Cawdor Castle

Nairn, Scotland | C.1370

Photo Credit: James Lancaster

Before he was immortalized by Shakespeare’s hand, Macbeth was a real king who ruled over a region of Scotland during the 11th century – but many accounts of his life are rooted in fiction – including his connection with Cawdor Castle.

Though he died in 1057, by the 14th century Macbeth’s legacy had become legend as Scottish poets began weaving his life’s story into historical accounts. An English historian named Raphael Holinshed included Macbeth in the “Holinshed’s Chronicles.”, which at the time was considered the most “complete printed history of England”.

Shakespeare would go on to base much – but certainly not all – of his play on the story from Holinshed’s Chronicles. In the play, Macbeth is portrayed as a loyal general under King Duncan, but things take a turn for the worse (and the fantastical) after he’s manipulated by the Three Witches, he usurps the throne and becomes a murderous tyrant. It’s believed that Shakespeare’s unflattering portrayal of Macbeth may have been driven by the fact that the ruling monarch at the time (King James) was a descendent of Malcolm III, who killed the real-life Macbeth’s stepson.

So how did Shakespeare come up with “Thane of Cawdor” as Macbeth is famously referred? Well, according to sources, it was actually Holinshed who coined the title. He changed it to “Thane of Cawdor” in his historical account because…it sounded better. Talk about poetic license. The real Macbeth died 130 years before the title Thane of Cawdor was ever granted. Luckily for Cawdor Castle, this creative change has forever entwined the fortress to one of the most famous literary characters in history.

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