A quiet lament in the windswept sanctuary that took her as its own

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The Independent Online

It is the most secluded of sanctuaries, shielded by a wood on the windswept coast of north Scotland, just a few miles from John O'Groats.

The Castle of Mey, bought by the Queen Mother as a personal retreat after the death of her husband, King George VI, in 1952, represents a world as far from the pomp and circumstance of royal life as it is possible to imagine.

A small number of locals was proud to have the Queen Mother enjoying her annual holidays here. She visited the prize-winning Aberdeen Angus cows on her estate, fished on the River Thurso, and picnicked with friends.

"It was the only place she could be really private," Miles Frost, head chef of the local pub, the Castle Arms Hotel, said.

Her daughter Princess Margaret may have fallen for the sunny charms of the Caribbean, but Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother opted for the beautiful but bleak landscape of Scotland, the country of her birth.

In Mey, population around 30, the post office is a portable cabin and the village shop the back bar of a pub. In neighbouring fields, abandoned stone houses punctuate the landscape where residents have given up and moved away.

In the grounds of the 16th century castle, reminiscent of the Queen Mother's family home at Glamis, the grass has been reclaimed as best the gardeners can from the neighbouring wilderness and the walled garden is reportedly a treasure, with fruit trees sustained despite the odds. But where the ground stretched down to the turquoise and grey of the North Sea and a view as far as Orkney on a clear day, the charm is defiantly natural, not manicured.

As at the other royal residences, the Union Flag flew at half-mast at the Castle of Mey yesterday. Today a book of condolence will record the thoughts of the 100 or so residents of the village and surrounding farms, and any passing tourists.

But yesterday there were no tears or elaborate bouquets. That would not appear to be Mey's style. Most villagers, on hearing news of the royal death, were quietly sad but not demonstrative.

The talk here, and across Scotland, was of a Queen Mother very much their own, not a socialite but a Scottish loyalist who once apparently told an anti-English South African that she understood his problem. "You see, I'm Scottish," she is supposed to have said.

At church yesterday, Rev Iain Macnee spoke briefly to a handful of waiting journalists before going ahead with his normal Easter Sunday service. Yes, he said, he had known the Queen Mother, in so far as any "commoner" could have known her. "There's no doubt that her faith was simple but profound. It was something that came from the heart," he said.

He spoke, too, of her mischievous sense of humour and human touch, and tried to explain the affection for his parish. "She liked to be able to retreat from the hustle and bustle of London," he said. "This was the place where people could get close to her. She would stop and speak and had a genuine interest in them."

At the village shop, Myra Murphy, the owner, said she was sad, but the death had not been unexpected. "I think people here were proud of Mey's association with the Queen Mother," she said. "She came here to recharge the batteries and we gave her a great deal of privacy. Anybody asking questions was fobbed off. But we always knew when she was here."

There are plans to open the castle to visitors as the Queen Mother had decided to donate it to the nation. The castle was begun by the Fourth Earl of Caithness in 1566, expanded in the 19th century, then saved from ruin by the Queen Mother. To open it up would significantly boost tourism in the area.

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