Sunday, December 1, 2013

Day 27: Carn Liath & The Castle of Mey

Breakfast was good. We departed at about 10am and bypassed a Shell servo which lacked Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, much to my dismay. The longish drive took us further through the highlands, past lochs beneath a sky divided by ominous grey and promising blue. We crossed the trails of weekend drivers - even worse, Sunday drivers. Bridges converyed us onwards but I kept an eye out for Golspie as it served as a warning that a Bronze Age broch was imminent.

The broch caught my eye before I even recognised the area from Google street view. We parked then nervously navigated our way on foot across the A9 and through a muddy track torn up by tyres and tourists. The sea was lit up beautifully by the blue overhead and we sighted a nearby castle.

I loved the broch - Carn Liath is its name and it’s reputedly one of the most preserved brochs in Scotland. 

Carn Liath

“The Scottish version of a castle,” I informed Cazy. “They didn’t use any mortar.”

Quite a feat! Brochs are tall towers and this one, 2000 years old, still stood far over Cazy’s head. We followed the circular base around to the entrance, passing a tiny alcove to admire the grassy centre. There were even passable steps up to the “top” which gave a good view of the interior below. 

The broch from above.

I nearly stacked it on the slippery steps (they were uneven and exposed to the elements) but the low stone which I had earlier ducked to avoid whacking my head on saved me from disaster as I grabbed it. 

My advice? Stow the camera and walk slowwwwly.

I attempted the tiny alcove at the entrance, almost having to crawl in. Very small and snug, no doubt to keep snow out, it is now damp in there, evidenced by the growing green smudges in the corner. I wonder if this was used for cooking, storage or heating. Hilariously, my brother then attempted the alcove. I snapped a photo of him squeezing his limbs and head through.

We left, spurred on by a threatening sky. We needn’t have worried about the sky over Thurso or Castletown - it was sunny and painfully blue there.

We investigated Gills Bay to check where the ferry terminal was then arrived at the hotel just after 2pm where we encountered some room fiascos. It was not a day to waste so we visited the Castle of Mey. We weren’t sure about the castle but the promise of food led us down the drive which continued straight until it was diverted around the grounds. If we could have continued through the gardens, we would have been engulfed by despairing spindly trees.

We ate heartily before buying tickets. I noticed posters of the deceased Queen Mother and thought perhaps she had visited once or twice. Upon entering the grounds, I realised that the castle was very small with decorative rather than functional turrets. It was a glorified manor house flying the British flag.

Spring came very late to Scotland this year.

We took photos of the grounds and its canons before we were admitted to a tour conducted by a portly older man in a kilt who told us he was looking for a grand sporran like the one in a nearby portrait. Photography was not allowed inside the castle.

The Castle of Mey was originally built in the 16th century before falling into disuse and disrepair in the 20th century. Along came the widowed Queen Mother in 1953 and she bought the place, perhaps feeling sorry for it. She lived there for two out of twelve months every year until her death in 2002. I had no idea!

After dubiously eyeing the gaudy sculptures that the Queen Mother had bought in nearby Thurso, we ascended the twin stairs into her sitting room which contained cute animal toys and an antique tapestry. Much - all? - of the castle has been left as it was, including the 1950s bathrooms. 

The dining room was airy and cosy. Apparently she liked brightness and bright colours. It was interesting to hear about her - she sounds like a bit of a character. Our guide seemed very fond of her.

I smiled at photos of “Bertie”, envied the epic book collection, inwardly snorted at paintings created by Prince Charles (he still visits the castle for some days in August around his grandmother’s birthday) and was fervently glad I did not live in such a museum. However, I would like to buy and rescue a castle as the Queen Mother did.

We departed via the back door with a greater insight into her character. The surrounding beaches and grasses shone in the afternoon sun.

Maybe she bought it for the view!

We returned to the hotel and had instant noodles for dinner.

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