In 1952, just after the death of her husband King George VI, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, better known as ‘The Queen Mother’, bought the 450-year-old abandoned Barrogill Castle in the far north of Scotland as a place where she could relax away from prying eyes. She oversaw the restoration of this remote castle on the north coast of Caithness just six miles from John O’Groats for use as her holiday home.
Choosing many of the fixtures and fittings herself she returned the castle to its original name of The Castle of Mey and 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’s because of her forward-looking attitude that it is possible today for the public to visit the castle and explore the wonderful gardens which she designed.
The Castle of Mey is the northernmost castle on the British mainland and, protected by a 12-foot high wall known as ‘The Great Wall of Mey’, is now under the care of The Prince’s Foundation, an educational charity established in 1986 by Charles, Prince of Wales. The castle stands on a slight rise about 400 yards from the sea with magnificent views over the Pentland Firth to the distant Orkney Islands. Once the seat of the Earls of Caithness the castle is open every day from the beginning of May to the end of September with a break of 10 days in July/August when His Royal Highness Prince Charles (president of The Prince’s Foundation) and his wife Camilla Duchess of Cornwall often visit.
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 is a great place to take in the scenery. There is also a small museum and quite a large gift shop.
The castle is still very much as the Queen Mother restored it and has seen little update since then (her motto was ‘if it works don’t fix it’!). The knowledgeable 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.
A big part of the castle’s attraction, especially for children, is the animal centre. Its relaxed and welcoming atmosphere can be enjoyed by adults and children alike and gives the opportunity to see how animals should be cared for. Visitors to the animal centre in the east woods can interact with some of the animals, providing an enjoyable and educational visit. There is a colourful collection of unusual and eye-catching poultry breeds, various waterfowl including ducks and geese and unusual sheep breeds in the paddock. The different sizes, shapes and colours of all these creatures make a curiously wonderful display. At the right time of year bottle-feeding of young lambs is a highlight and, with a little luck, your visit will coincide with a new hatch of chicks – fluffy, yellow balls of new life!
Two unusual features of the animal centre experience is the opportunity to try your hand at spinning fleece from the castle’s flock of cheviot sheep or attempting to milk Daisy the wooden cow! These are both popular activities and, depending on how busy it is, you may have to wait a while for your turn. Demonstrations are normally held three days a week during opening hours.
A ROMANTIC WEDDING VENUE
For a romantic wedding with a difference the castle visitor centre offers itself as a wedding venue with 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 part of the year, that still leaves a good choice of dates.
THE CAPTAIN’S HOUSE
Only a few hundred yards from the castle the Captain’s House offers quiet 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 the breathtaking views.
Castle Of Mey Video
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.
THE GRANARY LODGE
Opened in 2019 the Granary Lodge offers luxury bed and breakfast accommodation on the castle grounds. This is an ideal place to witness the impressive sunsets visible here and, if you are lucky, the evening sky may be enhanced by an appearance from the ‘Heavenly Dancers’ – also known as the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis to help make you stay just that little bit more special. Be it a day trip or a longer visit, the Castle of Mey and its surroundings cannot fail to impress!