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Issue 36 - The world loves a thane

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The world loves a thane

Charles Douglas visits Cawdor Castle in Nairn, magnificent home of the Thanes of Cawdor.

This castle has a pleasant seat; the air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses.” So wrote William Shakespeare in what has come to be known as The Scottish Play.

And what better promotional source could one have for a visitor attraction? In some ways, however, the overtly dramatised associations of Cawdor Castle with the 11th century Scottish king, Macbeth, have proved a mixed blessing for its owners over the centuries.

Shakespeare’s play, while resonating with intrigue and supernatural fantasy, is strictly fictional, and Cawdor Castle in itself has an equally compelling history.

The fortress we see today dates from the late 14th century, and built as for the hereditary thanes of Calder or Cawdor.

Spelling was never considered particularly important in those days.

The legend goes that the Thane of the period occupied a smaller castle nearby but, after a dream, decided that he needed a stronger stronghold to exercise his authority. Following the sequence of his dream, therefore, he loaded a coffer of gold onto the back of a donkey and released it, allowing it to wander around the locality. At the end of the day, wherever the beast lay down to rest was where the new castle was to be built and, according to the dream, the family would prosper thereafter. That night, the donkey took shelter under a thorn tree. The stump of this tree, although it has since been identified as holly not thorn, is incorporated to this day in the ground floor guardroom of the tower that was built on the spot.

The first written confirmation of Cawdor Castle’s existence, however, is in a letter from James II dated 6th August 1454 in which he grants permission for William, Lord of Cawdor to fortify and crenellate his property. Scotland in the middle ages was a volatile land and strong defenses were a necessity.

As was proved in the following century, when Muriel, the 12-year-old Calder heiress, was kidnapped by the Campbells of Argyll, who were intent upon expanding their territories into the east of Scotland. In 1510, Muriel was betrothed to Sir John Campbell, third son of the 2nd Earl of Argyll, but despite the circumstances, the union appears to have worked and when she died in 1575, she settled her Cawdor estate and titles on her grandson, John.

This Sir John also married strategically, his wife being Mary Keith, a daughter of the powerful Earl Marischal and a younger sister of Agnes Keith, the wife of the Regent Moray. After the Regent Moray’s assassination in 1592, Agnes married Colin, 6th Earl of Argyll, Chancellor of Scotland and, following his death, his brother-in-law Sir John Campbell of Cawdor was made guardian of the young 7th Earl of Argyll.

This was a Scotland in which murders and assassinations were everyday occurrences and, in 1591, Sir John himself fell victim to a conspiracy hatched by his fellow guardians led by Campbell of Ardkinglas. The Campbell of Cawdor line, however, survived, Sir John’s son, another Sir John, later married a daughter of Campbell of Glenorchy.

In 1689, Sir Alexander Campbell of Cawdor married Elizabeth, sister and heiress of Sir Gilbert Lort of Stackpole Court, Pembrokeshire. Thereafter, the family took up residence in Wales, an absence which was compounded when Sir Alexander’s son married the eldest daughter and co-heiress of Lewis Pryse of Gogirthen in Wales.

In 1790, John Campbell, who was member of parliament for Cardigan, was created Lord Cawdor of Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire. In 1827, his son became 1st Earl of Cawdor. It was the 5th Earl of Cawdor, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Cameron Highlanders during the Second World War, who once again made Cawdor Castle his family home.

Chairman of the Scottish Historic Buildings Council and a trustee of the National Museum of Antiquities, he died in 1970. Cawdor Castle today is the home of the Dowager Countess Cawdor and, not surprisingly, has become a significant visitor attraction in the north east of Scotland.

The Great Hall of Cawdor Castle dates from the 16th century, possibly earlier. The fireplace in this room dates from 1684 and is embellished with the Calder coat-of-arms, which features a stag’s head and buckle.

Overlooked by a minster’s gallery, the space contains a fine collection of portraits, notably Lady Alice Egerton, by Sir Peter Lely; Lady Emma Hamilton by George Romney; Lady Caroline Campbell, daughter of the 5th Earl of Carlisle, by Sir William Beechey; Rear Admiral Sir George Campbell, by Sir William Beechey. John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor and 19th Thane, was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1778, and is shown wearing an Italian fur-lined vermillion coat.

Above the Great Hall is the Tapestry Bedroom, so called for the Flemish tapestries which are its major feature. These are of a type once known as arras hangings, woven from wool and silk. The panels were ordered from Oudenaarde (now in Belgium) to fit out the room, and are hung directly over the unplastered stone walls for warmth.

The four-poster was the marriage-bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart (Lord Moray’s sister) whose wedding took place nearby at the neighbouring Darnaway Castle in 1662. The gilded and silvered Venetian headboard is original. Until recently, the bed was dressed in the bleached and tattered remnants of the old materials, which were far beyond repair and getting beyond a joke. The style of the restoration was guided by an inventory entered by Lady Henrietta in her personal housekeeping notebook, while spring-cleaning in April 1688.

Other rooms of interest include the dining Rroom and old kitchen. In the dining room. the mantelpiece commemorates the marriage between Sir John Campbell of Argyll and Muriel Calder of Cawdor. The silver plates feature the Cawdor coat of arms, and the silver centre-piece is an 18th century Portuguese shaving bowl. The old kitchen, with its well dug into the rock on which the castle was constructed, was in use until 1938 and remains a culinary time capsule of the past.

On this Moray Firth coastline with its docile micro-climate, Cawdor Castle does indeed have a pleasant seat. Outside the castle walls there are three delightful gardens to explore: a walled garden dating from the 16th century and which combines flowers and vegetables with an orchard; a flower garden laid out around 1710, and a wild garden with azaleas and rhododendrons set amongst tall old trees beside the Cawdor Burn. There is also a maze.

With three shops, one selling wool, a second, gifts, and a third, books, a 70-cover restaurant, a snack bar and a nine-hole golf course, Cawdor Castle is a place to return to again and again. In September 2008, the castle will host its third organic food and environmental festival entitled Living Food at Cawdor Castle.

Another popular feature is the open air theatre which on 15th June 2008 presents the Illyria Theatre Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. On 26th July 2008, the Garden Gate Opera Company will perform Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti.

One caution, however. If you are expecting to encounter three old hags with a cauldron, you are likely to be disappointed. All the same, Scotland is full of surprises, so you never know!

Cawdor Castle, Nairn, Scotland IV12 5RD
Tel: +44 (0)1667 404401
Fax: +44 (0)1667 404 674
Cawdor Castle is open seven days a week from 1st May 2008 until 12th October 2008. Entry £7.90;
grounds only: £4.00. Car and coach parking is free. Wheel chair access is limited.