The Castle of Mey: Inside the Queen Mother’s beloved home in Scotland

A visit to Scotland in the first months of her widowhood encouraged The Queen Mother to buy and restore a castle. John Goodall describes the history of the building and the achievements of the trust that has managed it for the past 22 years.

On June 16, 1952, The Queen Mother arrived in Caithness to visit Commander Clare George Vyner and Lady Doris Vyner – the latter a childhood friend – at The House of the Northern Gate, near Dunnet. She had been widowed less than six months previously and this, her first visit to the northernmost tip of Scotland, evidently helped her recover; she slept better in Caithness, she reputedly claimed, than anywhere else in the world.

When driving around the area, she caught sight of Barrogill Castle, a tower house built close to the shore in clear view of the Orkney Isles. ‘Do you think it would suit me?’ she asked her hostess.

Barrogill Castle, which The Queen Mother later renamed The Castle of Mey, was probably built between 1566 and 1572 by George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness (Country Life, March 3, 1988). The 16th-century castle was an ambitious building for the region. It comprised a dominating tower with a series of tall ranges to the side and rear creating a three-sided courtyard open to the north and the sea.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The main entrance – now enclosed within a porch – was on an inside angle of the courtyard and led to the principal stair, which was outwardly expressed as a turret. In quintessentially Scottish style, there were projecting turrets at the corners of the building and the main body of the house was protected with two tiers of gun-loops in the form of wide mouths cut through the masonry.

There is little evidence about the development of the castle until the early 19th century, although it remained a possession of the Sinclair family throughout this period. A view by William Daniell, drawn in 1818, shows that the windows had been fitted with sashes.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

In addition, the building had been provided with an elevated entrance and stair on its landward side, an arrangement that reorientated the building to face south and turned the original entrance court into a service yard. All the angle turrets are shown by Daniell as being capped by conical roofs with ball finials.

In May 1819, the Edinburgh architect William Burn produced designs for remodelling the castle, then the home of James Sinclair, 12th Earl of Caithness. Burn had trained in the London office of Sir Robert Smirke and had cut his teeth on the leviathan construction project of Lowther Castle, Cumbria (Country Life, September 26, 2018).

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

At Mey, he gave the building a proper frontage to the south, with a projecting porch and staircase hall (Fig 1). He also extended the façade, adding a west wing, and redeveloped the castle outline, cutting down the turret roofs and crowning them with battlements.

Burn’s changes may have been completed after the death of the Earl in 1823 by his son. Certainly, in stylistic terms, the present cast-iron stair balustrade in the entrance hall looks mid 19th century. Whatever the case, the alterations to the house were accompanied by improvements to the landscape and an 1836 estate map shows the setting in much its present form: the castle is flanked to the east and west by a walled garden and wilderness. The south front overlooks an inland view framed by spurs of trees, one of which accommodates a drive that sweeps past the front of the house.

The castle finally passed out of Sinclair ownership with the death of George, 15th Earl of Caithness in 1889. He bequeathed it to a friend, F. G. Heathcote, whose widow later sold it on again. Then came the Second World War and the house was requisitioned as a coastal-defence billet for a company of the Black Watch.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Whether or not the soldiers treated the house well, when peace returned, its owners were not able to maintain it. Photographs from about 1950 suggest that only the tower was habitable. Certainly, many of the windows were missing and a section of the main roof had lost its slates.

Unloved as it appeared, The Queen Mother was captivated by Barrogill and determined to make the castle her home. In August 1952, within three months of first seeing the building, she had purchased it – the only house she ever actually owned – and very soon afterwards changed its name. In her own mind, she was reverting to the original name of the place, although the unusual formulation – The Castle of Mey (rather than Mey Castle) – is her own invention.

Papers relating to the protracted repairs are preserved at the castle. The architect appointed to oversee the restoration project was Hugh Macdonald of Sinclair Macdonald and Son, based in Thurso. Macdonald was perhaps recommended by the Vyners. In 1953, during the first phase of work, the house – with the exception of the west wing added by Burn (the intended future site of a new dining room) – was made weathertight and habitable. Painting and plastering continued into the following spring, partly because workmen were needed for the local housing programme. At this stage, there was insufficient staff accommodation and a temporary kitchen.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

In May 1953, The Queen Mother moved into her new official residence at Clarence House, London SW1, and began to adapt this as well (Country Life, November 14, 2018). A few months later, in October 1953, she felicitously became the dedicatee of a new book, Scottish Castles of the 16th and 17th Centuries, published by Country Life. Its author was the celebrated architect and landscape designer Oliver Hill.

It can be no coincidence, therefore, that in October 1953 one ‘O. H.’ wrote a long letter to The Queen Mother with comments on the completion of the castle. His letter, which was formally sanctioned by the architect, suggested that the drive be altered and that the roof turrets be provided with conical roofs again. Nothing ever came of any of his suggestions.

Soon afterwards, on November 3, 1953, Macdonald put forward three alternative plans to complete the building to Sir Arthur Penn, the treasurer to The Queen Mother. The first idea was a proposal, suggested by Vyner, which the architect made clear he thought was unworkable; one was an enlargement of preferences expressed by The Queen Mother; and the last, which was Macdonald’s preferred option, a grand rebuilding of the wing in a Scottish 17th-century idiom. In his thinly veiled hope that he might construct an ambitious building, however, he was to be disappointed.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

With the castle now sufficiently restored for use by The Queen Mother, there was no pressure to undertake further work. She was, moreover, reluctant to spend money. As an added complication, decisions about the form of the restored wing had far-reaching implications for the provision of staff accommodation and the operation of the kitchen.

In the event, therefore, the repair of the west wing and its services waited several years and was finally completed in 1960. It was, moreover, repaired for a fraction of the sums of money estimated by the architect for any of the proposals. The only external embellishment was a coat of arms carved by Hew Lorimer, its design developed with the help of Capt Michael Wemyss, husband of Lady Victoria Wemyss, Extra Woman of the Bedchamber.

As work to the west wing languished, attention was focused instead on the castle interiors. The Queen Mother commissioned a series of designs from the London decor-ating firm Lenygon & Morant in 1954. Some of the present interiors, notably The Queen Mother’s study (Fig 14), bear sufficient resemblance to these drawings to make it clear that this work was partially executed. In every case, however, it was undertaken in a much more restrained fashion than that proposed and often adapted on the way.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

In 1959, for example, the Library fireplace, proposed by Lenygon & Morant, was designed and realised in a quite different form by Macdonald. Other designs never materialised at all, including plans for a Gothicised stair hall and a Chinese wallpaper with bamboo battens for the proposed dining room. The reason was simple: The Queen Mother just didn’t want extravagant interiors. Indeed, she delighted in the simp-licity of life she could enjoy here.

As a result, although there are furnishings of real quality at The Castle of Mey, such as the Georgian dining-room chairs, armorial tapestry (Fig 2) and the 16th-century tapestry in the drawing room, the bedrooms were modestly furnished and the interiors filled with inexpensive water-colours, prints and presentation pictures. These include portraits of prize bulls from the Aberdeen Angus herd she established here. Such collecting is in striking contrast to that she concurrently undertook for the formal apartments of Clarence House.

The house also preserves an array of cheap fluffy toys and tourist memorabilia in the drawing room. Much of this paraphernalia was collected by house guests on day excursions to the Orkneys as an elaborate joke to amuse The Queen Mother.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

@Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

They also served a serious purpose, however, with figures such as a gnome entangled in the Baroque curls of the George III pier glass over the drawing-room fireplace that helped to surprise and amuse nervous visitors into conversation.

In July 1996, The Queen Mother established The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust to manage the property for the last years of her life. Its objectives were to secure the future of the building, advance historical and architectural education, to develop the native breeds of Aberdeen Angus and Cheviot sheep and to undertake projects for the benefit of the local community. Its president was The Prince of Wales, who has taken a keen interest in the management of the castle and continues to stay here for a spell of 10 days every summer.

When The Queen Mother died in 2002, the trust swiftly moved ahead with its plans to preserve the castle in the long term and meet the challenges of raising a self-sustaining revenue. The castle was opened to the public for five months each summer. Visitor numbers have grown, rising last year just short of the intended 30,000 that is the sustainable target for the building.

The Castle of Mey, Caithness - The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust

@Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

To accommodate visitors, architect Lachie Stewart designed a new visitor centre at the corner of the walled garden. The building was opened in 2007 and incorporates a striking restaurant hall, with oak furniture and structural timbers of Douglas fir.

Of course, many visitors come to the castle because of its associations with The Queen Mother and it is possible to see her bedroom and study much as she would have known them. Elsewhere, the existing furnishings of rooms have been augmented to take the edge off what were famously austere interiors. The trustees were determined that the castle should not become a museum, so it was important that the interiors were comfortable and could continue to be occupied as a living house.

The augmentation of the interiors was undertaken by the interior designer Piers von Westenholz and has included the laying of carpet on the stairs – something that The Queen Mother thought unnecessary – as well as new furniture in the drawing room and library and new curtains, wallpaper and rugs in most of the rooms.

The cumulative effect has been to enrich the public rooms, adding to the work undertaken by Arabella Windham, who created comfortable modern accommodation in the former servants’ rooms on the top floor of the castle.

As an addition to these changes, work is currently under way to build a 10-bedroom conference centre in a historic granary, a short distance from the castle. The intention is that this venture will generate further income and allow the castle to accommodate weddings and other events. The fabric of the castle has itself undergone extensive restoration: the roof has been repaired, the interior re-wired with lighthouse-grade cable and the exterior lime harled afresh.

Dining Room

@Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

This year, the castle again stands at a crossroads. On January 1, care of the building and estate passed to The Prince’s Foundation. The change reflects the desire of The Prince of Wales to gather together all the charities he wishes to support for the future under the umbrella of his foundation.

As this article makes clear, the trust has achieved a tremendous amount in a short time. Hopefully, the foundation, with its even greater resources, will be able to carry forward the success it has begun.

Castle Mey is open to the public from May 1 to September 30 – see www.castleofmey.org.uk for details.