Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle
Cawdor is the title promised by Shakespeare's witches to Macbeth, and legend makes the castle the place where Duncan was murdered. The central tower of the castle, set amongst beautiful Highland scenery, is a 14th century keep to which 17th century wings have been added.


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 garden gate
The garden gate

A Prophetic Dream

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.

The main castle entrance
The main castle entrance

The Thane of Cawdor might have been better advised to choose the site for his castle without the aide of donkeys, however, for the low-lying site offered few military advantages. To compensate, the castle was surrounded by a wide moat and built with walls so thick that the castle pit prison is built within the wall itself. One of the most impressive defensive features was not original to Cawdor, however; it is a massive iron yett, or hinged gate, brought here from Lochindorb Castle after the Thane sacked that castle in 1455.

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.

Formal garden beds
Formal garden beds in the grounds

But all was not plain sailing for the Thanes of Cawdor, for in the 18th century they chose to follow Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause. After the Jacobite Rising of 1745 ended in defeat at Culloden, the family thought it prudent to live on their Welsh estates. And that proved to be a blessing, for it meant that Cawdor was spared Victorian 'improvements', and remains today a fascinating combination of an authentic medieval castle and a comfortable Jacobean house.

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.