Elizabeth, the last Queen of Scots?

The sombre atmosphere surrounding the arrival of the Queen’s funeral cortège in Edinburgh masks deeper ambivalence towards the monarchy’s place in contemporary Scotland

September 13, 2022
Crowds gather on the streets of Edinburgh to watch the hearse carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II on 11th September. Image: Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo
Crowds gather on the streets of Edinburgh to watch the hearse carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II on 11th September. Image: Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo

“If you’re all friends, maybe just one of you could film it?” one young woman asks a group of conspicuously tall Canadians awaiting the Queen’s funeral cortège outside the Palace of  Holyroodhouse. “I’d actually like to see it with my own eyes,” she went on, attempting to peer over the tightly packed crowd. 

While the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 forged a link between the old and new because it was the first to be broadcast on television, the mass ceremonies staged for her funeral will surely be defined by the smartphone screen.

It is the potency of the royal presence that underpins the oldest claim of monarchy—to embody national unity in sight of the people. For the most part, the procession of the royal family up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile on Monday was met with a reverential hush. But while the smartphone may allow us to record royal encounters like this with a new digital intimacy, it also raises the stakes at mass public gatherings, because dissent can never be fully erased.

One bystander I spoke to, Bill—who was waiting for the funeral cortège for several hours near St Giles’ Cathedral—first saw the Queen as an Edinburgh schoolboy during the state of visit of King Olav of Norway in 1962. “I get upset when I hear derogatory remarks being said and shouted,” he told me. “It’s quite embarrassing, as a Scot.”

As might be likely of a significant majority of Scots over the age of 65, Bill’s support for the Union has been bolstered by the fact that Scotland has been so central to the first phase of events ahead of the Queen’s state funeral next week. That central place is emphasised further still by the fact that Elizabeth was the first monarch to die in Scotland since King James V—the father of Mary, Queen of Scots—in 1542.

“It was quite good to see the cortège coming down from Balmoral yesterday, and going through places like Dundee,” Bill says. “To see so many Union Jacks was pleasing, because Dundee’s a particular SNP stronghold.”

Calum, another Edinburgh resident, was walking to work during the proclamation of King Charles III by the Lord Lyon King of Arms from the city’s Mercat Cross on Sunday. He joined a group of republican protesters whose booing was audible on live coverage of the event.

“It just felt like a kind of weird affront for this to just happen where you walk around,” he told me. “It’s my part of town, and these people just announcing that ‘this is your King.’ It felt important to express dissent. They proclaimed the King and people in Edinburgh booed and it is now a matter of historical record, and that feels important.”

Despite the crowds, Calum is evidently not alone in his dissatisfaction with the royal family. According to one poll conducted by the British Future thinktank in May this year, only 45 per cent of Scots want to retain the monarchy, compared with 58 per cent across Britain.

On Sunday, two people were charged with breach of the peace: a 74-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman, the latter of whom for holding an anti-monarchy sign during the proclamation. On Monday, as the funeral cortège made its slow progress up the Royal Mile, a young protester who heckled Prince Andrew was arrested following a scuffle with other attendees—he too was charged. Clips of the incident have since been viewed by millions and fed a growing controversy around the right to protest and free speech.

Yet, for others, the British royal connection to Scotland remains deep, particularly in the capital. Edinburgh’s links can be traced back to 1822, when Walter Scott orchestrated a tartan-themed extravaganza for King George IV—the first visit of a reigning sovereign to Scotland for almost two centuries. Those festivities drew on aspects of Highland culture, now markers of modern Scottish national identity—the kilt, the pipes and the clan tartans—and entwined them with the Crown.  

This capacity to present a distinct picture of the institution in Scotland explains why the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, could eulogise the Queen as “the anchor of our nation” despite the presence of many republicans within her party’s ranks (not to mention the explicit republican policy of the Scottish Greens, her partners in government).  

Although requiring an enormous policing operation and the closure of much of central Edinburgh for the afternoon, the passing of the royals within only a few metres of so many thousands of their subjects represented an acknowledgment that royal proceedings in Scotland require a different—and perhaps more intimate—grammar.

The old anchors of national unity that defined Britain at the start of Elizabeth’s reign—like majority church attendance, national service and nationalised industries—have all since disappeared. In such an age, the House of Windsor knows that its status as one of the last remaining truly British institutions is all the more potent.

Robert, from Fife, served in the Royal Navy for 26 years and was one of more than 26,000 people who queued to walk past the Queen’s coffin in St Giles’ Cathedral. “She was the boss, I’d stood guard for her. I thought I needed to come. I think she had a great relationship with all her realms because I think she treated us all the same. There should always be a Union.”

Susan and Kim, two sisters from Roslin in Midlothian, joined the queue with friends at 2pm. They had anticipated a wait of around four hours. “It’s a lovely atmosphere,” said Susan. “I wouldn’t have travelled down to London if I’m honest, but I’m prepared to wait a good few hours to do this. It’s just too good an opportunity to miss.”

Kim felt that the events since the Queen’s death at Balmoral were significant for the Union itself. “I think she’s a non-divisive woman and she wants to keep us together. It’s her United Kingdom. She’s already got troubles with her family breaking away, she’s not wanting her country breaking away.”