The beginnings of Eilean Donan reach back into the early mists of time. Evidence of a Pictish fort was found in vitrified rock uncovered during excavations – some of which has been kept for visitors to see. At the beginning of the seventh century St. Donan (d. 618) is thought to have lived on the island as a religious hermit; the name “Eilean Donan” means “Island of Donan”. This was the period when Christianity was first introduced to the Western Isles.

The first fortified Stronghold was established in the reign of King Alexander II (1214-1250) to defend the region against the Norsemen who laid claim to this part of Scotland. Archaeologists have recently established that the original stronghold was much larger than the present building, the walls encompassing more-or-less the whole island.

According to a longstanding tradition, in 1263 King Alexander III gave the castle and the lands of Kintail to the Mackenzies’ progenitor, Colin Fitzgerald as a reward for services in the Battle of Largs. This famous battle culminated in the defeat of the Norwegian king, Haco. Following his death shortly after, his successor, Magnus, ceded all the Western Isles to Scotland.

During the Jacobite rising of 1719, which culminated in the Jacobites’ defeat at the nearby Battle of Glenshiel, Spanish troops hired by the Mackenzies were billeted at Eilean Donan and the Castle was afterwards blown up, according to some reports by Government ships; while an alternative contemporary document suggests that the Castle was destroyed by the Jacobites themselves to prevent it from becoming a Government power-base. The Castle thereafter remained in ruins for over two centuries.

The MacRaes, who formed the bodyguard of the Chief of Kintail were hereditary constables of the castle. There are many stories of military feats performed by members of the clan MacRae that gained them the nickname, “Mackenzies’ shirt of mail”. The present buildings are the result of twentieth-century reconstruction of the ruins by a scion of this clan, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap, who lavishly restored the building in the 1930s. It has since become one of the commercial media’s favourite images of the Highlands.


Castle Leod


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 circa 1606 by Sir Roderick Mackenzie, the 17th century family founder of the Earls of Cromarty (later Cromartie). An additional section was later added in the re-entrant angle to the accommodate a larger staircase and extra bedrooms. The castle has remained the seat of the Earls of Cromartie ever since. The grounds boast some magnificent trees.

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 and is the oldest intact castle in Britain.

Evidence points to a castle on this site, just north of Strathpeffer, from the times of Norse occupation, when the swamp-like, low lying strath of the River Peffery was a long time from proper drainage to make agricultural pasture, and boats were able to sail from the nearby Dingwall (Norse, thing = parliament, Norse, vollr = field) to the castle, built on a man-made mound here, perhaps with a mooring and small dock.

In 1605 Sir Roderick (“Rorie”) Mackenzie married Margaret MacLeod, heiress of Torquil MacLeod of the 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 feud 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 a Norse word, not the marriage maiden name of that was a happy coincidence), creating a magnificent, compact, red sandstone L-Plan tower house. In 1806 he was granted the Barony of Coigach and the lands of “Cultelloud” in the charter drawn up by his elder brother, Kenneth Mackenzie. 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, though 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 Highlands’ clan 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, though there had been reports of it being in a run-down state earlier in the same century, when the estate was badly debt-ridden. By 1814 and the time of Castle Leod’s complete renovation by the Hay-Mackenzie Lairds, it was described as “Quite a ruin…deserted except by crows”, though this may have applied more to the upper 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 of Cromartie with his wife and family.

The principal part of Castle Leod, the 17th century castle 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 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. A Castle Leod Projects Fund is attempting to raise funds to complete repairs to the upper floors.

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 Clan Mackenzie Charitable Trust, the castle can only go from strength to strength, putting itself and the powerful Mackenzie Clan firmly on the map. Mackenzies, their descendants, Clan Mackenzie Society members and all visitors from all countries of the world are welcome on the Open Days and by private arrangement.

More information is available at Castle Leod

 (Castle Leod piece written by Mark Courtney)


Redcastle as it is today


Built in 1179 by David, brother to King William the Lyon; Redcastle was visited by Mary Queen of Scots in 1562. Rory Mor Mackenzie of Redcastle, brother of the Chief, Cailean Cam (or  ‘Crooked Colin’ because  one-eyed)  acquired lands at Artafallie and Redcastle mill in the Black Isle and in 1589 received a charter from Keith of Delny of the lands of Redcastle and others, which included the old royal castle.

Long the seat of Rory’s descendants, tragically Redcastle has since suffered serious neglect. To avoid taxes a recent owner, not a Mackenzie, took the roof off, and within forty years the castle became derelict.


Kilcoy Castle_scaled

Kilcoy Castle

In 1557 Kilcoy, another Black Isle stronghold, was spelt “Culcowy” and also “Culcolly” from the Gaelic “Cu coille” meaning “Nook of the Wood” or, as given by one or two authorities, “Nook of the Hazel wood”. Early references to Kilcoy may be found in the Kilravock Papers, particularly in the charter of 26th March 1294, and the “Davach (= 416 acres) of Culcolli” is mentioned in charters concerning Edradouer (i.e. Redcastle) during the period 1299 to 1311, in grants to the Earl of Ross.

Also in 1511, there was a charter of Culcowy to Henry Stewart; and later, in 1554, to John Stewart, son and heir apparent of Robert Stewart of Muren.

However, actual ownership of the property does not really become clear until the year 1605, since that was when there was a marriage settlement pertaining to Kilcoy: this was granted to Sir James Stewart (of Newton and Muren) and Jean Fraser (of Lovat). Records show the marriage of James Stewart with Jean Fraser took place on the 1st August 1603.

On 15th August 1611, the now widowed Jean Fraser married Alexander Mackenzie, third son of Colin Mackenzie, 11th Baron of Kintail. Six and a half years later, on 29th January 1618, Kilcoy was granted in marriage settlement to Alexander Mackenzie and Jean Fraser – with Robert Stewart having resigned his interest – thus making Alexander the 1st Mackenzie of Kilcoy. The fate of Kilcoy Castle was reputed to have been included in one of the Brahan Seer’s prophecies that apparently came true, see that article.

By 1846 the Castle had fallen into a “ruinous condition” because the roof had been removed to avoid taxes, as was usual in those days. Fortunately by the end of the 19th century, the Burton-Mackenzies inherited Kilcoy, taking possession of what was then a near total ruin in 1890. They called in an architect: Alexander Ross also known as “The Christopher Wren of the North” and his superb restoration and extension of the castle saved Kilcoy for posterity.

By 1968 the Robinson family owned the castle and although they opened the gardens to the public, the only alterations they did to the castle was to fit two new windows on the north side of the new wing and have plumbing and electrical wiring fitted throughout.

The present owners of Kilcoy Castle have made some changes in the content and lay-out of the grounds and open the gardens periodically to the public.


Ballone Castle_scaled

Ballone Castle

Ballone Castle is a 3-storey, late 16th century, Z-plan tower house (a notable feature is one round tower, one square) and boasts a truly superb, cliff-edged coastal setting – overlooking the Moray Firth – near Portmahomack, Tarbat Ness. Said to have been built by a line of the Earls of Ross, it was first on record in the early 17th century when belonging to the Dunbars of Tarbat. In 1623 it was purchased by the Mackenzies of Tarbat (the predecessors of the Earls of Cromartie), though they appear to have left it unoccupied after a couple of generations or so, after which it fell into ruin for several centuries.

Happily, in the late 1990s, present owners Lachie Stewart (an architect) and his wife, Annie (a talented and very successful pottery designer), rescued it from its ruinous state and it is now fully restored.

Kinkell Castle_scaled

Kinkell Castle

Kinkell was the Easter Ross seat of the Mackenzies of Gairloch. A complete yellow-rendered tower house, Kinkell Castle is located on the Black Isle a mile southeast of Conon Bridge. Completed in the 1590s for John Mackenzie of Gairloch, it comprises three storeys and an attic, although it has been suggested that it may have been reduced by a storey in the 18th century. An attached round tower contains the stair and is capped by a watch-room. The kitchen once occupied the vaulted basement, with the great hall on the first floor above. A fireplace in the hall displays a shield with the date 1594.

There is some evidence that supports the tradition that Bonnie Prince Charlie was hidden here for a time after the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Used for a time as a farm-building, the castle became a ruin but was restored in 1969 by the artist, Gerald Laing.

Fairburn Tower_scaled

Fairburn Tower

Fairburn Tower stands to the south of the River Conon, right on the edge of the mountains, overseeing the routes from Strathconon and Glen Orrin. The Castle was built by Murdo Mackenzie, a nephew of the Mackenzie Chief, John of Killin, who was Master of the Bedchamber to King James V, soon after he acquired the land in the 1540s. Before that, however, we know that another Mackenzie, Hector Roy, 1st laird of Gairloch, had some kind of (most likely defensive) residence at Fairburn prior to the building of the Tower. The stair-tower was added in the 17th century.

The Brahan Seer [See the Seer’s prophecy on Fairburn Tower] prophesied remarkable things about the Mackenzies of Fairburn and the Tower!

The castle eventually became a ruin and in 1851, when a cow calved in the garret, it was being used by a farmer to store hay. The cow had gone up the tower following a trail of hay, had a good feed at the top and became stuck. She gave birth to a fine calf and both were taken down some five days later.


Ardvreck Castle_Scaled

Ardvreck Castle, Assynt

Standing on a rocky promontory jutting out into Loch Assynt in Sutherland, Ardvreck Castle  once comprised a rectangular-shaped keep comprising three storeys. Despite the small size of the ruined tower that survives, Ardvreck was originally a large and imposing structure and it is thought that the castle included a walled garden and formal courtyard.

The castle is thought to have been constructed around 1590 by the MacLeods who at that time owned Assynt and the surrounding area, including Coigach. The most well known historical tale concerning the castle is that on April 30th 1650 the Royalist general, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was captured and held at the castle before being transported to Edinburgh for trial and execution. Defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale, he sought sanctuary at Ardvreck with Neil MacLeod of Assynt. At the time, Neil was absent and it is said that his wife, Christine, tricked Montrose into the castle dungeon and sent for troops of the Covenanter Government.

In 1672 the Castle was attacked and captured by the Mackenzies who thereafter took control of the Assynt lands which became the patrimony of the 3rd Earl of Seaforth’s second son, the Hon. John Mackenzie and his descendants. In 1726 the Mackenzies constructed a more modern manor house nearby, Calda House, which takes its name from the Calda burn beside which it stands. The house burned down under mysterious circumstances one night in 1737 and both Calda House and Ardvreck Castle stand as ruins today.

Hatton Castle_scaled

Hatton Castle

Hatton Castle is a typical Z-shaped tower-house near Newtyle in Angus with views extending across Strathmore. The building was commissioned in 1575 by Laurence, 4th Lord Oliphant, but has since had a number of owners. Having fallen into a severe state of ruin it was re-acquired by an Oliphant descendant. In the late 17th century it came into the possession of Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh as part of the dowry of his wife, Margaret Halyburton, and much of his surviving correspondence bears the address of Hatton.

A nephew of the 2nd Earl of Seaforth, Sir George followed a remarkably successful legal career, becoming Lord Advocate in 1677, in which role he has since suffered from a rather sinister image as “Bluidy Mackenzie”, a consequence of his vigorous persecution of the Covenanters. Yet, as well as following a remarkably successful career as a jurist he was celebrated by his contemporaries as “the cleverest man in Scotland”, John Dryden dubbing him “that noble wit of Scotland”. He was the most frequently published Scottish writer of his day, his output encompassing jurisprudence, moral philosophy, political theory and imaginative literature, including what is regarded as the first Scottish novel.

(All section, unless otherwise stated, written by Andrew MacKenzie)