Queen Elizabeth’s final act, in Scotland: What will her death mean for the union?

As the queen's funeral proceedings pay homage to her Scotland ties, the question of independence lingers

Published September 12, 2022 5:00PM (EDT)

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as the hearse arrives at St. Giles' Cathedral after the procession from the Palace of Holyroodhouse on September 12, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Russell Cheyne - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Pallbearers carry the coffin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as the hearse arrives at St. Giles' Cathedral after the procession from the Palace of Holyroodhouse on September 12, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Russell Cheyne - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Where one dies can be just as significant, and telling, as where one decides to live. And when one is royal — by ancient definition a symbol, the state itself embodied in human form — this act takes on even larger, more powerful and political dimensions.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II at 96 on Thursday at Balmoral Castle in the highlands of Scotland initiated four successive days of Scottish ritual. On Friday and Saturday, her oak coffin, draped with the royal standard of Scotland, lay at rest in the castle's ballroom. When she left Balmoral for the final time on a 175 mile, six-hour procession to Edinburgh, the Scots turned out for her. There they were first in nearby Ballater — the butchers and confectioners and fishermen who knew her as their neighbor. In the countryside, farmers steered their tractors to the carriageway and raised their diggers in salute. The sidewalks of Dundee, a nationalist stronghold, were clogged with onlookers. Some 60,000 people, 20 deep in places, lined the narrow confines of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. They applauded softly, respectfully, and held their smartphones aloft to record the history passing before them. As the cortege approached the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland where she would rest for the night, a lone dog was heard barking its own tribute. Today she was carried back up the Royal Mile to St. Giles's Cathedral. There, before she lies in state later this week as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the medieval Westminster Hall in London, thousands will have filed past Elizabeth, Queen of Scots.

These were her plans. As the primary architect of Operation Unicorn, the code name for her funeral procedures in the event she died at Balmoral, she wanted to pay tribute to Scotland and her Scottish heritage — and to strengthen the ties of the 300-year-old union that has been in grave danger of fraying.

For nearly two decades, one of the most intense debates in British politics has centered on Scottish independence, with increasing numbers of Scots favoring a break from the United Kingdom. When the issue was put on the ballot in 2014, voters opposed independence by a greater-than-expected margin of nearly 11 percent. This was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation vote. However, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the Scottish National Party, has been clamoring for another referendum, but recent surveys have showed stark divisions. A June poll commissioned by the Scotsman showed results on a knife's edge. After undecided respondents were removed, 51 percent opposed independence, while 49 percent supported it. But crucially, 10 percent of those surveyed were undecided — a significant portion who could, of course, sway any result.

In her 70-year reign, perhaps the closest the Queen ever came to wading into politics was on behalf of the union. At her Silver Jubilee in 1977, against the rumblings of nationalist sentiment in Scotland and Wales, she urged her subjects "to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred." A generation later, on the eve of the 2014 independence referendum, Elizabeth attended church at Crathie Kirk on the edge of Balmoral where a well-wisher mentioned the looming vote. "I hope people will think very carefully about the future," she replied, a statement vague enough to remain within the bounds of her role as constitutional (and non-political) monarch but that was widely interpreted as an implicit endorsement of the Remain position. When then-Prime Minister David Cameron telephoned the Queen with the results, he divulged that she "purred down the line" from Balmoral.

Her response should not have come as a surprise: What monarch, after all, wishes for the breakup of their kingdom? But for the Queen, the Scottish issue was always a personal one. She was, after all, half Scottish herself via her mother, who was born and raised at Glamis Castle in Angus. The young Elizabeth spent long stretches of her childhood summers there and at Balmoral, where over the years she has been known to venture in nearby Ballater and to walk the moors, sometimes unrecognized by passing (American) tourists. There was a reason why, in the tumultuous days following Diana, Princess of Wales's death in 1997, she chose to not return to London and to keep her grandsons, Princes William and Harry, secluded from the prying eyes of the press and public — an unpopular decision at the time that looks loving and humane in retrospect.

For centuries, the deaths of monarchs have marked moments for Britain to reflect on its past and think about the future. We cannot know what effects the Scottish rituals held in the wake of Elizabeth's passing might have on opinions about Scottish independence — whether the unionist sentiment concentrated in the Scottish borders, the Highlands and in Edinburgh will trickle down to Dundee or Glasgow, or at least to the undecided ten percent. Perhaps it could portend something more complicated, with nationalists continuing to reject political union but insisting on retaining the union of the crowns.

Two days before her death, the Queen received Liz Truss in the drawing room at Balmoral and invited her to form a government, a meeting that commentators have pointed to as constituting Elizabeth's final act as monarch. But while her audience with Truss might have been the Queen's final public duty, it was not her final act as sovereign. This was her death itself, and where she had decided it would be: at Balmoral, the place where her family has said she was the happiest. In the face of the recurring "episodic mobility problems" that were confirmed by Buckingham Palace at various points over the past year, as well as dramatic weight loss and obvious infirmity, the Queen was determined to see Balmoral once again, and she insisted on continuing her long tradition of spending the summer in the highlands rather than remaining at Windsor Castle. A chunk of her royal heart belonged to Scotland, and there is no other place Elizabeth the Steadfast would have wanted to die than Balmoral, either for herself or for the Union she held so dear.

By Jason Kyle Howard

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of "A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music" and coauthor of "Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal." His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Salon, The Nation, The Millions, Utne Reader, and on NPR. He directs the creative writing program at Berea College and serves on the faculty of Spalding University's Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.

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Commentary Queen Elizabeth Scotland United Kingdom