Princes and puffins: Escape to Caithness

    The Stacks of Duncansby, John O'Groats. Credit: Sebastian Wasek/4Corners Images
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    As Prince Charles opens a B&B on Scotland’s remote north-easterly tip, Janice Hopper escapes to Caithness to discover an area rich in natural beauty and historic ancient sites

    The opening of a remote Scottish B&B is usually a relatively low-key affair, but when The Granary Lodge recently launched, it attracted vast media attention, numerous headlines and multiple hits across social media. 

    This remote and luxurious accommodation is set on the rugged Caithness coastline near Scotland’s north-easterly tip, with panoramic views across the Pentland Firth over to Orkney. But the reason this coastal B&B made waves is the fact that it’s managed by HRH Prince Charles’s charity, The Prince’s Foundation. The heir to the British throne personally attended the opening ceremony, ensuring that this quiet and beautiful corner of Caithness was the centre of attention. However, once the photographers and journalists headed home, a tranquil seaside escape awaited discerning guests seeking to combine luxury with Scotland’s great outdoors.

    The Castle of Mey. Credit: Iain Masterton/Alamy

    Despite the quite windswept and blustery location, one of the Granary Lodge’s main draws is its picturesque situation, next door to the Castle of Mey. This castle is renowned as the much-loved holiday home of the late Queen Mother, who purchased the run-down building, garden and grounds in 1952, the year she was widowed. Mey may have represented a much-needed retreat, a project, a clean slate, an investment, or a combination of many factors after the loss of her husband, King George VI; but this homely castle offers visitors a real insight into the Queen Mother’s life, off duty. 

    The Castle of Mey was originally built by George, the 4th Earl of Caithness. His third son and heir, George Sinclair, changed its name to Barrogill Castle, and it remained the seat of the Earls of Caithness for the next century. A lack of male heirs led the 15th Earl to leave the castle to a friend, FG Heathcote. It was then privately sold to Captain FB Imbert-Terry, who made the famous sale to the Queen Mother in 1952. It was Her Majesty who restored the Castle of Mey’s original name.

    Prince Charles officially opened the 10-bedroom Granary Lodge B&B. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

    Many royal palaces are exceptionally discrete about their regal inhabitants, but the tour guides at Mey are allowed and encouraged to share information about the region, the building and the Queen Mother’s life here prior to her death in 2002. The entrance hall features stately items, such as the flag that flew whenever
    Her Majesty was in residence. But, equally, visitors are shown the spot where she used to feed her Corgi dogs most evenings. In the living room, there is a priceless 16th-century tapestry, but it’s also busy with ornaments, hand-crafted gifts from local schoolchildren and playful Scottish souvenirs, such as a Nessie toy.

    Other rooms included in the tour are: the library, where family photographs and the Queen Mother’s favourite video tapes remain; the equerry’s room that houses portraits of Her Majesty’s prize Aberdeen Angus cattle; the grand dining room; and a series of basic bedrooms, decorated in pastel hues and floral soft furnishings.
    The Queen Mother’s style, taste and favoured colour palette all shine through here. Prince Charles takes a holiday in the castle every August, but very little has changed in the public rooms since his grandmother’s day.

    The Italian Chapel on the Island of Lamb Holm. Credit: Ashley Cooper pics/Alamy

    The castle’s walled garden is a further draw, offering not only shelter from the sea breeze but an abundance of roses (beloved by the Queen Mother), and ample fruit and vegetables that supply the visitor centre tearoom, the Granary Lodge and the castle itself. Venture further afield to discover sublime landscapes, dramatic rock formations and local wildlife. The castle features on the North Coast 500, a famous 516-mile road circuit around the Scottish coast. While many travellers head to John O’Groats to capture a selfie by the famous road sign, a more tranquil option is to visit what is actually the most northerly point in mainland Britain at Dunnet Head. Here, experience sweeping clifftop views, an array of seabirds – from skuas and shags to peregrines and puffins – and a Robert Stevenson-designed lighthouse dating from 1831. The islands of Orkney are less than seven miles distance from this point.

    In terms of towns, Wick is close to Castle Mey and brimming with history. A former Viking settlement, Wick boasts the shortest street in the world – named Ebenezer Place, it’s a mere 6’9” in length. On a more historic slant, much of the town’s wealth came from the herring fishing. Stroll around the purpose-built Pultneytown, a harbour area designed especially by Thomas Telford to facilitate the pursuit of the “silver darlings”. Lower Pulteney was a busy working area by the harbour, and Upper Pulteney was primarily residential. Drop by Wick Heritage Centre to discover more.

    Another fishing curiosity is the Whaligoe Steps. This manmade stairway of more than 300 steps was created in the 18th century. Boats would arrive with their catch at the bottom of the cliffs, and fisherwomen would carry the heavy creels up the steps to be gutted. The steps can still be descended but they are precipitous and potentially treacherous. A modern café allows visitors to appreciate the sea views without watching their footfall.

    For natural beauty in Caithness, think wild and rugged, rather than pretty or dainty. The Stacks of Duncansby are jagged, sandstone needles that appear to have pierced their way out of the sea. Walkers often park at Duncansby Head Lighthouse to commence a clifftop walk, witnessing the numerous seabirds in flight before taking in the dramatic stacks, the largest of which towers roughly 200 feet high. 

    The newly opened Granary Lodge. Credit: John Baikie

    The seas have their own story around the Pentland Firth; the tidal streams are so powerful where the Atlantic meets the North Sea that the swirling waters were called “hell’s mouth” in the days of sailing ships. The tide races are so distinctive and dangerous that mariners knew them intimately, giving them individual names such as the Swilkie, the Bore of Huna, the wells of Tuftalie, the Duncansby Bore, and the Merry Men of May. This dramatic coastline also saw action during the Second World War – in 1940, just before the invasion of Norway, the Duncansby Head lighthouse was machine-gunned by a German bomber. In such a tranquil spot, it’s now difficult to imagine loud bombing raids taking place.

    An equally dramatic coastal walk leaves Scrabster for Holborn Head. This clifftop hike takes in another lighthouse, a blow hole (known locally as a ‘gloup’) and
    a sea stack, as well as manmade sculptures and cairns, with excellent views of the Orkney island of Hoy.

    Orkney is repeatedly in sight when touring coastal Caithness. In fact, the Caithness region came under Norse rule until the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Thankfully, visitors don’t merely have to gaze longingly at this northern archipelago – a day trip to Orkney is easily achievable. Ferries sail from Scrabster to the western town of Stromness on mainland Orkney in 90 minutes. Or depart from Gills Bay, only 3.5 miles from the Castle of Mey, to arrive at St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay an hour later. 

    South Ronaldsay is home to the prehistoric Tomb of the Eagles, a burial chamber that housed around 30 human skulls. After taking in ancient burial rites, nip to the nearby isle of Lamb Holm to appreciate the splendour of the Italian Chapel, a Catholic place of worship constructed out of Nissen huts by Italian Prisoners of War. The southern islands of South Ronaldsay and Lamb Holm may sound remote but they are linked by the Churchill Barriers, interconnecting causeways built during the Second World War to protect the British fleet at Scapa Flow. Now, used as road links, the barriers make Orkney ripe for exploration over a short period of time.

    After a day of breathing in sea air, perhaps setting sail to far-flung islands, and experiencing hikes, herring, skulls, stacks, steps and seabirds, retiring to a place of comfort is paramount. The new Granary Lodge fits the brief. Originally a three-storey grain store, dating from the late 17th century, it has been sensitively restored and transformed into accommodation that taps into the experiences of the region and guests’ newly-formed memories of Caithness. 

    The drawing room is decorated in dusky pastels, with grand faded rugs and comfortable sofas set before a log fire – all a reminder of the colour palette, atmosphere and unexpected cosiness of the Castle of Mey. The decor has a maritime theme, with shells, fish, anchors and paintings of fisherwomen to tie in with the coastal location. The 10 bedrooms also echo the Queen Mother’s tastes: pale hues emboldened by vibrant floral soft furnishings, accompanied by prints of local flora and fauna. 

    Final regal flourishes cement the links with the castle. Upon entering the building, guests will notice Her Majesty’s cipher, ER, featured in the reception area. And a gallery of photographs reveal candid, informal images of the Queen Mother venturing out into the Caithness countryside, enjoying picnics with friends, profiling
    her prize livestock, or spending time with family. 

    Caithness has provided a haven for the royal family for decades. It’s time for the rest of us to discover its unique mix of nature, history and luxury. 

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