Up in the Scottish Highlands – way up, north of whatever landmarks you probably know in Great Britain – an ancient castle rises up from the vast lawns and surrounding greenery. Built of stone as grey as a winter sky, Tulloch Castle dates back nearly to the age of the Vikings, around the latter half of the 12th century. In many ways, it’s the kind of castle where you’d expect a princess would live, great in size and with a turret defining its highest point.
We didn’t know about our family’s connection to Tulloch until one of my husband’s paternal relatives began tracing the family lineage. He was a distant relative — my father-in-law’s cousin — but he worked as the chief librarian at Harvard University. Through him we learned that my husband was a direct descendent of the Davidson clan, which had possession of the castle from 1762 to when the last laird of the clan died in 1917.
My husband’s father had never been to Europe when we started talking about a family voyage to what we began to think of as our castle. Not only had he not been, he was fairly certain he would never have the chance to go, to see the castle, or to trace for himself the origins of his ancestors. He was the kind of man who loved his family and poured all his resources into raising his kids and so didn’t have much left over for international travel. For my husband, this was a no brainer. We would all go to Scotland, and it would be our treat.
Before we knew it, three generations of our own family, from my three children to my parents-in-law, were boarding a ship on a British Isles cruise and heading to the Highlands. All told, we were eight, including my husband’s sister who also happens to be our favorite babysitter.
When the cruise ship docked at Inverness, we boarded a van, and the excitement was palpable. We couldn’t believe that the experience we’d been dreaming about and planning for more than two years was actually happening. We set off on the half-hour ride to the town of Dingwall. In Norse, the name Dingwall means “meeting place,” which I thought had a warm ring to it, despite our having no appointments to meet anyone in particular. Instead, we would visit Tulloch, our ancestral castle, and walk the same grounds our ancestors had walked centuries before.
Pulling up at the castle, we were immediately struck by the sheer size of it. We had thought after seeing pictures of the place that it might feel a bit more like a large house. We also had heard that it had been converted into a high end hotel and weren’t sure whether that would detract from the historical feel of the place. But if size were any indicator, this was certainly a castle.
Walking the grounds I noted that the front did feel a bit more house-like, and perhaps a bit more modern. Circling around the back, however, the towers were higher and a series of centuries-old crumbling stone walls marked the perimeter of the property. In fact, this feeling of blended eras was pervasive. A wall smoothed over with modern plaster, would give way to a pathway that was clearly from a previous era, which would connect to a room that was more ancient still, with walls of exposed stone and leaded glass windows.
We were fortunate to have had the assistance of the ship’s shore excursion manager, who had called ahead to the castle and informed them that descendents of the Davidson clan would be touring their facilities, so our own curious bunch received a warm welcome, making us feel like we were part of the family.
The reception area with its stucco walls and modern comforts seemed a little out of place and possibly disappointing after viewing the old rough stone of the exterior, however with our connection to the Davidsons opening doors for us, we got to see more. The concierge escorted our group to a wing at the back of the castle which was like walking into the 16th century. The stone walls were adorned with antique tapestries and the windows fitted with stained glass. On one of the windows a crest bearing the Davidson clan motto glinted proudly. Sapienter si sincere. “Wisely if sincerely.” How funny, I mused, that all these generations later, the description still fit my husband to a T.
As my husband signed the guest book, I took note of my father-in-law who, from the corner of my eye, moved slowly around the room, pausing at intervals to stand close to artifact after artifact, drinking in the details. He studied the paintings. He read all the descriptions, nodding to himself as he came across certain facts. He tapped my daughter’s shoulder to point out articles of interest. Whatever of the items on display he was allowed to touch, he touched as if he were somehow tapping into its ancient energy.
Moving on from this small museum, my kids, who were 8, 11 and 13 at the time, thoroughly enjoyed the next stop on our tour of the castle: the dungeon. And once we returned to the grounds outside, I found the views of the Scottish countryside breathtaking, all wide lawns and rolling hills. This enchanted castle, I thought, had something for each of us.
And little did I know that my daughter was keeping a secret. Unbeknownst to us, during our castle visit she had picked up a small rock, about the size of a walnut, and had secretly slipped this memento into her pocket. It wasn’t until some days later during the cruise that she surprised her grandpa – and our entire family – by presenting it to him as a special keepsake. That rock has been in the same place of honor on their kitchen shelf, ever since – a symbol not only of our connection to Tulloch Castle and the generations that came before us, but also the special connection among those of our family who journeyed to Scotland together.