Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle Gardens

Cawdor Castle Gardens


Cawdor Castle is set amid gardens in the parish of Cawdor in Nairnshire, Scotland. The castle is built around a 15th-century tower house, with substantial additions in later centuries. Originally a property of the Calder family, it passed to the Campbells in the 16th century. It remains in Campbell ownership, and is now home to the Dowager Countess Cawdor, stepmother of Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor. The castle is perhaps best known for its literary connection to William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, in which the title character is made "Thane of Cawdor". However, the story is highly fictionalised, and the castle itself, which is never directly referred to in Macbeth, was built many years after the life of the 11th-century King Macbeth. The castle is a category A listed building, and the grounds are included in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland, the national listing of significant gardens.


The earliest documented date for the castle is 1454, the date a licence to fortify was granted to William Calder, 6th Thane of Cawdor (or Calder, as the name was originally spelled). However, some portions of the 15th-century tower house or keep may precede that date. Architectural historians have dated the style of stonework in the oldest portion of the castle to approximately 1380. 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, lending credence to the earlier date of the castle's first construction. The iron yett (gate) here was brought from nearby Lochindorb Castle, which was dismantled by William around 1455, on the orders of King James II, after it had been forfeited by the Earl of Moray.


The castle was expanded numerous times in the succeeding centuries. In 1510 the heiress of the Calders, Muriel, married Sir John Campbell of Muckairn, who set about extending the castle. Further improvements were made by John Campbell, 3rd of Cawdor (c.1576 - c.1642), who purchased rich lands on Islay. By 1635 a garden had been added, and after the Restoration Sir Hugh Campbell of Cawdor added or improved the north and west ranges, employing the masons James and Robert Nicolson of Nairn. In the 1680s Sir Alexander Campbell, 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.


John Campbell of Cawdor, a Member of Parliament, married a daughter of the Earl of Carlisle in 1789, and was ennobled as Lord Cawdor in 1796. In 1827, his son was created Earl Cawdor. During the 19th century, Cawdor was used as a summer residence by the Earls. The architects Thomas Mackenzie and Alexander Ross were commissioned to add the southern and eastern ranges to enclose a courtyard, accessed by a drawbridge. In the 20th century John Campbell, 5th Earl Cawdor, moved permanently to Cawdor and was succeeded by the 6th Earl, whose second wife, the Dowager Countess Angelika, lives there still. In 2001 it was reported that the Countess had prevented her stepson from sowing genetically modified rapeseed on the Cawdor estate, and in 2002 the Countess took the Earl to court after he moved into the castle while she was away.


The name of Cawdor will forever connect the castle to Shakespeare's play Macbeth. However, the story portrayed by Shakespeare takes extensive liberties with history. In the play, Shakespeare has three witches foretell that Macbeth, then Thane of Glamis, would become Thane of Cawdor and King thereafter. Duncan almost immediately makes Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, after which Macbeth and his Lady plot the murder of Duncan in order to fulfil the prophecy. Duncan is killed in his sleep, at Macbeth's castle in Inverness, an act that leads to Macbeth's ultimate downfall. The historical King Macbeth ruled Scotland from 1040 to 1057, after his forces killed King Duncan I in battle near Elgin. Macbeth was never Thane of Cawdor, this being an invention of the 15th-century writer Hector Boece. Moreover, Cawdor Castle did not exist during the lifetimes of Macbeth or Duncan, and it is never explicitly mentioned in the play. The 5th Earl Cawdor is quoted as saying, "I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!"


Longoe Farm is situated on the exposed but picturesque shores of the Pentland Firth, and is linked to the Castle by a cliff-top track and strip of rough grazing. It has the debatable advantage of being one of the most northerly farms on the British mainland, with unparalleled views across to Hoy and the Orkneys. Just to the west lies Dunnet Head, the very northernmost point on the mainland. Over the years, more land has been bought to bring it to its current size of approximately 100 hectares. A further 34 hectares of rough grazing / hill land is also rented. The soil type is a good heavy loam. In the interests of self-sufficiency, 17 hectares of barley and oats are grown, three hectares of turnips and kale, and 25 hectares of grass are cut for wrapped silage and some hay. Winters can be long in Caithness with cattle being housed from the end of October until the third week of May to avoid cutting up the heavy land. The average annual rainfall is 30 inches (76 cm) which falls fairly evenly throughout the year, though recent summers have been both unusually hot and dry. Due to the coastal position of the farm, snow and frosts are not a big problem, but there can be constant exposure to cruel northerly winds, at times seemingly all the way from Iceland. These winds can salt blast the fresh growth of grass, flatten a promising crop of barley, and sculpt what few trees that survive to a permanent 45 degrees list. Cold sea mists known as haar can be a problem in the summer, slowing growth and stopping hay-making, even when it is hot and sunny half a mile inland. However, despite the short growing season, Caithness is a good livestock rearing area with very few health problems.


Cawdor is fortunate enough to have three gardens: the Walled Garden, the Flower Garden and the Wild Garden. The Walled Garden is the oldest and dates from c.1600 and later became a kitchen garden. The Flower Garden was laid out some 100 years later and was originally designed for enjoyment in late summer and autumn. However this garden's season has been extended to give pleasure from early spring, with bulbs, bedding plants, herbaceous borders, ornamental trees and shrubs all providing delight. The Wild Garden is the youngest, being planted in the 1960s and lies between the Castle and the stream of the Cawdor Burn. With fertile soil, a climate tempered by the Gulf stream, rainfall well distributed throughout the year, around 18 hours of sunshine during the summer and, of course, Derek Hosie, the head gardener, the gardens at Cawdor Castle grow beautifully.


The Walled Garden is the oldest garden and is towards the north east of the castle. It was enclosed with walls and bastions in 1620, and cultivated with soft fruit, flowers, vegetables and orchards growing closely together. The family records mention orchards at Cawdor in 1635. In the first half of the 17th century, home-grown and local seeds were presumably the only used. The first note of imported foreign seed occurs in 1681: French sorrel and lamb's lettuce. By 1960 the list of exotic seed becomes lengthy and includes Savoy kale, endive, Indian cress, Spanish thistle, Turkish parsley, all sorts of herbs and, for the first time, an ornamental flower - double hollyhock. Up to that date flowers perhaps were neglected: in those turbulent Scottish days, the emphasis was on survival. By 1722, the list of alien seeds is quite extensive and embraces Strasburg onion, Flanders onion, Dutch Parsnip, celery, Siletia lettuce and skirret and gradually this area became a kitchen garden. In 1981 Lord Cawdor decided to remodel The Walled Garden and plant a holly maze. The pattern for this was taken from a design from the mosaic floor of the ruined Roman villa of Conimbriga in Portugal, and which in classical form depicts the Minotaur's labyrinth at Knossos in Crete. In the second half of the garden is a paradise garden, knot garden and a thistle garden, as well as an orchard that has been planted with old Scottish fruit trees.


The Flower Garden lies to the south of the castle and was laid out c.1710 by the Thane of Cawdor's brother, Sir Archibald Campbell. Sir Archibald was, at that time period, manager of the family Estates in Scotland. The Thane himself had, as a young man, been sent to Poitiers, Blois and Paris to study law and fencing. That stay may be the reason for the French influence in the formal design of the garden. By 1725, Sir Archibald had completed his work, levelling a considerable piece of ground and making a beautiful garden where all sorts of fruit grow. Of these original fruit trees a few remain, as do the clipped yew hedges which in summer are adorned with the pretty little climber 'Scottish Flame Flower' with its scarlet trumpets – however, there is nothing Scottish about it apart from its liking the climate, as it came from Chile. The Lady Cawdor of the day designed the oval lavender borders enclosing rose beds in 1850. Her plan shows long rows of gooseberries, to which the family was addicted. In the 19th century, the family generally stayed at Cawdor only during the shooting season from August to October and so the garden was developed to produce a late show of blossom in long herbaceous borders, which are at their best from July to September. Those borders still exist, but the season for colours and scents has been extended by the introduction of bulbs, flowering trees and shrubs and plants selected for good autumn tints and attractive fruits. Originally designed for enjoyment in late summer and autumn, The Flower Garden's season has been extended to give pleasure from early spring; with bulbs, bedding-plants, herbaceous borders, ornamental trees and shrubs all providing delight.


The steep 'wild' garden lies between the Castle and the rocky stream of the Cawdor Burn. The Wild Garden was planted in the 1960s and is a shaggy, informal ramble of azaleas, rhododendrons, daffodils, primulas, willows and bamboos, set among tall old trees. The highest of the trees, a Wellingtonia, measured 160 feet in 1981. The big wood to the south of the Castle contains a few rare and numerous other fine trees. There are five nature trails of varying lengths, winding through this 750 acre mixed woodland great for walking and hiking. When visiting The Wild Garden, please take care and wear suitable footwear for uneven ground.


A half an hour walk from the Castle through Cawdor's Big Wood (or a few minutes' drive up a quiet country road beyond the village) sits the Cawdor dower house of Auchindoune. Here lies Auchindoune Gardens, a garden with a host of living links to Tibet, true grail for generations of plant collectors, explorers and seekers after the serenity enshrined in Buddhism's secrets. The Tibetan Garden found its inspiration - and its original plant and floral specimens - deep in Tibet's dramatic and beautiful Tsangpo Gorges, still one of the world's most inaccessible places. Here, in the early 1920s, the great explorer and collector Frank Kingdon Ward and his collaborator and co-author Jack Cawdor, the young 5th Earl, sought the great, but never glimpsed Tsangpo waterfall. In the end, it eluded them and their 1926 book The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges led the Royal Geographical Society to conclude that the falls were 'a religious myth... a romance of geography'. Their efforts remained inspirational to later explorers, including one who did reach out to touch the reality of the fabled waterfall when he discovered it on his eighth journey into the hidden-land of Pemako. Ian Baker, an American born academic, explorer and author on Tibet and Buddhism, has now brought the Kingdon Ward/Cawdor story up to the present day. Having collaborated with Kenneth Cox and Kenneth Storm, Jr. on a 1998 Antique Collectors' Club edition of the 1926 publication, Ian Baker's long-awaited memoir of his journeys was published by Penguin in 2004. The Heart of the World recounts one of the most captivating stories of exploration and discovery in recent memory; an extraordinary journey into one of the wildest and most inaccessible places on earth. It is at the same time a meditation on our place in nature and a pilgrimage to the heart of the Buddhist faith.


It was, however, over eighty years ago that Lord Cawdor brought a collection of rare Tibetan plants back from these secret places to his Highland home. In what were then his uncle Ian Campbell's Auchindoune gardens, his Tibetan treasury of the rarest shrubs and flowers were planted. While the slopes of the Cawdor burn couldn't replicate the wild magnificence of the Tsangpo Gorges, where he had literally risked his life, he triumphantly recaptured part of Tibet's wild and magical floral kingdom. Today, the Tibetan Garden offers itself in a restored beauty and serenity to Cawdor's visitors. Herself a traveller and lover of Tibet, Angelika, the Dowager Countess Cawdor continues to bring specialist knowledge to this sensitive restoration - one undertaken from the mid-1980s onwards with her late husband Hugh, Jack Cawdor's son, the 6th Earl and 24th Thane of Cawdor. Over the years, the same plants have been diligently sought and introduced, such as the superb Primula varieties along the banks of the burn. Many varieties of Meconopsis, Ariseamas, Lilies, Rhododendrons and Xanthoxylum also grow in abundance. 'All is One', an inscription found on a natural stone seat by the burn, seems a fitting motto for this Tibetan garden. Colours, smells, bird song and the sound of flowing water all contribute to the serenity found on these slopes alongside trees, shrubs and flowers.


Kitchen Garden. Laid out in a traditional design by Arabella Lennox-Boyd, Auchindoune's vegetable garden is especially interesting for its, then pioneering, commitment to organic principles and practice. Behind its old stone walls grow a number of heritage vegetables, among them Schorzonera, Chinese, Globe and Jerusalem Artichokes, Ancient Broad Beans, Kohl Rabi White and Purple Vienna. Some directly link this garden to the great kitchen gardens of the past. This is the quintessential kitchen garden, rich in vegetable varieties, traditionally laid out in beds symmetrically edged by beautifully clipped box hedging. Its orchard has numbers of classic apple, plum, pear and soft fruit varieties. Cut flowers are also grown here, including antique varieties of Sweet Pea such as Cupanis, dating back to 1669, and Painted Lady of the 18th century. The Arboretum. Planted to mark the Millennium, the specimen trees in Auchindoune's Arboretum include several species from Tibet. Acer, Sorbus Alnus, Salix, Betula, Nothofagus and Malus are just some maturing here. The Arboretum's system of traditional hedgerows includes native species naturally attractive to wild life. The Auchindoune Garden is open with an honesty box with a recommendation of £3 per person. It is open Tuesdays and Thursdays in May, June, July and August from 10am - 4.30pm and at other times by appointment by telephoning Cawdor Castle 01667 404401.


The Thorn Tree. The legendary tale says that the Thane of Cawdor, who had a small castle about a mile away, decided to build a new, stronger tower. Following instructions he received in a dream, the Thane loaded a coffer of gold onto the back of a donkey and let it roam the district for a day – wherever the donkey lay to rest for the evening would be where the new castle would be sited. The donkey chose a tree and it’s around this holly tree that Cawdor Castle was built. You can still see the "original" tree in an intriguing little vaulted room in the basement. The Drawing Room. This, the great hall of the castle, dates from the 16th century or before and has been frequently remodelled. In 1684, the last major alteration was the insertion of a fireplace embellished with the Calder family emblems of the stag’s head and buckle. The opposite end of the room holds a minstrel’s gallery. The Drawing Room houses numerous family portraits by famous painters such as: Sir Joshua Reynolds, Francis Cotes, Sir William Beechey and Sir Thomas Lawrence. It also features an old leather wheelchair.


The Tapestry Bedroom. The Tapestry Bedroom - the best bedroom above the great hall - forms part of the 17th century's additions to the castle. The four-poster was the marriage-bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart who were married at Darnaway Castle in 1662. The gilded and silvered Venetian headboard is the original and, until recently, the bed was dressed in the bleached and tattered remnants of the old materials. During restoration, the style was guided by an inventory entered by Lady Henrietta in her personal housekeeping notebook, while spring-cleaning in April 1688: “In the Crimson Chamber there is an Crimson velvet bed, with head and foot valances both [gilt] laced alike, lined with white taffeta, with feathers on the top of the bed, an gilded head in the bed, an feather bed-bolster…”


The Dining Room. A stone fireplace was installed in the dining room on the 13th of April 1671 but encountered some difficulty, as recorded by the Brodie of Brodie in his diary: “...This day there did fallout a remarkable accident, never to be forgotten. The drawbridge at Cawdor fell, carrying in a great stone, and with it 24 men, and the Laird himself. Some were hurt...” The mantelpiece commemorates the marriage between Sir John Campbell of Argyll and Muriel Calder of Cawdor in 1510. The allegorical design and the inscription in dog Latin have never been satisfactorily explained or translated. The writing may mean 'In the morning, remember your creators'. Or it may mean something quite different, such as 'If you stay too long in the evening, you will remember it in the morning'. The Old Kitchen. The old kitchen was in active use between 1640 and 1938. It features a well, dug straight into the old red sandstone rock on which the Castle is built. The rock strata dips towards the west, and through it, in both summer and winter, the water permeates and keeps the well charged within six feet of spring water. The amazing cooking range is 19th century, and above it is the gearing for a spit. In 1760 it was the very latest thing and was, at least in theory, automatic because the hotter the fire became, the quicker the meat turned. There are many other contraptions in the old kitchen, including an old ice-box, flat-irons, smoothing-irons, a clothes peggie, a trivet, a warming-pan, a circular knife-grinder, butter-hands, a Lazy Susan, a pestle and mortar, a bucket - yoke, a butter-churn and a crusie lamp, earthenware jars, and many other intriguing objects.


There is a ramp to the main entrance which allows wheelchair access to the principal floor. The gardens, grounds and restaurant are fully wheelchair accessible. There is parking for the disabled as well as a drop-of point. There are Accessible toilets for the disabled as well as public facilities. Assistance dogs are welcome.


Location : Cawdor Castle, Nairn, Scotland IV12 5RD

Transport: Nairn (National Rail) then bus (252). Bus Routes : 252 stops 5 minutes away.

Opening Times : 1st May to 2nd October, Daily 10:00 to 17:30

Tickets : Adults £10.70;  Seniors £9.70;  Children £6.70

Tel. : 01667 404401