Castle Leod is the seat of the Clan Mackenzie. Situated near to the delightful Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer in Easter Ross, Scotland, Castle Leod is surely one of the most beautiful, romantic and unspoilt castles in the Highlands. A long tree-lined avenue leads you to the castle, which is framed between the trees and a short walk from the parking area leads you directly into the old keep itself. At the heart of Castle Leod is a family home that lives and breathes history, with a very tangible connection to the historical family through their portraits which hang on the walls. Every picture, every character, has their own story. Castle Leod is a place that people come from all over the world to visit and many call home.
In the early seventeenth century the main chieftainship line of the Clan MacLeod of Lewis became extinct, and the chieftainship passed to the MacLeods of Raasay. Later the Lewis MacLeod clansmen were forced to accept the ascendancy of their cousins at Dunvegan and the two MacLeod clans became one. As a result the Barony of Lewis fell into the hands of the chief of the Clan MacKenzie. The last chief of the MacLeods of Lewis had married a daughter of the MacKenzie chief. The MacKenzie chief thereby claimed the barony of Lewis as his own. However, the MacLeod clansmen prospered under the chieftainship of the Clan MacLeod of Skye. The castle was granted to John of Killin, 10th Chief of Clan MacKenzie (1485-1561) after he fought at the Battle of Flodden. The castle was passed to his great-grandson Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, who granted it in 1608 to his brother Sir Roderick "Rorie" Mackenzie. In 1605 Sir Roderick married Margaret MacLeod, heiress of Torquil MacLeod of Lewis, bringing her immense wealth into the family and also settling the feud between the MacLeods and the Mackenzies over the Barony of Coigach, which thus passed into the Mackenzie family.
The castle is believed to have been built on the site of a very ancient Pictish fort from before the 12th century. The current castle is the result of work carried out in the early 17th century by Sir Roderick Mackenzie, the ancestor of the Earl of Cromartie. The castle has remained the seat of the Earls of Cromartie ever since. In 1746 George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie, forfeited the estate, following his support for the ill-fated 1745 Jacobite Uprising. The estates, but not the title, were restored to his son in 1784. The castle was reported to already be in a run-down state earlier in the same century, when the estate was badly debt-ridden. By 1814 it was described as "Quite a ruin... deserted except by crows", though this may have applied more to the upper floors. In the mid 19th century, Castle Leod was completely renovated by the Hay-Mackenzies. Descendents of the 3rd Earl, the Hay-Mackenzies were restored to the earldom of Cromartie when Anne Hay-Mackenzie married George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland in 1861. In 1851 large extensions were added to the north of the castle, which were rebuilt in 1904. The roof was made watertight as recently as 1992. The castle remains the home of the Earl of Cromartie.
After the last ice age the sea level began to rise and the area of ground in what later became Dingwall and Castle Leod was flooded. By the time the Vikings and the local inhabitants, the Picts, had settled in this area, the only low lying dry ground was in the areas of the Moot Hill in Dingwall and the mound that Castle Leod would be later built on. The Viking, Thorfinn II had based himself in the area having won the Battle of Torfness (c:1030) which took place on the slopes beneath Knockfarrel in which MacBeth slew King Duncan and subsequently took the throne of Scotland. The former Pictish fort on the mound was replaced by the Norse Earls with a stone built keep in the eleventh century by Liotr or Leod or by his kinsman, Jarl Olaf. Both the hill behind the castle (Knock Aulaidh or Olaf’s Hill) and the current golf course (Ulladale or Olaf’s Dale) are reminders of the Norse presence.
It is not known what further building work was carried out over the centuries except that by the late 15th century it looked much like it does today with further alterations carried out by the famous ‘Tutor of Kintail’, Sir Rory Mackenzie when the pitched roof and the current front door was added ,between 1605 and 1616. It is thought there was a lower storey to the old tower that was filled in, by Sir Rory who raised the level of the mound to it’s current level. The walls are in places 2.4 metres thick and taper toward the top. Gun loops and arrow slits line the walls, especially to the south and traces of a curved lower wall on the west are probably the remains of battering ram defences. Assuming a now buried lower story, the original front door was on the current first floor with access by a ladder and the gun loops and arrow slits would have then been much higher above the ground. Today they are more suitable for firing at peoples ankles! Some of the small early windows have iron ‘yetts’ a criss-cross of bars so arranged that they are impossible to remove easily. The larger windows are largely 18th century with two in the east elevation much earlier having the supposed earliest sash and case windows in the Highlands and possibly Scotland. Battlements and ornate corbelling extend around three sides of the tower and above these is the Ballachulish slated roof. To the north of the old tower are Victorian and Edwardian additions and unlike so many other castles the old tower represents an unaltered structure, the newer additions being neatly tucked behind it.
A compact L-Plan tower house, built of red sandstone, forms the earliest part of the castle, and may be based on a 15th-century building. An additional section was later added in the re-entrant angle, making the castle square in plan, and accommodating a larger staircase and extra bedrooms. The date 1616 is carved on a dormer window, but it is not known if this date refers to the original phase or the extension. The addition was built over the parapet of the original front, and is more decorative in style. In some parts the walls of the castle are 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 metres) thick. Other defensive measures include the iron grilles which remain on some lower windows, and numerous splayed gun loops and arrow-slit windows. The rooms, some wood-panelled, are decorated with many Mackenzie portraits from past centuries, as well as antique furnishings and large-scale antique maps. Many original fittings are to be found around the castle. The grounds include two Spanish chestnuts, said to have been planted by John of Killin in 1556, to mark the confirmation of his acquisition of Castle Leod by Mary Queen of Scots.
Sibell Mackenzie, The Countess of Cromartie,(1878-1962), was a president of the Spiritualist Society of Great Britain and romantic novelist, she was a famous society beauty of her day. Lady Cromartie travelled widely in the Middle East and claimed to have a Phoenician spirit guide. Her novels include ‘Heremon the Beautiful’, ‘Temple of the Winds’ and ‘From a Dark Place’ and although out of print are still sought after. Sibell had a fascinating sister, Constance Mackenzie,(1881-1932) Lady Richardson, who was a superb dancer and sportswoman. She was a friend of Isadora Duncan and danced, barefoot (considered scandalous), in front of King George VII . One day she performed the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, as Salome, but instead of asking for the head of John the Baptist, she asked for the head of the King’s Finance Minister! This did not go down at all well and she was banished from Court!
Parking is 300m to the south of the castle accessed from the main road, the A834 by the front drive where a ticket booth and parking space is approx.: 400 metres from the main road. A disabled parking area for three cars in less than 100m behind the castle all on level ground. Also possible for disabled to be dropped off at the back of the building. There is a disabled toilet on the ground floor but there are no lifts to get to the first floor which has an easy angled and generous staircase. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Castle Leod, Strathpeffer, Ross & Cromarty IV14 9AA
Transport: Dingwall (National Rail) then bus (27, 704, S10). Bus Routes : 27, 700, 704, 891 and S10 stop 15 minutes away (ask bus driver).
Opening Times : Special Open Days, 14:00 to 18:00
Tickets : Adults £7.00; Children £4.00
Tel. : 01997 421337