Meeting Mackenzie Clan Chief at Castle Leod

Castle Leod

Castle Leod

I trembled with excitement the day we visited Castle Leod, the Clan Mackenzie seat, located near the village of Strathpeffer in the east Ross Shire of the Highlands. In the Mackenzie’s’ hands for centuries, Leod remains one of the few castles where the original owners family descendants still live.

“For 500 years Leod was backdrop of the Mackenzie family whose dramatic and colorful lives were inextricably linked with the great events of Scottish history and the characters that shaped it, among them Queen Mary of Scots and Prince Charles Edward Stuart.”

Man lived on this land for centuries. An Iron Age vitrified fort can be seen on the hills of the Castle as well as Pictish Standing Stones.

After the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, the Mackenzie’s power expanded from the barren west coast of Kintail in Wester Ross to the fertile lands of Eastern Ross. Before the 12century,they built a crannog, a fortified stone hut, on the site.

After Mary Queen of Scots officially granted the land to the Mackenzie’s, John of Killen became the first Clan Chief to live in Castle Leod. By the late 15th century the tower looked much like it does today with further alterations. The Mackenzie’s currently live in the addition on the back wing.

Leod was also the inspiration behind Castle Leoch the seat and home of laird Mackenzie in Diana Gabaldon’s fictional series Outlander.

Castle Leod

Castle Leod

Castle Leod, open only a few days a year, has a less imposing stature and a more intimate feel. My heart skipped as we walked up the long, tree-lined avenue to the castle. Above the front door, I admired the marriage stone dating from 1605 commemorating the union of Margaret MacLeod with Sir Rory Mackenzie famous ‘Tutor of Kintail.

Imagine my surprise when we opened the door and our clan chief John Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Cromartie, welcomed us as warmly as banquet guests. He showed us the sword rack and a tapestry of the Mackenzie family tree, and then led us to a stone stairwell to the Great Hall.

“The fireplace, still used today, and the frieze above it are originals,” a guide, explained. “Of course, the wood replaced the straw floor used back in the day.”

Decorated with Regency period furniture, cabinets held family heirlooms – letters, jewelry, medals and other memorabilia. Paintings of former clan leaders hung on the walls.

“Be sure to notice the a prie-dieu, (praying table) a gift from Mary Queen of Scots,” the guide said pointing to a 2-foot- high, structure with 2 pillars, “ Unfortunately no one has figured out how you could actually use it to pray.”

Off of the Great Hall, an Edwardian style Billiard Room, contained its original wooden pool table. The room also holds century old books crumbling behind the glass-enclosed bookshelves. A map on the wall of the estate surveyed by John Leslie in 1763 remains accurate still today.

A narrow staircase wound around to the ground floor to a hall with servant’s bells and speaking tubes. Off of this, steps lowered to a tiny dungeon at one end and to a large vaulted kitchen in the other.

“My father used this as a wine cellar,” John wrote, “but by the time I inherited the estate the only thing left down here was ghosts.”

Like every good castle, Leod too has ghosts. Footsteps of the chief ghost, The Night Watchman, can be heard wandering guarding inhabitants. The Sad Ghost haunts the dungeon. After dark, soldier ghosts eerily hover at the front door. Perhaps, they date back to the time the castle was confiscated after George; The 3rd Earl of Cromartie’s fought for the Jacobites in the Rebellion.

Spanish Chestnut tree

Spanish Chestnut planted 1553, oldest tree in the UK

The castle’s gardens held natural treasures like the giant sequoia, the largest tree in the UK. Two ancient Spanish chestnut trees, planted in 1553 commemorated Queen Mary of Scot’s land grant, remain the oldest trees in Britain. On part of the estate’s extensive parkland, bordered by the Peffery River, prizewinning Aberdeen Angus cattle graze.

In previous centuries, the Highland Clan leaders held power over life or death. The Hanging Tree for male prisoners stood in front of the castle and to one side was the Drowning Pond, where female criminals met their fate.

Clan Chief John Mackenzie

Clan Chief John Mackenzie with the author

Today it is hard to imagine our present clan chief John Mackenzie wishing anyone ill will. Before we left, he graciously agreed to pose for a picture with me. With good cheer and humility, he even grinned for the camera. But my smile was even greater for this special moment will be etched in my family’s archives forever.

Happy Father’s Day to Dad Our McKinzie Clan Chief

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle

In all of your trips to Europe to follow my exploits, I am sorry that I never took you to the Scottish Highlands to see the home of your Clan Mackenzie ancestors, so I traveled there for you.

Now your traveling days are over, so I will paint a word picture of Scotland just as you used to paint magnificent landscapes of the places you visited in Norway, France, Germany and Switzerland that fill our walls with memories.

Loch Duich, Western Scottish Highlands

Loch Duich, Western Scottish Highlands

But how can words ever describe the austere beauty of this rugged land?

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands

A melancholy, capricious land of jagged sea lochs, sheer cliffs and intimidating mountains that inspires myths and legends. Close-shaved shrubs in muted tones -ocher, sienna, and charcoal – cover desolate heath that burst into color under blue skies. Rare sunbeams spotlight the raw grandeur of this roughhewn landscape. A place where ancient castles withstood centuries of battle and weather-beaten homes cling to steep hill sides where grazing sheep far outnumber humans.

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle; Loch Duich & Loch Alsch

Though you never ruled Eilean Donan Castle, where Clan Mackenzie’s story began, after having visited this land of shimmering lochs, I see a reflection of the powerful lords of Scotland in you.

Like Kenneth, Collin, Malcolm and our other mighty Mackenzie chiefs of yesteryear, you led our American clan, an honor bestowed from beloved Grandpa Mac. In Gaelic clan means children. At its best the chief held tribal lands on behalf of all ordinary clans people, who shared a relationship like adult children to a father. You, too, protected us and cared for our McKinzie “chateau,” a lakeside cabin, tucked in the woods, a deed generously gifted to future generations.

Jim McKinzieThough unlike our ancient clan chiefs, you never led your tribe in battle against the Munros, MacLeods, or MacDonalds, you inspired countless warriors on the playing fields of Sterling to conquer “enemies” in Dixon, Rock Falls and Rochelle.

Instead of swords, you gave each athlete a moral compass on how to live.

Dornie, on Loch Long

Dornie, on Loch Long

A traveler at heart, you instilled the wanderlust, driving us coast to coast across the highways of America. How you would have loved navigating Scotland’s endless back roads and exploring footpaths through purple heather, around misty lakes and along ragged seashores.

As an adventuresome outdoorsman, you taught us to read maps hiking in the wilderness of Wisconsin discovering lost lakes hidden in dense forests. You showed us how to identify moss and trees, to distinguish deer prints and chipmunk burrows, to find beaver dams and fox dens.

The Highland (Gaelic) culture was also filled with spellbinding, storytellers. Around campfires, you too spun fine tales about the Hodag, the mythical beast of the north woods, our American version of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster of Scotland.

As if clan bloodlines transcended generations, like your father and his forefathers, you became a leader of men and women. You taught us a code of honor, respect for our fellowman, and fierce loyalty toward family.

Perhaps our resilient constitution, strength of character, love of nature, and reverence for an honest days work were virtues passed on from our ancestry. Who knows?

But this I know is true.

Clan McKinzie , USA

Clan McKinzie , USA

As the head of our McKinzie clan, you set the finest example of what it means to be an honorable leader, a strong chief, and a benevolent father.

Even though you regret that you never set foot on the windswept moors of your ancestors, the Scottish Highlands have always been a part of you.

Happy Father’s Day Dad from Scotland

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.

Fine Art of Tidying Up for the Disorganized Brain

cluttered officePropensity for organization is an inherited gene, which I lack. Tidying up will never come naturally, but I thought reading Marie Kondo’sThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing would spur me into action.

That clever little Japanese lady created a brand name consultancy agency and reality TV show based on her KonMari Method to eliminate clutter. Combining philosophical wisdom, Japanese cultural traditions, and practical advice, she makes staying organized sound easy.

“The act of tidying is a series of simple actions in which objects are moved from one place to another that involves putting things away where they belong.”

Therein lies my problem. I truly believe books belong under my bed, words belong on paper everywhere and clothes belong on chairs (to eliminate folding.)

Ah, clothes tossing, a big no, no. Marie elevated folding clothes to an art form claiming, “Every piece of clothes has its own sweet spot.”

“By folding clothes,” she explained, “we transmit energy to the fabric and show appreciation for the way clothes support our lifestyle.”

Sun set on yet another day before I finished blessing all my favorite basketball T-shirts.T-Shirts party

It took an additional week to “energize” my closets by hanging items from heavy to light.

Following her crucial adage “sort by category not location” can be exceptionally challenging in compact Swiss homes where little rooms are stacked atop one another like Jenga blocks.

As a writer, you never know when the muse will strike, so we have a desk in our bedroom, the guestroom, the loft and the living area. Pencils, pens and papers litter every room except the bathroom. Little notebooks fill every coat pocket and drawer.

Worse yet, bookshelves abound in every available space including hallways. When Marie Kendo insisted books should be sorted by dumping them out on the floor, I wanted to cry. Laid out, my book collection could loop around the block twice. How can I limit my love of literature to a mere dozen Hall of Fame books?

To further add my dismay, she insisted that you keep your papers in one spot.

“Put your house in order and your life will change dramatically,” Marie Kondo claimed. “Effective tidying requires only 2 parts – discarding and deciding where to store things. Visualize your destination.”

I breathed deeply and meditated as instructed. But when I opened my eyes, I was still surrounded by the same damn mess.

I wanted to give up. Then a miracle occurred. After searching on 2 continents to no avail, I was convinced my prize boots had been confiscated by border control during one of those random luggage searches on a trans-Atlantic flight.

“No one would steal a pair of boots!” my husband exclaimed.

lost & found boots“It wasn’t any old footwear,” I whined. “They were new Vasque ultra dry, winter- proof boots guaranteed to keep toes warm up to 40° below and I only wore them twice!”

Miraculously, during my Japanese inspired cleaning frenzy, I found my “stolen boots” sitting on a shoe rack in our entryway where they had been hiding in plain sight for 2 years.

Bless you Mari Kondo.

Still I wonder if putting things where they belong only befuddles more so my chaotic brain.

Illinois Basketball Museum Commemorates Love of Game

Basketball symbolizes Illinois as much as sweet corn, the red bird and Abe Lincoln.

Generations of farm kids grew up shooting at hoops nailed above barn doors. City kids learned resiliency playing street ball on concrete courts in the ‘hood. Thousands of student athletes remember cheering and charging across the hardwood inspired by the American national anthem at tip off.

The Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) wants to commemorate this history by building our own museum along the famous route 66 in Pontiac, but it will take a team effort to get the foundation laid.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvqld8Vu5wI[/embedyt]

Illinois’ stars could easily fill the galleries from shot blocking, hook shooting legendary pioneer George Mikan to Doug Collins, former Illinois State University star, NBA player and coach, to Michael Jordan’s stellar Chicago Bulls era. Female standouts such as Olympians Charlotte Lewis (1976), gold medalists Cathy Boswell (1984) and WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks superstar Candace Parker (2008, 2012) also deserve a spot.Illinois Basketball

My family holds a tiny piece of the legend. My grandpa, “Coach Mac,” a 7x hall of famer, led his Northern Illinois University teams to three Little 19/IIAC crowns in the 1940s. My dad, Jim McKinzie, a NIU Hall of Fame athlete was named on the All-Decade Team and All-Century Team for his contributions as a guard in the 1950s.

When I was growing up, girls were shunned from sports, but with athleticism as a birthright, I fought to be allowed in the game.  In the infancy of Title IX, I blazed a my own trail as the first athletic scholarship recipient to Illinois State before playing professionally in the first Women’s Basketball League (WBL) then for teams in France and Germany.

My hometown, Sterling, also played a significant role. My dad co-coached the Sterling High School team that included my younger sister, which went 21-0 and won the first IHSA state girls cage title (1976-77) hosted by Illinois State.

Three generations and four family members have been inducted into IBCA Hall of Fame – my grandfather, Ralph McKinzie, as a coach (1976), my dad and sister, Karen, as part of the championship team (2004) and me as a player (2005).

The list of Illinois’ basketball greats goes on from players, to officials, to coaching dynasties from Toluca High School’s Chuck Rolinski and Ray Meyer’s 42-year stint (1942-1984) at DePaul University to extraordinary fans like Sister Jean (Jean Delores Schmidt). The 98-year-old nun, a beloved member of the Loyola basketball community, who exemplifies our lasting bonds with favorite teams.

But no one in the state has done more for the game than Jill Hutchison. In a legacy spanning 28 seasons as Illinois State University’s head basketball coach, Hutchison was co founder and first president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

To appreciate her impact, we must remember how far we have come. Hutchison’s master thesis proved that a woman’s heart wouldn’t explode by running the fast break. This led to a change in rules – instead of a six-player half court game to the full court five-player game.

As tournament director for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), she helped establish the regions and the qualifying process for the first national tournament in 1971-1972, which was nearly identical to the regions used in the NCAA today.

At ISU, a powerhouse of womIllinois Basketballen including Hutchison advocated for women even before the 1972 Title IX enactment mandated equal opportunities in academics and athletics.

“Cultural change is slow, slower than you ever want it to be. And that’s what Title IX was—a cultural change, not just for athletics. Females…crossing the gender barrier, that was huge,” Hutchison said.

So often, the pioneers’ accomplishments are overlooked because history is not always recorded as it is being made, especially when the people in power are against the change. A museum could correct this oversight.

Like so many hailing from the Land of Lincoln, a love of basketball reflects my heritage.

Illinois basketball not only influenced me, it also shaped American history.

Find out more about how to help build Illinois Basketball Museum here.

Floating My Way to Nirvana

New experiences slow aging, so for my birthday I tried to float my way to nirvana. As a gift, my Frenchman offered me a Flotation Therapy session. I left my comfort zone, overcame claustrophobia and closed myself in a flotation tank for a total mind and body experience.

Flotation therapy dates back to 1954 when Dr. John Lilly, a physician and psychoanalyst, studied altered states of consciousness, brainwaves and the effect of sensory deprivation. His research led to the development of a flotation device creating a weightlessness state, void of sensory stimulation, which can lead one to a state of mindfulness.

At the Surface Center in Lausanne Switzerland, entering the tank felt like stepping into a space ship. When I lay out in a bath of water heated to skin temperature of 94-95 degrees F and highly concentrated with (800 lbs.) Epsom salt to remove gravity, I felt as weightless as an astronaut in outer space.

Did you know about 90% of your brain’s activity focuses on calculating where gravity is and in which direction to enable you to move without falling over?

Without the necessity of maintaining posture, your mind frees from the physical world, creating a state of sensory relaxation.

Later Ohio State University research showed flotation improved creativity in jazz musicians. The therapy is currently used by elite athletes, like Stephen Curry, to enhance performance.

Hey, if it worked for basketball’s “Baby-Faced Assassin”, it could work for me.

So I floated and waited to reach nirvana.

Nothing happened.

Once I realized I could open the door, I overcame my anxiety of being entombed in a pod the size of a double-wide coffin. Starting from my crooked toes, I visualized each bone and body part being released from every injury and accident. Then, I repeated the process imagining killing off bacteria, viruses and germs plaguing my health.flotation center's relaxation room

Therapy accelerates lactic acid removal, lymphatic tissue flow and reduces the blood pressure, maximizing blood flow. In theory in this state, endorphins are released reducing pain but instead of euphoria, my spine still felt crooked. Even as I visualized symmetry, my posture still felt out of whack with my head twisted one way and my shoulder and hip the other way.

“Your head falls back weightlessly,” the instructor explained beforehand, “so prop your head with hands.”

In spite of my deep breathing and mindfulness, after 20 minutes, tightness in my neck and shoulder blades distracted me. Pressure built up in my head and sinuses.

I began to think, enough already.

For a brief period though, I was a hidden pearl floating in a clam-shaped cocoon on the Dead Sea.

When I stepped on land afterwards, a tsunami hit.

My head ached, my brain fogged, my limbs weighed tons and I remained comatose for the rest of the day.

But to be honest, I can reach paradise a whole lot faster floating on Summit Lake.

float on your favorite lake

For more information on where to float, go to http://www.where-to-float.com/