Visiting the Castle and Gardens of Mey
Along the most northerly coast of Scotland, in the parish of Canisbay, about 15 miles east of Thurso and six miles west of John O’Groats, there is a delightful castle to visit. The Castle of Mey was the summer home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and she loved spending her time in Caithness.
These tours allow remarkable access to a Royal home. It is easy to imagine when looking at a chair in a room, that perhaps only a few weeks previously, a member of the Royal Family might have been sitting there.
The castle is the most northerly on the British Isles, and the Queen Mother generously gifted it to The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust in 1996. It is still visited every year in August by HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay. There are daily tours around the Castle of Mey in summer when it isn’t in use.
These tours are fantastic, allowing remarkable access to a Royal home, including entertaining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. It is easy to imagine when looking at a chair in a room, that perhaps only a few weeks previously, a member of the Royal Family might have been sitting there, reading a book or chatting to family or friends. When we visited, my whole family, including my two young children, were quite enchanted by the Castle and Gardens of Mey.
The Castle of Mey was built by George Sinclair, the 4th Earl of Caithness between 1566 and 1572. It was renamed Barrogill Castle and became the home of the Earls of Caithness for many years, until it was purchased by Captain Frederic Bouhier Imbert-Terry in 1929. The castle was briefly used as an officers’ rest home during the Second World War. However it was almost completely uninhabitable when the Queen Mother first saw it in 1952.
At the time, the Queen Mother was visiting the Commander and Lady Doris Vyner at Dunnet Head while mourning the death of her husband, King George VI. When she heard that Barrogill Castle was about to be abandoned, she declared: “Never! It’s part of Scotland’s heritage. I’ll save it.”
Between 1952 and 1955, the Queen Mother set about restoring the castle and creating its beautiful gardens. She changed the name from Barrogill Castle back to the Castle of Mey and for almost half a century she spent many happy summers there. She is quoted as saying: “Caithness is a county of such great beauty, combining as it does the peace and tranquillity of open countryside with the rugged glory of a magnificent coastline. It is a delight to me now that I have a home there.”
The Castle of Mey stands on rising ground about 400 yards from the seashore, overlooking the Pentland Firth and the Orkney Islands. Visitors arriving in the front hall will see a mirror stand where the Queen Mother laid the seashells that she found on her frequent walks to the beach. The Castle of Mey is imbued with a sense of Her Majesty’s personality.
A tour of the Castle and Gardens of Mey allows visitors to see her summer home much as she left it after her last visit in October 2001. The Queen Mother died at the great age of 101 in March 2002.
The tour passes through the hall, Library, Equerry’s room, Drawing Room, Dining Room, Butler’s Pantry and Kitchen. You’ll learn about Royal dining etiquette and hear affectionate tales about the Queen Mother. We were surprised to learn that she was quite frugal, coming as she did from a generation that had lived through two World Wars.
Other highlights of the tour include the wonderfully extravagant jardinière centrepiece in the front hall overflowing with fresh flowers, a stunning portrait of The Queen Mother with her much loved corgi ‘Ranger’ above the fireplace in the Equerry’s Room, and a considerable amount of personal memorabilia. The Queen Mother had a wonderful sense of humour and there are amusing stories behind many of the items on display.
Treasured family photographs still adorn the table in the library, and we enjoyed the Royal Coat of Arms tapestry and works of art in the dining room. The visitors’ book in the drawing room contains the signature ‘Lilibet’, which is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s family nickname.
Your entry ticket allows access to the grounds and gardens to be enjoyed at your own pace. The traditional Scottish walled garden and the East Garden were created out of a wilderness by the Queen Mother. The middle of the garden is planted with vegetables for the Royal dining table, and it is surrounded by fruit and herbaceous borders.
There is also an Animal Centre in the East Woods. Meeting the donkey, the pigs, and some very noisy geese was a high point for my children during our visit.
The Castle and Gardens of Mey are open from 1st May to 30th September 2022 every Wednesday to Sunday and closed from 25th July to 10th August 2022 inclusive. These dates are subject to change, and the Animal Centre has varying opening times, so please keep up to date on the website https://www.castleofmey.org.uk/
Castle Tours run from 11.00am in half hour time slots available to book here: https://www.castleofmey.org.uk/tours Pre-booking your visit is essential to avoid disappointment. Please ensure that you arrive within your allocated time slot for entry.
The Visitor Centre, Tearoom and Shop are open from 10.30am and tasty treats, toilets and great gifts can be found here, including a guidebook that is highly recommended. Most of the grounds of the Castle of Mey are dog friendly.
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, adores audiobooks and films, eats a little too much for his own good.