In Cawdor, ponies can speak

Sometimes I lie awake at night, worrying if I should write. The problem is, the moment I put pen to paper, I am sure you will wish to join me. Let me take that chance.

Cawdor Castle (courtesy Cawdor Castle) I am in a tiny feudal village called Cawdor, somewhere in the Scottish Highlands and the place is magical. Somehow, it is hanging on to history. Cawdor is famous for its 14th century castle, which features in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Legend has it that the castle’s location was chosen by a donkey laden with gold. The castle was built around the tree under which the donkey rested.

I am staying in a village cottage, a stone’s throw from the castle, so that I may wander the area at will.

“You’ll find the cottage easily,” I was told by a Cawdor local, when I asked directions, as I realised I would arrive in the evening. “The castle owns it. Just look for its red door.”

All the cottage doors are red in Cawdor Which I did. What I was not told was that everything the castle owned was coloured red. Try finding a single red door among many red doors, with streetlights yet unlit. After an hour’s frustrated searching, I burst through the cottage’s front door, fumbled for a light switch, and made a beeline for the central heating to warm up the Scottish cold. My Cawdor life had begun.

Cawdor may have a castle, but it also has a church, and churches have graveyards. I am no ghoul-spotter, but it is to graveyards I often go because they say so much of history. I nearly tripped over one grand headstone to the surgeon who attended a wounded Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Trafalgar was the last thing I was expecting in Cawdor.

The Scots have long been great travellers. The graveyard, with its essay-length inscriptions, told stories of Cawdor locals who had died in Africa, South America, Newfoundland and Australia. Even more had died in World War 1 trenches, and others during World War 2. If anything shows Scotland’s fine place in the British Isles, it must be Cawdor graveyard.

Cawdor village church where there is so much history to see Like many countryfolk, Cawdor locals love talking, and strangers are fair game for interrogation. Within moments of my arrival, a neighbour had appeared.

“I’ve come from England,” I announced, after we had briefly shaken hands. “Never have guessed,” he replied, in a gentle Scottish brogue. We both started laughing instantly, as my south-coast English accent is unmistakable.

First thing the next morning, on the frost-covered lane outside, I decided to enjoy Cawdor’s pure air before starting my full day. It was as I took my first outdoor breaths that I heard the tiniest shuffle.

I turned, to see an elderly lady, stick in hand, walking a massive sheepdog. It was hard to tell who was walking who, as the animal was equally ancient.

The woman lingered and eyed me up and down. “London?” she asked. “London,” I replied. “I’ve been to London,” she added, as if by-the-way, and continued her onward hobble.

There was the Shetland pony, too, jet-black and wandering free in the field nearby. Whenever I emerged from my cottage, he walked slowly to his gate for a chat. Somehow we appeared to communicate. The fact is, in Cawdor ponies think they can speak, and we made rapid friends.

Cawdor Village Store - if you need to know anything, this is where to ask In a village that loves to blether, there is always a store and a tavern. Cawdor is no exception. In its tavern you eat from proper china on polished wooden tables, while the tavern’s owner is happy to talk of ghosts.

“They have plenty at the castle,” she said, as I gobbled a haggis fritter. It looked like a caterpillar but tasted like the sheep’s innards it contained.

For a moment I could not swallow, as I awaited the ghostly description I knew would follow.

“There’s a 12-year-old girl in blue velvet,” said the owner, “and another without hands. Her father chopped them off with his sword because she was too familiar with the chief of an enemy clan.”

With that she left, abandoning me to my fritter.

Cawdor village fountain - a perfect place to meet Cawdor Castle is why most come to the village, even if it is only open for six months each year. It runs guided tours, has three different gardens, a 9-hole pitch-and-putt, and 750 acres of woodland to wander. The castle is lived in even now. Yet families are families, even when they live in castles. In Cawdor there have been lawsuits, divorces, secret wills, murders, kidnaps, and brushes with the law. It is rarely out of the headlines for goings-on.

Yet what else can you expect from a little piece of magic, where even Shetland ponies can speak?

More information

Getting there:

  • Rail or flight to Inverness with taxi or hire car (15 miles) from there
  • Drive the whole way (10 hours from London; 6.5 hours from Manchester)

Staying there

Eating there:

  • Cawdor Tavern, Nairn, IV12 5XP; +44 1667 404777
  • Cawdor Village Store, The Barn, Cawdor, Nairn IV12 5XP; +44 1667 404625

Do not miss

  • Cawdor Castle, Cawdor, Nairn, IV12 5RD; +44 1667 404401
  • Culloden Battlefield, Culloden Moor, Inverness, IV2 5EU; +44 1463 796090
  • Benromach Whisky Distillery, Inverness Rd, Forres, IV36 3EB; +44 1309 675968
  • Nairn Golf Club, Seabank Road, Nairn, IV12 4HB; +44 1667 453208
  • Trout or Salmon fishing (in Cawdor village); +44 1667 402402


For holidays to Scotland please browse through our recommended partners.

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

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