We met Eleanor ‘Timmy’ Munro (90), matriarch of the Munro Clan and resident of Castle Foulis on September 4, 2015. She met us at the front door at the top of the ‘fighting steps’ to the castle, dressed in light blue slacks and a sweater vest. Her smile was warm as she extended her hand and introduced herself to us as Mrs. Munro. She laughed after I introduced myself. ‘Hi,’ I said, ‘I’m Mrs Munroe as well’! She had agreed to give us a personal tour of the castle over six months ago. We met first in her sitting room where she told us about the history of the castle, it’s owners, residents and lands. Shortly after we sat down I saw the door to the room slide open and around peaked a little dark haired boy, Hector. Hector is Mrs Munro’s five year old great grandson.
Much of the history is provided on the Munro Clan website (Short History of the Munros). However, she did tell us that she was born in Ireland and came to Inverness as a member of the Navy in WWII. She packed parachutes and through her work in Inverness she met many of the Munro clan, including her future husband – Patrick Munro. They lived in a house down the road from the castle (Ardullie Lodge) for most of their married life. When the castle needed their time and effort and money, they sold the house and moved into the castle. Through a series of efforts the castle was eventually put in trust by Hector W. Munro, a son. As such, he could not live there so she resides there and pays rent to the trust.
Hector, the Present Chief of the Clan Munro, has taken a big interest in the property, including the land around it. Among his efforts has been hiring geologists to examine a mound on the property. With carbon dating efforts as well as subterranean forensics they found pig bones and charcoal remnants 300 years old. But more excitingly they found 3 meters down, a circular structure with posts over 3,000 years old.*
The photographs covering the top of the piano, and seemingly every other surface, was a signed picture of The Queen Mum (Elizabeth The Queen Mother 1900–2002). Mrs Munro and she were friends for over forty years. The Queen Mum would visit once each summer and stay for lunch which Mrs Munro prepared.
Mrs Munro’s husband, Capt. Patrick Munro, had been held prisoner by the Nazis, having been captured with the queen’s nephew following the Battle of Dunkirk. It was through this friendship she met The Queen Mum. At these lunches Mrs Munro would serve 20 people, the Queen’s entourage. She also made sandwiches for the security team. That is until they asked politely if they might also have the lobster newberg she’d prepared for the royal guests. With some amusement she told us from then on she served the security team the same meal as the royal party enjoyed- which was, she said, easier! Three other Munro’s fought in Dunkirk, but only two survived. It was around that time the military sent the surviving sons home saying the family had given enough.
The Castle is beautifully restored. The great room has ceilings at 14 foot high. There are family portraits everywhere. A sideboard hutch contains a custom dinner service made in China in the 1800’s with renderings of Castle Foulis and the Munro crest – as interpreted by the Chinese! Other artifacts included a glass decanter by a British firm, whistler (?) with the image of Castle Foulis etched inside.
The dining room is on the opposite side of the house from the great room. She described features of a hutch from the 1800’s. On one side was a small cabinet which was said to contain a bowl the men used to relieve themselves while smoking and enjoying their after dinner drinks. She told us rather wryly that the women were in the drawing room at the time, having withdrawn from the dining room.
On our way to see the original kitchen on the first floor she showed us an exhibit of many tartans. She explained that it wasn’t until the 1800’s that clans became identified with a particular tartan. The pattern of the plaid and the sequence of color are unique to each clan. However the actual shade of red, blue, green etc is not. So there are ‘traditional’ tartans, modern tartans and a french Munro tartan.
As we entered the kitchen we passed through a hallway much like the hall downstairs in the PBS program, Downton Abby. Along the wall just below the ceiling were bells with labels to each room from which the Munro’s summoned the staff. The kitchen was just as you’d imagine in a castle – huge stones for the floor, large fireplace, wooden work table and a number of ancient tools. Mrs Munro told us about an earlier cook who covered the table in newspaper and then prepared the food on top of it. When done she’d toss the paper and never cleaned the table. When she was asked why, she said the rats run across the table at night and it was just easier to work on the paper and toss it afterwards. Mrs Munro described a large ceramic or clay jar stored under one counter which was used to store eggs. It was filled with water and some type of syrup. The eggs were immersed in the syrup and eaten all winter.
Behind a door at the back of the kitchen was the biofuel installation. The castle has been converted from gas to biofuel heating not only the castle but several outbuildings. Mrs. Munro was fully conversant in the use of the contemporary technology as it applied to her ancient home! The Castle is paid for each unit of heat generated which will help pay off the installation. Mrs Munro also shared with us that the family grows and harvests barley on some of the 900 acres around the castle. The heat from the biofuel installation will also be used to dry the barley before its goes to a distillery.
Mrs Munro and her husband redid the garden behind the castle, installing a sun dial and building a stone frame around the well. She told us she preferred a relaxed, more casual design so her plantings are not formal or rigid – much as I found Mrs Munro, herself. But it is lovely with an iron gate and stone steps leading into the yard from the far end. She also opened a small door in a wall of the garden to a vaulted stone room, which had tall narrow window openings ending in small ovals. She explained the windows were used to defend the castle when under attack. She told us that area of the castle probably goes back to the mid 1700’s when the original castle was built.
She was so proud of the Castle and its story. She and her husband devoted much of their lives, money and time to restore and preserve it.
*ARCH (Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands) has been working at Foulis in summer 2011 and 2012 teaching volunteers new skills and trying to work out what the Foulis Mound is: a motte? a meeting place? a site of ritual burning?