Of the many castles in Scotland, Stirling was Ruth’s favorite. Mine was 14 mile east of Thurso in flat, weather-challenged Caithness. The Castle and Gardens of Mey is the most northerly castle on the UK mainland according to its official brochure. I liked its character-driven intimacy. The character was The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II’s Mum. Mey was the only house she ever owned.
Recently widowed, the wife of King George VI first laid eyes on Mey in 1952. It needed work. Looking for a place to escape the public eye, she bought it, began repairs, and returned every summer for the rest of her long life. Her last visit was in October, 2001. She died at the age of 102 five months later.
This is a real castle built in the late 16th century by George Sinclair, the 4th Earl of Caithness. The 15th, who died in 1889, was the last Sinclair to live here. The Queen Mother’s bedroom was up some difficult castle steps, and I asked if she was able to climb them. Scrappy and indomitable to the end, she was.
Mey was truly her great getaway. She took her corgis down to the beach to collect shells. She haunted local antique shops and stores to furnish her home, and everything in it is something she liked. Her taste was eclectic. The very-unroyal-looking drawing room where she entertained was a mix of styles. All its chairs looked comfortable and well used. Next to her Grundig TV was a pile of Fawlty Towers, a popular show she liked. She would go to the post office for stamps and put books in guest rooms to be read while visiting.
The Queen Mum loved to sit in her Shell Garden and admire her roses like, I assume, the beauteous Burgundy Ice above. Her high-walled garden is yet another big surprise. After crossing a bleak, cold, July landscape to get to Mey, I found this expanse of varied flowers and almost every vegetable I’ve ever seen growing a triumph. I asked a gardener to identify a plant and expressed surprise that it was thriving in such a harsh climate. “If it’ll grow here, it’ll grow anywhere,” she told me.
The Queen Mother’s other daughter, Princess Margaret, had her own bedroom in Mey, but she never spent the night. She preferred to stay on the Royal Yacht docked at Scrabster. Her Grandson Prince Charles, however, visited regularly and is President of the Trust she established in 1996 to sustain her home. Charles still visits every August. His quite excellent watercolor paintings of the castle are on a few walls. Since he was due next week, Mey would temporarily close to tourists.
The best example of the Queen Mother’s sense of humor was a stag’s head on one wall. It was actually a stuffed, cuddly toy mounted like the real thing. She told visitors it was up there simply because every castle should have one.