have been a bit of a dandy, if not a remarkable politician like his father.

John Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Cromartie

Without any of the 1st Earl’s political acumen, John neglected any political interest that might have kept his head financially above water. His first wife, Lady Elizabeth Gordon, the daughter of the Earl of Aboyne, was notoriously profligate, running up huge debts for her luxurious tastes.  One particular incident, however, appears to have tainted his reputation for good: in August 1691 John, then Master of Tarbat, as he then was, was tried for the murder of Elias Poiret, Sieur de la Roche, a French Protestant refugee, and Gentleman of the King’s Guard, who was killed in a scuffle in an inn in the Kirkgate of Leith. A contemporary account among that invaluable treasure trove of Mackenzie source material – the  Delvine Papers in the National Library of Scotland – seems to exonerate the Master and indeed the ensuing enquiry ruled that the manslaughter was in self-defence. Yet John was banished to Ballone Castle and his reputation never really recovered. Nor did the family’s finances.

It was the desperate financial straits of his son George MacKenzie, the 3rd Earl of Cromartie, who succeeded in 1731 that explain his reckless actions which led to the forfeiture of the Castle after he supported Prince Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie.

George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie

According to one account, after having got blind drunk George allowed himself to be persuaded by his devious yet charming cousin, Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat (known as the “Old Fox”) to take an independent stand from the Clan Mackenzie’s Chief, Lord Fortrose, by raising men, largely from his west coast estates, to fight on the Jacobite side which culminated in his capture after the skirmish known as the Battle of Little Ferry on the Dornoch Firth, on the eve of Culloden. He was one of the four Jacobite peers who were sentenced to death – even featuring (on the lower right) in a contemporary engraving commemorating the proposed execution of the four rebellious lords on Tower Hill, which included the “Old Fox” himself, Simon Fraser, now 80 years old.

A popular contemporary engraving showing the four condemned Jacobite peers

However, while George was being held prisoner in the notorious Bloody Tower, in a dramatic scene his wife “Bonnie Bell”, while heavily pregnant and surrounded by her ten young children, is said to have fallen on her knees as George II approached the chapel at Kensington Palace, presenting her petition while seizing him by the coat-tails and then fainting at his feet. The King raised her up and after the further intervention of her father’s friends at Court he eventually provided her husband with a royal reprieve and instead of being executed George was exiled to Devon.

“Bonnie Bell” Gordon, Countess of Cromartie

Thus, in the years between 1746 and 1784 the Castle was in the possession of the Commissioners of the Forfeited Estates when part of the Castle was painted pink to denote its status as a rebel fortress.

But in 1784 the situation was finally looking up for the family when the Castle was restored by Act of Parliament to the 3rd Earl’s son, John Mackenzie, Lord Macleod (and Count Cromartie in the Swedish peerage). John had assisted his father in the Rising in 1746 but owing to his youth was not prosecuted. He went into exile and served in the Swedish army and then proved his loyalty to King George III, like many an ex-Jacobite during the wars against the French, by raising the 71st Regiment, known as MacLeod’s Regiment.

John Mackenzie, Lord MacLeod

Between 1858 and 1888 another prominent owner of the Castle was its heiress, Lord MacLeod’s great-great niece, Anne Hay-Mackenzie, Duchess of Sutherland. Anne was Queen Victoria’s Mistress of the Robes and had the dubious pleasure of being the close companion to the Queen following the death of her beloved Prince Albert, and as a personal favour the ancient titles of her ancestors were restored to Anne, who was created Countess of Cromartie in her own right by the Queen. It was a condition that the title was to pass to Anne’s second son, Francis and kept separate from the Dukedom of Sutherland. Victoria’s celebrated affection for the Highlands dates back to her childhood love of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and it may be no coincidence that, in Scott’s novel Waverley, that a similar charter of resignation is made by which the second son of the hero and heroine is to bear the name and arms of Baron Bradwardine, thereby preserving this ancient Scottish title for perpetuity. Did the Highland-loving Queen take her inspiration for this somewhat unique grant from Scott’s romantic novel?

Anne Hay-Mackenzie, Duchess of Sutherland and 1st Countess of Cromartie

Anne was also instrumental in developing the fashionable spa in neighbouring Strathpeffer.

Thus, Anne’s personal estates, which included the Coigach and Tarbat peninsulas, as well as Castle Leod, passed to her second son, Francis, who became the 2nd Earl of Cromartie in this second recreation of the title. Francis was the great-grandfather of the current owner of Castle Leod, John, 5th Earl of Cromartie, who is Chief of Clan Mackenzie owing to the fact that in 1979 his father, Roderick Francis Grant Mackenzie, 4th Earl of Cromartie was recognised by Lord Lyon King of Arms as Cabarfèidh, restoring the Castle to its former status as the principal seat of the Chief of Clan Mackenzie.    

Roderick Francis Grant Mackenzie, 4th Earl of Cromartie

Castle Leod Public Open Days 2023

May 25,26,27,28

June 8,9,10,11

July 6,7,8,9 and 20,21,22,23

August  3,4,5,6 and 17,18,19,20

September 14,15,16,17

Cromartie Estates Office on: (+44 1997) or (01997) 421264

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