William Shakespeare made Macbeth the Thane of Glamis in the opening scenes of The Tragedy of Macbeth. He based his story on a contemporary history The Chronicles of England, by Holinshed. But even before Shakespeare took wild liberties with the story - oh all right, poetic license then - the book was already heavily censored by Queen Elizabeth I's officials. So, as a historical document, the play is pretty suspect.
This much was true. Macbeth was really a murderous 11th century Scottish king (and by the way, so were a lot of others). He did kill King Duncan, probably in battle. And he was, 14 years later, killed by Duncan's son Malcolm, once again in battle. But his connections to Glamis (pronounced GlAHms) and Cawdor (pronounced a bit like Coder) are entirely fictional. In fact, neither castle was even built during the 11th century setting of the play. Nevermind - they are both among the best castles in Scotland to visit.
Why Visit Glamis
Despite the lack of any historical connection to (or trace of) the historical villain, Glamis Castle, about 13 miles north of Dundee and Loch Tay, is definitely worth a side trip. The castle has been home to the Lyon (later Bowes-Lyon) family, the Earls of Strathmore, since it was built in the 14th century. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother, grew up there and the current Queen's late sister, Princess Margaret, was born there.
A Bloody History
Forget about Macbeth. Murders and grisly deaths aplenty took place at Glamis. In 1034, about 250 years before the castle was built, the Scots king, Malcolm II died in a royal hunting lodge at Glamis - perhaps as a result of murder.
A legendary secret room in the castle may be the troubled prison of a ghostly Earl who is condemned to play cards there forever. A 15th century guest at the castle, the Earl refused to stop playing cards on the sabbath and flew into a rage, when pressed by the servants, to end his game. He swore to play until doomsday or with the devil himself which is, so the story goes, his fate.
A horrible end with more historical evidence was the death, in 1540, of Lady Janet Douglas, widow of Lord Glamis. King James V had been feuding with her family - and he probably had designs on the Castle. First he accused her of treason; then she was charged with poisoning her husband, and finally, on the King's orders, she was burnt at the stake for witchcraft...After which the King grabbed the castle and moved in.
A year after his death in a battle (Scottish kings had a bad habit of dying that way), Glamis castle was returned to its original owners by his daughter Mary Stuart - more commonly known as Mary, Queen of Scots. Probably it was one of Mary's competing regents who restored the castle to the Bowes-Lyons, since she was only nine months and six days old at the time.
What to See Now
Much of the Castle was restored in the 17th century and resembles a French chateau of that period, but the original, 14th century fortified tower house is still at its center. Among the house's many attractions:
- guided tours by knowledgable docents, through rooms that date from the 15th to the mid 19th centuries.
- an elaborate family chapel where a rebellious political act took place at the end of the Jacobite rebellion in 1715. There, James Francis Edward Stuart, son of deposed King James II of England and known as The Old Pretender or the Old Chevalier "touched for the 'King's Evil'". This was an ancient ritual whereby the king touched the heads of penitents suffering from a scalp disease known as scrofula, to cure them. By the 18th century, performing this ritual was more of a political act, a way of declaring himself rightful king. Sadly for him, it was no help in winning back the throne.
- a crypt where the secret location of the devil's card game may be hidden.
- Duncan's Hall, a nod to the Macbeth story. Here, in the oldest part of the castle, the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth is commemorated. The actual killing (in battle rather than by stealth),took place about 100 miles away, near Elgin.
- a series of gardens planted in the 19th and early 20th century, including a walled kitchen garden, a nature trail and an Italian garden.
- Where: Dundee Road,Glamis, Forfar, Angus DD8 1RJ
- Contact: +44 (0)1307 840393
- Open: End of March to End of December, from 10:30am to 6pm in summer and fall and to 4:30pm November and December
- Admission: Adult, senior, student, child, family and group tickets available.
- Travel Directions: Find on a map or visit website for more.
At Cawdor, Golf and Salmon are Easier to Find than Macbeth
According to a family story, John Campbell, the 5th Earl Cawdor (1900-1970) was reported to have grumpily commented (probably when asked one too many times about Macbeth), "I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!"
So much for the connection between the real Macbeth and 14th century Cawdor Castle - actually built about 300 years after life of the real (and fictional) Macbeth. Ironically, even in Shakespeare's play, the murder of the king takes place in Inverness. But because, early in the play, Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor as a reward for victory in battle, the story has become attatched to this impressive fortified house.
Legends and Dark Deeds
The Thorn Tree: Visitors to the castle might be puzzled by the slender trunk of a long dead tree, still rooted in the ground and kept in a vaulted chamber in the oldest part of Cawdor Castle, According to legend, the Thane of Cawdor who built the house had a dream instructing him to load a donkey with chests of gold and to build his castle wherever the donkey decided to rest for the night. The donkey lay down beneath a hawthorn tree and there the castle was built - around the tree. Carbon testing of the tree shows that it died about 1372, probably close to the date the house was built.
Poor Little Muriel: Cawdor originally belonged to the Calder family (Cawdor is a variation of Calder). How it became part of the powerful Clan Campbell holdings (which it is to this day) is a typically nasty medieval story. Muriel Calder inherited the castle and estates when she was a young child. While her uncles squabbled over how to keep the castle within their family, Muriel attained the ripe old age of 12, at which point she was kidnapped by the Earl of Argyll and married to his son, Sir John Campbell. Whether this was a kidnap or a rescue despends upon which side relates the story. (Read the Campbell version). Nevertheless, imaginative sources suggest that a ghost in a blue velvet dress - who might be Muriel - stalks the castle corridors.
Things to see and do at Cawdor
After you've taken the house tour - which includes a kitchen in constant use relatively unchanged from the 1600s to the 1930s and the famous thorn tree - Cawdor's main attractions are outdoors and include:
- Golf - a 1161 yard (par 32) course is laid out over 25 acres of parkland. It's open daily, from May through early October with a modest fee for a round of golf (£13.50 in 2018), Visitors who are touring the area can even hire clubs. Find out more
- Salmon fishing - The Banchor Beat on the River Findhorn is also known as the Laird's Beat of Cawdor Castle because it crosses the estate. If you're an experienced salmon fisherman and know how to go after different types of fish in the many pools and rocky stretches of the river, you can fish on your own. The beat can be rented, with two rods for three days costing about £800. The services of a ghillie, or local fishing guide, are extra. Find out more.
- Gardens - Three gardens, an 18th century flower garden, a 17th century walled garden, and a modern wild garden are all open to visitors. Some seasons, tea is served in the gardens. Find out more.
A three bedroom cottage overlooking the Findhorn is also available for weekly rental.
Travel Tip - Cawdor is still a family home and only four rooms plus the thorn tree room are open to visitors. To get the most value from the admission price you should spend time in the gardens and make use of the nature trails through the "Big Wood". The castle gardens, dotted with modern sculpture and alive with chaffinches, are among the best we've ever visited, by the way, and really worth your time.
- Where: Cawdor Castle, Nairn IV12 5RD, Scotland
- Contact: +44 (0)1667 404401
- Open: May 1 to September 30, from 10am to 5:30pm every day
- Admission: Adult, senior, student, child, family and group tickets available. Check website for current prices.
- Travel Directions: Find on a map or visit website for more.