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Stories from the Scotsman
Monarch of the glen: the 'little Scottish wife'

LADY Elizabeth 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 earldom’s youngest daughter should be born.

Indeed, to this day it is not known whether or not she was born at St Paul’s 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 years later.

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 stage.

The Glamis estate had come into the family at the end of the 14th century as a dowry gift when King Robert II of Scotland’s secretary, Sir John Lyon, married the king’s 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 family’s 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 pure conjecture.

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 of England.

“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 Mother’s 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 husband’s 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 Scotland’s 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 monarch’s 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 of them.

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 more’s the pity.

And after her husband’s 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 name.

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 mackerel.

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 Munro’s 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 McDonald’s wife Janet. “And the pair of them stood there, and grinned and grinned.”

For the rest of the Royal Family, a visit to Granny’s 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 castle.

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 always win.”

Once an Anglophobe South African approached her aggressively at a reception and said: “I must tell you, Ma’am, that I detest the English.” Her immediate response was: “I do so understand. You see, I’m Scottish.”

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 friend’s amazement, his parents would regale friends with this chance encounter for the remainder of their lives.


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 porch.

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 castle.

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 Mother’s 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 dungeon.

Roddy Martine

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