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Cawdor Castle - Nairnshire, Scotland

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Cawdor Castle:

Image - Geograph © Copyright G Laird and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Historic Building of Nairnshire, Scotland

  • Type of Building: The castle is a category A listed building
  • Condition:
  • Location: 10 miles east of Inverness and 5 miles southwest of Nairn.
  • Coordinates: 57.5243°N 3.9264°W
  • When Built: Probably about 1370
  • Built for/by: Probably William, 3rd Thane of Cawdor
  • Owned by: Still home to the Cawdor family, home to the Dowager Countess Cawdor, stepmother of Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor.
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Cawdor Castle is connected with the Thanes of Cawdor. The ancient title of Thane, roughly equivalent to "Baron", was once common across Scotland around 1180. William I of Scotland appointed the first Thane of Cawdor (or Calder) to be Sheriff and Hereditary Constable of the royal castle at Nairn. Later Thanes moved their residence to a small castle at Old Calder, about a mile and a half north east of modern Cawdor on a site defended by marshy land.

In 1310 William, 2nd Thane, had his title confirmed by Robert the Bruce in return for an annual levy of £8. The seems to have fallen out of use in about 1400 and no trace of it remains.

William, 3rd Thane of Cawdor, is the most likely to have built a replacement castle on a less marshy site than its predecessor. Legend has it that in about 1370 he set out to locate the site for a new castle. Following instructions received in a dream he loaded panniers of gold on the back of a donkey, which he then followed as it roamed across his lands for a day. When evening came the donkey lay to rest under a tree on a higher and more rocky site close to the steep-sided valley of the Allt Dearg., which was where William built his castle - a four storey tower house surrounded by a courtyard which was defended by an outer barmkin wall. The courtyard would have been occupied by a series of domestic buildings and a great hall. When the castle was built is debatable.

The earliest documentation is a "license to crenellate" issued by King James II to William, 6th Thane of Cawdor, in 1454. Some view this as the date at which the castle was built. It is perhaps more likely that this licence was issued either to regularise an existing castle, or to allow its defences to be improved: there is evidence that some of the defensive structures around the top of the central tower were built some time after the tower itself.

One curious feature of the castle is that it was built around a small, living holly tree. Tradition states that a donkey, laden with gold, lay down to rest under this tree, which was then selected as the site of the castle. The remains of the tree may still be seen in the lowest level of the tower. Modern scientific testing has shown that the tree died in approximately 1372, supporting the earlier date of the castle's first construction.

William, the 7th Thane, married Margaret Sutherland of Dunbeath Castle, increasing the family's influence. John, 8th Thane of Cawdor, died young in 1498, leaving his daughter Muriel Calder of Cawder, (who was born after his death), as his heir.

Muriel was kidnapped on the orders of Archibald Campbell, 2nd Earl of Argyll and taken to Inveraray Castle. When she reached the age of 12 in 1510 she was married to Archibald Campbell's younger son, Sir John Campbell. The outcome of this union was a successful marriage, and the start of the line which has led directly to the current Campbells of Cawdor. Muriel was the only Thaness of Cawdor, and she lived with her husband in the Campbell heartland of Argyll until 1523 when events forced them to move north.

Lachlan Cattanach Maclean of Duart Castle had married Sir John Campbell's sister Catherine in about 1520 and, after blaming her for their inability to have children, tried to kill her by stranding her on a tidal rock. She was rescued and Lachlan Cattanach was found stabbed in Edinburgh on 10 November 1523. Sir John Campbell was widely believed to have committed the murder in revenge for the attempt on his sister's life.

Sir John and Lady Muriel took up residence at Cawdor Castle subsequently, where Muriel's four uncles were determined to prevent a Campbell takeover of Cawdor. The uncles and their followers besieged the castle, but withdrew after two of them were killed.

Sir John Campbell later added the Barony of Strathnairne to his other holdings. Following generations of Thanes of Cawdor became a junior branch of the Campbells of Argyll.

Sir John Campbell, 11th Thane of Cawdor spent a considerable amount of time at Inveraray Castle as the tutor and part guardian of the young Archibald Campbell, later the 7th Earl of Argyll. This helped generate intense jealousies within Clan Campbell and on the night of 4 February 1591, Sir John was shot with a blunderbuss while staying at Knipoch House, south of Oban. This and another murder were part of a failed coup within Clan Campbell. The divisions were later covered over by a series of marriages between the younger generation of the different branches of Clan Campbell.

The 12th Thane of Cawdor, another Sir John Campbell, purchased the Isle of Islay from the MacDonalds in 1612, supported by the troops and warships of King James VI to take possession of it in 1615. Sir John found his new acquisition was a huge drain on the family finances. Despite his financial difficulties, Sir John was able to extensively renovate Cawdor Castle over the following four years. He also funded the building of nearby Cawdor Church in the village of Cawdor.

In 1645 a Royalist army under the command of James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, defeated a Presbyterian Covenanter army at the Battle of Auldearn, six miles from Cawdor. They attacked Cawdor Castle because of the Thane's well known Presbyterian sympathies. The castle survived undamaged.

Sir Hugh Campbell, 15th Thane of Cawdor, son of Sir Colin Campbell, of Ardersier, Tutor of Cawdor (c.1607-1642) succeeded to the title in 1654 and came of age in 1660. Sir Hugh had nine children and an extensive household to accommodate and between 1684 an 1702 undertook a major programme of expansion at Cawdor Castle, largely funded by the success of the family's cattle breeding tenants on Islay.

Sir Hugh died in 1716 and his successors effectively became absentee landlords of Cawdor for more than a century.

In the 1680s Sir Alexander Campbell, 16th Thane, son of Sir Hugh, became stranded in Milford Haven during a storm, where he met a local heiress, Elizabeth Lort of Stackpole Court. The two were married and afterwards the Campbells of Cawdor lived mainly on their estates in Pembrokeshire. Cawdor was home to younger brothers of the family who continued to manage the estates, building a walled flower garden in 1720, and establishing extensive woodlands in the later 18th century.

The Lort estate in Wales was duly inherited by his son John Campbell, of Cawdor 17th Thane, a Lord of the Admiralty and the Treasury. He sold the island of Islay and the family estates in Argyll, and through marriage consolidated his landholdings in Wales.

John Campbell, of Cawdor 19th Thane of Cawdor (1753-1821) was made 1st Baron Cawdor in 1796 for his political support for the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. The following year he led the local militia who captured the French forces landing at Fishguard in South Wales.

In 1827, King George IV promoted the John Frederick Campbell, 2nd Baron Cawdor (1790-1860) (and the 20th Thane) to become 1st Earl Cawdor. He and his son, John Frederick Vaughan Campbell, 21st Thane of Cawdor, 2nd Earl (1817-1898) the 2nd Earl took more interest in Cawdor Castle, and oversaw a series of repairs and expansions which, by 1884, left the Castle substantially as it is today.

The story of the Campbell Thanes of Cawdor in the 20th Century was one of military prowess. 12 members of the family fought in the wars of the first half of the century, and between them were awarded six Military Crosses, fifteen Distinguished Service Orders and three Victoria Crosses.

Shakespeare's Macbeth

Macbeth was King of Alba from 15 August 1040 to 15 August 1057. In Shakespeare's play named after him, written in 1606, Macbeth encounters three witches who hail him as "Thane of Glamis" and "Thane of Cawdor", and tell him he will "be King hereafter". The origins of this story date back 200 years before Shakespeare's time, referring to the Thanages of Cromarty and Moray. The names were changed to Glamis and Cawdor by a historian writing in 1527, apparently because they sounded better, and it was this version of the story on which Shakespeare based his play. Macbeth died 130 years before the title of Thane of Cawdor was first granted, and over 300 years before the first stone was laid at Cawdor Castle. He has no connection with any Thane of Cawdor, or with Cawdor Castle.

People Associated with Cawdor Castle

in chronological order

References and Sources

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