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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Campbells of Cawdor


CAWDOR is indelibly associated with the name of Macbeth, and the tragedy of which, according to local tradition, it was the scene, and which the genius of Shakespeare has woven into ‘the most striking tale of ambition and remorse that ever struck awe into a human bosom.’ It has been justly remarked that had the ‘gracious Duncan’ possessed as many lives as a cat, Scottish tradition has local habitations for taking them all. He was undoubtedly murdered at Glamis, certainly at Cawdor, and positively at the Castle of Inverness—all by proof irrefragable. The investigations of modern historians, however; have led to the conclusion that Duncan was not murdered at all, but fell in battle against Macbeth, who was the hereditary Mormaor of Ross and, in right of his wife, Graach, Mormaor of Moray. This lady, who herself had a good title to the Crown, had suffered fearful wrongs at the hands of Malcolm, Duncan’s grandfather and immediate predecessor on the throne. Her grandfather had been dethroned and killed by Malcolm, her brother assassinated, and her first husband, the Mormaor of Moray, burned in his castle along with fifty of his friends. Macbeth, too, had wrongs of his own to avenge, for his father also had been slain by Malcolm. Thus instigated by revenge and ambition, he attacked and slew Duncan, in the year 1039, at a place called Bothgowan, near Elgin. But in spite of all that historians and genealogists can allege or prove, implicit credit is still given to the story told by the great dramatist, and Macbeth continues to be regarded as having undoubtedly been Thane of Cawdor.

Cawdor Castle is perched upon a low rock overhanging the bed of a rushing stream, and is surrounded on all sides by forest-trees of a large size. The building is enclosed by a moat, and is approachable only by a drawbridge. It is still a residence of the Cawdor family, but its iron-grated doors and wickets, its large bar, and kitchen pantry, formed out of the native rock, its hall, old furniture, carved mantelpieces, and figured tapestry, and the whole contour of the edifice, are much more in keeping with the fourteenth than the nineteenth century. Immediately opposite the outer gate of the castle stood a hawthorn-tree; another grew on what must have been the village green. The first and second hawthorn trees fell about sixty or seventy years ago, bearing the marks of extreme old age. A third, which still exists, but can scarcely be said to enjoy ‘a green old age,’ is shown in a vaulted apartment at the bottom of the principal tower. Its roots branch out beneath the floor, and its top penetrates through the vaulted arch of stone in such a manner as to make it evident that the tree stood in its present position before the tower was erected. According to an old tradition, the founder of Cawdor Castle was induced, either by a dream or by the advice of a wizard, to bind the coffers containing the gold which he had collected for the purpose of building a tower, upon an ass, and to build his castle on the spot on which the animal should halt. After strolling about for some time, the animal knelt down to rest beneath the branches of ‘the third hawthorn-tree ‘—the one now in the vault of the castle— round which, accordingly, the mansion was erected. In allusion to this legend, the Gaelic salutation to the roof-tree of the Earl of Cawdor, is ‘Freshness to the hawthorn-tree.’ A curiously contrived secret chamber is still shown in the house, which was said to have been a hiding-place of Lord Lovat in 1746.

‘The right feeling of the present time,’ says Mr. Cosmo Innes, ‘has forbidden any change that would alter the character of the quaint, antique, charming old place. The tower which Thane William built round the hawthorn-tree in 1454 stands surrounded by buildings of all subsequent dates, down to the work trusted to the skill of the Nairn masons in 1699. The simple drawbridge hangs as it has hung for centuries. The gardens and garden walls, the row of limes to screen the east wind, are all as Sir Hugh left them, or, perhaps, made and planted them. The place is unspoiled—not changed but for the better. The burn pours its brown sparkling stream down its rocky channel as of yore. The air has the brisk freshness of the Highlands, while the sky is blue and bright, as in more southern climates. The woods now wave over the grey castle with a luxuriance of shade which its old inhabitants never dreamt of.’

The earliest notice of the possessors of Cawdor is in a charter granted by King Robert Bruce, in 1310, to William, Thane of Calder, of the Thanage of Calder, for a yearly payment of 12 merks, and the rent of the land which Fergus the Dempster was wont to pay in the time of Alexander III. In all probability this William was a descendant of those hereditary stewards of the Crown to whom the charge of this part of the royal demesne lands had been committed, and who now became, under the Saxon name of Thane, hereditary tenants, paying the sum at which the land stood in the King’s Rental. The Thanes of Calder were also hereditary sheriffs of Nairn, and constables of the royal castle at the burgh of Nairn.

In 1454, William, Thane of Calder, obtained a license from the Crown for building and fortifying his castle of Cawdor, and the picturesque square tower which he erected over the hawthorn-tree still remains. In the following year the Thane had a warrant from the King (James II.) for razing and destroying the old insular castle of Lochindorb, forfeited by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Moray; famous for the long siege which it stood under the Countess of Athole, in 1536, till relieved by Edward III., who made an expedition to the north for that purpose. Thane William made large additions to the family estates, and obtained a very opulent marriage for his heir, who was a lettered man like his father, and added to his hereditary possessions both by marriage and purchase. The son of the builder of the tower had a family of five sons—the eldest of whom, on account of some personal defect, was set aside with a pension until he should obtain a Church benefice, and John, the second son, was formally invested in the whole heritage of the family, ‘As sicker as men’s wit can devise.’ A marriage was arranged between him and Isabella Rose, in order to heal the differences between the houses of Cawdor and Kilravock; but, unfortunately, the union was not happy, and the old feud was embittered by family dissensions. The young Thane did not long survive his marriage, dying in 1498, leaving an only daughter.

‘It was not unnatural,’ says Mr. Innes, ‘that the four sons and even the old Thane should look back with some disappointment on the transactions which had resulted only in leaving an infant girl sole heiress of the possessions of their house. They resolved, if they could, to set her aside, and with the help of their kinsman, the Precentor of Ross, they brought forward some curious evidence to prove her illegitimate. But the little Muriel was not unfriended. The new tenure was against them, too. The young Thane had been fully invested, the estates held ward of the Crown, so that the infant was under the care of the sovereign, and Archibald, second Earl of Argyll, and Hugh Rose of Kilravock, uncle to the young heiress, were appointed ‘tutors dative’ to her by James IV. In the autumn of 1499, the Earl sent Campbell of Inverliver, with a band of sixty stout clansmen, to Kilravock, to convey the child to Inverary to be educated in the Argyll household. Her grandmother, the Lady of Kilravock, having probably heard of the remark of Campbell of Auchinbeck, that the heiress would never die so long as a yellow-haired lassie could be found in Cowal, seared and marked the hip of the girl with the key of her coffer, that she might not be changed.

Inverliver had reached Daltulich, in Strathnairn, with the child, when he was overtaken by Alexander and Hugh Calder, her paternal uncles, who, on hearing that Muriel had been carried off by the Campbells, pursued after her escort at the head of a strong body of their retainers. Inverliver, on the approach of the pursuers, sent away the child under the care of two or three trusty clansmen, and, exclaiming in words which have long been proverbial, ‘It is a far cry to Lochaw and a distant help to the Campbells,’ turned and offered battle to the Calders. One of his men, meanwhile, in the rear, carried in his arms a sheaf of corn dressed up to resemble a child. The contest was long and obstinate, and the seven sons of Inverliver are said to have fallen in the fight. In the end, when his young charge was beyond pursuit, Muriel’s faithful protector drew off the survivors of his men and followed her to Inverary.

The result of this incident, as might have been expected, was the marriage of Muriel Calder, at the age of twelve, to Sir John Campbell, the third son of the Earl of Argyll, who founded the family of the Cawdor Campbells. Inheriting the personal character and following the policy of his race, he became almost as powerful as the chief of his clan, and his descendants for several generations shared in the fortunes of the house of Argyll. Sir John Campbell acquired large possessions in Argyllshire. Long before the general appropriation of Church lands at the Reformation, Sir John had obtained the extensive ecclesiastical territory of Muckairne, on the shores of Loch Etive, of which he had previously been bailie. It had belonged to the monks of lona, and was conveyed to Sir John by Farquhar, Bishop of the Isles and Commendator of lona. The narrative of the charter of conveyance gives a very unfavourable picture of the native population. The estate, it said, lay in ‘a wicked and pernicious province,’ from whose inhabitants the Bishop and his predecessors could get no rents or profits, and he expressed a doubt, probably unnecessary, whether Sir John Campbell will be more successful. With a view of strengthening his position in his native county, the new Thane of Cawdor entered into bonds of closest alliances with many of the Islands and Western Highlands. So great was his acknowledged influence that such haughty Highland clans as the M’Leans, Camerons, McLeods, McDonalds, and McNeills, did not disdain to become ‘leal and true men and servants’ to Sir John Campbell of Cawdor. This prosperous scion of the clan Campbell died in 1546. Lady Muriel not only survived her husband, but also their eldest son, Archibald, who died only five years after his father. In the year 1573, when she had attained a good old age, she resigned her thanage and lands in favour of her grandson, ‘Ihone Campbell, my oy, his airis male and assignayis.’ She died in 1575.

This second SIR JOHN married Mary Keith, a daughter of the powerful Earl Marischal and a younger sister of the wife of the Regent Moray, who, after his assassination, married Colin, sixth Earl of Argyll, Chancellor of Scotland. The marriage of the young Thane no doubt drew closer his connection with his chief’s family. On the death of Earl Colin, he was one of six persons appointed to advise the Countess in the management of the earldom during the minority of her son, ‘quhais counsal,’ said the Earl in his will, ‘my said spous sall follow in all the thinges concerning the weill of my son and his countre. . Attour in cace of inlaik of my wyf I lief the government of my dochtar Annas unto the said John Campbell of Calder and to his wyf, hir modir sister.’ After the death of the Countess and of Campbell of Ardkinglas, the Comptroller, Sir John seems to have governed the young Earl and his vast estates with almost undivided sway; but in 1591 he was assassinated by young Ardkinglas, the Comptroller’s son, in connection with a foul conspiracy against Archibald, seventh Earl of Argyll. [See CAMPBELLS OF BREADALBANE.] The eldest son of this unfortunate chief, a third SIR JOHN, induced Angus Macdonald to cede to him for the sum of 6,000 the fertile island of Islay. It was no easy matter, however, to obtain possession of the coveted territory, where the Macdonalds had lived for ages, as Macaulay says, ‘with the pomp of royalty;’ for the Islesmen dreaded and detested the Campbells, whom they regarded as ambitious upstarts and intruders. For a number of years they successfully resisted all the efforts of the Knight of Cawdor to dispossess them. But the Privy Council, having received from him an offer of a feu duty or perpetual rent for the island, far beyond what had ever before been paid for it, intrusted his chief and kinsman, the Earl of Argyll, with a commission against the refractory islanders, and supplied him with cannon and ammunition, and the assistance of a body of soldiers. With the help of these auxiliaries the Campbells speedily succeeded in defeating the undisciplined islanders, and compelled them to submit to their new lords.

Islay was now absolutely won and held by the Campbells of Calder, but it proved an expensive trophy to the winner. ‘With the acquisition of Islay,’ says Mr. Cosmo Innes, ‘began the misfortunes of the family. The expense of winning and keeping the island; large bribes assuredly exacted by courtiers; others possibly paid to the King for the gift; heavy rents to be made forthcoming while the land was still in the hands of enemies or waste; these causes, added to family expenses, the cost of two establishments, visits to a Court where none were welcome empty-handed, heaped up an amount of debt which in that age—innocent as yet of bills and bank-notes— might have weighed down a better manager than Sir John Campbell.’ Numerous ‘wadsetts,’ or mortgages, were given on almost the whole of his estates in Morayshire, and creditors of every degree were clamorous for payment. Large droves of cattle were levied from the people of Islay, and sent to England twice a year to pay the rent due to the Crown. But still these dues fell into arrears, and at length, in 1619, the luckless landlord was ‘put to the horn’ for nonpayment of the Crown-rents. In his deep distress Sir John proposed, in 1627, to sell Islay to his kinsman Macdonald, Earl of Antrim, for 5,000 sterling, another 1,000 to be added to the price if, in the opinion of certain arbitrators, the island should be worth more than 600 per annum of feu rent. The bargain, however, was not carried out at this time, and the island remained a century longer in the possession of the ‘Thanes of Cawdor.’ In the year 1723, John Campbell of Cawdor, M.P. for the county of Pembroke, mortgaged Islay and Jura to Donald Campbell of Shawfield, Lord Provost of Glasgow, for the sum of 6,000, reserving power to redeem these islands up till 1744. But in 1726 Cawdor made a sale of both Islay and Jura to Shawfield for the additional sum of 6,000, making the price 12,000 in all. The purchaser also became liable for the payment of the ‘wadsetts’ laid on the estates for the sum of 4,169, so that in reality the price paid for the two islands amounted to 16,169. [Reservation was made of two small estates in Islay, named Sunderland and Terobolls, which had previously been disposed of, and also of the right of the heirs of Archibald, Earl of Argyll, to hunt in the forest of Jura—a privilege which was only recently sold by the Duke to the present proprietor of the island. Islay was purchased by the late Mr. Morison of London for 451,000. When Pennant visited Islay in 1769, the rental was about 2,300: it now amounts to 30,000 a year.]

One of the Knights of Cawdor, named SIR HUGH, was noted for his zealous efforts to get the Lord’s Prayer introduced as part of the regular service in the Presbyterian Church. He repeatedly addressed letters on the subject to Principal Carstares, to the Presbytery of Inverness, and to the General Assembly. He also published, in 1704, ‘An essay on the Lord’s Prayer,’ which was followed, in 1709, by ‘Letters relative to an Essay on the Lord’s Prayer.’ Sir Hugh served in several Parliaments as member for the shire of Nairn, and like other Commissioners to Parliament, he received an allowance for his expenses. Probably owing to his zeal in pleading for the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the daily church service of Scotland, he was accused of lukewarmness for Presbyterianism. The old man replied—‘ Since ever I came to the age of a man, I made it my business to do every honest minister of the Gospel all the good offices and service that was in my power, as I could find occasion; and God honoured me so much that I relieved many honest ministers out of prison, kept more from trouble, and to be an instrument to save the lives of several who were pious, eminently pious, and knowing beyond many of their brethren, such as Mr. William Guthrie, Mr. William Veitch, and several others; and I can say I spared neither my pains nor what credit I had with any who governed the State, nor my fortune nor purse. I ventured these, and my office and life too, to save honest people who walked according to their light, without flying to extremities and taking arms against the King and Government; so that all the time from 1662 to the late Revolution, there was not one man payed a fine in the shire of Nairn, except two or three.’

Sir Hugh repaired and enlarged the old castle of Cawdor, and the builders were taken bound to ‘complete the whole work in the best and handsomest manner, so as themselves may have credit and Sir Hugh satisfaction.’ He was the last of the family who made Cawdor his chief residence. His eldest son and heir, SIR ALEXANDER CAMPBELL, married Elizabeth, sister and heiress of Sir Gilbert Lort, of Stackpole Court, Pembrokeshire, on whose death, in 1698, that estate passed to the Cawdor family. JOHN CAMPBELL, Sir Alexander’s son and heir, who sold Islay, married Mary, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Lewis Pryse of Gogirthen, Wales, and his eldest son, PRYSE CAMPBELL, took to wife Sarah, daughter and co-heiress of Sir Edmund Bacon. These successive fortunate marriages added upwards of fifty thousand acres to the family estates, and increased their income fourfold. JOHN CAMPBELL, Pryse Campbell’s elder son, was created a baron in the peerage of Great Britain, 21st June, 1790, by the title of Lord Cawdor of Castlemartin, in the county of Pembroke. His Lordship was highly commended for a gallant exploit which he performed in 1797, when a body of French troops landed at the seaport of Fishguard, in Pembrokeshire. Lord Cawdor attacked them at the head of a body of peasantry assisted by a few soldiers, and compelled the invaders, twelve hundred in number, to surrender themselves prisoners. JOHN FREDERICK CAMPBELL, his eldest son, was raised to the rank of Earl of Cawdor in 1827. The family honours and estates are now in the possession of his son, JOHN FREDERICK VAUGHAN CAMPBELL, second Earl and third Baron Cawdor. Unlike their kinsmen of Argyll and Breadalbane, the Cawdor Campbells have attached themselves to the Conservative party. The present Earl represented Carmarthenshire for nineteen years, and his eldest son, Viscount Emlyn, has been one of the members for that county since 1874. The family estates comprise 101,857 acres, of which 46,176 acres are in Nairn, 3,943 in Inverness, 33,782 in Carmarthen, 17,935 in Pembroke, and 21 in Cardigan. According to the Doomsday Book, the annual rental amounts to 44,644.

In addition to four peers (a Duke and three Earls) of MacCalian More’s lineage, there are no fewer than twenty-eight Campbells in Scotland, each possessing 5,000 acres and upwards, the total extent of their estates being 538,861 acres.


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