Cawdor Castle – No Trace of Lady Macbeth but Plenty of Palladianism

Cawdor castle lies 5 miles south-west of Nairn in the north east of Scotland. It was chosen by William Shakespeare as one of the principle settings for his play “The Tragedy of Macbeth” first performed in 1606 for King James VI of Scotland and I of England and loosely based on upon Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) for the background history and the Daemonologie of King James I published in 1597 for accounts of witchcraft in Scotland. The facts as we know them today are that Macbeth was a real King of Scotland (reigned 1040-1057) who defeated the inept King Duncan I (reigned 1001-1040) who, after just surviving a crushing defeat in a retaliatory raid in or near Durham in 1039 by Northumbrians led an army the following year north into Moray, Macbeth’s domain, apparently on a punitive expedition against Moray. There Duncan was killed in action, at Bothnagowan, now Pitgaveny, near Elgin, by the men of Moray led by Macbeth, probably on 14 August 1040. Macbeth’s subsequent 17-year reign was mostly peaceful and ended when he was killed at the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057 by forces loyal to the future Malcolm III. He was buried on Iona, the traditional resting place of Scottish kings.

Let’s get Shakespeare out of the way

Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is far removed from this historical version of events, it was written to appeal to the scholarly Scottish King James I of England who was Shakespeare’s patron and who was deeply familiar with and antagonistic to occult practices and their social causes and consequences in early modern Scotland. The early sources like Hollinshead have King Duncan being murdered by Macbeth at Inverness Castle, but Shakespeare has Macbeth murder King Duncan in Macbeth’s home at Cawdor Castle, thus in the eyes of a Jacobean audience violating medieval society’s deeply held notions of hospitality and sanctuary and further demonizing the leading protagonist. Although spurious it’s an association with Cawdor Castle which has stuck. The reality of this magnificent survival of late medieval Scottish fortification and early modern aristocratic life is far more interesting and it’s our focus here.

The Architectural Context

 In 1310 King Robert I (The ‘Bruce’) (reigned 1306 – 1329) granted William, Thane of Cawdor, a charter to the thanage and lands of Cawdor continuing a tradition of his predecessor King Alexander III (1249-1286) which may have been briefly interrupted by John Baliol (reigned 1292-96) and then by Scotland’s monarch-less interregnum between 1296 and the coronation Robert the Bruce in 1306. It is likely that some form of fortification existed on the site well before this and that the lower parts of the existing keep were in place at least as early as 1372 however the first documentary evidence of building comes from 1454 when William the 6th Thane of Cawdor was granted a license to crenelate the existing castle of Cawdor by James II of Scotland (reigned 1437-1460). The Keep that arose from this license is a severe, rubble-built rectangle about 10.4m x 13.7m and four storeys in height. Later 17th century battlements, bartizans, and a 16th century garret surmount possibly earlier corbels and at least one set of machicolations from the 15th century. The original entrance to the tower was a round-headed arch at first floor level on the east side which was blocked up in the 17th century when a programme of re-fenestration was undertaken. This entrance would have been reached by a removable wooden stair from the entrance courtyard. A chapel was founded in 1467 in the smaller, southern-most of two courtyards which surrounded the keep and the castle’s outer ranges were added in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1639 Robert and George Nicholson (Masons) added an attic to the hall and gallery block and rebuilt the kitchen creating a big, crow-stepped gable range. The building of the west range behind this block is undocumented but is likely about 1660-1670’s.  In 1699 John the 16th Thane engaged James and Robert Nicholson (Masons) to build a small tower and add the North Court’s East Range.

19th Century Barionalization

 It wasn’t until 1854 that any further major work was carried out when John Frederick the 19th Thane and 1st Earl of Cawdor employed Mackenzie and Matthews (Architects) to baronialize the building to give it a more overtly 17th century appearance. This kind of historical make-over was all the rage. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe published in 1819, changed Victorian taste towards a popularisation of Medievalism at the beginning of the 19th century. Ivanhoe turned towards a new realism which depicted Medieval life. The vivid depictions of castles, banquets and tournaments contained in the novel captured the public imagination and generated a huge interest in all things Medieval, with tourists frequently visiting places mentioned in this and later texts – often with Scott’s books in hand. Scott’s own house, Abbotsford near Melrose in the Scottish Borders was one of them and was located on the banks of the River Tweed. By the year of Scott’s death in 1832, Abbotsford had been transformed into a turreted and battlemented exercise in the Scottish Baronial style that attracted tourists from all over Europe and America. It set the fashion and the 1st Earl, perhaps with the desire to make the somewhat neglected Cawdor Castle worthy of his new title of Earl (granted in 1827) followed this fashion. A plethora of crow steps, and turrets, dormers and a cap-house were added, windows enlarged and flat roofs replaced with pitched ones. A short crow-stepped block of offices was added to the south end of the west range. This process of Baronialization was continued in 1884 under John Frederick Vaughan the 20th Thane and 2nd Earl when Alexander Ross (Architect) added a wing south of the entrance which completed the configuration of this complex of buildings as we now see them. Although the architectural language of the exterior is medieval, it’s arrangement, particularly at the all-important entrance facade, is consciously near symmetrical and not medieval at all. This gives the visitor a clear signal that a rather different and more Neo-classical set of architectural and cultural ambitions are at work in this building – a fact which for the visitor becomes more fully apparent in the interiors.

The Drawing Room

Left – the 1684 fireplace inn the Drawing Room by masons James and Robert Nicholson. Right – The Drawing Room with a large portrait of Sarah Campbell holding a wreath or garland, painted by Francis Cotes in 1762.

 You arrive in the castle through the main gate with a drawbridge, pass through an outer and an inner courtyard and enter the 1639-43 gallery block to ascend a large scale-and-platt stair to the Drawing Room. This occupies what once was the Great Hall of the castle and in its present configuration dates from the 16th century but it has been frequently re-modelled. The beamed ceiling is a 19th century replacement and the fireplace is most likely one produced by masons James and Robert Nicholson in 1684. At the opposite end of the room from the fireplace is the minstrel’s gallery. There are a number of fine family portraits by Francis Cotes RA (1726 – 1770) an English painter, one of the pioneers of English pastel painting, and a founding member of the Royal Academy and a 1788 portrait of John Campbell 1st Baron Cawdor and 18th Thane by Sir Joshua Reynolds. There are other portraits by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Gilpin, Reinagle & Barret, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir William Beechey and Frederick Say.

The Tapestry bedroom

Left – Detail of tapestry “Moses and the Israelites Crossing the Red Sea.”an Egyptian being consumed by the waters.  Middle – The four poster marriage bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart, 1662 (heavily restored). Right – Detail of tapestry “Moses and the Israelites Crossing the Red Sea.” Moses commands the Red Sea to close upon the Egyptians.

 Above the main hall and reached by a small winding staircase is the Tapestry Bedroom which was part of the 17th century renovations to the castle. It has heavy plaster cornices and is hung with Flemish tapestries (also known as Arras Hangings) depicting the life of Noah, the Flight into Egypt and Hunting Scenes all of which were imported from Oudenaarde in 1682 via Ghent, Bruges and ports in Scotland especially for this room. They are woven from wool and silk and are hung directly over un-plastered walls. For furniture there is the four poster marriage bed of Sir Hugh Campbell and Lady Henrietta Stuart, 1662,  a walnut and wicker day bed (of the period of Charles II), a Louis XV French marquetry writing desk made and signed by Hache in Grenoble and an English saddle seat chair in yew wood and elm of about 1760.

The Yellow Room

Left – The Yellow Room, the large landscape painting is of Dortrecht and attributed to Aelbert Cuyp c.1640. The 18th century cupboard in the corner contains a television set. Right – A large portrait of the 2nd Earl of Cawdor wearing a kilt painted by Frederick Say (1804 – 1868) who was a notable society portrait painter in London between about 1830 and 1860, though is little known now.

 Next to the Tapestry bedroom and again above the Great hall is the Yellow Room. This is a quaintly irregular sitting room with off-centre windows and fireplace which non-the-less has a cosy charm which is most inviting.

The woodcock Room

 The woodcock room is situated in the 17th century addition to the castle and dates from the 1670’s. Originally it was much larger and served originally as a sitting room, then around 1748 as a dining room, then in the 1860’s as “the young ladies bedroom” and around 1880 was partitioned into two to create an additional dressing room-cum-bedroom. The four-poster bed is a Sheraton and was Lady Caroline Campbell’s Marriage Bed from 1789. Her portrait by Sir William Beechey hangs over the fireplace. There is a large portrait by Francis Cotes RA of Eustacia Campbell and on the wall between the windows is a 1745 pastel portrait by William Hoare of Pryse Campbell which is particularly fine. Interestingly, before its partition the room was planned out with the proportions of the Golden Section (1 to the square root of 5 plus 1 divided by 2) and more recently the room has been returned to its original and very pleasing proportions.

The Pink Bedroom

Beyond the Woodcock room is the Pink Bedroom. Here there are two mahogany, four poster beds which are probably Chippendale and although not identical, one is slightly taller than the other, they form a reasonably well matched pair. The tapestries are part of the Don Quixote set, the rest of which appear in the family dining room and date from 1680. Next door is the Pink Dressing Room which apart from some family memorabilia has little of note to distinguish it and is used as an additional room to the Pink bedroom or individually as a single bedroom.

The Tower Room

 After the Great hall this is probably the most distinguished of the rooms at Cawdor. It’s located on the first floor of the old Keep, where the original arched doorway used to be. The windows were enlarged in a 17th century programme of refenestration and refurbishment but the old, narrow stone lintels can be seen from the drawbridge outside. In 1819 the room was gutted by fire and the plain white walls one sees today would have been oak panelled before this. On these walls are displayed Flemish tapestries depicting the Arts and Sciences, they date to about 1630 and are stylistically close to the school of Rubens. There is a charming seascape of “Evening” by Joseph Vernet, a landscape by Claude in the far window recess and above the Chinese Coromandel cabinet between the windows is a 1725 painting by Fermin Aguayo called “la Baigneuse.” For more modern tastes there’s also a very decent harbour scene with boats by John Piper above the door. The doorway to the right of the fireplace leads to a late medieval garderobe (toilet).

Colen Campbell (1676 – 1729) – Arbiter of Taste

Left – Stucco portrait of Colen Campbell (1676-1729) in ceiling at Compton Place, Eastbourne, East Sussex, England, c.1726. Right – Frontispiece to Volume 1 of Vitruvius Britannicus, 1715.

Sir Hugh Campbell the 14th Thane (1635 – 1716) made many of the large additions and alterations to the Castle but it was his nephew Colen Campbell who is architecturally more famous. Colen Campbell (1676 – 1729) was the son of a Campbell family love child and was a pioneering Scottish architect and architectural writer, credited as a founder of the Georgian style. He graduated from Edinburgh University as an advocate in July 1695, travelled in Europe, particularly Italy and is believed to be the Colinus Campbell who signed the visitor’s book at the University of Padua in 1697. He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates on 29 July 1702 but it’s likely that at this point or shortly afterwards he studied architecture under James Smith (c. 1645–1731) a Scottish Palladian architect of considerable ability. Campbell owned several of Smith’s drawings and gives Smith considerable praise in the introduction to the book for which he is most famous and which forever changed the direction of British architecture – Vitruvius Britannicus (published in 3 volumes from 1715-1725). The 1720’s -1750’s in Britain are characterised architecturally by what is called the “rule of taste” a set of distinct ideas as to what was good in architecture that became widely held in Britain, and established standards, based on the acknowledged excellence of certain architects and authors, which were widely endorsed. The start of this new taste in architecture can be dated to the publication of the first volume of Colin Campbell’s Vitruvius Brittanicus in 1715, a collection of one hundred engravings of classical buildings in Britain. Volume 2 appeared in 1717 and a supplementary volume in 1725. He was also a practicing architect and built a number of influential, large private country houses including Wanstead House, Essex (1714–15) demolished (1822), Burlington House, London, south front, and west wing (1717), Houghton Hall, Norfolk (jointly with others) and Mereworth Castle, Kent (1722–23), all of which appear in the book. Together with a translation by Nicholas Dubois (c. 1665-1735) of Palladio’s ‘I quattro libri dell’ architettura’, in two folio volumes the first in 1716, with plates specially redrawn by Giacomo Leoni (1686- 1746) and engraved in Holland, Vitruvius Brittanicus proved most influential. It provided, at exactly the right moment, something unprecedented at the time – a catalogue of built and un-built designs for English country houses which were considered architecture. The book was planned by Campbell not only as a manifesto for the new style but as a tour de force of self-promotion, with himself as the doyen of this style in England. In the book right at its psychological summit – just after the preliminary parade of new churches and Inigo Jones masterpieces – is a house by Colen Campbell himself: Wanstead House in Essex, just then approaching completion for the heir of an East Indian fortune, Sir Richard Child. Campbell managed to use the work to display himself as the author of the purest, most classical house of the day and, with one or two exceptions, the largest. If Colen Campbell had built nothing other than Wanstead House he would still be marked as an innovator. But no less consequential than Wanstead was the house he designed for Sir Robert Walpole the Prime Minister of England and which was built on Walpole’s family estate at Houghton, Norfolk, in 1722, Houghton Hall. It would be no exaggeration to say of Colin Campbell that between the years 1715 and 1724 he set up the models upon which the whole of Palladianism in England was to depend. His achievement was twofold. First, at Wanstead and Houghton he took late seventeenth- century conceptions of the great house and remodeled them in the light of Palladio and Jones. Second, at Mereworth, Stourhead, and elsewhere he took Palladio’s own conceptions and exhibited them as prototypes of what was to become the English villa.

It is hardly surprising that Sir Hugh Campbell the 14th Thane reputedly found his precocious and ambitious nephew somewhat tiresome. Together with his wife lady Henrietta of Darnaway from 1684 onwards (Colen was only 8 years old at this stage) it was Sir Hugh who was responsible for turning a grim medieval fortress into a generous mansion with large windows, handsome fireplaces, splendid beds, books, architectural detail and tapestries. Sir Hugh clearly had a sense of style and was alert to architectural fashion and Palladianism, and what is more seems to have been able to adapt it to a Scottish context and a less than accommodating pre-existing medieval building. By 1702 Sir Hugh had successfully finished his works to the Castle and could now entertain guests in suitable style and comfort. This was thirteen years before the publication of his nephew Colen’s Vitruvius Britannicus and the same year that Colen was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates after his return from Italy. It is intriguing to speculate that along with the Scottish architect James Smith perhaps it was his uncle Sir Hugh Campbell the 14th Thane’s “Palladian” building programme and interest in architecture at Cawdor Castle which first captured the young Colen Campbell’s imagination, steered him from the law to architecture and gave eighteenth century British Architecture one of its most influential and talented exponents. 



About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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