Cawdor Castle archive

Grant funding enabled research into the private Cawdor Estate archive

Cawdor Estate report

Part of a Cawdor Estate report

I was given permission to research the Cawdor archive for a two-week period by the Dowager Countess Cawdor. Before my visit I had searched the National Register of Archives, Scotland (NRAS), Cawdor catalogue, for items that would throw light upon the development of the estate from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Lady Cawdor had these items waiting for me upon my arrival. I was aware that Cosimo Innes in his book The Book of the Thanes of Cawdor (1859) had been very selective in his use of documents and besides had stopped his research by the beginning of the eighteenth century. By that time the Cawdor family had moved, politically, to London, had acquired a large estate in south-west Wales which became their main seat. The Scottish estate was left in the hands of relatives and then commissioners based in Edinburgh. This situation pertained for much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Indeed, the estate was completely leased out in the last decade of the eighteenth century – unfortunately one of the bundles requested relating to this could not be found. However, John Campbell (1695-1777), as an absentee landlord did show great interest in the Scottish estate when it came to politics – Nairn was a relatively safe sea – and perhaps more so regarding any financial returns from the estate due to him. Hence of the eighteenth century documents requested related to financial matters.

The documents I requested before my visit were, in reality, a lot more than I expected. Two items described as bundles on the NRAS relating to the Cawdors’ ownership of Islay, were in actuality 22 bundles – several hundred documents – dating back to c.1602. Obviously, two weeks was not nearly enough time to work through even these items. To these items must be added bundles of documents relating to the estate in Nairnshire and bundles relating to various family members, in particularly Sir Hugh Campbell (d.1716), a prolific letter writer, thirty years a Scottish MP, initially a supporter of the Union, and latterly a Jacobite. Sir Hugh also had time to re-build large parts of the castle. A man worthy of a study in his own right!

Accepting that time was of the utmost, I decided to photograph a large proportion of the documents requested. Thus, I am currently working my way through approximately a thousand photographs. The full impact of my visit will not be evident until I have completed the reading of the documents photographed. However, I am confident that once completed the information from these images will give me an overview of the Scottish Cawdor estate which, in turn, will give my book a more rounded picture of the Cawdors and their position in British society from the sixteenth century onwards.

As an example of what has been discovered so far: the attached image is part of a long report written by one Alexander Campbell (no relation…I think he was one of the Cawdors’ commissioners) to Archibald Campbell of Clunes, who was managing the estate on behalf of his nephew, the laird, John Campbell in 1720. The document reports on developments on the estate, particularly Islay. As well as being a document of importance for the development of the estate – the writer outlines his views on what should be undertaken – it is an interesting document for the social history of Islay. The writer refers to a whale being washed ashore and the ensuing argument regarding ownership – between four ‘pretenders’, including the laird of Cawdor and the sheriff of Argyll – of the valuable carcase. Whilst the argument continued the local populace helped themselves to the most valuable parts of the dead beast! The writer further reports of a pirate ship being run aground, at Lochcraig[?], the captain being the Welsh pirate, Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart), the desertion of all the crew of forty two, who took the gold on board and stashed it in cottages around the island where they lodged! A proclamation by the sheriff for locals to give up gold met with little response.

Dr John Davies

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