In 1952, just after the death of her husband King George VI, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, better known today as ‘The Queen Mother’ bought a 450-year-old rundown castle in the far north of Scotland as a place to ‘get away from everything’. She oversaw the restoration of the remote Barrogill Castle on the north coast of Caithness for use as her holiday home and chose many of the fixtures and fittings herself.
Returning the castle to its original name of The Castle of Mey she took vacations there for three weeks in August and ten days in October each year until her death in 2002. Some years before she died she had the foresight to establish the Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust to oversee the future affairs of the castle and it is because of her forward-looking attitude that it is possible today for members of the public to visit the castle and explore the wonderful gardens – which the Queen Mother took a great interest in.
OTHER ROYAL VISITORS
Standing on a slight rise a mere 400 yards from the sea the castle is open every day of the week for just seven weeks a year from mid-May to the end of September with a break of 10 days in July/August when His Royal Highness Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Duchess of Cornwall (who for historical reasons are titled the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay when they are in Scotland) often vacation here.
A new visitors centre was opened in 2007 and, in its first year, some 29,000 visitors explored the castle and the extensive gardens – particularly the shell garden where the Queen Mother used to sit with her corgis in the afternoons – and sampled the home-grown fare in the award-winning tearoom much of which comes from the castle gardens and adjacent lands. In the walled garden you will find a lookout tower which gives stunning views north over the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands.There is also a small museum and a gift shop.
As far as possible, the castle is still set out very much as it was when the Queen Mother lived there. The guides will do all they can to make your visit interesting and enjoyable and are happy to answer any questions you may have. It must be kept in mind that the Castle of Mey is an historic building and disabled access is not possible to all parts of it although the shop, tearoom and toilets are fully accessible.
Housed in what was once a granary and a big part of the castle’s attraction, the animal centre’s relaxed and welcoming atmosphere can be enjoyed by adults and children alike and gives the opportunity to see how animals should be properly cared for. Visitors are offered supervised contact with some of the animals, providing an enjoyable and educational visit. There is a colourful collection of unusual and and eye-catching poultry breeds which are changed frequently. There are also various waterfowl including ducks and geese.
You will find unusual sheep breeds in the paddock and the different sizes, shapes and colours make a curiously wonderful display. Bottle-feeding of young lambs is a highlight of any visit and, with a little luck, your visit will coincide with a new hatch of chicks – fluffy, yellow balls of new life! If you like you can even practice milking a wooden cow.
An unusual part of the animal centre experience is the opportunity to try your hand at spinning fleece from the castle’s flock of cheviot sheep. Demonstrations are normally held three days a week during opening hours. Booking isn’t necessary but, depending on how busy it is, you may have to wait a while for your turn.
A ROMANTIC WEDDING VENUE
For a romantic wedding with a difference the castle visitor centre offers a wedding venue and facilities for up to 60 guests in the grounds of the castle overlooking the Pentland Firth. Photographs can be taken in the visitors centre, the castle or the gardens. It is also possible to hold the wedding ceremony elsewhere and have the photographs taken in the castle and gardens.
Weddings are confined to those months when the castle isn’t open to the public but, considering that the castle is only open for seven weeks of the year, that still leaves a good choice of dates.
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT THE QUEEN MOTHER’S HOME IN SCOTLAND
AND THERE’S MORE! SELF-CATERING VACATIONS AT THE CAPTAIN’S HOUSE
Only a few hundred yards from the castle this detached house offers luxury self catering accommodation. It is the only property on the castle estate which is used as a holiday let and was a favourite picnic spot of the Queen Mother. A large conservatory overlooks the enclosed garden and gives excellent views over the Pentland Firth. It’s a great place for reading, painting or simply chilling out and appreciating the solitude and breathtaking views.
For those of a more active nature the Captain’s House is perfectly situated for walking, bird watching or fishing with sheer cliffs and sandy beaches all around and Gills Bay, from where you can take a ferry to Orkney, is just a mile away. Equipped to a very high standard the Captain’s House has one double and two twin rooms and can sleep six people.
A Scotsman born and bred I love to roam Scotland’s hills and wild places taking photographs and writing about my travels around the country and all things to do with my homeland.