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Cawdor Castle, Nairn both drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. Godfrey. The image at left depicts th recastle’s entrance. Source: The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (1852). Note the people in nineteenth-century costume in the center forground and the homel;y touch of what seems to be sheets drying on a clothes line. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Commentary by the Artist

It is a matter curious, and not in itself unpleasing, that the principal places noted in the great tragedy of Macbeth should still present two remarkable baronial edifices — the huge tall isolated pile of Glammis, and the grim keep of Cawdor, surrounded by its rambling, irregular, half-fortified outworks. Their true association, however, is more with the days of Shakspeare than those of Macbeth. Perhaps some part of the great tower of Glammis may be as old as the thirteenth century, but no portion of Cawdor is older than the fifteenth ; and though its threatening drawbridge, its vaults, and its dark corridors, may aptly associate themselves with the “I have done the deed; — didst thou not hear a noise?” yet the time when they were built was more distant from the days of Macbeth on one side, than from those of Queen Victoria on the other. Indeed, had we an actual building of Macbeth's day in Scotland, it would not be invested with so much tragic gloom, nor could it so appropriately associate itself with deeds of horror; for it would probably be made of wicker ware or slight timber, and be in all respects unfit to represent the proper stage properties of a tyrant's stronghold, and the scene of a royal murder. Yet not many years ago scepticism was put to utter shame at Cawdor, by being shown the identical four-posted bed in which the murder was committed, of a fashion so old that no respectable upholsterer of the nineteenth century, even in Inverness or Forres, would have tamely submitted to the scandal of having constructed it. The room, and the bed within it, were both burned by an accidental fire in the year 1815; but it is somewhat contrary to the usual course of such traditional identifications, that a mere accident should deprive the visitor, especially the native of London, of so very interesting an exhibition ; and it may be hoped that the noble owner of the castle may yet restore the room where Duncan was murdered, and fit it up appropriately with a few tattered tartans, and a broadsword or two, from the decayed accoutrements of a Highland regiment.

Cawdor has, however, apart from its purely nominal association with Macbeth, some little mysteries of its own. In one of the dungeons stands a hawthorn tree, stretching from the floor to the roof, — an instance of the durability of that stubborn shrub, since the castle must have been built over it. So eccentric a circumstance of course elicited a tradition to account for it, which may be best described in the words of Mr Carruthers of Inverness : —

The Thane who founded the castle is said to have consulted a seer as to the site of his intended building. The wise man counselled him to load an ass with the iron chest full of the gold he had amassed to erect his castle with, and to build it wherever the ass should first halt. The ass stopped at the third hawthorn tree. The advice was followed; the castle was built round the tree, enclosing the precious stem; and here it still remains, many a generation having pledged to the toast of 'Freshness to the Hawthorn tree of Cawdor Castle.' The donjon is about ten feet in height, and the tree reaches to the top. There is no doubt that the walls must have been built around it. An old iron chest lies beside the tree, which is said to have borne the precious burden of gold. Two other ancient hawthorn trees grew within a few score yards, in a line with the castle — one in the garden, which fell about forty years since, and the other at the entrance to the castle, which was blown down after a gradual decay, in 1836. Some suckers are now springing from the venerable root, and are carefully enclosed by a wooden fence.

From the same picturesque pen, we quote the following description of part of the interior of the castle, supposed to have been built soon after the commencement of the sixteenth century, venturing on no antiquarian commentary of our own:

In one of the apartments of this new erection is a carved stone chimney-piece, containing the family arms, and several grotesque figures, — among which are a cat playing the fiddle, a monkey blowing a hom, a mermaid playing the harp, a huntsman with hounds pursuing a hare, &c. One of these rude representations is that of a fox smoking a tobacco-pipe. On the stone is engraved the date 1510, at which time that wing of the castle, as we have mentioned, was erected. Now it is generally believed that tobacco was first introduced into this country by Sir Walter Raleigh, about the year 1585; and it is singular to find the common short tobacco-pipe thus represented on a stone bearing date 1510. There can be no mistake as to the date, or the nature of the representation. The fox holds the fragrant tube in his mouth, exactly as it is held by its human admirers; and the instrument is such as may be seen every day with those who patronise the cutty pipe. [Caruthers' Highland Note-Book, p. 154]

“A low chamber under the roof where the notorious Lovat is said to have found a retreat after the battle of Culloden.” Click on image to enlarge it.

The possession of some of the lands forming the lordship of Cawdor has been traced so far back as the year 1236, when a charter exists by which Alexander II. confirms a destination of the lands of Both and Banchory. The deed was attested by Walter Fitzallan, the Justiciar of Scotland, Walter Cumyn, whose family name was afterwards to be so tragically connected with Scottish history, Walter Byset, who was the old Norman possessor of the territories which subsequently belonged to the Lovat family, Henry Beliol, and Allan Durward, The charter is in favour of Gilbert Durward or Doreward, whose Latinised name Hostiarius, through a series of mistakes, makes him figure in Shaw's History of Moray as a knight bearing the name of "Horsetrot." Calder was one of those ancient thaneships, the peculiar character of which has been so puzzling to antiquaries, and the baron is spoken of as the Thane in documents of a comparatively late period. In 1450 or 1454, a royal license was granted to the Thane to build a tower of fence; and this is probably the date of the oldest part of the castle. The domain came into the possession of a branch of the powerful family of Campbell by the marriage, in 1510, of Sir John Campbell, third son of the Earl of Argyle, to Muiriel or Marion, the heiress of Cawdor (Shaw's History of Moray, p. 163). The family was ennobled in 1796 by a British barony. Among the later traditions of Cawdor Castle, a low chamber under the roof is shown, where the notorious Lovat is said to have found a retreat after the battle of Culloden. But this is not likely to be true, for Lovat was found concealed far westward, and to reach Cawdor he would have had to leave his own fortresses in the wilds of Inverness behind him, and pass through a country occupied by the royal troops.

R. W. B.


The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland illustrated by Robert William Billings, architect, in four volumes.. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son, 1852. Hathitrust Digital Archive version of a copy in the Duke University Library. Web. 20 October 2018.

Last modified 19 October 2018