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Tree at Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle and the Thorn Tree

May 11th 2022

The legendary tale goes that William 3rd Thane of Cawdor, who had a castle about a mile away from the current location, decided to build a new stronger castle for the better protection of his family, and his possessions. He received instruction on how to choose the site in a convenient dream…

He was to load a donkey with a chest of gold and let it roam about the district for a day. Where it lay down, he should build his new castle.

As donkeys are not noted for their co-operation, even in legends, he may have had to coax the stubborn beast a little, or it would surely have sat in a bog, just for spite.

Master and donkey settled their differences and finally came to rest where a lone thorn tree stood on a rocky height above a burn. The Thane got to work and the central keep at Cawdor was built in that very spot, around the lone tree.

Cawdor Gardens

Whatever truth there may be in the story, to this day, in the vaulted dungeon, there stands the battered trunk of an ancient tree which modern scientific dating of the wood by radiocarbon measurement gives the approximate date of AD 1372.

For centuries, the tree has been regarded as a hawthorn [Cratagus monogyna]. Still, in this respect, the legend has gone adrift, because microscopic analysis of the wood identifies the tree as a holly [Ilex aquifolium].

Perhaps the ‘thorn tree’ site was chosen for religious or superstitious reasons in symbolic connection with Christ’s crown.

In mythology, the holly was one of the seven sacred trees of the Celtic grove.

Cawdor Castle Grounds

The date of the tree tends to support expert opinion that this part of the castle was built in the last quarter of the 14th century, some years before the first documented record of the tower which is a letter from King James II of Scotland to his ‘beloved familiar squire’ Thane William of Cawdor, granting permission to fortify and crenelate his castle dated 6 August 1454 and sealed at Stirling Castle.

Cawdor Castle is open to the public every day, 10am – 5pm, 30th April – 2nd October 2022.

Visit Cawdor Castle Gardens