from the Scotsman
Monarch of the glen: the 'little Scottish wife'
Bowes-Lyon was born on August 4, 1900, in England, not Scotland. But
then that signified little at the time. No importance was placed on
where the heir to a Scottish earldoms youngest daughter should be
Indeed, to this day it is not known whether or not she was born at St
Pauls Walden, her parents home in Hertfordshire, or in London, and
only recently has there been speculation over why her father failed to
register her birth until six weeks after the event.
The answer to that conundrum is simple enough. On the Glorious Twelfth
he was in Scotland for the opening of the grouse shooting season. He
already had six children and he had his priorities right. Tiresome
officialdom could wait. If anybody thinks that they can read anything
more into it than that, it should be remembered that he was equally
tardy in registering the birth of his youngest child David, born two
The call of Scotland and the outdoor life that went with it for the
scions of the old aristocracy was therefore important for the four
sons and four daughters of Lord Glamis. When Elizabeth was four, her
father became 14th Earl of Strathmore & Kinghorne, and with that
inheritance came the moody, red sandstone castle of Glamis and many
thousands of acres in the glens of Angus, not to mention 800 years of
Scottish history in which their ancestors had regularly held centre
The Glamis estate had come into the family at the end of the 14th
century as a dowry gift when King Robert II of Scotlands secretary,
Sir John Lyon, married the kings daughter, Princess Joanna.
But the family did not always prosper in the turbulent course of the
years to follow. In 1537 one unfortunate Lady Glamis was burned alive
as a witch on Castle Hill, Edinburgh, accused of mixing potions.
It took the family some time to recover, but then Patrick, 9th Lord
Glamis, was created 1st Earl of Kinghorne in 1606. His grandson, a
worthy Lord of the Treasury to King Charles II, was honoured with the
Strathmore earldom in 1677. In a later generation, marriage to Mary
Eleanor Bowes, a Durham heiress, consolidated the familys wealth, and
brought them properties in England.
There has always been an air of intrigue hanging over Glamis Castle,
although the arrival of the present generation has done a great deal
to cheer up the old place. Always present is the story, rumour and
mystery of the Monster. It is said that some generations ago there
was born to an Earl and Countess of Strathmore a first son of such
deformed appearance that it was immediately decided he must never be
allowed to inherit the title and lands. A room was sealed off, and the
boy kept there under lock and key until he supposedly died years later
at a great age.
Each subsequent heir to the earldom is said to have been told the
secret, but even today, when there can be no possibility of a
monster still being alive, there is enormous curiosity about the
subject. Even weekend guests of the resident Earl and Countess have
been known to hang sheets out of the castle windows to see if there is
a window with no hanging when their host and hostess have gone out.
Doubtless the true story will emerge one day, but until then, there is
a certain spine-shivering romance about Glamis which has proved
enormously appealing to the tourists who visit every summer.
Whether or not, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was aware of the legend of the
monster as she spent her childhood summers playing with her brothers
and sisters in the endless corridors and turrets of the castle, is
By all accounts they were a close family with no aspirations to move
in royal circles, but the story goes that while attending a local
charity garden party, the seven-year-old Lady Elizabeth had her palm
read by an elderly tinker woman.
When you grow up, she told the little girl. You will become Queen
In that case, responded her governess haughtily, the laws of
England will have to be changed!
When, after a lengthy courtship, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon eventually
agreed to marry the Duke of York, the shy, retiring second son of King
George V, there was no expectation that they would ever ascend the
throne. Nobody doubted that the Prince of Wales, considered the most
eligible bachelor in the world, would one day marry and produce heirs.
Overshadowed by his fast and glamorous life-style, the Yorks appeared
a drab, homely couple, who fitted in well with the widespread
austerity of the early 1930s.
But from the start it was obvious that this Duchess of York was a
natural. Following a visit to Balmoral, King George V affectionately
wrote to his son: The better I know and the more I see of your dear
little Scottish wife, the more charming I think she is, and everyone
fell in love with her here. On another occasion, he described her as
a gleam of sunshine.
Perhaps it was the abdication crisis that first strengthened her
resolve as a single-minded and resourceful individual. One thing is
certain having been plunged into the public spotlight, it is
doubtful her nervous husband could have survived the ordeal without
her at his side.
And she certainly proved a gleam of sunshine throughout the dark years
of the Second World War that followed. In tune with the public mood,
the King and Queen stayed on in London during the Blitz. For where
else should they have been?
History will find its own way of recognising the importance of Queen
Elizabeth the Queen Mothers role in the 20th century. Whether it was
as a reluctant Queen, determined to live up to what was expected of
her as Queen, and the last Empress of India, or as Queen Consort to
her 26-year-old daughter on her husbands untimely death in 1952, it
has to be said that she gave of her best.
But the image she projected to her subjects is deeply bound up with
her Scottish roots. Elizabeth of Glamis was proud of her Scots
ancestry and she made sure that her husband endorsed it.
On their first visit to Scotland as King and Queen in 1937 they
unveiled the granite obelisk to launch Scotlands Empire Exhibition
scheduled for 1940 23,000 schoolchildren paraded for them at
Murrayfield in front of a crowd of 20,000, and 80,000 attended a
garden party at Holyrood.
As a further symbol of the monarchs affection for Scotland, she
persuaded the King to reintroduce the regular installation of Knights
of the Thistle in Scotland, increasing the number to 16. This is the
Scottish equivalent of the English Order of the Garter, and the
highest honour anybody in Scotland can achieve. This initiative might
seem oddly anachronistic, even patronising, looking back, but at the
time it served to give Scotland the recognition it needed to fuel a
self-confidence sorely tried by the number of Scots who were packing
up and leaving to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
One must also remember that the Queen Mother came of a generation and
class that identified easily with the rigours and privileges of
Scottish outdoor life. There was nothing she liked more than walking
over the moors, fly-casting on the rushing rivers, dogs, dancing
Scottish reels and old weatherproof clothing. Whether or not it has
done any favours to their public image, such habits she successfully
passed on to her eldest daughter and eldest grandson.
During the 40s, 50s and 60s the annual holiday ritual of Balmoral,
attendance at the Braemar Gathering and Presbyterian worship at
Crathie Kirk blended in perfectly with the traditional British image
expected of the Royal Family. People identified with them. Trips to
the sun, West Indian beaches, the Mediterranean, Parisian and
Manhattan jet set were the territory of the exiled Duke and Duchess of
Windsor, and industrial tycoons such as Sir Bernard and Lady Docker.
Somehow one simply could not have imagined the Queen Mother swanning
around on a Monte Carlo yacht in a bathing costume, and the
middle-class British public loved her all the more for it. Before the
cut-price package tours to Ibitha and Benidorm, she was genuinely one
As Duchess of York, she made Birkhall her Scottish home, and began the
garden she was to recreate when she returned to live there in the
1950s. Then it was to Balmoral, where the family entertained friends
and public figures who were often astonished at the informality, the
party games played after dinner, the sing-songs around the piano, and
the forays into the hills with packed lunches. It was an idyll of
Scottish rural life which sadly many an urban dweller of today finds
hard to comprehend, and mores the pity.
And after her husbands death, when she could have retreated to
anywhere of her choosing, she bought the tiny Castle of Mey on the
far-flung Caithness coast overlooking the Pentland Firth. This little
castle of Barrogill, a 16th century Clan Sinclair stronghold with no
back door, she saved from demolition and it reverted to its original
Here she kept a flock of Aberdeen-Angus cattle and a flock of Border
Cheviot sheep. Her pride and joy was the wonderful garden which she
created in a windswept landscape. When guests came to stay there were
picnics, excursions inland to fish for salmon, or out to sea to catch
She organised ceilidhs at the castle and every year she made a point
of visiting a local artists exhibition. She also popped into Miss
Henrietta Munros antiques shop and always bought something.
Another regular event was the local Highland games. No stranger to
such displays, she had started visiting the more famous Braemar Games,
near Balmoral, in 1927.
Or there were her regular visits to the widow of a former minister of
Canisbay, living alone in a cottage near the castle. And the time she
spotted the young daughter of local photographer Ian McDonald. The
little girl was clutching a posy at the Mey Highland Games, hoping to
present it to her.
She looked, and said: Is that your daughter, Mr McDonald? Then you
will have to have a special picture, recalled McDonalds wife Janet.
And the pair of them stood there, and grinned and grinned.
For the rest of the Royal Family, a visit to Grannys was a highlight
of their annual summer cruise. The Royal Yacht Britannia would put
them ashore on the Caithness coast so they could spend a day at the
When it sailed away in the evening, there was a spectacular and noisy
farewell as Britannia fired off rockets, and local coastguards
responded with rockets and flares.
Once, asked who won this annual mock battle, a coastguard said: We
Once an Anglophobe South African approached her aggressively at a
reception and said: I must tell you, Maam, that I detest the
English. Her immediate response was: I do so understand. You see,
And why else would she have insisted that her younger daughter be born
at Glamis, the first member of the British Royal Family to have been
born in Scotland for 300 years?
Perhaps it was all a romanticised, post-John Buchan, pre-Braveheart
Scotland, but a whole post-war generation of Scots and expatriate
Scots grew up believing in it.
I will leave the last word to a former colleague, the son of a
Lanarkshire miner and a dedicated Marxist, who used to tell the story
of how his parents were once holidaying in Stirling. They were walking
along a back street when a sleek limousine passed them by slowly, a
flag fluttering on the bonnet.
The Queen Mother was travelling through the town and the two
spectators, the only people on the pavement, stopped to wave. The
Queen Mother waved back and flashed a brilliant smile. To my
republican friends amazement, his parents would regale friends with
this chance encounter for the remainder of their lives.
FROM A RUIN TO A SANCTUARY
THE Castle of Mey is located in the old county of Caithness on the
shores of the Pentland Firth, some six miles west of John o Groats
and nine miles east of Thurso.
It was built on a Z-plan between 1566 and 1572 by George Sinclair, the
4th Earl of Caithness. The Sinclairs called their family seat
Barrogill. It was extended in the 18th century and further extended
and baronialised in 1819 by architect William Burn, who added the
The Queen Mother bought the derelict castle from the then-owner,
Captain Imbert-Terry, after the death of her husband, King George, in
1952 as a haven from the world. At the time she told her close
friend Lady Doris Vyner that, with her daughter as queen, if there
were no public role for her as dowager, she would retreat to the
As a tribute to the pleasure her home had afforded her in August last
year, it was announced that the Queen Mother would donate the castle
to the nation.
It had been expected she would leave her home to one of her
grandchildren, but it will now be run by a charitable trust for the
benefit of the local community and as a major tourist attraction.
Trustee Lord Thurso said: It is the Queen Mothers wish that in due
course the Castle of Mey is enjoyed by the general public. The Queen
had set the trend for allowing commoners into her royal homes by
opening up Windsor and Buckingham Palace.
The opening of the castle to the public will generate a huge tourism
boost for Caithness. The popularity of the Queen Mother is expected to
bring tens of thousands of visitors to the remote area. By handing
over the castle, her adjoining 200-acre Longoe farm, prize-winning
Aberdeen Angus herd and a champion flock of North Country Cheviot
sheep to the trust, she has assured the financial future and
maintenance of the castle and gardens.
The castle comprises some 38 rooms, including 15 bedrooms, three
reception rooms, a library and a billiards room. An imposing double
staircase from the entrance hall leads to the principal rooms on the
second floor. A trapdoor in the floor of the dining room leads to a
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