Cawdor Castle

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If you arrive expecting this to be the Cawdor Castle of Shakespeare’s Macbeth you will be disappointed. The Cawdor Castle Website is at great pains to explain Macbeth died in 1057 and was never Thane of Cawdor. The castle dates from the 14thC.

In fact there is a much more entertaining story about the castle. The present castle was built by the 3rd Thane of Cawdor who wanted to build a new castle on a less marshy site than the existing one. Following instructions in a dream, he loaded panniers of gold on the back of a donkey which he followed as it roamed during the day. When evening came, the donkey lay down under a hawthorn tree on a rocky site close to the steep sided valley of Allt Dearg. William built his castle round the tree. You can still see the tree in the base of the central tower. It has been dated to about 1372 supporting the story, although it is a holly tree rather than a hawthorn. Legend has it that the tree has magical qualities which have on more than one occasion saved the castle from disaster.

The castle was a typical tower house surrounded by a courtyard with an outer barmkin wall. The 6th Thane was granted a licence to crenellate. The slated roofs and crow step gables were added in the 17thC.

It is a real Disney style castle with a large tower house with battlements and small corner towers, surrounded by lower buildings with crow step gables and dormer windows. The most attractive views are from the flower gardens.

Entry is across a small drawbridge with a bell above and the family crest.

The cafe and a bookshop are to the left in the courtyard. Steps on the right lead down to the entrance with its iron yett. The coat of arms above the doorway is dated 1672 and has the family motto ‘Be Mindfull’. We wondered if this could refer to the uneven steps?

On the left of the doorway is a cellar complete with a pretend cauldron of boiling oil. Fortunately our welcome was warmer. Visits are by free flow going at your own speed and there is a information sheet in all the rooms. However, if the castle is busy, it isn’t always possible to get to read this and there are no room stewards to ask questions. Unfortunately no photographs are allowed in the castle, hence the fairly detailed description.

The first room is the DRAWING ROOM, a large room with a wooden beam ceiling and fireplace with the Calder family emblem of stag’s head and buckle and comfy chairs and a settee around the fire. At the opposite end is a small minstrel’s gallery. The walls are lined with portraits and there is a grand piano, occasional tables and lots of family clutter and photos. We were a bit bemused by the the statues of three naked women holding an urn. The large windows have views across the grass and trees. It has a very lived in feel.

Stone steps lead up to the TAPESTRY ROOM with a plaster ceiling and walls lined with tapestries. In pride of place is a 17thC four poster bed with red velvet drapes. The gilded and silvered headboard is the original. This was the marriage bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart in 1662. A gate leg table with a mirror served as a dressing table. There is a small desk with an inlay of black mahogany, a chest of drawers and upholstered chairs around the walls.

This leads into the YELLOW SITTING ROOM with walls painted in a rather unattractive shade of deep rather dirty yellow with a white ceiling. There is a grandfather clock quietly ticking and large heavily carved cupboards of dark wood. There is a large sofa and two easy chairs with pink upholstery and a table with a collection of silhouette drawings. There are family portraits on the walls as well as landscape paintings and 18thC watercolours.

The tour divides here and signing is slightly confusing. Turn right for the bedrooms.

First is the WOODCOCK ROOM, named after the painting of a woodcock over the door. This has green ivy design wallpaper and a four poster bed with pink drapes. Known as the Sheraton bed, this was the marriage bed of Lady Carolyn Campbell of Cawdor in 1789. There is a pink upholstered settee and chairs around the fireplace, which has a display of china on the mantle piece. Furniture includes a dressing table, chest of drawers and a small writing desk. This is in the 17thC part of the castle and was originally the dining room before it was partitioned off to form two smaller bedrooms.

This lead into the PINK BEDROOM which has two single four poster beds with pink drapes lined with cream and also cream patterned bolsters. The small dressing table has a cream brocade frill. The tapestries are 1680 and part of the Don Quixote set seen downstairs in the family dining room.

Beyond is the PINK DRESSING ROOM. The curtains and bedspreads are modern copies of a 1725s design. There is a single bed with large wardrobe, dressing table, desk and a red armchair by the fire. On the walls are prints, water colours of the castle and wash portraits.

You then return down the corridor lined with modern paintings (an acquired taste), worn tapestry and long display case with a model of a man o’ war.

The steps up on your right lead to the TOWER ROOM, on the first floor of the old tower house. The original access would have been by external wooden steps that could be pulled up through an arched doorway which now forms the middle window. There is a large fireplace with arm chairs and sofa round it. The doorway on the right leads to a toilet in what would have been a garderobe. There is a lovely Chinese cabinet with coloured lacquer dating from 1725 and tables by the windows have a display of china. The large French desk with brass handles and edging is Lord Cawdor’s writing table. Tapestries line the walls and any space not covered by a tapestry is hung with pictures. There are piles of books lying everywhere and family photos. This room is used in the winter as it is the warmest room in the house as the 63’ chimney makes the fire burn well.

A stone spiral staircase leads down to the THORN ROOM with the remains of the original holly tree. The iron yett at the foot of the stair came from Lochinorb castle in Moray. This is an empty vaulted room; rather dark and depressing. In one wall is a secret dungeon, now lit by an electric light bulb. The room was only discovered in 1979 and the original access was down a shaft in the thickness of the walls. The history of this room is somewhat confused as it seems to have been both a prison and also a hideout for women and children. In a window recess is a display of finds which includes pieces of china, needles, thimble, bits of clay pipes and broken glass. The central tower was gutted in 1819 by a fire started by a spark in a jackdaw’s nest in the chimney. The damage was repaired and this room/prison was blocked off.

From the thorn room, the tour continues along a carpeted staircase with a display of muskets on the walls, tapestries and a large wooden chest down to the DINING ROOM. This is a very elegant room with a late Victorian plaster ceiling and tapestries from the Don Quixote set. The splendid stone mantlepiece commemorates the marriage in 1510 of Sir John Campbell of Argyll and Muriel Calder of Cawdor. The latin doggerel can either be interpreted as ‘In the morning remember your creator’ or more popularly ‘if you stay too long in the evening, you will remember it is the morning…’ Plates above the fireplace have the Cawdor coat of arms. On the sideboard is a splendid French rococo boulle clock. On a wall is a 9thC handbell which looks like a gigantic cow bell and was used at the family church and burial ground at Barevan. This was hammered out of a single sheet of iron. The extending table can seat up to 24 and was set with china, glassware and silver candlesticks. There are wicker back chairs round the table and more round the walls. Against a wall is a rather unusual wall table with a copper lined recess to hold potted plants.

The tour continues into the KITCHEN. This is a large and airy room and was originally the school room. There never was a proper kitchen in the tower house and arrangements for cooking by the garrison were decidedly makeshift in the extreme top of the tower. The schoolroom was converted into a kitchen in 1971 and is a very stylish room with larch panelled walls and a big copper extractor fan connected to the old chimney. In the centre is a huge square working table with pale cream cupboards below. On one wall are huge display cabinets with the family china. There are two big sinks and draining boards under the windows. On the opposite wall is a long work surface with more pale cream cupboards below. There is a huge single hob with white tiles behind it and a double oven on the wall next to it. Knives hang on the wall next to the hob. On a wall by the door, looking a bit out of place, is an old fashioned meat safe with a metal door with tiny holes in it.

Steps lead down into the 17thC KITCHEN near the great hall which was used from 1640-1938. It has a huge 19thC cast iron range with a spit mechanism above. Workbenches along the walls have copper pans, metal lids an flat irons. On the floor are large earthenware crocks and metal storage bins. In the centre is a long table with old fashioned cooking equipment including a small hand worked glass butter churn, preserving pans, scales, knife sharpener, On the floor is a large pestle and mortar and a wooden butter churn.

The rooms beyond include vaulted storage areas, cellars and a bakehouse.

The SHOP is in the old stables and sells a range of china, jewellery, woollen rugs, tapestry cushion covers. scarves . It is very much aimed at the coach parties.

The WALLED GARDEN is filled by a maze with low trimmed hedges We gave this miss.

The FLOWER and WILD GARDEN is very attractive with trimmed yew hedges dividing up the garden, archways with clematis and honeysuckle and flower beds set in grass. It is a very irregular garden with no obvious pattern apart from the large central herbaceous borders. A few of the old fruit trees survive. There is a small square enclosed garden with a central water feature. Cawdor was mainly used by the family during the shooting season and flower beds were designed to be at their best from August- October. It was a mass of colour with tobacco, dahlias, nasturtium, ageratum, aster, campanula, tradescantia, montbretia, golden rod, flox, day lilies, Turk’s cap lilies, Sedum specabile… Rose beds are now very unkempt and overgrown with straggling rose bushes and lavender.

Cawdor Caste is popular with coach tours and can get very busy. We planned our visit for immediately after lunch when it was still fairly quiet. Be warned it is quite a long walk from the car park to the ticket office and then the castle. There was rather a cryptic sign saying disabled passengers can ask for assistance at the ticket office, but no information how to get there by car… In fact it’s not much better on foot as there is only a tiny sign which is easy to miss telling you which way to go. The castle is not disabled friendly with a lot of stairs. Overall I was disappointed by the castle.

The tea room was disappointing too.


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