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Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle is one of the most striking and well-preserved strongholds in Scotland, famed for its beautiful gardens as well as its supposed literary connection to the title character of William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Macbeth (more on this later). Cawdor Castle is situated within a village of the same name, and both the castle and the village are located 10 kms (6 miles) southwest of the town of Nairn (22.5 kms/14 miles east of Inverness). The heart of the castle is a five-storey medieval keep that was built around an ancient holly tree; other wings were later added from the 16th-19th centuries. The castle and its estate cover approximately 42,000 acres. 

A view of Cawdor Castle from the east. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
View of the Cawdor Sphere in the Slate Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Little pink daisies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Cawdor Castle was actually known by a different name until the turn of the 19th century: Calder Castle. Cawdor is the English pronunciation and spelling of Calder, an ancient Celtic word that is thought to mean either “hard/violent water” or “stony river” in Common Brittonic1; Calader is the Scottish-Gaelic form. Calder Castle was named for the family that resided within it and who had, for centuries, been administering this region2 of the countryside on behalf of the Scottish king. There are a few different stories about the possible origin of the Calder family. The first is that they are descended from a brother of Macbeth3—a real historical figure who reigned as King of the Scots from 1040-1057 over a small portion of present-day Scotland. A second story claims that the Calder family is descended from a Norman knight, Hugo de Cadella, who may have been made the first Thane4 of Calder as a reward for his loyal service to Malcolm III (reigned 1058-1093)5. However, a third story asserts that it was a man named Donald who was first granted the lands, title, and name of Calder in 1236 by Alexander II (reigned 1214-1249). Regardless of who was first, various heads of the Calder family continued to serve as thanes, sheriffs, and hereditary constables of Nairn for several hundred years. 

Bridge over a shallow, stony section of a river. Image sourced from Pixabay.

In 1510, the Calder and Campbell families were united through the marriage of Muriel Calder (the last Calder in the direct line) to Sir John Campbell of Argyll6. In the late 1680s, Sir Alexander Campbell left Scotland to live with his new bride, Elizabeth Lort of Stackpole Court, on her Pembrokeshire estate in southwest Wales. Their descendants remained in Wales for the next hundred years, while the castle in Nairn was managed by younger brothers of the Campbell-Calder family. It was this move south that seems to have led to the anglicization of the Calder family name (and its associated castle) into Cawdor. This transition was well underway by 1789 when Sir John Campbell married Lady Isabella Howard, daughter of Frederick Howard, the Earl of Carlisle. This match elevated the Campbell-Calder/Cawdor family into the British peerage, and John was ennobled in 1796 as Lord John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. His son, John Frederick Campbell, later became 1st Earl Cawdor in 1827.  

A yellow Columbine flower in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The history of Cawdor Castle has its roots in 1179, when King William I (“the Lion”, reigned 1165-1214) had a castle built in Nairn to control a shallow crossing of the River Nairn that was located near the North Sea (a fourth story concerning the origin of the Calder family claims that this is when the first Thane of Calder was appointed). The Calder family lived within this fortification, but it has since disappeared without a trace. The family next inhabited a small castle that was located about 1.6 kms (1 mile) south from the site of the present residence. According to Exchequer accounts, this castle was last repaired in 1398. Not much of this structure remains except for some faint crop marks.

A Himalayan Blue Poppy in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

It was while the Calder family was living in this small castle at the end of the 14th century that the then-Thane7 of Calder decided he wanted to build a new, stronger tower house. According to legend, an oracle visited the Thane in one of his dreams. The oracle instructed the Thane to load a chest of gold onto the back of a donkey. The place where the donkey stopped to rest would then indicate where the Thane should build his new home. The Thane did as he was advised, loading up a donkey and then following the animal as it set out with its golden cargo. The donkey eventually took a break at the foot of a hawthorn tree, and this is where the Thane is said to have then built his tower house. The remains of an old tree, long believed to be a hawthorn, can still be seen on the ground floor of the tower. Scientific testing has indicated, however, that it is actually a holly tree that died around 1372. Although the type of tree differs from the tale, its age (nearly 650 years old) is rather impressive!

The old holly tree of Cawdor Castle. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The old holly tree of Cawdor Castle, image sourced from the Cawdor Castle website.

Cawdor Castle’s initial construction date is uncertain. It first appears in the written record in 1454 when William Calder, the 6th Thane of Cawdor, was granted a royal license to “erect his castle of Cawdor and to fortify it with walls, and equip the same with turrets and means of defence.” As a result, this is often cited as the castle’s build date. But it’s unclear whether the new license was sought for the construction of an entirely new residence or to expand and fortify an already-existing one, perhaps by adding new defensive features such as a crenellated parapet. Some elements of the tower house indicate an earlier build date. For example, the tree around which the tower house was built is estimated to have died some time close to 1372. Did the tree die as a result of the tower enclosing it? Did it die soon after construction began, or did it take a few years? Was the tree already dead when work on the tower began? (An odd design feature to have as the heart of your new residence, but possible). Further, architectural historians have suggested that the style of stonework in the tower house is characteristic of the 1380s. And yet, at least some members of the Calder family were still living in the former family residence in 1398, as there is documentation of a repair bill from that time. It’s a bit of a mystery! The late Hugh John Vaughan Campbell, 6th Earl Cawdor (lived 1932-1993), claimed that the tower house was built around the year 1396, along with a curtain wall and a dry moat. I think that it is likely that there was a tower house built sometime between 1370-1400, and that it later underwent a significant renovation in 1454.

A view of Cawdor Castle from the east, with bonus groundskeeper. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Aerial view of Cawdor Castle from the southeast. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

I have not been able to source any older images (drawings, paintings, etc.) of Cawdor Castle to help illustrate how it has changed over time. I will do my best to try and explain its gradual development using the photos that I do have, and ask that you use your imagination to do a little architectural time-travel with me. We’ll start with the two photos above. In both, focus on just the central keep and try to imagine it standing all by itself, without any of the buildings surrounding it8. I’ve taken a copy of the first photo and reposted it below, with a sharp crop on just the keep. Look at the bottom left window. Does the groove in the stone surrounding it look like a door? That’s because it was! The original entrance to the castle would have been here at the first-floor, via a stairwell that is now gone. The main entrance is now one floor lower, at ground-level.

The keep of Cawdor Castle. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Let’s suppose that there was a tower house standing here prior to 1454. To roughly picture what that may have looked like, imagine that the crenellated roofline and the turrets are missing. The windows would also have been less modern in appearance, as glass window panes were not in use for another 200 years. For comparison’s sake, I have included a picture below of Foulksrath Castle, an Anglo-Norman tower house located in southeastern Ireland (Jenkinstown, County Kilkenny) that was built in 1349. This residence was constructed 20-50 years earlier than the original Cawdor tower house may have been, uses a different type of stone, and is located about 800 kms (500 miles) away. However, I thought it still serves as a useful (and fun!) example of a 14th century tower house and, in the absence of any other images, might help with this thought experiment we are conducting.

Foulksrath Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

All right, let’s now return to Cawdor Castle and the middle of the 15th century, at which point William Calder had received his license to fortify. The keep’s appearance would have been largely similar to what it is today, allowing for some slight differences due to upkeep and cosmetic improvements. The photo below was taken from the southwest side of the castle in one of the gardens, and shows a better angle of the new-(as of 1454)-and-improved roofline.

View of the Cawdor Castle tower house from the southwest. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Two new wings were added to the west and north of the tower house in the 16th century. They can be seen in the floor plan of Cawdor Castle below, forming an inverted L-shape (the west wing contains the drawing room, and the north wing contains the hall). These wings were largely rebuilt in the 17th century, with much of the work being done by masons James and Robert Nicholson of Nairn under the direction of Sir Hugh Campbell, the 14th Thane of Cawdor. Another major renovation was undertaken from 1760-1774, and then further alterations were made in the 19th century. The three-storey north and west wings are linked to the central keep by a square tower.

Floor plan of Cawdor Castle. From “The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland From the Twelfth to Eighteenth Century” by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross (1887). Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The photo below shows a view of Cawdor Castle from the northeast. The three-storey north wing of the castle is located at the right, with the tower house standing behind it.

View of Cawdor Castle from the northeast. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Below is a closer view of the north wing.

Closer view of Cawdor Castle from the northeast. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Regrettably, I did not take a photo of the west wing located at the rear of the castle, which was built and modified at the same time as the north wing. But I did find a drawing of it, shown below.

Presentation drawing of West elevation. Ian G Lindsay, 1961. Image sourced from the Canmore archive.

To the left of the north wing is a smaller building, the two-storey northeast wing, which can be seen in the photo below (it ends at the drawbridge). This wing was the next part of the castle to be built, with a contract for the work signed in 1699. The roof, the turret, and the dormer windows were later added in the 19th century.

View of Cawdor Castle from the east. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The drawbridge, the entrance gateway, and the dry moat were built in the 17th century, likely replacing earlier constructions. They were given a 15th century appearance to match the tower house.

The drawbridge and the entrance gateway into Cawdor Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Closer view of the drawbridge. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Below is a close-up view of the bell overtop the drawbridge, with a panel that contains the Calder family coat of arms and its clan motto: “Be Mindful.”

View of the bell overtop the drawbridge. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Side view of the drawbridge over the dry moat. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the dry moat from the drawbridge. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The final two wings, located to the southeast and the south, were built in the mid-to late-19th century. They are two storeys in height, and were designed to match the rest of the castle. By 1884, Cawdor Castle had mostly acquired the appearance that it still has today.

Aerial view (from the east) of the southeast wing, located to the left of the drawbridge, and the south wing. Image sourced from Youtube.
Partial view (from the south) of the south wing of Cawdor Castle. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Aerial view (from the south) of the south wing. Image sourced from Youtube.
Aerial view (from the northeast) of the southeast wing, the south wing, and the south courtyard. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Cawdor Castle has a minor literary connection to William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, which is thought to have been first performed in 1606. The plot of the play is set in motion when a trio of “weird sisters” greet two Scottish generals, Macbeth and Banquo, in a curious way as they return from battle. The sisters address Macbeth by his current title, the “thane of Glamis,” but then they also call him the “thane of Cawdor” and “king hereafter!” Macbeth secretly longs to be the King of Scotland, and so he is eager to interpret this message as a potential prophecy. Macbeth soon learns that King Duncan has awarded him the thanedom of Cawdor, as the former Thane of Cawdor betrayed the King of Scotland by launching a rebellion against him with the support of Norway. This promotion convinces Macbeth that the weird sisters’ message was prophetic. Overcome by the force of his ambition and further driven by the heat of his wife’s encouragement, Macbeth decides to murder King Duncan in order to seize the Scottish throne for himself. But guilt and paranoia soon drive him and Lady Macbeth to the edge of madness, and they embark on a murderous rampage in a desperate effort to preserve their throne. Their increasingly tyrannical rule sparks a civil war, with several Scottish nobles seeking the aid of an English army to help overthrow them. At the end of the play, Macbeth is slain and Lady Macbeth dies by suicide. King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, becomes the next King of Scotland.

A poster for an American production of Macbeth, circa 1884, starring Thomas W. Keene. Image sourced from Pixabay. The scenes depicted are, counter-clockwise from the top left: Macbeth and Banquo meet the weird sisters; Lady Macbeth and Macbeth shortly after the murder of King Duncan; Banquo’s ghost makes an appearance at a banquet; Macbeth and McDuff face off in a duel; Macbeth stares off into the distance.

Macbeth, as previously mentioned, was a real historical figure who ruled over a small portion of present-day Scotland from 1040-1057. However, the Shakespeare play that bears his name departs significantly from the truth of the historical record9. And, relevant to this blog post, Cawdor Castle was constructed several hundred years too late (1370-1454) for it to have played any role in the real lived experiences of King Duncan I (reigned 1034-1040), Macbeth (reigned 1040-1057), and Malcolm III (1058-1093). Further, the thanedom of Cawdor doesn’t seem to have existed until after the reign of Macbeth, making Shakespeare’s use of the title, “thane of Cawdor,” a historical inaccuracy10. Thus, there is no historical link between Cawdor Castle and the real Macbeth, and the literary connection with Shakespeare’s character is slim. Although the fictitious murder of King Duncan is often associated with Cawdor Castle, Shakespeare actually had it staged in Inverness Castle. Cawdor Castle doesn’t even make an appearance in Shakespeare’s play, although it had been built by the time the play was written and performed in 1606.

Orange flower growing in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

With the real history of Cawdor Castle completed, I’ll now take you on a tour of some of its highlights. First, we’ll visit the gardens. Then, we’ll take a walk through some of the rooms inside the castle. We’ll start our exploration of the grounds with the Walled Garden, which is located a short walk northeast of the castle. This was originally the site of an earlier Renaissance-era orchard that had been planted in 1635, before it was replaced by the Walled Garden in 1720. In the 19th century, the Walled Garden became one of the finest Victorian gardens in the country. Unfortunately, an increase in the number of visitors to Cawdor Castle soon had a negative impact on the Walled Garden. In addition to the damage caused by heavy foot traffic, people began to steal plants from the garden, including some of its rare and exotic offerings. The garden was eventually closed to the public to help protect it.

Aerial view of the short walk between the castle and the Walled Garden. Image sourced from Youtube.
Aerial view of the Walled Garden. Image sourced from Youtube.
Roses growing along the Walled Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Close-up view of roses growing along the Walled Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Flowers growing along the Walled Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Flowers growing along the Walled Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Roses growing along the Walled Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

In 1981, the top half of the Walled Garden was developed into a maze using 1,200 holly plants. Its design was inspired by a mosaic floor found in the excavated ruins of a Roman villa, Conímbriga, in Portugal. This Roman mosaic was itself inspired by the story of the Minotaur, a fantastical monster that was half-bull and half-man who, according to classical Greek mythology, resided in the centre of a maze-like labyrinth in Knossos, Crete.

Neil standing in the entrance to the Cawdor Maze and Paradise Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Aerial view of the Cawdor Maze. Behind it lies the Knot Garden and the Paradise Garden. Image sourced from Youtube.
Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika in the Roman villa of Conímbriga, Portugal, which features a maze-like labyrinthine pattern. Image sourced from Wikipedia. The Romans considered the swastika to be a symbol of good luck. This floor was constructed sometime between 139 B.C.E. – 465 C.E., approximately 1,500-2,000 years before the swastika later gained its grim 20th century association. I’m not sure if this was the specific mosaic floor that inspired the design of the Cawdor Maze. However, I thought that of all of the different mosaic floors excavated in Conímbriga, this one looks the most maze-like. The Cawdor Maze does not contain any swastikas.

A statue of a Minotaur, created by American-born sculptor Gregory Ryan, was placed in the heart of the Cawdor Maze in 2015. At the time of our visit in June 2016, the maze was still closed to the public as it was considered too fragile for foot traffic (or, at least, this is the official story—they might have just been keeping us safe from the threat of the Minotaur’s wrath).

View of the Minotaur watching over Cawdor Castle from the heart of the maze.
Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Aerial view of the Cawdor Minotaur in the maze. Image sourced from YouTube.

The maze is surrounded on three sides by a span of Laburnum trees, which form a golden arched canopy from late May until early June when they are in bloom.

View of blooming Laburnum trees beside the Cawdor Maze in the Walled Garden. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Aerial view of the maze showing the Laburnum trees lining three of its sides. Image sourced from Youtube.

Behind the Cawdor Maze lies the Knot Garden, which was once the site of an older parterre where various plants were grown for medicinal and/or culinary purposes. The current garden continues this tradition of having formal beds grown in a symmetrical pattern, and features plants such as rosemary, sage, and lemon balm. The centre of the garden contains a group of box hedges of thyme and dianthus that form a seven-point star. The sculpture located inside that star is Adam and Eve Driven From Paradise by French sculptor George Jaclos.

Aerial view of the Knot Garden. Image sourced from YouTube.
Close-up of the statue, Adam and Eve Driven From Paradise, located in the Knot Garden. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the Knot Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
View of the Knot Garden. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Flowers in the Knot Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Flowers in the Knot Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

I really loved the dark pink flowers shown in the picture below. They are Astrantia Major, known as “Great Masterwort,” of the ruby cloud variation.

Astrantia Major flowers in the Knot Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Astrantia Major flowers in the Knot Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The Paradise Garden is located behind the Knot Garden. It is deliberately hard to find, concealed behind a circular yew hedge with only one narrow entrance. The garden is filled with fragrant white flowers, and was designed in 1990 to be a representation of “heaven on earth.” A tall bronze fountain is located in the centre.

Aerial view of the Knot Garden and the Paradise Garden. Image sourced from Youtube.
Neil standing behind the Bronze Fountain in the Paradise Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The remaining area within the Walled Garden, located to the west of the Paradise and Knot Gardens (shown below), contains an orchard of apple, pear, and plum trees that were planted in 1983-1984.

Aerial view of the orchard, the Paradise Garden, and the Knot Garden. Image sourced from YouTube.

The next garden on our list is the Flower Garden, which is located south of the castle. It was laid out from 1710-1725 by Sir Archibald Campbell, who spent time in the French cities of Poitiers, Blois, and Paris studying law and fencing. As a result, there is some French influence behind the garden’s formal design. Remarkably, some of the original fruit trees and clipped yew hedges are still present in the garden, still alive more than 300 years after they were first planted.

Aerial view of the Flower Garden. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of part of the Flower Garden on the south side of Cawdor Castle. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Roses growing on the south wing of Cawdor Castle. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Garden beds in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The Flower Garden was my favourite part of Cawdor Castle. Please bear with me, as I have a lot of photos to share of it! I was most excited to see the garden’s collection of Blue Himalayan Poppies. These flowers are incredibly beautiful, but they are also notoriously difficult to grow. Even expert gardeners find them challenging!

Blue Himalayan Poppies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Blue Himalayan Poppies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

I fell in love with the flower tunnel shown below. The sun was hitting the Welsh poppies perfectly, lighting them in a way that made their gold and green colours look especially bright and rich.

A flower tunnel of Welsh poppies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
A flower tunnel of Welsh poppies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
A flower tunnel of Welsh poppies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
A flower tunnel of Welsh poppies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The Flower Gardens also contained Astrantia Major flowers. I love their shape and colour!

Astrantia Major flowers in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Astrantia Major flowers in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

At the southern end of the Flower Garden lies the Slate Garden, in which the Cawdor Sphere (shown below) can be found. The sphere was made by Scottish artist James Parker, who reused old slate tiles from the roof of Cawdor Castle when it was redone in 2009. The sphere is representative of the sun, the foundation of all life. Water bubbles up from the centre of the sphere, and then cascades down along the edges of the slate tiles. The water then pools into a large lead bowl, which was also made using material from the castle’s old roof.

Neil and the Cawdor Sphere in the Slate Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Here are a few photos of other flowers growing throughout the Flower Garden.

Purple flowers in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Red poppy in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
White flowers in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
View of blue thistle in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Purple flowers in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Little pink daisies in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Purple flowers in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Pink daisies and lupine in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Purple lupine in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Purple lupine in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Magenta lupine in the Flower Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

To the west of Cawdor Castle lies the Cawdor Burn, a small stream that connects to the River Nairn around 1.1 kms (0.7 miles) further north. Surrounding the stream is an extensive woodland of 750 acres, known as the Big Wood, that was planted on this part of the estate property in the latter half of the 18th century. The many varieties of trees found here include Birch, Aspen, Rowan, Wych Elm, Holly, Juniper, Scots Pine, Oak, and Beech. These trees are host to over 131 varieties of lichen, including several extremely rare varieties, due to an abundance of clean air and low rainfall in the area. Bluebells, chickweed, great wood-rush, honeysuckle, ferns, and mosses blanket the forest floor. The Big Wood contains five nature trails varying in length from 1.2 kms (0.75 miles) to 8 kms (5 miles).

Photo taken while walking in the Big Wood. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Within the Big Wood there is another garden, the Wild Garden, which adorns the steep bank between the castle and the stream below. A door in the Flower Garden opens westward into the Wild Garden and the Big Wood. The Wild Garden was planted in the 1960s and features an informal collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, daffodils, primrose, bamboo, and willow. If you look carefully, you may also spot some rare Tibetan plant species that were planted here by John Campbell, the 5th Earl of Cawdor. The flowers in this garden are permitted to grow in a more wild and natural manner, which provides an interesting contrast to the formal structure of the other gardens that surround the castle.

Primrose in the Wild Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Orange primrose in the Wild Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Primrose in the Wild Garden. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Aerial view of the door in the Flower Garden that opens into the Wild Garden and the Big Wood. Image sourced from Youtube.

With the tour of the gardens complete, we’ll now step inside Cawdor Castle to view its rooms. As Cawdor Castle is still a private residence, only part of it is open to the public for six months a year (April through October). Visitors are welcome to explore two floors of the central tower, as well as two floors in the north and west wings.

View of Cawdor Castle from the east. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

It’s been awhile since Neil and I explored Cawdor Castle, so I’m not 100% sure about the order in which we saw the rooms. Nor am I certain about which wing and floor some of the rooms are located. I’ve tried to piece it together the best that I can. I will make a note of anything I’m unclear about. For instance, the picture below shows a heraldic panel that is located above the entrance to either the west or the north wing. It contains the arms and initials of Sir Hugh Campbell and his wife Lady Henrietta Stuart; Hugh oversaw a lot of the expansion and rebuilding of Cawdor Castle in the 17th century. The panel contains a date, the year 1672, and the motto of Clan Campbell of Cawdor: “Be Mindfull [sic].”

Heraldic panel featuring the coat of arms of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The first room we’ll visit is the Drawing Room, which is located in the west wing of the castle on the ground floor. When the west wing was first built in the 16th century, this room served as the Great Hall. It has since been frequently remodelled. Highlights of the room include its wooden beam ceiling and a fireplace, added in 1684, that is embellished with the Calder family emblems of a stag’s head and buckle. The back of the room contains a minstrel’s gallery which, sadly, I failed to photograph. The walls are decorated with family portraits that were painted by famous artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Francis Cotes, Sir William Beechey, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. A painting of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor, by Sir Joshua Reynolds can be seen on the right in the photo below.

The Drawing Room of Cawdor Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Close-up of the fireplace in the Drawing Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Drawing Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The Drawing Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The Drawing Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Room 2, the Tapestry Bedroom, is located immediately above the Drawing Room on the first floor of the west wing. This room was added to the castle as part of its expansion in the 17th century. The four-poster bed was the marriage bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart, who were married in 1662. The gilded and silvered Venetian headboard is the original.

The Tapestry Bedroom. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Flemish tapestries, purchased in 1682, are woven from a mix of wool and silk. They were made specifically to fit this room, and they feature scenes from Biblical stories. The tapestry to the left of the bed depicts Noah and his family sacrificing a lamb before the flood. The tapestry in the photo below shows Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The room also contains a Louis XV marquetry writing desk and a Gothic Windsor chair made of yew and elm, which dates to around 1760.

The Tapestry Bedroom. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Tapestry Bedroom. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The marriage bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The marriage bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Room 3, the Yellow Sitting Room, is located beside the Tapestry Bedroom. This room features family portraits, landscape paintings, and 18th century water colours.

The Yellow Sitting Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The large portrait featured in the room is of John Campbell, the 2nd Earl Cawdor (1817-1898), by Frederick Say.

The Yellow Sitting Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The pastel drawings in the corner are of John Campbell, 8th Thane of Cawdor (1695-1777), and his wife Mary. The large landscape painting is attributed to Aelbert Cuyp from around 1640. 

The Yellow Sitting Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

I believe that Room 4, the Woodcock Room, moves our tour of Cawdor Castle into the north wing on the first floor. This room was added to the castle in the 1670s. It served first as a sitting room, then as a dining room, and was later divided into two bedrooms. It gets its name from the painting of a game bird found above the central door. The room features a Sheraton four-poster that was the marriage bed of Lady Caroline Campbell of Cawdor, whose portrait is situated overtop the mantelpiece.

The Woodcock Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
A corner in the Woodcock Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Lady Caroline Campbell’s marriage bed. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
View of a desk or dressing table in the Woodcock Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Room 5, the Pink Bedroom, contains a pair of mahogany four-poster Chippendale beds. The tapestry, which dates to around 1680, depicts a scene from Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.

The Pink Bedroom. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Room 6, the Pink Dressing Room, features a modern reproduction of an original bedspread that was made in India around 1725.

The Pink Dressing Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Tartan Passage is a 19th century addition that links the west wing of Cawdor Castle with the central tower house.

The Tartan Passage. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Our tour will now move into the oldest part of Cawdor Castle, its medieval tower house. We’ll begin with Room 7, the Tower Room, which is located on the first floor. The Flemish tapestries in the room date to around 1630. The writing table is Louis XV, and the chair is an 18th century Venetian noble’s gondola seat.

The Tower Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Do you recall how, earlier in this post, I pointed out that the original entrance to the castle would have been through an arched doorway on the first floor that was later turned into a window? The Tower Room is where that entrance was located, where the middle window can now be found (shown in the photo below). A set of external wooden steps would have provided access to the castle. These steps would also have been pulled up through the doorway to prevent entry. In the photo below, note how deep the window wells are; this also indicates how thick the wall of the keep is.

The Tower Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

During building work in 1976, a trap door was discovered in this room. It opened into a chute inside the tower wall that led to a small dungeon below. Sadly, I did not see or photograph this trap door during our visit. Keep your eye out for it if you have the opportunity to visit Cawdor Castle in the future!

The Tower Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

A spiral staircase will lead you down a level to Room 8, the Thorn Room, which is located on the ground floor of the tower house. We briefly visited this room earlier in the post when I was discussing the history of Cawdor Castle. This is where the remains of the old holly tree can be found.

Staircase leading downstairs to the Thorn Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

On your way into the Thorn Room you’ll come across an iron gate, known as a yett11, at the room’s entrance. This yett was brought to Cawdor Castle by William Calder, the 6th Thane of Cawdor, from nearby Lochindorb Castle sometime after 1457. William had been given orders by King James II to dismantle Lochindorb Castle after its owner, Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Moray, was killed fighting the king’s forces at the Battle of Arkinholm on May 1, 1455.

View of an old iron yett and a cannon at the entrance to the Thorn Room. Photo sourced from Wikipedia.

As previously mentioned, legend has it that the location of Cawdor Castle was determined by a donkey laden with gold who sought rest beneath this tree. In addition to providing shelter to a weary beast, this tree is reputed to have magical properties that have helped protect the castle from disaster. There may be some truth to this, as Cawdor Castle survived two assaults in 152312 and 164513 without incurring significant damage.

The remains of the holly tree in the Thorn Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In the picture below, take note for a second time on how deep the window wells are due to the thickness of the tower walls. Imagine that you were to put a person inside that window well, and then seal that space off from the rest of the room. A person could fit in there! It wouldn’t be comfortable or humane, especially for an extended period of time, but it is possible! Keep this in mind as we move to the next feature in the Thorn Room.

Window wells in the Thorn Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

In 1976, building work in the Tower Room above revealed a trap door that opened into a chute located within the thick tower wall. This chute provided the only access point below to a small pit dungeon that was located behind one of the walls in the Thorn Room. In the photo below, a small opening in the wall offers a look (between a couple of iron bars) into this narrow space. A pair of mirrors are used to show the corners of the dungeon. In addition to a prison, this space could also have been used as a hideout for women and children. In 1819, there was a fire in the central tower house that caused a lot of damage. During repair work, the dungeon was sealed off and the trap door covered up, presumably because the family had no further need of it. Imagine how thrilling it must have been for them to rediscover this long-forgotten space, 157 years later!

View of the Small Dungeon, located within a wall of the Thorn Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

All right, we’ll now go back upstairs in order to walk through the last few rooms on this tour.

Stairwell located outside of the Thorn Room. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The Front Staircase features a display of French flintlock muzzle-loading muskets. These guns were seized by Lord John Campbell, the 1st Baron Cawdor, from the soldiers of an invading French army whose surrender he had boldly secured during the War of the First Coalition. On February 22, 1797 an invasion force of 1,400 troops from the French Revolutionary army landed near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The French were being led by Irish-American Commander William Tate (meanwhile, Commander Napoleon Bonaparte was fighting in Italy). Lord Cawdor was serving as Captain of the Castlemartin troop of the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry, a regiment of the British army, and he was stationed 50 kms (31 miles) south at his Pembrokeshire estate. Lord Cawdor quickly assembled a group of 500 Welsh reservists, militia, and sailors. He was joined by several other companies of infantry volunteers, militia, and locals who took up arms as he moved north. Lord Cawdor was given full authority and command over the 900-strong defensive force. They reached Fishguard by 5:00 pm on February 23. He considered mounting an attack, but called it off at the last minute. Later that evening, two French officers approached Lord Cawdor at his headquarters with an offer of conditional surrender. Lord Cawdor insisted that, as he had the superior force (he didn’t, this was a bluff), he would only accept an unconditional surrender. This nervy tactic worked, as Commander Tate accepted the ultimatum the very next day. At 2:00 pm on February 24, the French surrendered and turned over their weapons, some of which were these guns. And so Lord Cawdor had overseen the surrender of the last hostile foreign force to invade mainland Britain.

A display of captured French guns adorn one of the walls of the Front Staircase. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

There is a beautifully carved wooden chest in the Front Staircase as well, dated to 1876. It features several elaborate carvings related to the Calder/Cawdor family, including a stag’s head and the motto, “Be Mindful.”

View of a wooden chest located in the Front Staircase. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

I think that Room 9, the Dining Room, is located on the first floor of the north wing. But this is honestly just a guess, as I do not remember and haven’t been able to source a conclusive answer. The plaster ceiling is late Victorian and the tapestries are Louis XIV.

The Dining Room of Cawdor Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The extendable dining table can seat up to 24 people. It is set with china, glassware, and silver candlesticks.

View of a dining table located in the Dining Room of Cawdor Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The highlight of the Dining Room is the fireplace, which has a stone mantelpiece that commemorates the marriage of Muriel Calder and Sir John Campbell of Argyll in 1510. The translation of the inscription, which is in dog Latin, is uncertain. It may read, “in the morning, remember your creators” or “if you stay too long in the evening, you will remember it in the morning.” On April 13, 1671 the stone used in the mantelpiece was carried into the castle. It was so heavy that it caused the drawbridge to collapse, taking 24 men with it, including Sir Hugh Campbell! One man was killed, another broke his leg, and the stone cracked into two separate pieces.

The fireplace in the Dining Room. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Room 10, the Old Kitchen, is the last room on our tour. I believe it is located on the ground floor of the north wing but, again, this is merely a guess. (If you know, please leave me a comment!). This kitchen was in use from 1640-1938. On display are a range of cooking tools that were used during this period including an old ice box, earthenware jugs, brass pots, and more.

The Old Kitchen of Cawdor Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Old Kitchen of Cawdor Castle. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
A close-up of various cooking implements on display in the Old Kitchen. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The kitchen contains a well that was dug straight into the red sandstone rock on which the castle was built.

View of the well located in the Old Kitchen. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The cooking range is from the 19th century.

View of a 19th century cooking range located in the Old Kitchen. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

That’s it for Cawdor Castle! Thank you for reading!


1 Common Brittonic is also known as Old Brittonic, Old British, Common Brittonic, and Old Brythonic. It was spoken throughout Britain from the 6th century B.C.E until the mid-6th century C.E., at which point it split into various Neo-Brittanic languages such as Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton, and Pictish. The modern Welsh word for hard is caled.

2 Settlement in this area dates back to the 1st century C.E., with archaeological evidence pointing to the construction of a Roman fort around the time of Agricola’s invasion of Caledonia (as Scotland was then known) in 81 C.E. A site at Easter Galcantray, 5 kms (3 miles) southwest of Cawdor, was excavated from 1984-1988. A piece of Roman pottery was found, as well as a burnt piece of charcoal that was radiocarbon-dated to 80-130 C.E.

3 There is so little known about Macbeth (for instance, did he even have brothers?) that it is impossible to know whether the Calder family is or isn’t descended from one of his siblings. It’s possible that the story of this possible lineage was a later fabrication meant to solidify the family’s literary connection with Shakespeare’s play. Although, to be fair, not everyone in the family seems to welcome the attention: John Campbell, the 5th Earl Cawdor (lived 1900-1970), is quoted on the Cawdor Castle’s website as saying: “I wish the Bard had never written his damn play!”.

4 In medieval eastern Scotland, Thane was a title given to a local royal official (often the chief of a clan) who administered an area of land (known as a thanedom) on behalf of a Scottish king. A thane’s ranking was equivalent to that of an earl’s son. In later centuries, the Scottish word thane was replaced by the English word baron.  

5 According to this second story, Hugo’s son, Gilbertus de Cadella, was then granted the lands of Calder in the county of Nairn by Malcolm III’s son, King Edgar (reigned 1097-1107) in 1104.

6 John Calder, the 8th Thane of Cawdor, died in 1498. His only heir was a daughter, Muriel, who was born after his death. As a result, the Calder family was put in a vulnerable position as it only had an infant girl at its head. Whoever had control of Muriel would also have control of the Calder/Cawdor title, lands, and wealth. This was an opportunity too good for Archibald Campbell, the 2nd Earl of Argyll, to pass up. He had Muriel kidnapped and taken to Inverary Castle. When she turned 12, she was married to Archibald’s son, Sir John Campbell. In spite of this somewhat tumultuous beginning, the marriage was surprisingly successful. More than 500 years later, Cawdor Castle is still owned by members of this Calder-Campbell family line.

7 The tower-house could have been built by three different Thanes of Cawdor: the first possibility is Andrew Calder, the 4th Thane of Cawdor, who was born around 1345 and was murdered in 1405; the second is Andrew’s son Donald Calder, the 5th Thane of Cawdor, who lived from 1378-1442; the third is William Calder, the 6th Thane of Cawdor, who lived from 1400-1468. The Cawdor Castle website doesn’t say which one it is, while one Wikipedia page claims it was William. I’m inclined to think it might have been Donald, based on the approximate dates of the holly tree (1372) and the castle’s earliest stonework (1380). I also think it’s possible that his father’s murder in 1405 could have inspired him to build a stronger home to protect his family.

8 The Cawdor tower house would have had a court yard, which would have contained smaller domestic buildings and a great hall. The courtyard and its buildings would have been protected by a barmkin wall, which is the Scottish word for a medieval enclosure found around smaller castles and tower houses in Scotland and northern England (also referred to as a barmekin or barnekin wall). I tracked down a 3-D image, shown below, of what the barmkin wall of Fourmerkland Tower would have looked like. The Fourmerkland Tower, built around 1590, is located in the southeast of Scotland, 11 kms (7.3 miles) northeast of Dumfries; it is currently unoccupied.

A 3-D model of Fourmerkland Tower, built in 1590, with a reconstruction of its barmkin wall. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Below is a contemporary photo of Fourmerkland Tower.

View of Fourmerkland Tower from the east. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The photo below shows Smailholm Tower with the ruins of its barmkin wall. The tower, built in the late-15th or early-16th century, is located in the Scottish Borders region, about 64 kms (40 miles) southeast of Edinburgh.

Smailholm Tower. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

9 Shakespeare, like many writers who preceded and succeeded him, found creative inspiration in work that had been written and compiled by others. History chronicles were a rich source of material for him, especially for his history plays. He would often take an idea and make it his own, even if that meant departing from the truth of the historical record (and, to be fair, he wasn’t alone in doing so).

The historical record itself doesn’t have a lot of information about the real Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findláech in medieval Gaelic), especially his early life. He was the son of Findláech of Moray, and possibly a grandson of Malcolm II (reigned 1005-1034) through his mother, Donada. Findláech was a regional king or lord, known as a Mormaer, who was either equal or second in standing to the title “King of Scots” (it’s unclear which). Findláech ruled Moray, a semi-autonomous region centered around Inverness, for some time before 1014 until his death in 1020. Findláech was murdered, possibly by his successor, his nephew Gille Coemgáin. In 1032, Gille Coemgáin was burned to death, along with 50 of his men. No perpetrators are mentioned, but it might have been his cousin, Macbeth, who became the next Mormaer of Moray. Macbeth was also reputed to have married Coemgáin’s widow, Gruoch, and fostered Coemgáin’s and Gruoch’s son, Lulach.

In the meantime, Malcolm II was reigning as King of the Scots. He was one of several kings ruling within the geographical boundaries of modern Scotland—his nearest and most dangerous rival was Findláech, the Mormaer of Moray. Malcolm II had no sons, but he may have married his second eldest daughter, Donada, to Findláech, which is how Macbeth became his grandson. Malcolm II died in 1034, and was succeeded by a different grandson, Duncan I.

Duncan I was the son of Malcolm II’s eldest daughter, Bethóc. His cousin, Macbeth, served him as a Duke and war leader. In 1039, Duncan I and Macbeth led the Scots army on a campaign to besiege Durham that ended disastrously. As a result, there was bad blood between the two. In 1040, Duncan I went on a punitive expedition into Macbeth’s territory of Moray. Duncan I was killed in action by Macbeth’s men, and Macbeth succeeded him as King of Scots. Shakespeare depicted Duncan I as an old man at the time of his death, but the real king was only 39 years old. Duncan I was also killed in battle, rather than personally murdered by Macbeth in his sleep.

Macbeth’s reign was relatively peaceful until 1054, when the Earl of Northumbria, Siward (also called Sigard), invaded Scotland. On August 15, 1057, Macbeth was killed in battle by the future Malcolm III, son of Duncan I. Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, succeeded him as King of the Scots for a short time until he was assassinated and succeeded by Malcolm III in March 1058.

10 In medieval European society, monks were one of the educated few who had the privilege of literacy. As a result, they were the ones who recorded the political and historical activities of their respective countries. Andrew of Wyntoun (lived circa 1350-1425) was one of these religious men, later becoming a canon of St. Andrews, as well as a poet. He wrote the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, which was a history of Scotland from the beginning of the world to the accession of King James I in 1406. Andrew’s account was a mix of fact, fable, and legend. It is in the Cronykil that the tale of Macbeth meeting the three witches is first told, but here the encounter takes place in a dream. The titles that the witches greet Macbeth with are the “Thane of Cromarty,” the “Thane of Moray,” and “King.” Although the dream sequence was pure invention, at least the title “The Thane of Moray” would have been more historically accurate than the “Thane of Cawdor”, as Moray was the region in which Macbeth and his father lived and reigned.

It was a later Scottish historian, Hector Boece (also spelled Boyce, Boise; known in Latin as Boecius or Boethius; lived 1465-1536) who changed the titles to the “Thane of Glamis” and the “Thane of Cawdor” in his 1527 history of the Scottish people, Historia Gentus Scotorum. Boece also changed several other aspects of Macbeth’s story, such as inventing the character of Banquo, the Thane of Lochaber. This new account served to malign Macbeth while flattering the Stuart lineage of King James IV, who was Boece’s patron. This version of the story later appeared in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which was first published in 1577. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from the revised second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicle, published in 1587, as did many other Renaissance writers such as Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser. In addition to The Tragedy of Macbeth, Holinshed’s Chronicle inspired Shakespeare in his writing of King Lear and Cymbeline.

11 Yett comes from the Old English and Scots word for gate. It is a gate or grille of latticed wrought iron bars used for defensive purposes in castles and tower houses. Unlike a portcullis, which is raised and lowered vertically using mechanical means, yetts are hinged in the traditional manner of a gate or door. They are predominantly found in Scotland, where most towers were equipped with them rather than portcullises.    

Old photo of the Thorn Room in Cawdor Castle, featuring the thorn tree and the iron yett at the entrance. Registered with Valentines of Dundee, 1878. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

12 Recall that Muriel Calder had been kidnapped and forced to marry Sir John Campbell of Argyll in 1510. Sir John had a sister, Catherine, who married Lachlan Cattanach Maclean of Duart Castle in 1520. When the couple failed to produce any children, Lachlan blamed his wife and tried to kill her by stranding her on a tidal rock. She was rescued, and Lachlan was later found stabbed in Edinburgh on November 10, 1523. It was widely believed that Sir John orchestrated the murder. Muriel and Sir John had been living in Argyll but, in the aftermath of this crime, decided to move further north. This threatened Muriel’s four Calder uncles, who were determined to prevent a Campbell takeover of Cawdor. They besieged the castle, with Sir John and Muriel inside. But the castle held, and after two of the uncles were killed, the Calder uncles withdrew.

13 The Battle of Auldearn, which took place on May 9, 1645, was fought only 10 kms (6.5 miles) from Cawdor Castle. The Scottish Royalist force was victorious over the troops fighting for the Covenanter-dominated Scottish government. Afterwards, the Royalists decided to attack Cawdor Castle because the Campbells of Cawdor had well-known Presbyterian sympathies. Cawdor Castle successfully withstood the assault.

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