Cawdor castle lies amongst extensive gardens some 10 miles east of Inverness.  The castle is best known for its literary connection to William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, in which the title character is made thane of Cawdor.  The historical King Macbeth ruled Scotland from 1040 to 1057 and may have died near Lumphanan castle, but he was never thane of Cawdor.  This title was an invention of the fifteenth century writer Hector Boece.  Indeed the fifth Earl Cawdor is quoted as saying, "I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!"

Despite the claim to fame generated by Macbeth, the earliest documented reference to the castle is 1454, the date of the licence to fortify granted to William Calder:

to erect his castle of Cawdor and fortify it with walls and ditches and equip the same with turrets and means of defence.

That said, architectural historians have dated the style of stonework in the oldest portion of the castle to approximately 1380 and ‘Calder castle' is mentioned in 1398.  Even this date seems slightly too late for the early castle.  This consisted of a towerhouse that was built around a small, living holly tree, the remains of which can still be seen in the lowest level of the tower.  Modern radio-carbon dating has shown that the tree died 'in approximately 1372', although such dating methods are notoriously inaccurate.  If this is correct it suggests that the tower (whose construction would have killed the tree) was built before this date, probably in the time of King David II (1329-71), the man who built the great tower of Edinburgh castle.

In 1455/7 an iron yett was brought from nearby Lochindorb castle on the orders of King James II (1437-60).  In 1510 the heiress of the Calders, Muriel, married John Campbell of Muckairn, who further extended the castle.  By 1635 a garden had been added and after the Restoration, Hugh Campbell of Cawdor added or improved the north and west ranges.  During the nineteenth century the south and east ranges were added to make a courtyard accessed by a drawbridge.

The heart of the current ‘castle' is the great tower, some 45' by 35' and 70' high.  This is a typical towerhouse containing garderobes and small bedrooms in the thickness of its massive walls.  It was originally entered on the first floor via a doorway now converted into a window.  From here the vaulted basement was reached via a mural stair in conventional manner.  The foot of the stair is still guarded by the much older yett supposedly taken from Lochindorb castle.  Beneath again was a prison pit with its own garderobe.  Access from the first floor upwards was by the traditional spiral stair towards the north-east corner.  The tower summit is capped by bartizans at the angles and the typical Scottish gabled roof that rises above the battlements.

In front of the keep is the upper court, still protected by an ancient and still functional drawbridge.  Possibly this dates back to 1455, but more likely it is sixteenth century.  The surrounding ranges date from this date and much later.

Why not join me at Cawdor and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry