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14 September 2022

Death for her was a political act: why the Queen chose Scotland

Elizabeth II did nothing by accident, including her final journey to Balmoral. Was she loading the dice for the Union?

By Tanya Gold

At Balmoral they expect us. The council has built a tiny village for visitors, to be dismantled and folded away. When Queen Elizabeth II leaves, it will, too: she has a very special relationship with infrastructure. There is a row of Portaloos and a medical tent, and a bus shuttle to the neighbouring villages of Ballater and Braemar. Children, the ancient and those with reduced mobility are over-represented in the crowd, coming for succour still.

Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, had a line about Balmoral in his earlier play, The Audience. He made Harold Wilson tell the Queen that it was not Scotland the royal family found here, but Germany: the fir-trees, the mountains, the ghosts of their ancestors. Prince Albert was German, and he built Queen Victoria a castle far from London. (In her yacht Britannia, Elizabeth II could go yet further; no wonder she cried when it was decommissioned.) I think the comparison with Bavaria is unfair. Balmoral is an ordinary house of Aberdeenshire granite attached to a wizard’s tower, and it represents her perfectly: the pedestrian and the supernatural. The whole estate is 50,000 acres, and there’s a statue of a roe deer in the castle grounds.

The flowers outside the gates are restrained. The visitors are restrained, and very courteous. I sense they are trying to be their best selves because Elizabeth II is an ideal they want to meet. I talked to a woman on the train to Aberdeen who lives in Ballater and was returning home: when I told her I was getting the bus, she said her brother would drive me instead.

When I left London on Friday (9 September), the day after the announcement, there were tourists at Buckingham Palace enjoying the death as a spectacle, as you might enjoy a trip to Mary Poppins the musical. There were others – drunk young men waving Union Flags on top of the Queen Victoria memorial – who delighted in the reflected majesty. They paid for it; they own it.

But in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, the pain is real: so much so that I, a republican, wonder whether I’m the one with a secret to impart – the Queen was human – or they are. Her mother grew up at Glamis Castle, 50 miles to the south. People here treated the Queen as a neighbour – not Scottish, it is true, but good enough. She did nothing by accident, including coming to Scotland as she declined, her body loading the dice for the Union and the Crown. A survey by the think tank British Future this summer indicated that 45 per cent of Scots want to keep the monarchy, and the latest polling suggests that 46 per cent want to leave the Union. Death, for her, was a political act. Her life was exhausting and, here, they know it. Women, typically middle-aged, walk away from the flowers, their faces striped with tears.

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“I am devastated,” says a woman who was named Elizabeth after the Queen. “People can’t know what they’ve got before it’s gone. We’ve only ever known the Queen.” You can think of the Queen as, among other things, a unit of measurement, or a settled point in space. Some measure her in time passed; others against their own values; others against their own suffering.

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“She was thrown into this role and she took it all in her stride,” says another woman. “She had problems with family, like everyone does. She just got on with it. I want to give something back…” – she looks down at her posy – “small as it is.”

[See also: It is right to question the existence of the Crown – yet on the environment, the King’s voice may be crucial]

On Deeside it was normal for people to come across the Queen by surprise and scream, or not to recognise her at all. I meet a couple who visit every year and once saw her walking in the woods with the dogs, like a magical apparition. I wish she had gone on her walks in her Order of the Thistle robes, which are green and immense, like those of a sorceress – there is a famous photograph of her on the Balmoral estate in them, looking annoyed – but she didn’t. “She was such an ordinary person,” the woman says. “She loved it here because she could be herself. People didn’t make a fuss.”

“I saw her in the hills in the Land Rover,” says her husband fondly; “a little face with a headscarf, peering above the dashboard.” People say that when the Queen arrived at Balmoral, she hung her crown on the castle gate and became human, but I don’t believe that. Queenship is developmental; once you’ve crossed over, you can’t go back.

I meet two women who celebrate every royal occasion together. “I have a drawer full of tiaras,” says the first. “I go the whole hog. We get so much pleasure from the royal family: so much fun from sharing the good parts of their lives.” A woman with two daughters, all three of them red-headed, says she has come for their sake: “I want them to look back and know that they were part of the Elizabethan era.”

I meet Nathan, who is eight and heard the Queen had died while he was at Boys’ Brigade. His great-grandfather was a ghillie here. Nathan has brought his mother and siblings to lay flowers, and thinks the Queen dismantled the empire. “She’s really nice,” he says. “Encouraging and loving. When we took things away from other countries, she gave them back.” He looks at me with honest eyes: “I found that out on the news.” 

The lake of flowers grows steadily bigger, and then pauses. The royal family are going to church. They will shortly leave the castle, drive a quarter of a mile to Crathie Kirk for prayers, drive back, and view the flowers. The queue to pay tribute is closed. Barriers are erected to create a safe space for the royals, a great curl of tarmac between us and them. The press pen is made smaller. It looks like a metaphor for the national conversation, because this story is a lesson in confirmation bias – only the desolate and the professionals have come, mourners and media.

A council worker spots a bin bag hanging from a railing which the family will pass. “Want the bin bag moved?” she asks, her voice thick with dread. Perhaps she thinks they have never seen a bin bag, and this is not the day to introduce one. “I’ll do it,” says her colleague, but she is already sprinting towards it.

The policemen position wheelchair users at the front of the crowd and practise their poker faces. A woman bursts into tears. At 1.57pm the gates open and five Land Rovers and a Mercedes minivan roll out, as smoothly as through water. Prince Andrew waves through a window, a dog barks, and they are gone.

The Press Association photographer is their herald when they return, sprinting across the road ahead of them in his blue suit, holding a huge camera overhead. The silence in the crowd is so profound it feels pointed. The royal family get out of their cars: Andrew, Edward, Anne and their children; Charles, the new King, is in London. They look hunted. Anne’s swept-up hair is so solid it could be a defensive weapon, or a denial of all she has lost. Andrew, apparently the Queen’s favourite, now disgraced and retired from royal duties, clenches his jaw and looks around as if seeking something.

They walk towards the flowers, presenting a row of black royal backs. Sophie Wessex kneels to rearrange a card. Beatrice and Eugenie hold hands, and their father hugs them. The only sound is the whirring of the camera shutters. Then Anne gestures with a wide sweep of her arms and they walk back towards the gates, turn together and wave. The crowd applauds the performance. Andrew puts his hands together and bows: namaste. Greetings. 

[See also: How the Queen changed Britain]

Outside Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, dressed in black, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish party leaders wait for the Queen’s coffin to pass. It is Sunday and all the women except Sturgeon are wearing a variety of hat: beret, cloche, cartwheel. They are by a bus stop and can’t help but look as if they are waiting for a bus.

“She’s late,” I say, watching the Queen speed through the west end of Edinburgh on my BBC phone app, because no one is tasteless enough to make a designated app for the journey of the coffin. “That’s because she’s not in charge any more,” the woman beside me says and smiles.

Applause ripples down the Royal Mile. The Queen passes, her coffin wrapped in her standard; the paintwork on the hearse is extraordinary, as if glossed for a thousand nights by a thousand servants. The applause has a muted and reluctant quality: this is a final performance, but the audience is not ready to leave.

The man beside me has seen the Queen before, at this exact spot in 2019. “I was on the news,” he says. He met Charles, too, at a parade, and spoke to him. The Prince of Wales, as he was then, asked him: “How did you know about this?” “It was in the papers,” he replied. He won’t go to the vigil at St Giles’ Cathedral. “I’m playing golf.”

I walk to Holyrood Palace to see the flowers that have been left in the garden. The moment is dense with symbolism, so much so that the opening of a Union Jack umbrella is notable. There are English men in town wearing Union Jack ties and handkerchiefs. A 22-year-old woman was arrested at the accession proclamation for King Charles III in Edinburgh, for carrying a sign that read “Fuck imperialism. Abolish the monarchy”. It was a symbol too far; the following day she is charged with breaching the peace. At the Oxford proclamation a history tutor was arrested for shouting: “Who elected him?”

I find only one dissenter myself, the indifferent opposition having stayed at home; he is a tall young man in black walking swiftly. “God Save the Queen/The fascist regime/She made you a moron!” he shouts at a police officer, who ignores him.

There were boos at the King’s proclamation, too, but here it feels as if physics favours the Crown. “I’m glad she hung on for the bin strike to be over,” says a woman with dark hair. “Maybe she thought, ‘I’ll hang on.’ You should have seen the state of it.” I thought she had hung on until Boris Johnson, a kind of anti-Queen – lazy and dishonest – had left office, which reminds me that we all imagine we know what she thought. Over seven decades she managed to look interested, or equally uninterested, in everyone she met. The Fair Fairy, giving and denying us all.

This is why the friendship with Paddington Bear – the Platinum Jubilee sketch in which she told him that she, too, kept a marmalade sandwich in her bag for emergencies – was perfect for the Queen’s late-era myth-ology. It was the meeting of two equally improbable fantasies: the all-encompassing love of a perfect stranger, and the existence of a talking bear. The woman who thinks the Queen hung on for the bin strike to end says that she had overheard some American tourists talking as the coffin passed. “They said, ‘It wasn’t as good as William and Kate’s wedding.’” I think they are wrong. A wedding is one thing, burying an ideal is another.

The police have closed the gates to the Holyrood Palace garden, and it is raining as people gather to lay flowers. Droplets gather on the cellophane in children’s hands and wet dogs are lifted off the ground.

We wait by the barriers as the police shout for people to move and let more Land Rovers through: one contains only a driver, and clothing in thick plastic bags. It is like the scene in The Death of Stalin when the army turns the mourners away: the tutting swells into faint anger. “Please lay these for me,” one woman says to another, handing her a bunch of sweet peas and Scottish thistles, her face pinched with sadness because she cannot stay.

Soon the police give up and let us through. “No pushing, no shoving,” says the man at the gate. He counts to ten and lets ten through, then counts to ten again. I read the messages. “Ukrainians honour you.” “We miss you.” “Dear Queen Elizabeth, thank you for your wonderful service.” “Thank you for everything you have done for Hong Kong.” 

There are Scottish flags, a toy unicorn, a Smurf, and a playing card: the Queen of Hearts. This was Diana’s title, really – she gave it to herself – but there is no hint of Diana here. The shop on the Royal Mile selling Diana memorial tartan with her photograph outside is closed.

Some of the notes here are from children so young they can barely form letters, and some from romantics: a drawing of an old man and an old woman facing away, with a dog of unknown age, captioned, “Hello again, Lilibet”; a cartoon prince and princess in a cartoon castle, captioned, “Together Again”. There is a copy of Paddington at the Rainbow’s End with an inscription: “One last story, Ma’am”. Is Paddington her settled genre now?

A man is arranging yellow roses, trying to stop them falling over. He laid them yesterday, he says, and he will be at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh’s Old Town tomorrow to walk past the coffin. “I hope it will be closed,” he says, of the coffin. I am sure it will be: there are limits, even to our intrusion.

The Queen at Balmoral
The Queen at Balmoral in September 1971. Photo by Lichfield Archive via Getty Images

On Monday Edinburgh waits to meet the King: he will walk behind his mother’s coffin to St Giles’ Cathedral with his siblings for a service of memorial. By lunchtime the crowds are eight deep on the Royal Mile in sunlight. It is jovial at first – a fayre or a hanging. Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers have Balmoral tartan, designed by Prince Albert in 1853, in the shop window. (It is a typically restrained tartan of multiple greys. Stuart red tartan, says the saleswoman, is for shortbread tins these days.) The Royal Mile Gallery has prints of Balmoral in the window: Balmoral with huntsmen; Balmoral with the River Dee. The pubs sell bacon rolls. People wave at the snipers on the rooftops, who wave back.

I take up a perch in front of the CNN broadcasters who are surrounded by plastic flowers. The woman next to me, a tour guide, says that if an independent Scotland rejects the Crown, it is conceivable the people could later change their minds and invite the Jacobite heir to take the throne instead: the 89-year-old Franz, Duke of Bavaria, who is a direct descendant of the House of Stuart. I think Peter Morgan would love this final act.

The atmosphere gets grumpier as the streets fill up, and there is jostling. Having given so much time to this, we cannot let it go. Is our attachment to monarchy an extension of that same sentiment? There are many tourists, who have made this an addition to their holiday. Glencoe, a whisky distillery, a vigil. A woman from the American South tells me she loves the Queen, and then frets that her quotes are not loving enough. Her friend says they have tickets to Mary Poppins the musical.

The King is driven past in the royal limousine on his way to Holyrood. The crowd gives a delighted cheer. I only see his right hand so I cannot tell you if he has been renewed by power, like Doctor Who. When I saw him, near my home in Cornwall last month – he visited a seafood restaurant and I stared at him from a car park – he looked human, if unusually well dressed.

Gunfire announces the beginning of the procession from Holyrood. It explodes, sequentially, from the top of the hill: the royal drumroll. Twitter keeps us informed of the progress: a man has shouted, “You’re a sick old man!” at Prince Andrew, has been wrestled to the ground by a bystander and arrested.

“Someone called Prince Andrew a ‘fucking paedo’,” says a woman.

“Well, he is,” says another.

“It’s not been proven,” says the first, “and you can’t shout that on the day of his mum’s funeral.”

“I can’t believe we haven’t abolished this monarchy already,” says the second. “Can I come up to your step for a better view?”

“No.”

The King approaches. Those in the crowd with iPhones raise their iPhones; those with flags – we are opposite a delegation from the Royal British Legion Scotland – raise their flags. A man rushes past shouting, “’Scuse me, it’s the fucking Queen!”

Charles is at the centre of a small forest of soldiers: members of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the King’s Bodyguard for Scotland. They move as one in a rolling gait up the hill. They pass, and there is determined applause as the coffin goes on: whether we applaud them or ourselves, I cannot tell.

[See also: Notes from the Queue]

This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession