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1 November 1999

Long live the Lord of the Isles

New Statesman Scotland - Reviving one of the world's oldest titles could do much for the ro

By Peter Clarke

Somebody, we don’t know who, has had a harvest of fun suggesting that the royal household is going to tweak its titles to please Scottish opinion. The Historiographer Royal, Professor Tom Smout, has suggested the Princess Royal be given the title Princess Lyon while in Scotland. Princess Anne is probably the only woman in the country who knows all the verses of Flower of Scotland and enjoys talisman status for the Scottish Rugby Football Union, which does not quite understand why she is such a loyal supporter of its 15 brutes.

The story is a complete sham but, like all worthwhile kite-flying exercises, it serves a purpose. The royal household does know that it is held in less affection in Scotland than in Buckinghamshire or Norfolk and it should be alive to opportunities to seem more sympathetic to its northern kingdom.

Nothing immediate will happen other than the Queen choosing to linger a day or two longer when she resides at Holyrood Palace at the time of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland or some further photo opportunities on Deeside. But whatever the polls say, the royal family’s enjoyment of Scotland is not doubted. Balmoral is much loved and the Queen Mother evidently relishes every day at Birkhall in Aberdeenshire and at the most remote royal home, the Castle of Mey in Caithness. We owe this streak in the royal psyche to Prince Albert, who induced Victoria to choose a Highland home. Victoria preferred the milder hills of Peeblesshire and chose Glenternie in the Manor Valley, a remote tributary of the Tweed. These were all side-effects of Sir Walter Scott’s invention of a romantic past with valiant Celtic warriors in tartan.

Under John Major’s government two gestures at nation-myth management were rehearsed. One was applied. The Stone of Destiny’s return from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh Castle was a clever attempt by the Tories to polish their Scottish credentials. The rock, of doubtful pedigree, sits again in Scotland rather than as a badge of Edward I’s military dominance in his great abbey church by the Thames. Did the manoeuvre turn a single vote? My hunch is nobody changed their party allegiance, but I give high marks for effort.

Another wheeze, which seems to have been still-born, was the suggestion that Scots honoured with knighthoods or Orders of the British Empire could elect to take a Scottified version of their gong. The only living Scottish order of chivalry is the Thistle. It is limited to aristocrats and a few commoners of rare distinction. The plan was to allow Scottish knights to style themselves “Chevaliers of the Thistle”. Instead of an OBE, MBE or CBE, Scots being awarded minor honours could choose subordinate ranks of the Thistle. As a further gesture to devolution, Major’s courtiers examined the possibility of creating a Welsh order akin to the Thistle. The title mooted was the Dragon, with no more than 20 people carrying the honour in Wales at any one time.

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The Queen will not change her titles, but one possibility may be to tweak the ranks carried by the Prince of Wales. His titles include Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick and Lord of the Isles. It is the junior title that could be enhanced without any falsehood.

Lord of the Isles sounds like a splendidly windswept barony. It has a claim to the title of the greatest antiquity in the world – more ancient than the kingship of England, itself an Anglo-Saxon novelty. The real title was Ri Innse Gall. There is no ambiguity: “Ri” means king in Gaelic. The princelings of the Western Isles were entirely independent of the king of Scots.

The title “Prince of Wales” dates from 1301. “Lord of the Isles” dates from 843. Those five centuries of precedence could be used to enhance the most ancient title in the world with a continuity from Gofraid, the dark-age King of the Isles, to HRH Charles, Lord of the Isles.

The investiture of the princes of Wales, another 20th-century invention, could be matched by a comparable ceremony for the Ri Innse Gall. There could be more to this than a piece of theatrical fabrication. We know something of the coronation rites of these Gaelic princes. The Scottish Tourist Board could hardly invent a better device to get Scotland noticed.

The Prince of Wales can express no views himself. He has to live his life in aspic. Yet we have some clues his imagination would respond to this fancy. He has some Gaelic and can often be found in the Hebrides. The initiative has to be political. Oddly it has to be unionist. If those of us who shudder at Scottish nationalism want to trip up the SNP, nothing could be more effective than to recall that Gaeldom did not regard itself as Scottish until the coming of the railways. Gaeldom was self-defined as the beautiful wet bits in the north and west where the Celtic language survived against the advance of the Saxons, Sassenachs – the Scots. It was the Scots, led by their Stuart kings, who feared and hated the Gaels.The quiet genocide after 1745 was conducted by lowland Scots, not English. The English have no animus against the Gaels.

To make it clear that Gaeldom is not Scotland would be a fertile ploy by unionism. There could be no greater symbolic device for this than reanimating the latent power of the most ancient title on the planet.

All this may seem amiable fantasy, but the royal game is little more than a mirage. In the great bureaucracy of Brussels the monarchy is dead. The Queen bears the horrible title “High Contracting Party” in the treaties of Amsterdam and Maastricht. If the “Way Forward Group”, the counsel of the royal entourage, is serious about making a mark in Scotland, then giving Camilla Parker Bowles a royal peculiar somewhere in the north would win far more attention than refining remnant titles from the dark ages.

I ask myself, though, would Sir Walter Scott, the greatest Scottish unionist, approve of the revival of the Lordship of the Isles? I have no doubt. He would have been charmed. There can be no better test.