A Queen and her castle

THE Queen Mother dressed, if not for success, then for Scotland. When north of the Border, she favoured her "old friends": blue tweed jackets, tartan skirts and a blue felt hat decorated with a sprig of heather and a feather held in place by a badge containing a cairngorm stone.

While her daughter, the Queen, made do with a single Scottish retreat, Balmoral Castle, in the soft rolling hills of Deeside, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon had two, which seems only fair, for, as it is made clear in the official biography published today, she loved the country twice as much.

The first of her homes was Birkhall, a Scottish lodge built of stone, harled and painted white. It was hidden in the trees of the Balmoral Estate, and it was there, in the 1950s, that she performed perhaps the strangest of her countless opening ceremonies.

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After the addition of a downstairs' gentleman's loo, organised by Sir Arthur Penn, her private secretary and later her treasurer, the Queen Mother had the toilet bowl filled with flowers from the garden and declared it open by pulling the chain and announcing: "I name this 'Arthur's Seat'."

Her sense of humour could be peculiar. A regular party trick when at Balmoral was to glance across to the mountains and say: "Isn't Lochnagar looking beautiful today?" Then she would bend over and say: "Isn't Lochnagar beautiful, even upside down."

Yet, it was not in laughter but in sorrow that she discovered the solace Scotland could bring, in particular at what would become her favourite home, the Castle of Mey.

Months after the death of her husband, Bertie, King George VI, she was visiting friends in Caithness in June 1952 and, while being driven along the little coast road towards John o' Groats, she spotted, between the road and the waves, "this romantic-looking castle down by the sea". The castle, named Barrogil, had a superb position, right on the sea looking out to Orkney, but it was in terrible con dition, having been used for troop accommodation, with little maintenance and badly damaged by a recent storm.

As she later wrote to a friend: "The next day we discovered it was going to be pulled down, and I thought this would be a terrible pity." Pondering the London blitz, she added: "One had seen so much destruction in one's life".

The owner, Captain Imbert-Terry, was delighted by her interest and offered to gift her the property, but she insisted on paying, and a nominal fee of 100 was agreed. It was to be the only house that ever belonged to her. Friends in the area, the Vyners, arranged for her to buy more land along the coast at a cost of 300, which would provide 30 per year in grazing, while old and inexpensive furniture was bought for 124.

In early August she wrote to Arthur Penn, explaining that she planned to "escape there occasionally when life became hideous", and added: "Do you think me mad?"

She was more nervous about alerting her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, to whom she later wrote that she did not wish the building to "crumble away" and "I felt that it was such a wrong thing to happen to an interesting old place".

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Once the deeds were in her possession, she changed the name from Barrogil to its previous title, the Castle of Mey, and would delight in its views and comfort for half a century until her death in 2002.

It was also here that, as a child, Prince Charles would retreat from the bullying he endured at Gordonstoun boarding school.

As William Shawcross has written in the official biography: "She loved the fresh air and the open space that the castle offered, with the ever-changing view of clouds and sea and the shadows on Orkney beyond."

In one of her letters, she explained that the great advantage of the house was its location "at the furthest tip of these islands, one feels so beautifully far away and the newspapers come too late to be readable."

The furnishings developed over time, with many bought at Miss Miller Calder's shop in Thurso, including a huge clam-shell jardinire which stood in the front hall and which was always packed with flowers while the Queen Mother was in residence. In the hall there was a chronometer from George V's racing yacht, Britannia, which struck the bells of the watch instead of the hours.

The main room on the raised ground floor is the drawing room, which faces north towards the sea and the Orkney Islands. A large 16th-century Flemish wool tapestry hangs on the north wall and, when she was in residence, a peat fire burned continuously in the grate. She called the library "my Hunka-Munka room", and it was here that she dealt with her correspondence each day at a desk decorated with her favourite photographs of the King. Her bedroom was at the opposite end of the house, up a flight of stone stairs in the turret, which she still managed to reach until the end of her life. The room was modestly furnished with blue bed covers and headboard. Near her room was "Princess Margaret's bedroom", which was never used as the princess did not much like "Mummy's draughty castle".

Other guests adored their visits. When local farmers arrived to inspect her cattle and sheep, of which she was exceedingly proud, they were fed tea, chocolate cake and drams in the drawing room, with the Queen Mother taking great delight on their whisky consumption. August brought grouse shooting at Mey with the keeper, who was only six months younger than his employer, organising days of grouse shooting until he was well into his nineties. Lunch was always a picnic, regardless of the weather.

When her daughter, the Queen, arrived for her annual Scottish holiday, the Royal Yacht Britannia was anchored off Scrabster, the nearest port to Mey, with the family taken ashore and motored over to the castle. After lunch, the Queen would often lead a party to the beach to clean up rubbish and make a bonfire. Then, in the evening, once the party had returned to Scrabster, the local Coastguards would bring to the castle all the time-expired maroons and flares from the north of Scotland, which they let off as the royal yacht steamed past on its way to Aberdeen.

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The Queen and her mother developed a habit of exchanging comic verses over ship-to-shore radio, via the coastguard. One year the Queen sang the following words to the tune of O Worship the King:

We send our best thanks

For lunch and good cheer

Though skies may be grey

Warm welcome was there

Pavillioned in Splendour

The Castle of Mey

Gave all of the family

A wonderful day.

Songs were popular at the Castle of Mey. The Rev Alex Muir, of Canisbay Church, where the Queen Mother had her own pew, played the guitar in the pulpit and, on a number of occasions, at the castle, where his host encouraged guests to join in with both hymns and comic songs, such as Ye Cannae Fling Yer Grannie o' a Bus.

To indulge her lifelong passion for fishing, the Queen Mother would return to Birkhall at Balmoral. The first half of her life, she was a keen fisher of trout, but switched her focus to salmon for the next 50 years.

Her ghillie at Balmoral, Charlie Wright, said of her: "She was a good fisher. She had good casting and was excellent at playing a fish. She liked catching fish herself, but she was even happier if her guests did so."

Evening fishing was much favoured at Birkhall, and one night she was out very late and returned in the dark, clutching a 20lb salmon and declared: "This is what kept me."

Yet, in her final years, fishing and country dancing were replaced, as it is for so many of her subjects, by the soothing scenes on the television screen. Among her favourite videos were Dad's Army, Keeping Up Appearances and Fawlty Towers.

The Castle of Mey was special to the Queen Mother, as it was not tainted with bitter-sweet memories of her beloved Bertie. As Mr Shawcross writes: "She loved being in Caithness because it was Scotland, to which she was devoted, and yet a part of Scotland which had no memories of happier days. She saw the castle as emblematic of her own life."

• Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross is published today, 25

A letter to old Hitler

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FAMILY and friends from Scotland were dear to the Queen Mother's heart, as a curious, comical letter reveals. In 1942, at the height of the Blitz, the Queen, as she was then titled, wrote to her niece, Elizabeth Elphinstone, who was working as a nurse in Edinburgh, about her making a trip south.

"I rang up old Hitler, & quite politely asked him to make up his mind for once and all about his beastly old invasion. If he wasn't going to risk it, well & good, but if he was going to come, well, for goodness sake he must decide – now. I told him, that apart from the trouble of having to mine the beaches, and the perpetual sharpening of the Home Guards' pikes, that my niece Miss E was having her plans held up, and she really must be considered a little.

"After a good deal of having and evasions, I pinned him down to saying that the end of March was OK, so that you will be able to come South with a clear conscience and no risk of being cut off from your hospital & kin and kith… I shall look forward to seeing you so VERY much. I am afraid that London is rather gloomy, with nobody to ring up or to go & see. Sometimes one feels quite lonely, it is so rare to see a friend, but how very exciting when one old face turns up."

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