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Issue 33 - Fit for a queen

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007

 

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Fit for a queen

Charles Douglas visits The Castle of Mey in Caithness, beloved holiday home of the late Queen Mother

Although the Castle of Mey on Scotland’s northern coast will forever be associated with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, its provenance reaches far back into the past. Built between 1566 and 1572, it was erected as a stronghold for George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness, one of a string of castles he held to protect his interests.

Six miles from John O’Groats and nine miles from the town of Thurso, Barrogill Castle, as it was known previous to the Queen Mother changing its name, occupies a prime strategic position overlooking the Pentland Firth with distant glimpses of the Orkney Islands.

Further around the same coastline, the Sinclairs also controlled Ackergill Castle, Dunbeath Castle, Keiss Castle, Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe where, in 1571, the 5th Earl (grandson of the 4th) allegedly imprisoned his son John in a dungeon and fed him on salt and water until he went mad. They were a turbulent clan rarely out of conflict with one or other of their neighbours and, of course, defending the seas from Scandinavian incursions (see pages 52-53 for more on the Clan Sinclair).

The fortress of Barrogill was therefore just another link in their ruthless defence system.

Constructed on a traditional Z-plan, its appearance is typical of its period. As one might expect, there are numerous gun slits throughout the ground floor, several in the angles of the tower and more at first-floor level. The round arched entrance to the courtyard, on the north aspect remains unaltered, but the castle itself was extended in the 18th century and again in 1819, when architect William Burn (1789-1870) added the porch and baronial features.

In total, there are 38 rooms, including 15 bedrooms, three reception rooms, a library and a billiards room. An imposing double staircase from the entrance hall ascends to the principal rooms on the second floor. Rather disarmingly, a trap-door in the floor of the dining room leads to a dungeon, but visitors can rest assured that this has not been in use for many years.

Although born in England, the Queen Mother was intensely proud of her Scots pedigree, descending as she did from Robert II. Throughout her life she regularly asserted her Scottish credentials, influencing the placement of the Scottish lion on the back of alternate shillings in her husband’s new coinage, and earlier insisting that her second daughter, Princess Margaret Rose, be born at Glamis Castle, the Scottish home of her parents, the Earl & Countess of Strathmore.

However, the death of King George VI in 1952 proved excessively traumatic for his widow. It precipitated their 26-year-old daughter to the throne of the United Kingdom and changed the lives of the British Royal Family overnight.

And thus it was that she turned to the north of Scotland for solace and escape. The 15th Earl of Caithness had died unmarried in 1889 and bequeathed Barrogill Castle to a friend. By the middle of the following century, however, it had fallen into a state of serious disrepair and was facing demolition.

On a fortuitous visit to the area, Queen Elizabeth heard that it might be up for sale and decided to save it.

The small castle on the Pentland Firth with no back door was thereafter transformed into her second home, and she would often say how it had helped her to retain her sanity at a time when her private grief was so relentlessly public. With the rebuilding work completed, she bought a herd of Aberdeen- Angus cattle and a flock of Cheviot sheep.

Before long, she was winning championship competitions with them.

For Queen Elizabeth, the Castle of Mey was a very special place and in order for its future to be secured, she left it in Trust to the Nation.

Five years on it remains a very special place, happily very much as it was when she was in residence. Her gumboots still stand beside the dog bowl in the hallway and her blue coat hangs over the back of a chair.

Throughout the rooms, there is a wonderful sense of informality, and the castle remains a classic example of a traditional Scottish country retreat, not so much a Royal home, but the private hideaway of a remarkable woman. Do not expect grand furnishings. Although there are landscape paintings and Royal portraits to admire, the emphasis is entirely on family memorabilia.

Her guests would often bring her nicknacks as presents, which she loved – a stuffed Loch Ness Monster, for example.

Queen Elizabeth was a creative gardener, as could be seen at Royal Lodge, Windsor, and at Birkhall, her residence on the Balmoral Estate. Despite the Caithness wind, at the Castle of Mey she created a clever sheltered garden which is a delight to explore during the summer when the flowers are in full bloom. The kitchen garden with its variety of fruit and vegetables is equally impressive.

Time passes. It seems only yesterday that the Queen Mother, approaching her 100th year, was still doing her rounds of public duties, the last of the great Edwardians. The enormous swell of grief and affection that followed her death was only to be expected.

It was the end of an era, but somehow her presence can still be felt at the Castle of Mey.