Scotland in the spring: To Cawdor Castle

Cawdor from the gardens

It’s surprising what gets classified as a tourist attraction in some parts of the world.

How about a shop?

That’s where we found ourselves on a wet morning on our last full day in the Scottish Cairngorms. It was billed as the Scottish Heather Centre but turned out to be little more than a garden centre, antiques shop and store flogging a wide range of Scottish-themed stuff.

We joined a coach-load of pensioners, who were busy buying up all sorts of tat – the sort that pensioners and mothers of a certain age tend to clutter their homes with. At least it had antiques and, somewhat astonishingly, we found something we could buy – a gorgeous Caithness smoked glass decanter from the early 1960s. I say astonishingly because we never normally find anything worth buying in such places.

Cawdor's formal gardens - the sculpture was made out of old roof tiles
Cawdor’s formal gardens – the sculpture was made out of old roof tiles

As for the heather – we didn’t spot any and I wasn’t too disappointed either.

With the weather so damp we weren’t going to be walking. So Graham picked out Cawdor Castle as a destination.

About 45 minutes away in the car, we drove out of the Cairngorms National Park over barren moors. Clouds hung miserably over the mountains and the windscreen wipers were put to good use in the drizzle.

But the views were great as we drove along roads lined with yellow flowering gorse, and across ancient bridges that crossed lively burns. Villages were few and far between, with only the very occasional farm giving away man’s presence in the landscape.

More of Cawdor
More of Cawdor

Cawdor lies in a much more man-made landscape, one that has been planted, manicured and farmed by lairds and peasants for centuries. Surrounded by giant pines and deciduous trees, it is your typical fairytale castle.

At its heart is a majestic 15th century keep, the oldest part of the property, that’s reached via a drawbridge. Around the tower is a collection of buildings erected in subsequent centuries, some more country cottage than sturdy castle.

The river that runs beside the castle
The river that runs beside the castle

Inside, we toured some exquisitely furnished rooms, most of which looked as if they were regularly used by the family. And that was the charm of the castle. Historic, yes, but lived in and comfortable, welcoming and warm. It wasn’t too stuffy, so modern art hung alongside more traditional paintings, and family photos rested on cabinets alongside priceless antiques. However, things are not quite what they seem…

We had a sandwich in the cafe, where the glam, tall and slender Dowager Countess of Cawdor cleared tables and topped up the cakes. Depending on your point of view she’s either the rightful heir to the castle or the evil witch. When her husband the 6th Earl died he disinherited the children from his first marriage and left the house to her. The family have been fighting in and out of court since, revealing that not all is well in a family supposedly linked to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Outside, the rain held off as we toured the delightful formal gardens.


Later, we drove a few miles further on, to the Moray Firth and the coastal town of Nairn. A vast expanse of sandy beach greeted us but the wind and drizzle just didn’t do it justice, reminding me of a gloomy few days we spent in Carnac, Brittany.

A walk around the town didn’t do much to lift the spirits either. The run-down high street spoke to the relative poverty of the region, although a few streets away we discovered the old town, its pretty cottages and the ruins of an old church.

That night, with our hotel restaurant closed, we went back into Grantown and ate again at the Garth Hotel.


The Cairngorms from the Lecht
The Cairngorms from the Lecht

Our drive in the morning back to Aberdeen Airport ended up being a marathon. We took the scenic route across the mountains, stopping at the pretty village of Tomintoul en route and marvelling at the landscapes while the sun finally shone.

At the remote Lecht ski centre, we stopped and gazed across the mountains south towards Ballater and Braemar, overwhelmed by the drama of the Cairngorms.

And then we realised we were running out of time. The sat-nav took us up and down endless country lanes, through landscapes that were becoming a lot more agricultural, and landed us in traffic jams in Aberdeen. Stress levels hitting maximum, I needed a beer or two by the time we found a seat in the BA Lounge.

The sun continued to shine but as we flew south in an old and noisy Saab 2000 turboprop, the torrential rain began to fall. Clearly, on this break, it was destined to stay with us until the bitter end.

Leave a Reply