We awoke this morning (Wednesday September 19th) to overcast skies and an eerie calm. We’ve been waiting for Storm Ali to arrive in the Scottish Highlands and according to the news today’s the day. But as we stepped outside to cross the courtyard for breakfast, there was no wind, no rain, just grey-black sky. We can feel it though and its only a matter of time. There are no cars on the road at all.
There were a group of Australian cyclists in the room next to us and we heard them leave around 4 this morning. We’re thinking they probably wanted to get as many miles behind them as possible before the storm arrives.
Breakfast at the Castle Arms Hotel was excellent and I ordered Haggis for a second time prompting Mary to say “I guess you weren’t kidding when you said you liked it”.
After breakfast, I had a nice chat with the owner while Mary went back to the room to get in some Tai Chi practice. I’d been talking to the owners last night about the travel blog I write , and this morning they wanted to hear more about it and look over some of the entries to date. They really liked the pictures of our travels throughout Scotland and noted that we’re seeing more of it than most people who live here.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Castle Arms Hotel was literally right at the end of the long driveway leading into Castle Mey, so at 9:55, we made our way along the tree-lined entrance and congratulated ourselves on timing our arrival perfectly for a 10 AM opening.
There was just one flaw in our plan. The castle didn’t actually open until 10:20 and the parking lot was chained up. With time on our hands, we decided to drive the two miles of single-track road that ring the castle property, and circle back when the time was right.
Let’s try this again. We are now timing our arrival so as to be among the first to enter at 10:20! And just as well too, because as we exited the gift shop with our tickets, two large coaches were inching their way into the parking lot, and we were going to get underway before they were. Phew! In fact, there were only eight of us in the first guided tour of the day which made for a very nice walk-through.
A couple of things to note about Castle Mey. First of all, Mary and I had never even heard of it until we binge-watched the first season of “The Crown” on Netflix in November of 2016. Secondly, it is the most northernly castle in the United Kingdom and by 1952, it was in a poor state of repair.
Castle Mey, as seen in the pictures above, was built in the late 16th century, by George Sinclair and was occupied by his descendants for over 300 years. The 15th Earl of Caithness (the county in which the Castle resides) was the last Sinclair to live at Mey, and when he died in 1889, the castle was bequeathed away by the family.
In February of 1952, King George VI passed away, leaving his wife Elizabeth a widow at the age of 51. Later that year on a trip to Caithness, she saw Mey Castle for the first time (it was known as Barrogill Castle at that point). It is said that she fell for its ruined isolated charm almost immediately, and in November of that year, she purchased it, then set about to renovate and restore it. The postcard picture below is taken shortly after she bought it and it shows Elizabeth, the Queen Mother with one of her beloved Corgis.
She reinstated its original name, the Castle of Mey, and created a holiday home to which she returned every summer for the rest of her life.
When she bought the castle in 1952, apparently the interior looked very different than what Mary and I saw on our tour today. Over the years, she furnished it with items bought locally, and others brought up from “the south”. She had running water and electricity installed, and had bathrooms built where none had previously existed.
The guides told us that the castle today is kept as it was when the Queen Mother was in residence, and it really does feel like a comfortable, “lived in” country home, rather than an ostentatious royal palace.
The Queen Mother established the Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust in 1996, and transferred ownership of the castle to it during that year. At the time, she declared that the Trust should maintain the castle for the benefit of the local Caithness community that she was so deeply fond of. Following her death in 2002, Prince Charles became President of the Trust and makes frequent visits to the area, spending the month of August each year in his Grandmother’s home.
The images below are from postcards I purchased as we were not allowed to take photographs inside. The first picture is of the Front Hall where we entered. The large clam shell flower stand is one of the many items she bought from local shops.
The room below is the drawing room and much of the furniture was purchased from antique shops nearby. Several of the paintings are by local artists from Thurso and Wick. The Queen Mother was a much-beloved individual in this part of the world, and according to the guide, there are countless stories of her out in her car with her driver. She would spot a “local” walking along, have her driver pull over, and she’d roll down the window and ask them if they needed a ride anywhere.
On the desk in front of the window (in the picture above), we noticed a visitor’s book that was turned to a page dated August 15th, 1971. On that page were the signatures of Lilibet (Queen Elizabeth), Phillip, Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward.
The room through the doorway in the corner was the Equerry’s Room. When the Queen Mother was in residence, her Gentleman-in Waiting and Equerry would use the room as an office. The highlight of the room is a magnificent portrait of the Queen Mother with her much-loved corgi, Ranger. It is notable for two reasons; the disproportionate size of the dog relative to the Queen Mother, and this is the only painting of her with the Castle of Mey in the background.
In the last few years of her life, the Queen Mother used the library as her private sitting room and study, decorating it with personal memorabilia, treasured family photographs and gifts. The picture to the right (below) is the painting of her that is hanging on the wall. It was painted in 1925, when she was just 25 years old. You might also be able to pick out the photo of her husband on the table in the foreground. He is wearing his RAF uniform and it is simply signed “Bertie”, with the year 1943 noted underneath the signature. This is also the only room in the house in which there is a television and according to the guide I spoke to, the Queen Mother loved to watch British sit-coms. Her absolute favorite? Fawlty Towers!
Elsewhere in the castle, we toured her private sitting room before climbing the stairs to the Bedroom floor. There were five bedrooms on the floor, plus the Queen Mother’s Clothes Room and a Guest Bathroom. One of the bedrooms is called Princess Margaret’s Room (below), and according to our guide, the Queen Mother kept that room available at all times in case her youngest daughter chose to spend the night. Although she visited on many occasions, Margaret never did stay the night, most often returning to the Royal Yacht Britannia, anchored offshore in Dunnet Bay.
Back on the ground floor, we visited what is arguably the most opulent room in the castle, the Dining Room. It contains many reminders of the Queen Mother’s royal status. The east wall is dominated by her Royal Coat of Arms, just off to the left side of the larger picture below.
This was the last room on our tour, and while talking to the guide, we happened to notice that the rain outside was coming down at a 45 degree angle, and the trees were bending sideways from the wind. I can tell you that the walk back to the car across the open area between the coastline and the castle, was not a nice one. This was the beginning of the 75 mph gusts that had been forecast and we literally got hurtled back to the parking lot. It was also the beginning of one of the strangest days, weather-wise, we’ve experienced, for throughout the rest of the day, we were hit with raging wind and rain, sudden clearing with shockingly blue skies, followed by more rain and wind. This pattern repeated itself until about 3:30 at which point the storm settled in full time – but more on that later. Back to our travels on the day……
Our next stop after Castle Mey was the Dunnet Head Lighthouse, some 20-odd minutes to the west, and you can see by its location on the map below, it is very exposed to the seas on either side.
The three pictures below show a) the single-track road leading out to the lighthouse with a little “passing place” clearly visible to the right, b) the lighthouse itself, and I got lashed with rain taking this picture, and c) a look through the rain down into Dunnet Bay which is where the Royal Yacht Britannia used to be anchored when the royal family came north for a visit.
I can’t even put into words how hard the car was being buffeted by the wind while we sat in the parking lot adjacent to the lighthouse. When I opened the door to take the picture of the lighthouse (above), the force pushing against me was equivalent to a couple of 300 pound linebackers bearing down on me. I had all I could do to keep the door from slamming shut on my head, neck and legs.
As we were reversed our tracks, we came upon a baby Highland Cow who wanted to make friends with me until it became clear I had nothing in the way of food to offer. Fickle animal!
Moving on, our next destination was Thurso, the main town on the north coast. It is the northernmost town on the British mainland and it is a village of solid stone buildings. I mention that because Thurso was once famous for its locally quarried stone slabs, but Thurso’s industry died with the advent of cement. You can see some of these stone slabs laid horizontally in the construction of a Highland fence (picture below).
We arrived in Thurso shortly before 1 PM, and decided to stop in at the Caithness Horizons Museum. We viewed it as a chance to learn a little bit more about this particular area of Scotland, plus it had a cafe where we thought we could grab some lunch while the storm raged on outside.
The museum houses a permanent collection that tells the story of the county of Caithness from 416 million years ago to the present day including the Picts, the Vikings and the history of the Dounreay Nuclear Research Establishment (more on that in a bit).
The displays were quite interesting, and we enjoyed reading about the influence of the Picts and the Norsemen throughout the ages. We learned that much of Northern and Western Scotland together with Northern England and Western Ireland had been settled by “newcomers” from Scandinavia, starting in about 600 AD. Initially these settlers worshipped Norse gods such as Odin and Thor, but by the end of the 10th century, they had converted to Christianity.
The items on display (pictured below) are from various excavations throughout Caithness. Some of them were found in what is believed to have been an ancient grave-site while others were discovered in the ruins of an old chapel in 1861. The largest stone in the top left picture (below) is called the Skinnet Stone, and the symbols on it are thought to be an entire book in gigantic form. There are traces of paint in some spots, and it is believed that it originally had been decorated with glass jewels.
Moving on we came upon this strange little character who goes by the name of Peter the Penguin. He is the Caithness Museum mascot and apparently the museum curator found him in a local store and felt sorry for him. She thought that visitors might like to see him, so she placed him in a display case where he can greet people as they enter the museum. He is adorned in different costumes throughout the museum as he tells the history of Caithness to young visitors. He is also on banners, pennants and point-of-sale material throughout the museum.
Speaking of being adorned in different costumes, if you’ve followed my postings over the past three weeks, it will come as no surprise to you that neither Mary nor I have any hesitation to dress up in costumes and historical garb when the opportunity arises. Imagine our delight then, when we entered the natural history area and came upon several boxes and hangers full of cool stuff. You can see the results below.
Yes, in honor of our anniversary, Mary did call me her Frog Prince, and her kiss rescued me from a lifetime of hapless hopping around.
Earlier I briefly mentioned the Dounreay Nuclear Research Facility. A controversial project and site throughout its entire existence, it consists of five nuclear reactors that were established in 1955, about 10 miles west of Thurso. The government ordered them closed in 1994 and they are in the process of being decommissioned, which is estimated to take until the 2070’s!
The museum has an entire room dedicated to the history of Dounreay and it is fascinating to follow the story from beginning to end.
While there, we had a chance to visit with one of the scientists involved with the project. I believe his name was Dr. Boris “Nuke” Clear, and we have a picture of him below. He seemed to positively “glow” when we spoke to him.
I mentioned that Peter the Penguin was featured throughout the museum and here are just a couple of examples.
After a quick lunch which included a delicious piece of Dundee Cake, we ventured outside where much to our surprise, the rain had stopped. The strong winds had blown the wet stuff away for the moment, and we took the opportunity to wander around the town a bit.
My pre-trip research had indicated that there were some interesting ruins in Thurso, in particular, a church dedicated to Saint Peter that dated back to at least 1220. At one time it had served as the parish church for the entire Caithness county, but it became disused in 1832, when two replacement churches were built.
As we strolled around town, the sun actually came out and we were thinking that maybe the worst was over. We headed back to the car and set off for our next stop, which was a roadside glimpse of the Dounreay Processing Plant.
It is actually a bit disturbing to contemplate the presence of a nuclear reactor and to see one up close sent a chill down the back of my neck. In 1998, four years after decommissioning began, a safety audit revealed contamination issues stemming from more than 20 years of leaks. Tens of thousands of radioactive fuel fragments had polluted local beaches, the coastline and the seabed. Fishing is still banned within a two-kilometre radius of the plant.
Moving on, you can see from the pictures below that it was beginning to cloud over again and the rain was on its way back. You can also get a sense of what the landscape along the north coast of Scotland looks like. Rugged and barren, yet full of character due to the varying shades and textures that surround you.
Within half an hour of leaving Dounreay, we were back into a full-blown wind and rain storm of major porportions and it was here to stay. We passed through the town of Bettyhill around 3:45 and began contemplating how soon we could get off the road. Our options were slim as we were now deep into the highlands where pockets of population are few and far between. I finally managed to find us a room at the Ben Lyon Hotel in the town of Tongue, and I plugged the coordinates into Sid (our GPS) while Mary battled the increasingly worsening weather conditions.
Even though we were in the midst of a really nasty storm, we still marveled at the scenery around us. I think we both love how it has remained unspoiled by man, and the expression “rugged beauty” kept popping into my head.
We arrived at the Ben Lyon Hotel at 4:40. We then sat in the car for 15 minutes waiting for the wind to subside long enough for us to negotiate a 20 metre run to the hotel entrance without getting slammed by the storm. There was no let-up in sight, so in a move reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their final run, we threw open the door, yelled a couple of obscenities and ran like hell. We figured we could grab our travel bags a little later.
The strange thing about the storm was that even as it blew through, there were occasional pockets of blue in the sky. The colours kept changing so frequently, it felt like we were looking up into a giant kaleidoscope. The pictures below are taken from the lounge windows of the hotel. They span a 30-minute period and those are whitecaps on the Kyle in the valley below.
At 6:15, the rain briefly stopped and I ventured out to the car to get our “stuff”. I could not believe the ferocity of the wind. I felt as if I was trying to walk uphill in a wind tunnel.
No matter, I grabbed our clothes and toiletry bags and Mary and I went up to our room. The winds were so strong that the window on the right (picture below) would not remain closed. We had to get extra towels from the front desk (Mary’s brilliant idea) and stuff them into the gaps to try and stifle the noise, not to mention block the cold air and the spray. It worked pretty well although more than once during the night , we had to get up and push one or more towels back into the gaps. While Mary may be hamming it up for the camera in the picture below, she is not a fan of wind-storms, having grown up in tornado country in southwest Ontario. Needless to say she had a restless night.
As I wrap up the story of this day which was mostly dominated by the weather, I’ll leave you with these two images of a sunset that seemed to defy the conditions. In the picture on the left, you can just make out the outline of some castle ruins on a hill jutting out into the Kyle (a Kyle is a narrow channel of water between two islands, similar to a strait or sound). It is Castle Varrich and it overlooks the Kyle of Tongue and the tiny village of Tongue. The castle’s precise origins and age are unknown. In less severe weather, the ruins are accessible, although we were told that most of the interior has collapsed beyond recognition.
While the weather was indeed the story today, this trip and the posts I write are about our adventures, and Mother Nature served up one of the more memorable ones that we’ve had.
From what we’re hearing on the news, she’s not done yet so we’ll just have to let tomorrow unfold and let her dictate our plans for the day.