AS THE Queen becomes our most enduring monarch, we look at the role she plays in the Capital and her importance to residents
If there is one city other than London that Queen Elizabeth II regards as home, it is Edinburgh.
For decades, the Capital has been a major fixture in the monarch’s annual calendar. No matter the turbulent times during her reign, it is the one place that has allowed her to reach out to Scotland and strengthen ancient bonds.
While Balmoral is a place of respite for the Queen, Edinburgh is a hive of activity, a foothold from which she can reach out and touch the entire country. It is fitting, then, that she should choose Waverley to begin the first day of the rest of her reign as she and the Duke of Edinburgh mark the official opening of the Borders Railway.
It is an event which will continue a proud tradition which began with a week-long visit to the city in June 1953, just weeks after her coronation. Huge crowds greeted the royal party as it arrived at the former Princes Street Station, a scene that would soon become familiar.
From the opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964 to the 1999 speech with which she ushered in Scotland’s first parliament in nearly three centuries, the city has acted as a backdrop throughout her 63 historic years on the throne.
“Edinburgh is a very important place to the Queen and she puts a great deal of effort into her time there, promoting a distinctively Scottish calendar of events,” explains Scottish cultural historian Professor Murray Pittock, from the University of Glasgow.
“The decision to moor the Royal Yacht Britannia in the city was a very important endorsement of how important the Scottish kingdom and its capital are to the royal family.”
The centrepiece of the Queen’s presence in the city is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the enclave at the bottom of the Royal Mile which serves as her official residence in Scotland and the place where, since devolution, First Ministers have been appointed.
Each summer, the Queen makes the journey to Edinburgh for Holyrood week, a celebration of Scottish culture, history and achievement. It is an occasion rich in historic pageantry, not least the Ceremony of the Keys, a major tourist draw which sees her formally received into the city.
Every year, the monarch is handed the keys of the city and ushered into her “ancient and hereditary kingdom of Scotland” by the Lord Provost. Tradition dictates that she then returns the keys, entrusting their safekeeping to Edinburgh’s officials.
The event on the palace forecourt draws vast crowds and is the Queen’s most high-profile engagement during her week-long residence in the city. For the most part, however, her time in Edinburgh is taken up with work engagements as she receives the likes of charity workers, civic leaders and business figures.
This industry, coupled with the fact that the palace itself is far less ornate than other royal seats, has been beneficial to the Queen’s image, according to observers.
“The Queen very much downplays glamour and although there are parts of Holyroodhouse that are elaborately decorated, there’s something of the shabby genteel about it,” reasons Prof Pittock. “It’s not the kind of place that’s done up to the nines where a new fitted kitchen will be put in every ten years. It’s comfortable and that has helped the royal family.”
Over the years, the Queen has hosted a number of foreign leaders and dignitaries in the palace’s State Apartments. During Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to Britain five years ago, for example, his first port of call was the palace, where the Queen demonstrated an innate appreciation of the building’s whims, especially in the Scottish summer, by suggesting they sit down in the morning drawing room. “It’s warmer in here,” she advised him.
The roll call of other visitors to the palace down the years reads like a Who’s Who of world politics and royalty. The list includes Nelson Mandela, Vladimir Putin, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, Harald V of Norway and Margrethe II of Denmark. The building also played host to a meeting of the European Council in 1992.
There have, however, been uncomfortable moments along the way, perhaps unsurprisingly given the skulduggery and plots that have been hatched at the palace over the centuries. One such moment came in July of 1986, when the Sunday Times ran a front page story claiming the Queen had a strained relationship with her then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, suggesting that she was concerned about the social fabric of the country under her stewardship.
At the time, Mrs Thatcher was staying at Holyroodhouse as the Queen’s guest during the Commonwealth Games in the city. That Sunday evening, over dinner, the Queen placed her press secretary, Michael Shea, between her and the Conservative leader. At one point, Mr Shea apologised to Mrs Thatcher, who patted his arm and replied: “Don’t worry a thing about it, dear, I know it’s a lot of nonsense.” In any event, Mr Shea left his post shortly afterwards.
It is not all ceremonial visits, however. Perhaps the best-known fixture of the Queen’s annual residency in Edinburgh is the garden party, where she and the Duke of Edinburgh entertain around 8000 guests from all walks of Scottish life.
Those invited enjoy tea in tents erected in the gardens, accompanied by music from regimental bands and The Royal Scottish Pipers Society. The Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s official bodyguards whilst she is in Scotland, are also on duty, forming avenues down which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh walk.
Continuing a tradition established by King George V and Queen Mary, the relaxed and informal gathering at the four-hectare gardens, set against the backdrop of Arthur’s Seat, has allowed the Queen to connect with Scots from all walks of life.
Prof Pittock, pro-vice principal and Bradley chair of literature at the university, added: “The size of the party at Holyroodhouse has been growing and is nowadays around 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the scale of the equivalent event at Buckingham Palace. It welcomes a huge range of people and has become a very important part of the Queen’s social calendar.
“Holyrood week also sees an investiture ceremony for those Scots recognised in the Honours List. I attended one three years ago and the Queen stood throughout it for over an hour, which is no mean feat for somebody of 86. In fact, she looked more up for it than some of the Company of Archers.”
As the Queen prepares for today’s events in Edinburgh and the Borders, it seems certain she will carry with her the same energy and sense of purpose.