The story of the Castle of Mey and its connection with the late Queen Mother is set out in our feature page about it. On this page we focus on the attractions beyond the castle itself, in particular the two gardens, the animal centre, and the visitor centre. Full information about opening hours and admission prices can be found on our Castle of Mey feature page.
The Castle of Mey is the most northerly castle in mainland Scotland and it occupies a beautiful but exceptionally exposed position just a few hundred yards inland from the Pentland Firth. Its location makes it vulnerable to gales from almost any direction but the south: and combined with its gently north sloping situation and northern latitude it would be difficult to imagine a less promising place to establish a garden. There are stories of winds so severe that cabbages have been physically lifted out of the ground and thrown 20 yards.
The key to the establishment of viable gardens at the Castle of Mey was the "Great Wall of Mey", built fairly early in the castle's life. This is a stone wall up to 15ft high which extends in a line to the east and west of the castle itself. To the west it forms one side of a two acre walled garden which contains additional internal protection in the form of substantial tall hedges, while to the east of the castle the wall meets the extensive shelter belt of trees which largely encloses the southern side of the castle's grounds.
The Queen Mother had a lifelong passion for gardening and it seems that the potential for redeveloping the unlikeliest of gardens in the only home she ever personally owned was one of the things that attracted her to buy the castle in 1952. She spent much of her childhood at her family's Scottish home at Glamis Castle, famed for the quality of its gardens. Her own personal engagement with gardening began in 1936 when, as Duchess of York, she restored the garden at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park. She also had a considerable influence on the gardens at Sandringham and Buckingham Palace.
At the Castle of Mey the Queen Mother oversaw the development of two gardens. The two acre walled garden to the west of the castle is a garden of many different "rooms". These include flower gardens such as her personal favourite, the "Shell Garden" in the shelter of the northern wall, home to many roses. Other parts of the garden provided, and still provide, the castle with fruit and vegetables and with cut flowers. Growing raspberries and strawberries in this climate is a challenge, but one very successfully overcome. For some reason the normally delicate globe artichoke also does well in this northern setting.
From a visitor's point of view, an unassuming door in a wall gives access to a green tunnel-like entrance, which in turn gives admission to the walled garden. From ground level the tall hedges and subdivisions mean that sightlines are not great except along the main border paths. A viewpoint at the south east corner of the garden overcomes this and allows the garden to be fully appreciated.
The second garden lies to the east of the castle and has a much more enclosed and secret feel, hemmed in between the wall to the north and the trees to the south. One path extends to a door in a wall, and you then turn to be presented with a superb view of the east end of the castle.
The animal centre opened in 2007 and makes use of what was previously an old granary, variously used as stables and a garage, a short walk to the north east of the castle. Here children of any age can enjoy getting to know more about a wide range of farm animals. The outside paddock is usually home to a number of unusual breeds of sheep. They share the area with Alice the donkey and with Beebee and Libby, two British alpine goats.
Other enclosures are home to a number of different types of poultry, and at the corner of the centre itself the old pigsty has been brought back into use. This is home to two rare breed piglets, who are sold for breeding at the end of each season and replaced the following year. Inside the granary visitors can get up close and personal with small animals such as lambs and rabbits: and at the right time of year the former can be bottle fed. You can also try your hand at milking Daisy, the wooden cow. Also scoring high on the "aah" factor is the incubator in which you can view newly hatched chicks or ducklings.
The last of the main external points of interest at Castle of Mey is also the first you will actually encounter. The visitor centre was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay on 4 August 2007 and is a superb place in which to start and end your visit. The building itself fits beautifully with the western end of the "great wall" which backs it, and took considerably longer to design than to build. What you see today is the tenth design to have been produced over the three years to early 2006, and it's fair to say it was worth the wait. The centre provides an attractive and welcoming ticket area and a gift shop selling quality products, and an excellent tearoom offering good, and good value, food and drink.