Campbell of Cawdor

At the very time when the Gordons were conspiring to seize the earldom of Sutherland in the far north, the Campbells scored their most dramatic success in the Gordon sphere of influence.  John of Calder died in 1494, leaving a daughter Muriel as his posthumous heir.  The baby's maternal grandfather, Rose of Kilravock, faced a criminal prosecution at the time for robbery, and the Justice-General was Archibald, 2nd Earl of Argyll.  By 1495 he had eased Kilravock's difficulties and obtained the wardship of the baby heiress of Calder from James IV.  A force of Campbells then seized her by force and carried her away to Inveraray in 1499.

Legend tells that her mother had time to brand her with a red-hot key, and her nurse to bite off the joint of her little finger, lest the Campbells should put a spurious heiress in her place.  It would have been a wise precaution.  The Campbells lost many of their men as they beat off their pursuers, and someone suggested that if the child were to die, much blood would have been spilt in vain.  To this the leader of the Campbell party replied that the heiress could never die so long as there was a red-haired lass on the banks of Loch Fyne.  Supposedly it was the genuine heiress Muriel who was married in 1510 to Sir John Campbell, third son of Argyll, and returned with him to live at Calder in the country of Nairn, now known as Cawdor.

Their castle still stands in the fertile lands south of the Moray Firth which enjoy an exceptionally fine climate for their latitude, and it is said that the lord of Cawdor had selected this pleasant location in 1454 by letting loose a donkey laden with gold, and observing the spot where it stopped to rest.  The hawthorn tree beneath which the donkey halted still stands in the vaults of the castle.

Here the heiress Muriel outlived her husband by several decades and was succeeded by her grandson when she died in 1573.  But instead of resting content with his delightful patrimony, he sold many of his lands in order to finance the conquest of Islay, still the possession of Sir James MacDonald after the abolition of the Lordship.  In this operation Sir John of Cawdor was assisted by the 7th Earl of Argyll, who became a Catholic and ended his days in exile.  In 1624 Cawdor too was converted to the Catholic faith by the Irish Franciscan Father Corneilus Ward.  Thus these two Campbells demonstrated in the end that their convictions meant more to them than material gain.  But Islay fell under the remote dominion of the Campbells of Cawdor until 1726, when it was purchased by another member of the same clan.

Fine additions were made to the castle by Sir Hugh Campbell (1642-1716), who married Henrietta Stuart, daughter of the Earl of Moray.  But after their son Sir Alexander married the heiress of Stackpole in Pembrokeshire the family gravitated increasingly to Wales.  John Campbell the heir married another Welsh heiress, and it was their grandson John who in 1796 was created baron Cawdor of Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire.  The second Baron was created Earl of Cawdor after George IV's visit to Stackpole in 1827.

Subsequently his kinsfolk have earned one of the most impressive collections of gallantry awards on record in a single family, including three Victoria Crosses.  The 5th Earl, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Cameron Highlanders during the Second World War, returned to make Cawdor his family's principal home once more.  He was also chairman of the Scottish Historic Buildings Council and a trustee of the National Museum of Antiquities.  Since his death in 1970 his son Hugh, the 6th Earl (b. 1932) has dismantled the gigantic mansion of Stackpole and opened that gem of baronial architecture, Cawdor Castle, to the public.

Ian Grimble
Scottish Clans and Tartans