The private Caithness home of the late Queen Mother continues to flourish and contribute to the wider local community—just as she intended, says PAUL F COCKBURN.
When Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother first saw the Castle of Mey in 1952, while visiting friends in Caithness, the building was in a semi-derelict state. Nevertheless she fell in love with it. It’s possible that the recently widowed Queen was looking for a project to distract her from her grief, but in later years she often referred to the Castle as her “heaven on earth”, the only place where she could totally relax from her royal duties.
It was also, significantly, the only home she personally owned, but in 1996 she passed on the Castle, its grounds and accompanying farm to a charitable Trust. ‘She was concerned that the Castle of Mey had a life beyond her passing and, particularly, that the people who were employed when she died should have some security of tenure for their jobs,’ explains the Castle of Mey Trust’s Chairman, Ashe Windham CVO. ‘I can report that has absolutely been the case. In fact we now employ many more people than the Queen Mother did.’
The Queen Mother continued to stay at the Castle every August and October until her death in March 2002. ‘The Castle was never opened to the public during the Queen Mother’s lifetime, while the gardens were opened just three times a year for the Scotland Gardens Scheme,’ says Windham. Following her death, however, that all changed. ‘What we’ve done, in pursuit of the Trust’s charitable objectives, is open up the Castle and its gardens to the wider public.’
Nevertheless, this has necessitated some changes, not least in the gardens. ‘The Queen Mother only visited in August and the end of September-beginning of October, so everything in the gardens were timed to flower, to come into perfection, during her visits. We got some criticism in the early days that there wasn’t a lot to see in the Gardens at the start of May, which was perfectly valid. So we’ve adjusted the garden so there’s a bit more early summer interest; we also did away with quite a lot of the vegetable patches and put in their place a couple of rose gardens which have year round interest.’
The Trust has also spent much of the last 20 years ensuring that the Castle itself remains weatherproof. ‘We completely re-roofed the Castle during 1997-98, and also re-did the wiring, which will hopefully last for another 20-30 years.’ Some interior changes have also been made; five former staff rooms on the top floor have since been transformed into three double ensuite bedrooms which form part of the Castle’s ‘exclusive’ weekend packages in early May and October. Additional small changes have been instigated by Prince Charles, who continues to use the Castle as a base while carrying out official duties in and around the North of Scotland during the end of July.
‘Another thing which we’ve done, helped by Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Historic Environment Scotland, is to completely re-do the exterior of the Castle, as there’s not much point doing up the interior of the place if it’s not weather-proof!’ he says. ‘A lot of the work was done in the 1950s and 1960s by the Queen Mother—but in those days they didn’t really understand that if you put concrete on sandstone all that happens is that it seals in the damp, wrecking the sandstone. The old way to waterproof it was to use a lime harling, and we’ve completely reharled the exterior with it, preserving the sandstone blocks from which the castle is built.’
While last year’s visitor numbers to the Castle and Gardens were up significantly on previous years – likely helped by the Castle featuring in the Netflix series ‘The Crown’, and also having the increasingly famous ‘North Coast 500’ route literally on its doorstep – an important factor in the Estate’s continuing financial viability is nearby Longoe Farm. The Queen Mother took a keen interest in the farm during her lifetime, and her grandson Prince Charles has maintained that commitment.
As well as growing crops such as barley, oats and turnips, the farm has successfully diversified its livestock, in the process helping preserve the Aberdeen Angus breed of cattle and North Country Cheviot variety of sheep.
‘We’re in alliance with a major supermarket chain — I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to tell you who – but we carry out a bull-breeding programme for them and this has proved very successful,’ explains Windham. ‘The reason they chose us is that, firstly, we’ve got two very good stockmen in Danny and Sandy McCarthy; secondly, geographically, Caithness is as far north as you can go on the mainland, so diseases like Blue Tongue and Foot and Mouth have never got this far. If you’re a pedigree livestock rearing operation, it’s best to be here.’
The bull-breeding programme has proved a great success, but Windham is just as proud of one of his own initiatives, the Animal Centre, which is home to poultry, pigs, lambs and donkeys. “We take in about 500 schoolchildren during the summer holidays so they can see where their meat, milk and eggs come from – we think that’s a pretty important part of our education role. It came as a surprise to me that even children in a rural district like Caithness don’t really appreciate where their food comes from. So it’s a useful addition to our charitable function.’
So has the Trust secured the Castle of Mey for the future? ‘Yes, we’ve got it into a weather-proof state and, providing visitor numbers hold up, we’re well positioned. But we’re always grateful for the Prince of Wales’ continuing interest; the fact that he comes every year to stay not only benefits us but the whole of the north of Scotland. And the Castle of Mey Highland Games, although really a local village games, achieves publicity out of all proportion to its size given the fact that the Prince turns up and is chieftain. We’re very lucky still have him involved.’
The Castle and Gardens of Mey are open every Wednesday and Thursday, 11am to 3pm during the first three weeks of April.
Opening season times are from 1st May to 30th September, except 25th July to 7th August.