Cawdor Castle was established around a strong well-fortified tower in the second half of the 14 th century. Although the royal licence to fortify the tower dates from 1454, this was because it was originally a royal castle and when James II gave it to the Thane of Cawdor it came with a newly issued licence with that date on it. Mistakes have been made with the dating of Cawdor for this reason, a fortified structure should never be dated on the evidence of a licence alone.
Cawdor is a splendid example of an early, large Scottish tower-house, and is one of the few medieval castles in Scotland still privately inhabited. The Thanes of Cawdor have lived continuously at the castle for 600 years and were very active in local politics through the centuries. Cawdor's history is at times very dark, and grisly acts have occurred within its walls. Both the 4 th and 11 th Thanes were brutally murdered in the castle. Tradition also has it that the mother of one of the thanes, when only a baby herself, was branded by her mother to frustrate any possibility of impersonation - an alternative account has the top joint of a finger bitten off by her nurse.
Shakespeare too, has contributed to the violence associated with the castle. It is a sassenach legend, taken up by the Scots that Macbeth was an early Thane of Cawdor and that King Duncan was murdered on the premises by the conspiratorial thane. In fact, the murderous deed occurred in the 11 th century, some 300 years before the stones of Cawdor Castle were laid in place. Nevertheless, in years gone by gullible visitors were shown a room in the castle tower purporting to be the scene of the regicide.
Cawdor Castle is rectangular in shape, sited on a steep bank overlooking the little Cawdor Burn, which forms the western defence line, with deep dry ditches on the north and east and the entrance guarded by a drawbridge over the ditch. The original square tower is located in the centre of the complex and was partly built with the masonry from an earlier building on the site that was demolished when Cawdor was planned. The keep was originally of four storeys, the first and fourth being the most vulnerable to attack had stone barrel vaults. An early curtain wall surrounding the tower was replaced by largely 17 th century residential buildings on the north and east sides. The Thane's alterations, from 1454, included a new and stronger entranceway with a yett, machicolations and round corbelled turrets at each corner of the tower.
The castle contains some rare tapestries, portraits by illustrious painters including Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, and fine examples of furniture by Sheraton and Chippendale. There is also much memorabilia of the Campbells of Cawdor, a race distinguished for their military achievements. Despite being still occupied, visitors can explore parts of the tower and most of the later buildings on site.