History of the Estate

History of the Estate

Before the modern era where the development and management of the Estate is very much a team activity, the history of Cawdor Estate was essentially the history of the ‘Thanes of Cawdor’; and before there was an estate, or even a castle, there was a king.

The title ‘Thane of Calder’ (note the spelling) dates back beyond the 11th Century. The real Macbeth was Thane of Calder before he defeated King Duncan in 1040 at nearby Pitgaveney and assumed the crown of Alba. The title was then passed onto his brother, from whom the later Calders we all descended.

During the 12th Century the Thanes of Calder were important Celtic lords who gave their allegiances to the powerful Mormaors of Moray (a title also once taken by Macbeth). In return the Calders were granted jurisdiction over the entire county of Nairnshire (now itself part of Inverness shire). It was not, however, until the 14th Century that the Thanes of Calder began constructing a fortification upon their Nairnshire estate.

Cawdor Castle has been described as “one of the finest and least spoiled fortified strengths in the land…” [Nigel Trainer, The Queen’s Scotland: The North East (1974)]. It was began in 1375 and the great central keep of the Castle was completed around 1396. Further fortifications were added in the following century and later additions, mainly from the 17th Century, were all built in the classic Scottish baronial style. The Cawdor Castle that visitors see today is essentially that which their counterparts of the 1800s would have viewed.

Much of this construction work was carried out under the tutelage of the all powerful Clan Campbell. In the late 15th Century the Campbells had assumed control of Calder when the Earl of Argyll had the flamed haired child heiress Muriella Calder kidnapped and married to his son Sir John Campbell. This was considered acceptable Clan behaviour back then, but it came at a cost; six sons of Campbell being killed in the act. This daring seduction did, however, give rise to the famous Clan Campbell proverb: “so long as there is red-headed lassie on either bank of Loch Awe, Calder will ne’er lack an heiress”.

During the English and Scottish Civil Wars of the 17th Century, and then the ongoing disputes over the future governance of Scotland that spilled into the following century, the Campbells were errant Landlords of Calder, spending their time in the Borders or England and building up estates in Wales. The final act of the Jacobite Rebellion, the fateful 1745 Battle of Culloden, despite being fought nearby, actually impinged upon the Calder Estate very little.

However, in the aftermath of brutal suppression that followed, General Wade’s infamous military road, linking the newly constructed Fort George with the south, was driven through the Calder Estate. Evidence of its existence can still be found today at Whitebridge on the edge of the Cawdor village, the oldest bridge in the Highland Council’s region.

The title ‘Thane of Calder’ continued to be used by the Campbells until the 18th Century when the 10th of the Campbell line took the title ‘Lord Calder’. The title ‘Earl Calder’ was adopted in 1829 and remains the official title of the ancient ‘Thanes’ to this day. Which brings us to the confusion over spelling, and this, in turn, brings us back to Macbeth and to William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare relied upon the 2nd edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle (1577) for the plot of Macbeth: a highly subjective text that ignored Macbeth’s rightful claim to the throne and the seventeen years of peaceful reign that followed his ascension. The Bard of Avon then added his own twist to create the tragic and flawed Macbeth; a vainglorious man driven by foolish ambition. The Bard also gave Macbeth a castle at Calder, 300 years before the first stone was laid; whereas in fact he resided at Dunsinane north of Perth. He also used the English variant of ‘Calder’ and made Macbeth the ‘Thane of Cawdor’.

In the early 19th Century the then Earl Calder, residing in England at the time, changed the name of the castle, village and clan overnight, unilaterally as it were, in order to match the Shakespearian designation. Thus was born the real ‘Thanes of Cawdor’, half a millennia behind their dramatic counterparts. All we can say is beware poetic licence!