In a moving edition of Radio 4's Sunday Worship
, Reverend Neil Gardner of Canongate Kirk spoke of the thoroughly 'disorientating' character of the Queen's death. On the morning of the day she died, a tree on the west side of Canongate Kirkyard split in two, with parts toppling into Old Tolbooth Wynd. A week later, only the stump of the tree in Canongate Kirkyard was left standing. As for the remainder, it was scattered around, sawn up into pieces.
The symbolism was clear in a place which had been the Queen's parish church in Edinburgh and is packed with royal connections. Opened in 1691, its very existence stems from James VII's turfing out of protestant worshippers from the Old Abbey Church at Holyrood.
The Queen's 1952 visit to Edinburgh is captured in a delightful Pathé News
film. She planted a cherry tree at the front of Canongate Kirk during her stay. Packed crowds looked on, their heads poking through the railings, delighted to see the new Queen so close up. There were long links between Edinburgh and the Queen, not least the annual 'Royal Week' and the garden parties at Holyrood. Something that is often overlooked is that, from her marriage in November 1947 until her accession as Queen, Elizabeth was styled 'Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh'.
Sixty-nine years later, the Canongate was one of the streets closed off to traffic as part of Operation Unicorn, as the Queen's body was first brought from Balmoral to Holyrood Palace and then to lie in rest in St Giles, the High Kirk. Constitutionally, one of the significant features of King Charles' appearance before the Accession Council at St James's Palace was that which pertained to the Church of Scotland. His leading role in the Church of England was one he inherited at the moment of his mother's death. In contrast, he had to make a public oath relating to the 'security' of the Church of Scotland, as required under the Act of Union of 1707. The regular royal visits to Canongate Kirk and Crathies Kirk manifested this connection.
On Sunday 11th, thousands made their way into Edinburgh to find a viewing spot to see her cortege. As I crossed Dean Bridge, fully two hours before the hearse was due to arrive, people were already claiming their prime vantage point, camping chairs being readied. At least 15 police vans passed me as I made it to the West End; the day was ramping up. Aware that the crowds were already substantial on the Royal Mile, I watched on from the junction of Castle Terrace and Johnson Terrace; appropriately, opposite the offices of the Queen's Nursing Institute.
As the crowds dispersed, I wandered through the Grassmarket and down the Cowgate. The area was as busy as mid-Fringe, without the sense of confused effervescence. While the hearse had travelled through dry, warm weather, steady rain was beginning to fall as I reached Holyrood and spied the various broadcasting trucks outside the parliament. Kirsty Wark was readying herself to speak to camera as the rain strengthened; the inclement weather encouraging many to swiftly seek shelter.
After cutting through Crichton's Close, I ended up at the Canongate Kirkyard. There I sheltered under the cherry tree planted by the late Queen in 1952. Large numbers wandered past it, unaware of its intimate connection to the week's protagonists. It was disheartening to learn (from one of the stewards of the Kirk), that the plaque had been stolen ('yes, it's a real pity'). So too had that beside a tree planted by the new King. Only the plaques next to trees planted by the Queen Mother (in 1947) and the Duke of Edinburgh (1953) remained intact.
Though it was, as the Edinburgh University historian Esther Mijers put it, a historical 'fluke' that she died in Scotland, it made sense that the Queen's body would 'lie in rest' first in the Scottish capital. Approximately 33,000 people filed past the coffin in St Giles. Charles also became King in Scotland. Media coverage has emphasised these Scottish connections. Esteemed commentators have been pronouncing in the press and on the broadcast media on the deeper constitutional significance of this happenchance.
There is little doubt that a deliberate effort is being made by the Royal Family to emphasise their Scottish connections. For the BBC's Alan Little, the purposive symbolism of her hearse being driven through the verdant countryside of Royal Deeside was clear. In short, that the late Queen was 'at home here… she was rooted here'. In his poem commemorating the Queen's death, Floral Tribute
, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage talked of 'Rain on the black lochs and dark Munros'. Several media commentators noted that the Queen was more relaxed at Balmoral than anywhere else. Eve Poole of the Royal Society of Edinburgh went as far as to say that the Queen 'chose to die in Scotland'.
The 'strategic' aspect to this is important at a time when the Union is under considerable strain. In his first address to the nation, the new King talked of passing on to William 'the Scottish titles which have meant so much to me'. One of King Charles' central tasks will be to do as much as possible to maintain the Union. His mother's lying in rest in St Giles manifested this in a concrete way. Similarly, his first stop on his 'tour of the nations' (Operation Spring Tide) was Scotland, where he and Camilla visited the Scottish Parliament and joined a vigil in memory of the Queen.
For Jonathan Dimbleby (a biographer and friend of King Charles), the slow, 'highly choreographed' procession of the hearse, draped in the Royal Standard of Scotland, through the cities and countryside of Scotland was 'symbolically very important'. Charles is, Dimbleby believes, 'highly attuned' to the significance. The King is 'very aware of the implications' of another referendum on Scottish independence on the Union and his role. Alan Little believes that the 'fate of the Union' would be 'at the heart' of Charles' reign. However, James Naughtie is right to ask how a 'constitutionally passive' monarch can actually make a difference. What is in his favour is that, after his public profile took a 'battering' in earlier decades, he seems to be enjoying a high level of public affection.
Andrew Marr's display of raw emotion when announcing the Queen's death on LBC ('I said I'd lose it and I did… we knew it was coming and it was still a hell of a shock when it finally did') illustrated the significance of the event. As 'nobody's idea of an ardent monarchist', Marr was overcome by echoes of personal loss (his father's death two years ago) and the weightiness of the moment. According to Marr, 'this is going to be the biggest shaking of all. Britain's sense of herself is under question. The Queen is a very important part of the glue'. Scotland's position within the UK is one thing that may come unstuck.
The Queen's cherry tree at Canongate Kirk is now thickly established, and blossoms enthusiastically every spring. So does that planted by Prince Charles, now 'our only lawful and rightful liege lord, Charles the III'. Do they portend a secure future of the Union? In traditional Japanese culture, cherry trees are representative of good fortune, new beginnings and revival. Will the death of the Queen and King Charles' accession come to be seen as a unifying, resuscitating moment for the UK? A different sort of symbolism isn't hard to find. Just 30 yards from the stout cherry tree, toppled timber lies strewn on the ground.
The death of the Queen can clearly be narrated in a number of ways. Magnus Linklater was clear to distinguish between the general admiration for the late Queen and the 'deep divide' on the question of the future of the Union. Leading SNP figures, John Swinney and Angus Robertson, have been keen to emphasise that the new King would be monarch of an independent Scotland. They believe that the union of the crowns can be disaggregated from the union of the parliaments.
It is important to note who has been emphasising the rootedness of the Queen in Scotland and the wider constitutional significance of this period. Naughtie, Marr and Little have a considerable amount in common. They come from an era when Britishness and Scottishness were more deeply intertwined. During their careers, both Naughtie and Marr worked for The Scotsman
, a paper that has had a unionist partiality. Marr and Naughtie have both penned books on the New Elizabethan age. All three have had a long connection with the BBC, an institution (founded by a Scot) which, by its very nature, would view Scottish independence unfavourably.
However, it would be wrong to say they come from a time of unquestioning unionism. They cut their journalistic teeth in the mid 1970s (Naughtie) and early 1980s (Marr and Little), a time when Scotland's place in the UK was already being vigorously debated. They do not necessarily express a deep-seated unionism in their commentary. Instead, borne of their long experience of the devolution and independence debates, it is imbued with a recognition of the deep divides. Their English counterparts are not as attuned to the existential threat to the UK. Marr, Naughtie and Little are therefore influential voices in communicating the changed character of Scottish politics to a wider UK audience.
This profound uncertainty about Scotland's place in the UK is part of what we heard in Marr's emotion and in Little and Naughtie's reiteration of the Royal Family's Scottish connections. Foregrounding these would not be necessary if the Union was not in doubt.
Any outward sign of Britishness was notably absent from the Royal Mile. The only thing that was widely held aloft were mobile phones, not Union Flags. In contrast, the Union Flag was prominently displayed as the Queen's hearse drove down The Mall. The contrasting fates of the trees in Canongate Kirk merely symbolise that the UK's uncertain constitutional future is illuminated by the Queen's death, not in any way settled by it. According to Naughtie, her death is 'a moment of national reflection' for the UK but also a time to reflect on the character and composition of that nation.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh