The Castles of Clan Mackenzie

Learn about the Scottish castles with links to Clan Mackenzie – Eilean Donan, the iconic Scottish landmark and Castle Leod, the seat of Clan Mackenzie. Both castles played an important role in the history of the Clan.

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.

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)

Learn More About The Castles of Clan Mackenzie

Become a member of the Clan Mackenzie Society to learn more. We are always looking for new members in the UK and from overseas.