I Declare Mackenzie Day to Celebrate My Heritage

Beauly priory

Beauly priory

On the east coast of Scotland, outside of Inverness, we traveled to the heart of my clan’s land and I declared it Mackenzie Day. We started out wandering among my dead ancestors in Beauly Priory, founded in 1230 as a Valliscaulian monastic community. Every other tombstone was engraved with the name Mackenzie, but the most poignant one lie in the north transept of the church.

“Sir Kenneth Sixth Barone of Kintail” was engraved in the border of a stone bed where a recumbent man with sharp chiseled, facial features, beard and mustache rested. Long arms and strong hands, once bearing heavy swords, lay idle at his sides since his death in 1491. Across from his grave lies the tomb of Alexander Mackenzie, who died in 1557, though his effigy is no longer intact.

Effigy of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie

Effigy of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie

From the beautiful village of Beauly, we drove down one lane backroads around Beauly Firth* in search of the Redcastle that remained in Mackenzie Clan hands until 1790. From here my 8th great grandfather Colin Malcolm Mackenzie, the 4th Lord Of Redcastle, traveled to America.

Redcastle

Redcastle, Scottish Mackenzie connection to America

Finding the mediaeval Redcastle, historically known as Edirdovar, was a mystery. It’s marked as a dot on the map of Black Isle, a peninsula between Cromarty, Moray and Beauly Firths. We parked and wandered on foot trying to peek over the 6-foot high brick wall and finally caught a glimpse of the red stone remains. I found a path leading uphill behind a tree line and stumbled upon the crumbling walls of the Mackenzie fortress dating back to the 14th century.

Trees grew out of window frames, overgrown with shrubs and brambles. “No trespassing,” signs warned beware as bricks could tumble down anytime. Though the abandoned chateau was a far cry from it’s former glory, I felt like I discovered a hidden treasure. The castle itself had fallen into ruin, but the well-kept grounds of Redcastle held a working estate where horses grazed on a lawn that looked like a putting green.

In the afternoon we went to visit the Mackenzie clan seat at Castle Leod, which had been in the hands of the Mackenzie’s for centuries, and merits its own post to be shared next week.

Coul House

Coul House

To top off the day, we dined at the Coul House Estate where descendants of the Mackenzie family lived since 1560 until 2003 when the MacPherson’s purchased the mansion turning it into a hotel.

That evening on a hilltop overlooking Beauly Firth, standing in the ruins of Redcastle, I heard the footfalls of my ancestors. I listened to the night call of birds, while the sun set over my shoulder. Here in the shadows of my mighty forefathers, I felt humbled by the evolution of time, calm in the knowledge of life’s continuity.

I shared a profound connection to my ancestral land. A land of rugged mountains, jagged crags, moody moors and misty sea lochs. I sensed a feeling of coming home. Home to deep blue waters, green fields, dark forests, rolling hills and ragged coastlines. Home to a haunting land of castles and ghosts, clans and kilts, witches and magic, superstition and legend. Relentless winds. Stormy seas. Savage landscapes. Wild, wild like my restless soul calling me back to my people, back home to the Scottish Highlands and the Mackenzie clan.Firth in Scotland

*A Firth is a long, narrow indentation of the seacoast used to denote coastal waters in Scotland.

Eilan Donan Castle

Scotland – On the Trail of Clan Mackenzie

Eilean Donan CastleEver since I found out that my paternal lineage goes back to the 12th century Clan Mackenzie, I dreamed of following their trail from Eilean Donan Castle on the west coast across the Scottish Highlands and the Kintail mountains to Castle Leod on the eastern shores.

The tale of the rise and fall of Clan Mackenzie, filled with the supernatural, cunning power, and vicious clan battles, makes a great story. Diane Gabaldon’s historical time travel book series, inspiring the popular Outlander TV series set in the Scottish Highlands, includes a part of the Mackenzie history and the Jacobite Rebellion.

The Loch Duich, Scottish HighlandsMackenzie’s, once the strongest clan in the north of Scotland, reigned for centuries. From rich, warlords to cash strapped landlords, their story portrays the end of the clan system as fortunes changed hands after the Highland Clearances. Their lives were as rugged as the lands they ruled. Filled with craggy inlets, mist-covered mountains, and broody glens, their land lends way to legends.

The name of Clan Mackenzie dates back to the 13th century when Coinneach MacCoinneach (Kenneth son of Kenneth) gave his name to the Mackenzie’s at Eilean Donan Castle at the junction of Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh. The surname Mackenzie, MacCoinneach in Scottish Gaelic, means ‘son of the fair bright one’.

Clan MacKenzie's territory, Scottish Highlands

Clan Mackenzie’s territory, Scottish Highlands

The Mackenzie chiefs’ clever battle tactics and manipulative relations with royalty helped them obtain land. Scottish Kings, considering the Highland Clans unruly, used clans’ chiefs to gain control. The Mackenzie’s served as royal agents and strongmen for the King.

To further their profits, the Mackenzie’s once took on the royal enemy Satan. In the late 16th century when Scotland’s King James VI obsession with the supernatural reached a fevered pitch, the Clan used witch-hunting as a way to ensure the King’s favor.

The Mackenzie’s power often came at expense of other clans especially MacLeod’s. In the early 17th century they took advantage of MacLeod’s feuds to acquire the Isle of Lewis. As Earls of Seaforth, they earned rights to valuable fishing grounds.

In the end according to legends, one of their own mystics, the Brahan Seer, in his final prophecy, predicted the doom of House of Seaforth and Brahan Castle.

Factor or fable?

Either way the clan system fell apart after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.Battle of Culloden

How much of any history is biased by hearsay, rumor and boasts of conquests to perpetuate power and control?

This I do know. I hail from shrewd leaders, mighty warriors, and strong survivors. I too am a storyteller, truth seeker, adventuresome traveler filled with mysticism.

How about you? Where do you come from?

Even without Scottish ancestry, you will enjoy upcoming articles about my time travel tale back to the bewitching Clan Mackenzie of the Scottish Highlands.

 

 

 

Visiting Cambridge Makes Me Feel Smarter

I went to Cambridge, the prestigious medieval university, only as a tourist, but boy did I get educated. Though my former students have attended these hallowed grounds, I felt like a dunce when I realized Cambridge was not one central institution, but actually 31 different colleges under the administrative umbrella of the University. The colleges, established between the 11th and 15th centuries, have unique, individual histories.

In 1209, after a dispute with the townspeople, scholars from Oxford University left and established Cambridge University 80 miles away. Today Cambridge is the second oldest English-speaking university and one of the top ranked institutes in the world.

But a visit to Cambridge entails more than just admiring the stately architecture of buildings spanning over 800 years. Part of the intrigue includes people watching from outdoor café’s, pubs and eateries that line the streets and on the boardwalk along the River Cam. Or do like we did, bring your own picnic and head for the park to truly savor the show.

Under a shaded spot near the tennis courts of the central park, we spread out blankets, baskets and baby and enjoyed the beehive of activity on a gorgeous spring day, amidst co-eds, families and friends of all ethnicities.We popped a bottle in Charlotte’s baby’s chubby cheeks, unwrapped the grown ups’ goodies and toasted our son and his fiancée in an eclectic picnic. Pigs in a blanket, pork and cheese rolls, salt & vinegar crisps (chips) were followed by sweets – brownies, French cakes – pink, chocolate and yellow frosted squares and strawberries.

After hearty appetizers, we walked around Cambridge stopping to take photos of historic spots like the Round Church, a city landmark. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, made of the same chalky limestone used throughout the city, remains one of only four medieval round churches in England.

Though this church is not affiliated with Cambridge University, the ecclesial influences can be seen in most of the old colleges, which boast of private chapels of architectural wonder.

The most famous, King’s College Chapel, is an example of late medieval architecture, and known for it stained glass windows whose refracted light creates incredible beauty under the vaulted ceiling. The chapel, a Tudor masterpiece, commissioned by Henry VII, was completed under Henry VIII reign.

Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, founded one of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge, St John’s, in 1509. Her crest appears over the main entrance to the college.

Peterhouse, founded in 1284, claims the title as the oldest college at Cambridge. Sidney Sussex College dating back to 1596 is the “youngest.”

Until 1869 Cambridge was only open to men. Girton College was founded for women in that year, to be followed two years later by Newnham. Churchill, Clare and King’s were the first previously all-male colleges to admit female undergraduates in 1972.

Cambridge’s former alumni include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, Stephen Hawkins and other Nobel Laureates.

One of my brightest former basketball players attends Cambridge and I look forward hearing what it feels like to graduate from such a famous center of learning.

As for me, I felt smarter just strolling the streets of town and walking in the footsteps of some of our world’s finest scholars.

Punting in Cambridge To Celebrate Special Occasions

When my son’s British fiancé told us we were celebrating their engagement by going punting in Cambridge, I imagined kicking the pigskin around a ballpark. But the English don’t play American football. Then I thought it must have something to do with rugby, as her brother-in-law is an avid rugby man.

Well, what a surprise! Punting has nothing to do with playing ball on a pitch (field), but instead involves a boat on a river.

Imagine skimming across the water in a “punt.” Picture a Venetian gondola that is shaped like a flat-bottomed, mini-barge.

In Cambridge punting along River Cam leads you past the famous colleges of the University of Cambridge. Founded as far back as 800 years ago, each contains its own history, architecture and stories.

The punt, dating back to medieval times, allowed navigation in shallow water areas. Until recently commercial fishermen used punts to work the fens of East Anglia. In 1870 punting for pleasure began, becoming more common in the 1900s and today is considered a part of the Cambridge experience.

A person navigates by standing on the till (known as the deck) at the back, not paddling, but poling. It looks easy. It’s not. Imagine trying to propel a dozen hefty passengers forward by pushing off the river bottom with a pole vault stick.

Poles, usually made of spruce 12-16 feet long, have a shoe, a rounded lump of metal on one end in the shape of swallow’s tail. Without a rudder, the punt is difficult to steer and the pole can get stuck in the river bottom.

Our next dilemma was who was going to pole the punt?

I assumed David would guide us down the River Cam, but sidelined by a rugby injury, he couldn’t even bend his knee enough to climb into the boat.

Fortunately Larissa and her sister, Charlotte, had the foresight to barter for tickets that included a guide. From the Quayside Punting Station near Magdalene Bridge, we clambered into the low seats of the punt.

Like a modern day Huck Finn, a handsome, young man in khakis and a white shirt stood in the stern grasping his pole. In the voice of a great orator, he recounted the history and legends surrounding the colleges of Cambridge during our 45-minute ride up one side of the Cam and then down the other.

“The Backs refers to a one-mile stretch past the rear sides of some of England’s most prestigious and oldest universities,” our guide said. “A few of the famous colleges, which we will be passing include Trinity College, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546; Trinity Hall, where scientist Stephen Hawking studied; and St. Johns College, which was attended by poet William Wordsworth.”

Along the riverbank people dined at outdoor cafes, college co-eds lounged on lush lawns under weeping willows and boatloads of tourists drank beer celebrating the arrival of spring. A carnival like atmosphere prevailed. Punting was like being in an amusement park on bumper boat ride and sure enough another boat slammed into our side, jarring my back.

While the skilled college guides maneuvered between boats, amateur punters spun in circles and crashed into other vessels.

“On your right is St. John’s,” our guide said, “one of the oldest and most celebrated colleges in Cambridge.”

As we passed under the city’s famous Bridge of Sighs, named after the one in Venice, the scene felt surreal.

When we opened champagne and raised our glasses to Nic and Larissa, I thought, what are the odds of small town girl from Illinois marrying a French boy from Normandy and raising a Franco-American son who’s falls in love with a beautiful English/Irish-Ukrainian girl.

How extraordinary the fate uniting our families as we celebrate toasting to their future by punting in Cambridge.

French Mamie’s House in Trouville’s Historic Fishermen District

Mamie’s house overlooks the quay of Trouville, France, a fishing village where inhabitants exist in rhythm with the tides and the ebb and flow of tourists flooding her Normandy beach.

Mamie lives in the historic fishermen quarters on the Rue des Ecores, which dates from the mid 17th century when the quay was built. The houses once chiseled out of the cliff to accommodate fishermen reflected the maritime hierarchy. The sailors’ flats had one window and one floor, while the prosperous captains’ homes had windows on either side of the front door, and several floors.

The lower level of the building, filled with cafes, boutiques, and gift shops, opens to the bustling boulevard across from the open market on the Touques River. On the rue des Ecores up above, time froze; fishermen flats look the same as when they were first built. Wooden doors open to pencil-thin homes where rooms are stacked 6 stories high like building blocks.

On the narrow lane under number 55, the door opens into Mamie’s ground floor, which is actually the 3rd level of the building. On the left is her kitchen. Straight through the hallway to the dining/living area, French windows open to a balcony above the quay.

The windows on one side of the apartment face the colorful, lively, bright main street alongside the Touques River; the other side’s windows look onto the darker Rue des Ecores.

In the living room, a wooden dining table, the focus of any French home, consumes most of the space. A love seat, wedged next to the oak, Normand cupboard filled with Mamie’s old wedding china, faces the TV, perched in a corner. Though compact, the 10 x 14 foot room expanded to squeeze another chair around Mamie’s table where family and friends were always welcome to dine on Normandy’s finest fare from land and sea.

In between the two rooms, a steep, winding staircase, coils like a snake, from one floor to the next. The stairway is so tight that furniture had to be brought up by crane and passed through the windows.

On her second floor landing, there is a water closet and 2 bedrooms. In Mamie’s room stands a wardrobe of fine Normand craftsmanship passed down from ancestors. On the floor above that, are a bath and two more small bedrooms where we always stayed. Each morning I threw open the shutters savoring a birds eye view of the river, fish market, and casino. The very top floor under the mansard roof once held Papie’s old workbench and hanging tools.

Every nook and cranny remained filled with mementos triggering happy memories from Mamie’s giant dinner bell, to her French cartoon collection, to her lumpy, duvet covered beds. Artwork and photographs, showing the chronology of marriages, birthdays, baptisms, and graduations, covers every inch of wall space.

Whenever we left, driving away down Main Street, Mamie and Papie stood on the wrought iron balcony waving goodbye and blowing kisses.

The historic landmark, Rue des Ecores, endures as the center of the fishermen district, just as Mamie’s place remains forever as the heart of our French family.

Sterling High School Golden Sisters Celebrate Volleyball State Championship

SHS State Champion TeamLast weekend, amidst dismal news reports of natural disasters, mass shootings, and political divisiveness my alma mater, the Sterling High School Golden Warrior girls’ volleyball team, gave us something to celebrate by winning the state championship.  With a 40-1 record overall, they snatched the victory from defending champs Belleville Althoff 25-21, 25-22 in the final at Illinois State University Redbird Arena.

If you watch a few seconds of this video clip, you can see the intensity and unbridled joy that comes from the concentrated team effort needed to reach a state championship – the pinnacle of success in American high school sports.

Sterling’s volleyball program was a family affair. Take solid senior leader Josi Borum add her dynamic twin sisters, Bree and Brook, mix with smashing combo Gretchen and Grace Gould, toss in all-over-the-court libero, Lexi Rodriguez, and you have a recipe for success.

It’s been forty-one years since Sterling won a state championship. In 1977, the Sterling High School Golden Girls team made history by winning the first ever state basketball championship. My younger sister played guard on that team coached by my dad.

Most folks forget that prior to that time, girls weren’t allowed on any court. Without the passage of the 1972 Title IX amendment mandating equal opportunity and ending gender discrimination, girls would still be relegated to the sideline. Title IX gave girls access to athletic scholarships and higher education.

Not surprisingly the SHS volleyball team, like that first state basketball team, won the championship title at the tournament hosted by Illinois State University. In the early 1970s, ISU’s female administrators Dr. Phoebe Scott, Dr. Laura Mabry, coaches Jill Hutchison, and Linda Herman spearheaded committees pushing for legislation at the national level for the advancement of equal opportunities for women.

In the infancy of Title IX, SHS was ahead of its time too providing opportunities when most schools dragged their heels about giving girls a chance. Former SHS athletic director Bob Henard and basketball coaches like Jim McKinzie, Sue SHS 1977 State Champion TeamStrong, and Phil Smith picked up the ball and ran with it by making sure girls could compete on their own teams.

Since then, Sterling once fueled by the steel industry fell on economic hard times. Yet high school sports remained a source of pride and priority thanks to dynamic booster clubs and an altruistic donor by the name of Pete Dillon.

Championship teams are not made in a vacuum. They require the right mix of athletes, opportunity, coaches, community and infrastructure. Sterling provides that foundation.

So I raise my glass to Sterling’s state championship volleyball team. After endless hours of practice, countless road trips and off-season workouts, it’s time to celebrate. Here’s to the athletes, the coaches who trained them, and to their families who provided meals, rides, and emotional support.

Sterling High School Homer Fieldhouse

Sterling High School Homer Fieldhouse

“When we stepped in that 30-by-30 box (our half court in Redbird Arena,) we focused on what we needed to get done,” Sterling’s Coach Dale Dykeman said, “And that mentality of pulling up your bootstraps and going to work with your sisters, it’s a special thing.”

Unbeknownst to you, across the country your older warrior “siblings” are fist bumping and high fiving in solidarity over your success.

Going to work with your sisters

Is a Sterling thing.

It’s forever.

Golden.SHS 2018 State Champion Team