History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Ancient thorn tree in the cellars gives truth to an old legend
The name Cawdor immediately conjures up images of Shakespeare's play Macbeth, but Cawdor was a thanedom in the 11th century, long before the Bard of Avon dramatised - and completely altered - the history of Scotland for his play.
The original fort of Old Cawdor stood about 1 mile north of the current castle, and it is quite possible that the real Macbeth was familiar with the original castle of Cawdor. Macbeth's successor, Malcolm Canmore, granted lands at Cawdor to Hugh de Kaledouer, in gratitude for Hugh's help in restoring Malcolm's family to the throne. The king wanted a loyal presence to help control the untamed Highland clans.
The castle dates to the 14th century, but it has been strengthened several times by the Scottish crown since then. In 1454 James II granted the Thane of Cawdor permission to crenellate a tower (to fortify it and add battlements) on condition that he be allowed to come and go without hindrance. According to legend, the Thane decided where to build his new tower based on a dream. Acting on his dream, he loaded a donkey with gold and let it roam freely around the countryside until it stopped to rest under a tree. Taking this as a sign, the thane built his tower around the living tree.
A fanciful tale?
Perhaps, but consider; in the castle dungeon stands a living thorn tree, growing out of the earthen floor, still alive after more than 500 years.
In 1499 the heiress to Cawdor was an infant named Muriel. The child was made a ward of the Campbell Earl of Argyll, but when Argyll's troops came to carry off the child her mother took drastic action. She pressed a red-hot key to the child's skin, and bit off the tip of her fingers so that she could always be identified. Muriel was later married to Sir John Campbell, which gave rise to a local tradition that the Campbells will always hold Cawdor if a red-haired woman lives on the shore of Loch Awe.
Like most houses of any age in Scotland, Cawdor is haunted. Well, naturally! In this case there are 3 known ghosts. One is a mysterious lady in blue. The second is the ghost of Sir John Campbell. The third is a tragic young woman who fell in love with a young man who did not measure up to her father's expectations. The enraged father cut off the poor girl's hands to ensure that she kept her distance from her unsuitable love. And in case you're wondering, no, there's never been a sighting of Macbeth's ghost, or indeed, of three witches.
The main focus of the house is the 15th century tower, which was originally entered by an external stair to a first floor doorway. The doorway was later converted into a window, then blocked completely. The basement of the tower is used as a storage area, and is reached only by a stair set into the thickness of the wall. A passage leads to the pit prison, which was originally only accessible by a trapdoor in the floor above.
The tower is connected on the south and south-east to a pair of 19th century ranges built to match the architecture of the medieval structure. In the east wall a drawbridge allows visitors to cross the dry moat outside the walls. To the north and west of the tower are three-storey high 16th century ranges, rebuilt for Sir Hugh Campbell in the late 17th century. These ranges have vaulted lower chambers and crow-stepped gables and attic stairs above.
The centrepiece at Cawdor is the Great Hall, with a musicians gallery at one end. This chamber still has its original fireplace and chimneypiece. On the first floor is the Tapestry Room, a bedchamber hung with Flemish tapestries made in 1682. Another highlight is the Dining Room, with an ornate chimneypiece created for the marriage of Sir John Campbell and Muriel Calder in 1510. Then there is the old kitchen, with a well cut right through solid rock.
We visited Cawdor on a dreadful, wet day in April, after battling the elements at Fort George. Goodness, it was dismal! But the castle was a delight. Even wandering around the very soggy gardens after visiting the house was a wonderful experience. What really sicks in my mind was the amazing sight of that living tree growing out of the earth in the castle cellar. It really brings home just what a rich and eventful history the castle has had. I wasn't allowed to take photos inside, so I'll have to be content with sharing the photos I managed to snatch between showers outside!
I highly recommend a visit to Cawdor; it is a wonderfully atmospheric castle and well worth a special trip to see,
About Cawdor Castle
Address: Nairn, Highlands, Highland, Scotland, IV12 5RD
Attraction Type: Castle
Location: between Nairn and Inverness, on the B9090
Website: Cawdor Castle
Phone: 01667 404 401
Fax: 01667 404 674
Historic Houses Association
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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Nearest Accommodation to Cawdor Castle:
Nearby accommodation is calculated 'as the crow flies' from Cawdor Castle. 'Nearest' may involve a long drive up and down glens or, if you are near the coast, may include a ferry ride! Please check the property map to make sure the location is right for you.
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