We owe respect to the living; the dead we owe only truth. --Voltaire
When the Inverness flight took off from Heathrow, London was experiencing the kind of June evening that encourages girls to stroll the streets in their tiniest finery. An hour later, the plane reached the Grampian Mountains and began its descent towards the southern shore of the Moray Firth. The polish of distant water winked in fierce Morse. Treeless moorland melted into geometric forestry patterns, and where the dense blocks of trees ended, the rolling coastal plains of wheat and pasture began. Solstice had only just passed, and this far north the summer dusk lingers until well after ten o'clock.
On this particular evening, the plane took a slight, unannounced diversion. Fifteen miles to the east of Inverness, Cawdor stands out like a grey, stone fist. The plane banked over the battlements, dipped its wings, and then continued on its final approach to the airport. This silent act of respect was for my father, Hugh John Vaughan Cawdor: his body lay in the hold. As a family home, Cawdor Castle has the romantic cachet of being one of the few addresses featured in a Shakespeare play that can also be found on an AA road map.
The plan was for the undertakers to take my father's coffin from the airport to the house and leave it overnight in the Tree Room at the base of the tower. The walls of the room are bare stone and it is normally empty, aside from a dilapidated old chest and the trunk of an ancient, lifeless tree. This is the remains of a holly tree around which the castle walls were built. It died when the completion of the vaulted ceiling finally deprived it of sunlight. Holly trees, like rowans, are pagan symbols in Scotland and were planted to ward off witches. Many houses will have one planted in their gardens. Perhaps burying the tree within the house was just taking superstition to its logical conclusion.
The explanation as to why there should be a small tree preserved in the belly of Cawdor dates back to 1310, when William, the 2nd Thane of Cawdor, received a royal charter from Robert the Bruce to build a bigger fortification than his current castle, which guarded a boggy ford. Thane William's first task was to study the surrounding district and find a location of improved strength, but in an unorthodox and seldom imitated move, he left this decision up to a donkey. William had had a vivid dream in which he was visited by a host of angels. They told him that he should place all his worldly goods in a chest and strap it to the back of a donkey; he must then allow it to wander freely all day and mark where it chose to rest for the night. If he built the castle on that spot, they said, it would prosper for ever. And who was he to doubt the word of angels? He followed their instructions. The donkey had been born without a gift for martial strategy, however, so the site it chose was unremarkable. The holly tree is where it lay down.* I am conscious as I retell this slightly batty legend that I do so as fact. When my teacher spoke about family trees, I didn't realize it was only a figure of speech. I assumed there were trees in the cellars of people's houses everywhere.
*When I write about the holly at Cawdor, it sounds like we always knew that that is what the tree was. In fact, until about ten years before my father died everyone knew it as 'the hawthorn'. This information had been passed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years, but then my father got a small chunk of the bark analysed and its true identity was revealed. In a family of people brought up to be the museum guides of our own past this was a seismic shock on the scale of learning that Jesus's real name was Gerard. I once read (in King Arthur by Andrew Matthews) that 'a legend starts off as a true story, but as the story is told over and over again, it gets mixed up in our hopes and dreams. Some things are missed out, and new things are added along the way, and in the end facts and imagination run into one another until it is impossible to tell which is which.' And that sounds about right for me.
To a child, that crooked trunk in a bare dungeon looked like irrefutable proof of the story's truth, just as the castle walls placed us at the centre of Shakespeare's Macbeth. In 'the Scottish play', as it is superstitiously referred to by thesps, when King Duncan rewards his loyal kinsman Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor, it sets Macbeth on a path of treachery. For those dreaming in English classes, before he hears of his new honor, three witches accost him as he walks across the Blasted Heath and greet him as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, although only the first title is rightfully his. Then messengers arrive with word that King Duncan has given Macbeth the second title of the hags' prediction, and he concludes that their words chart the course of his future. At home, his wife, a red-haired beauty with an icy ambition, whips on Macbeth's transformation from hero to monster. She welcomes Duncan to Cawdor, and incites her husband to murder as their guest sleeps. The couple's ruthlessness takes its toll and together they drift into the arena of the mentally unwell. With a mounting death toll, Macbeth is troubled by visions of ghosts, and Lady Macbeth develops a standard example of obsessive-compulsive disorder, until the tragedy reaches its climax at the final battle.
The house we lived in wasn't built until three hundred years after King Duncan's death but Shakespeare hadn't let facts get in the way of a good story, and furthermore, Duncan had not been killed in his sleep at all. The historically correct version of events was that Macbeth had been born with an equal claim to the Scottish throne. He raised an army against Duncan, who was killed in battle when they clashed at the nearby town of Forres. Macbeth took the throne using a perfectly legitimate method of the time; a quarter of a century later William the Conqueror took the English crown in much the same way when he killed King Harold at Hastings. Even more surprisingly, given the lasting slur of the play, Macbeth was a popular king. He made a pilgrimage to Rome that lasted, literally, for years, without being overthrown in his absence. When he died, in the year before the Battle of Hastings, he was buried on the holy island of Iona alongside previous kings - a privilege denied usurpers. My family were always quick to point out the error of Shakespeare's ways, yet saw nothing odd in donkeys and angels and claiming descent
from the stubbornly fictional swan knight Lohengrin. I felt proud to come from such an ancient, myth-wreathed place, but mostly I took all these imaginary and historical details for granted. Visitors showed far more interest in the Macbeth connection than we did, and would gaze intently at the Victorian charcoal drawings of the three witches drawn directly onto the plaster walls of the library. There was a life-size sketch of Macbeth with flying hair and a pleasingly demented look in his eyes. Best of all, hidden behind an arras, was a drawing of a dagger dripping with blood.
The knowledge I had of my ancestors stretched back so far into the past that they vanished from sight around the roots of a shriveled tree. And now, twenty-one generations later, it was my father's turn to join them.
Hugh was the 25th Thane of Cawdor. When my grandparents' first-born child was a girl, the family held its collective breath for two years, when they heaved a primogenital sigh of relief. On the day of my father's birth, a huge bonfire was lit on the highest local point, to salute the safe arrival of the next heir to Cawdor. Estate workers kept the beacon stoked throughout the September night and flames leapt to such a height that they could be seen from the Black Isle, twelve miles to the north, across the wide, dark waters of the Moray Firth. Tonight, sixty years later, the same hill was once more a blazing beacon, closing my father's life in fiery symmetry.
But the wonderful, charismatic, affectionate father I had known had died a decade before this. If I pulled out a rusty drawer of memories I could see that there were many things to celebrate: his wit, his encyclopedic knowledge (especially of trees), his twinkly kindness, his generosity and his love of us. But he had changed so much. None of these recollections matched the final incarnation. For the last ten years of his life he had stopped being able to express warmth; he could only do anger, and it frightened me - which, naturally, pissed him off.
On paper he really did not have a lot to be pissed off about. Hugh had been born an exceptionally lucky man. The instant he successfully sucked in his first independent breath of air, he became the next in line to an abundance of gifts: two stately homes, four ruined castles of beauty rather than use, a hundred thousand acres in two separate parcels of land. The main estate was in Scotland, with Cawdor at its centre; the second was in Wales, around a house called Stackpole. The land interests included arable and dairy farms, timber and commercially grown flowers. There was shooting on the moorland and fishing on the rivers that flowed through the two estates. Hugh was the heir to beautiful French furniture, Chinese ornaments, Flemish tapestries, Persian carpets, a library full of rare books, family portraits, Italian landscapes, sculptures and a great deal of money invested in shares, cared for by expensive stockbrokers and grandee solicitors. His sole qualification for all this extraordinary privilege was to be born. These possessions were in his care, but not strictly his. He was one link in a custodial chain that had handed a unique legacy down from father to son for the previous six hundred years.