The little village of Mey situated on Scotland's northern coast, saw a wide variety of vehicles assembling in the Hotel car park. By 3.00pm Friday it was time to start the first leg of the Scottish Castles Association – Caithness and Orkney weekend tour. An extra half day (Friday) had been added to the event due to the large number of castle sites available, and to the fact that most members had travelled great distances and were not likely to be in the area for some time. Another reason for the increase in visits being the enthusiastic encouragement extended by owners in the area. We found that we were being invited to visit and hear presentations in places normally not open to the public. One example of this being our 3.30pm appointment at "Dounreay".
At DOUNREAY we were confronted by a sight and situation not previously contemplated by any of us. We were about to enter the well publicised nuclear site and could see the famous dome and the associated buildings. We were processed through the security screen and safety checks then transported into the heart of the complex.
Our hosts expressed delight at being able to show us this unusual aspect of their responsibilities. A detailed slide presentation revealed the subject of our visit. "Dun-Reay" a typical L-shaped Scottish Tower House with part of the original barmkin wall and some later outbuildings remaining. Old photographs showed the building as it was prior to the modern development of the site, further photos showed the steady deterioration of the tower through normal neglect and the onslaught of some of the most severe weather conditions. The deterioration of the tower was contrasted against the huge investment and development that has overtaken the surrounding area. We learned that the beach and tower site are not part of the official Dounreay complex. Access to the tower via the coastline and beach is open to any who wish to brave the terrain, tides and weather. Following the presentations we were advised that we were about to be exposed to the most dangerous area in Dounreay. When we realised that our hosts saw this danger as the risk of our being hurt by masonry falling from the castle, we were much amused. A further bus ride took us to the rear gate of the complex, this was opened by our police escort, who watched with some bewilderment and amusement as we explored, photographed, clambered, and discussed our way around the castle, The vaulted chambers, scale and platt stair, shot holes, and the L-shaped layout all creating interest.
On leaving the castle site we had the soles of our shoes tested for evidence of radioactivity, by a Dounreay official and his Geiger counter. After the tour we discussed the castle and its current condition. We surprised our hosts by assuring them that they had in their care a very special example of Scottish architecture. And that it is in better condition than most structures that are now restored for habitation.
From Dounreay we headed east along the coast. Castles tour organiser Graham Coe took the lead with your editor as his navigator. The ancient Chapel of St Mary was our destination, but soon we realised that the navigation was wrong and some backtracking was required. Mr Coe was greatly amused. Finally parking by a little farm we set out on the coastal headland walk, past what Chairman John Wright was able to describe as a "Snuff-Mill". Eventually we arrived at the ruins of the shell of the ancient little church with its graveyard, all was tidy and in good order with wonderful views out across the Pentland Firth.
Returning to the cars we headed further east. This took us to a farm steading that is visible from the road. Approaching the farm we could see that what initially seemed like a group of roofless farm buildings, was in fact BRIMS CASTLE. Here two extended structures revealed a single bartizan , stair wing, and interesting arched gate through the remaining section of barmkin wall. The complex of buildings has been given over to farm animals and encouraged only a few intrepid explorers to enter the deeper recesses. All of this perched on top of a low cliff with access to a convenient and sheltered area of beach perfect for the landing of boats.
The site of SCRABSTER CASTLE was next on our list – even armed with an array of ordinance survey maps – we all had some difficulty finding the correct rock top mound. Our main clue was, that a World War 2 machine gun "Pill Box" was on top of the castle remains, that it was by the sea shore and that a stream flowed around the base rock.. Finally we located the site, close to modern houses, examination revealed mounds and hollows with overgrown stonework. It is likely that most locals are unaware of the site.
Our final visit of the day took us into Thurso where we had no difficulty spotting the huge edifice that is "THURSO CASTLE". Gaining access close to the building was somewhat confusing. We eventually parked the cars, headed for the beach and made our way past some houses and viewed the tall, square, empty shell., the extensive coastal walling and the seemingly decorative adjacent round tower. Further reading will reveal more about this place.
Returning to the hotel in Mey, dinner and refreshment competed in priority with the formality of checking in. An enjoyable and informal meal allowed new members and regular attenders to get to know one another. While discussion of the afternoons visits continued, we all felt a growing anticipation for the next mornings visit to the Queen Mothers Castle of MEY. A spectacular sunset was followed with the continuing evening light that is a mid summer feature of this northern location.
Day 1 of 3, continue to the next day