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 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.
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.
At Mey, he gave the building a proper frontage to the south, with a projecting porch and staircase hall. 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.
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.