The Castle of Mey (formerly Barrogill Castle) is located in Caithness, on the north coast of Scotland, about 6 miles (9.7 km) west of John o' Groats. In fine weather there are views from the castle north to the Orkney Islands. The Castle of Mey was built by George, the 4th Earl of Caithness, for his second son William Sinclair. When visiting the family seat Girnigoe Castle in 1573, William was murdered by his older brother John, who had been imprisoned there for about six years by his cruel father. John had been planning an escape but William found out about it and told their father.
John was in turn murdered and the castle went to the third son, George Sinclair, who founded the family of the Sinclairs of Mey and whose descendant succeeded to the Earldom in 1789. He changed the name of the castle to Barrogill Castle. The castle then became the seat of the Earls of Caithness for the next one hundred years. In 1819 the twelfth Earl commissioned the architect, William Burn, to make various ambitious alterations to the castle. This was when the grand entrance and the dining room were added. His son, Alexander, was responsible for erecting the monument, now known as 'Lady Fanny's seat as a tribute to his friend, Charles John Canning, who later became the first Viceroy of India. George, the fifteenth Earl died at the age of 30; he had never married and having no children, left the castle to his friend F G Heathcote, on condition that he changed his name to Sinclair. His widow eventually sold it to Captain F B Imbert-Terry, who subsequently sold it to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1952.
In 1952, HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother saw what was then known as Barrogill Castle while staying with Commander and Lady Doris Vyner at the House of the Northern Gate on Dunnet Head, a short distance to the west. Despite its poor condition, Her Majesty purchased the castle that year and set about renovating and restoring both the castle and its gardens and parklands, which extended to about 30 acres. She also restored the castle's original name, changing Barrogill Castle back to The Castle of Mey. Her Majesty opened the gardens in aid of Scotland's Gardens Scheme on three days each year, a tradition which the trustees have been pleased to continue. The Queen Mother spent three weeks in August at the castle, returning for about ten days in October each year. The Castle of Mey, when purchased in 1952, was surrounded by only 30 acres of parkland or, as they are sometimes called, policies. The castle, gardens and policies were all in a poor state and were renovated and restored by Her Majesty between 1953 and 1955. In 1958, the nearby Longoe Farm came on the market and was purchased by Her Majesty.
When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother bought the Castle of Mey in 1952, the gardens had been neglected for some years and the head gardener James Sinclair and after him Sandy Webster did much to bring them back to their former glory. In 2000 Grant Napier became head gardener and gradually and successfully adapted the gardens so that there is more for the visitors to enjoy during the season when the gardens are open to the public. Gardening Consultant Day Howden has been giving input to help with extending the season. The gardens consist of the Walled Garden and the East Garden with a woodland area, the overall design remains much as it was in The Queen Mothers time. However, a good deal of thought, experience and trial and error have been put into the selection of many more varieties of plants to cater for visitors over the extended season. The Walled Garden is separated into sections by mixed hedges both to work as windbreaks and to create surprises around each corner. The hedges have been there for many years and are made up of a variety of hardy shrubs. The fruit, vegetables and flowers grown in the garden and greenhouse are used by HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay when he is staying in the castle. HRH takes a great interest in the development of His Grandmother's garden and in the effects of the Caithness climate. The produce is also used by the tearoom and any surplus is sold at the plant-stall outside the greenhouse together with an assortment of home-grown plants. The fruit trees have been in the garden for very many years.
The Queen Mother's experienced green fingers ensured that the garden at The Castle of Mey has prospered. She even managed to nurture her favourite old rose, Albertine, into scented abundance behind the Great Wall of Mey. The garden is full of marigolds, pansies, dahlias, primulas and nasturtiums, while old-fashioned shrub roses and climbers form the highlights of the Shell Garden, where The Queen Mother used to sit with her corgis in the afternoons. It is as it was in Her day, and the same Albertine rose still grows on the wall, as does the London Pride surrounding each rose bed. A new addition is a Sensory Border which contains plants of interesting textures, smells, taste and colours. Although The Queen Mother contributed greatly to many royal gardens, it is perhaps the Castle of Mey's that are more hers than any other. It is no coincidence that her grandson, Prince Charles, is today one of our most celebrated royal gardeners. He is helping the Trustees with their plans to extend the growing season for the benefit of our early season visitors, which is no easy task this far north. He greatly enjoys the gardens during his annual visits, just as his grandmother did before him. This romantic and unique garden is a reminder that, however daunting the weather, it is often possible with a little vision and energy to create and maintain a garden in the most unlikely of locations. The East Garden is on the other side of the castle. This too is dissected by Fuschia hedges for shelter. The different sections are planted with woodland plants such as Primulla, Meconopsis, Astilbes, Hellebores, Hostas, Ferns and Foxgloves. Visitors are very welcome to follow the paths through the woods.
Longoe Farm is situated on the exposed but picturesque shores of the Pentland Firth, and is linked to the Castle by a cliff-top track and strip of rough grazing. It has the debatable advantage of being one of the most northerly farms on the British mainland, with unparalleled views across to Hoy and the Orkneys. Just to the west lies Dunnet Head, the very northernmost point on the mainland. Over the years, more land has been bought to bring it to its current size of approximately 100 hectares. A further 34 hectares of rough grazing / hill land is also rented. The soil type is a good heavy loam. In the interests of self-sufficiency, 17 hectares of barley and oats are grown, three hectares of turnips and kale, and 25 hectares of grass are cut for wrapped silage and some hay. Winters can be long in Caithness with cattle being housed from the end of October until the third week of May to avoid cutting up the heavy land. The average annual rainfall is 30 inches (76 cm) which falls fairly evenly throughout the year, though recent summers have been both unusually hot and dry. Due to the coastal position of the farm, snow and frosts are not a big problem, but there can be constant exposure to cruel northerly winds, at times seemingly all the way from Iceland. These winds can salt blast the fresh growth of grass, flatten a promising crop of barley, and sculpt what few trees that survive to a permanent 45 degrees list. Cold sea mists known as haar can be a problem in the summer, slowing growth and stopping hay-making, even when it is hot and sunny half a mile inland. However, despite the short growing season, Caithness is a good livestock rearing area with very few health problems.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother had a long association with the Aberdeen Angus breed of cattle from her early days at Glamis Castle and became joint patron of the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society with King George V1 in August 1937. She remained as patron until her death in 2002 - a total of nearly 65 years of dedicated service to the breed. The Aberdeen Angus breed evolved during the early part of the 19th century from the polled and predominantly black cattle of North East Scotland, known locally as the doddies and hummlies. From those early beginnings, the breed was refined and expanded not only throughout the UK but also to other countries worldwide including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa and South America, especially Argentina. The breed's raison d'etre is its ease of management and superior beef quality, offering flavour, taste, succulence and unbeatable eating quality and thus - not surprisingly - it is known as the premium beef breed. it is well marbled with fine threads of fat interwoven through the lean. This ensures tenderness when cooked and brings out flavour and succulence. Aberdeen Angus cattle mature early under natural conditions to achieve a perfect balance of fat and lean with a small proportion of bone, coupled with the ability to grow and finish on grass and home-grown feeding to produce a completely natural product. Demand for quality Aberdeen-Angus beef is soaring and this represents an unparalleled opportunity for commercial beef producers to produce a product which the market requires and for which it is prepared to pay a premium. The pedigree herds, such as this one, remain the foundation of the breed and the example of the early pioneers is still being followed with selective breeding with a view to constantly improving the stock. Stock control and management of a pedigree herd requires a high degree of skill and additional labour, but this programme is of vital importance to maintain the standard of the breed and achieve success in the show and sale rings, which remain the best advertising place for such a remote herd. This herd is the most northerly herd on the mainland of Britain, but - despite this - attracts visitors from all over the world.
When the Queen Mother bought the castle, the interior was very different from the way it is today. She furnished it with items bought locally and others brought up from the south. Many paintings were bought from local artists and she managed to obtain the portraits of the 12th, 13th and 14th Earls of Caithness, which now hang in the front hall, from the late 'Barogill Keith', who was at one point the estate factor. The kitchen at that time was situated in the room that the Queen Mother converted to a library. She later used this room to do her private correspondence in and would have her favourite photographs set out in it. She created a kitchen on the ground floor and built on an extension to it with the butler's pantry above. The Equerry's room was originally used as the dining room and the present dining room was a billiard room. She had to have mains water and electricity installed and chose the bathroom fittings herself. As far as possible, the castle is still set out very much as the Queen Mother had it. The guides in the castle will do all they can to make your visit interesting and enjoyable and are happy to answer any questions you may have.
It has to be kept in mind that The Castle of Mey is an historic building and, consequently, disabled access is not possible to all parts of it. Nevertheless, they will always try to assist their less able visitors to enjoy as much of it as possible. If visiting the castle itself, please note the following: If you have difficulty walking, please ask at the ticket office to be allowed to park closer to the castle entrance. The distance from the car park to the castle is about 200 metres. If you have a wheelchair, you will probably want to avoid crowds, so they suggest that you telephone first to find out the best time to come. They regret that wheelchair access is limited to the principal floor only and you must be able to get out of your wheelchair to use their very small lift. Situated beside the car park, the tearoom, shop and toilets in the visitor centre are completely 'user friendly' and there is easy access for wheelchairs.. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : The Castle of Mey, Thurso, Caithness KW14 8XH
Transport: Thurso (National Rail) then bus (80). Bus Routes : 80 and 280 stop 15 minutes away.
Opening Times : 17th May to 30th September, Daily 10:20 to 16:00
Tickets Castle + Grounds : Adults £11.00; Seniors £9.75; Children (5 - 16) £6.50
Tickets Gardens + Grounds: Adults £6.50; Seniors £6.50; Children (5 - 16) £3.00
Tel. : 01847 851227