Friday 21 October 2022

Cawdor Castle: by Sue Purkiss

 In the early summer of 2022, we were staying in the Cairngorm National Park. It was our first time in the north-west of Scotland, and we were wowed by the ancient Caledonian Forest, the gaunt hills, the sparkling rivers, and the variety of wildlife. However, on a day that was forecast to be wet and windy (in fact it was the latter but not the former), we decided to find somewhere that would offer shelter if necessary. So we went to Cawdor Castle.

All we knew about the place was that Macbeth, at the beginning of Shakespeare's play, was told by the witches that he would become Thane of Cawdor - and thereafter, of course, King of Scotland. So we were expecting somewhere dark and forbidding, probably half-ruined, and naturally haunted by ravens croaking in a doom-laden sort of way.

But the castle turned out to be none of those things. Built of grey stone, with a turreted square tower at its centre, the house is softened by the lawns, gardens and woodland that surround it. Inside, it has the feel of a comfortable home, in which you can imagine a family living happily - though reminders of a dark and bloody past do emerge. And in fact, we were told that the Dowager Countess, who manages the house, does live there in the winter, and even sleeps in the centuries-old scarlet four-poster. "Sooner her than me," commented the volunteer who told us this with a shudder. 

You enter through the drawing room, which is warm and colourful, with comfortable looking chairs and sofas and lots of lamps. There are also lots of portraits, which of course you don't tend to find in the average family home. In an alcove on a staircase there is a bold piece of wall-art, which at a second glance you see is a fan-shaped arrangement of nineteen rifles. (Why only nineteen? What happened to the twentieth?) I imagine these are a consequence of the aristocracy's strange desire to kill great quantities of wildlife, rather than earlier generations' propensity for killing their enemies, or sometimes their relations. But I could well be wrong...

The house is filled not only with interesting objects which generations of Campbells have collected on their travels - pictures, ornaments, sculptures, porcelain - but also with family photographs and some very lovely modern art. The tower is the oldest part of the castle, and was built with a view to defending the castle against enemies and marauders; but now, the top floor is a relatively small, very pleasant living room.

But go down the narrow winding staircase, and you will find this reminder of the building's long history. The castle was founded round about the end of the fourteenth century. Tradition has it that the site was chosen - bizarrely - by a donkey, which was set free and allowed to wander where it would. In the place where it stopped, there the castle would be built. And so it was.

I suppose it's just possible that this may not be entirely true - but what is certainly true is that the tower was built around a tree. The evidence is in the picture below - the tree is still there. It was said to be a hawthorn, but when samples were analysed recently, it was found to be a holly. This seems to make more sense: holly has a place in myth and legend. Certainly it has been credited with protecting the castle from destruction at various dangerous times in its history.

And dangerous times there certainly were. Cosy and comfortable as the castle seems now (apart from this basement, which has a bijou little dungeon tucked away on one side - just the place for unwelcome visitors), the family that lived there were, over the centuries, involved in some very nasty goings-on indeed. For example - in the early sixteenth century, the heiress was a child called Muriel. She was kidnapped by the Earl of Argyll, and, the guidebook tells us: 'For future recognition, she was branded on the hip by her nurse with a key. and the top joint of the little finger of her left hand was bitten off.' When she was twelve, she was married off to Argyll's younger son, Sir John Campbell. Surprisingly, the marriage was apparently a happy one. But this wasn't the end to the drama: Sir John's sister was married to one Lachlan Maclean. Wearying of his wife, he had her chained naked to a tidal skerry; she was supposed to drown, but was in fact rescued by passing fishermen. Sir John then knifed his brother-in-law to death in Edinburgh. He was pardoned, but deemed it a good moment to retreat to Muriel's far-distant ancestral home in Cawdor.

And that was only the beginning. There's far more blood-letting, feuding and killing people in hideously brutal ways - much too much to include in this post.

And talking of blood-letting, what of Macbeth? Was he really the Thane of Cawdor? We asked a guide. She sighed. One might almost have thought she'd been asked this question a million times before. "No. Macbeth was a real person - but he lived long before the castle of Cawdor was built, long before there was even a thane. What's more, there's quite a lot of evidence that he was a VERY NICE PERSON. He and his wife were very well-loved."

So there.

We certainly shouldn't leave Cawdor without a visit to the gardens, which are quite beautiful -see also the top picture. And the woodlands are lovely too, with rhododendrons and some very old trees, and a stream running through. Times have changed since the castle's founding - and in some ways - though not all - very much for the better. (I do wonder how the peasants were getting on while the aristocrats were whirling around killing each other...)

PS For anyone who's enjoying the new Netflix series, The Empress, you might be interested in this post which I wrote about her six years ago, after we'd been to an exhibition about the Empress Sisi in Vienna.


Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

A wonderful post, Sue. Thank you.

We stayed in the Cairngorm National Park a few years ago but somehow we missed this fascinating Castle. It looks beautiful and your photos provide a lovely virtual tour! I like the story about the Dowager Countess sleeping in the centuries-old scarlet four-poster.

How interesting about the tower being built around a holly tree. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus builds his palace around an olive tree. Odysseus carves the trunk to make it a bedpost and around that he constructs the rest of his marriage bed. This 'secret' then plays an important part in the plot when he returns home from the Trojan War.

As for the trees, plants and flowers in the garden of Cawdor Castle, what a colourful and pleasing display!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Caroline - I had the feeling there were other houses built round trees, but had quite forgotten about Odysseus' and Penelope's!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Fascinating to know that Macbeth was a real person but lived long before the castle was built. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, thank you, Sue. Carol

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much, Carol!

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed this wander around Cawdor Castle so thak you.

I'd also heard that Macbeth was not the villain he's made out to be, so I am wondering about relationship between England and Scotland around the time of the early performances - and the effect when James inherited the English Crown. A bit of date checking required.