Despite my name I have only been to Scotland twice. The first time, many years ago, was to Aberdeen with a Royal Marine Captain who was taking time away from both duty and family.
In 1987 the weather was so bad the journey to My Captain took eleven hours and included a five hour bus trip from Glasgow to the granite city. Balmoral was shrouded in impenetrable fog as was the airport for my very delayed flight home. Why would the Queen, her mother and her eldest son choose to come, let alone holiday here?
Suffice it to say I was most pleased to get back to the Royal Borough of Kensington and to see Princess Diana emerge from a mews house opposite my flat and speed home to her palace five minutes away as she often did in those heady days. She, I read, felt disdain for Scotland preferring like me, the warmth of a Caribbean beach or an assignation in the heart of London to relax the soul.
Now, twenty-five years later (and married) I am Caledonia bound again. This time accompanied by daughter no.2 and we are going to explore ‘The Burgh’ to see what we can see in four days north of the border.
Once again the forecast is dire and so on day two I suggest a tour of HMY Britannia now permanently moored at the Ocean Terminal in Leith.
“Why?” she asks.
I guess this is a reasonable question given her age, sex and lack of interest in transportation and I struggle to arrive at a definitive response.
I have never been much of a royalist (although I did adore Diana for all her foibles and wept uncontrollably for a week when she died) so it was not a desire to tread Her Majesty’s boards that beckoned me. That said, My Marine had served upon this very yacht in the early ’80’s and this did pique my curiosity a little.
For some reason I have always enjoyed a ship’s tour – HMS Belfast and USS Midway to name but two and they, plus the fact that the Britannia, unlike Edinburgh Castle, was to be 4/5s indoors swung it for me.
It might be hyperbole to say that I came back onshore a different person but something happened to me on that self guided tour that turned yours truly from disinterested royal observer to someone who wants to read more about the modern monarchy. And I don’t just mean the salacious stuff.
The ship is magnificent in a most understated way. The wood, the brass, the paint work, the size of the royal quarters, and the engine room are most impressive. My goodness the engine room is cleaner that my kitchen and apparently it always was utterly pristine.
The commentary is a goodly balance between information and gossip. Perfect. And the voice, beguiling and amusing. His pronunciation of the words ‘gather’ and ‘masculine’ alone make the entry fee worthwhile.
The time warp we slipped into vis-à-vis equipment and electrical goods I perhaps enjoyed more than my twenty-two year old and similarly some of the furniture including a couple of quasi Modernist pieces but I promise you this is the only bed of the reigning monarch you’ll see anywhere even if it is behind glass. I could imagine My Captain standing guard outside her chamber of a night. One marine did you know, every night she was in residence. That’s a lot of nights because Queen Elizabeth II did more than a million miles on this yacht.
Apart from the 968 official voyages the Britannia undertook this vessel was where, the Queen said, she could “truly relax”. Built for her father, George IV she inherited it before its final fitting out and feeling the furnishings to be too grand she toned the whole thing down wanting more of a country house ambiance. Some who visit may be disappointed by this, expecting the grandeur of Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, but for me it made it better. Realer. And the ‘the firm’ started to become a living breathing family.
The photographs, official and the holiday snaps, were making this tour one of my favourites. They are everywhere. I wish I had photographed more photographs although many are cast in our minds anyway. Anne with candy floss blonde hair, Diana running to her boys, arms outstretched, the Queen with her corgis and family picnics on beaches of the Western Isles of Scotland.
After their 1997 victory Tony Blair and New Labour got rid of the royal yacht and it is said that Her Majesty wept as its decommissioning ceremony. Then I agreed with the Government’s decision. Now I am not so sure. There was chatter about commissioning another for her Jubilee but nothing has come of this and in these straightened times it’s probably the right thing to do nothing.
An aside: It has to be said many want the Queen to once more have a royal yacht, want William to have one too but are way more ambivalent about Charles whose feelings of entitlement haven’t seemed to move with the times in the same way as his mater’s and his heir’s. And let’s not even mention here his treatment of Diana.
The sun came out while we were on board, the plimsol line glistened and the remainder of our short break was bathed in a golden glow.
I can understand why at various times the HMY Britannia has been voted both Best Visitor Attraction and Leading Visitor Friendly Attraction in Great Britain. For me it was way more than the sum of its parts and left me a bit emotional. I will return.
Rabid royalist? Perhaps not. But I can honestly say that the Kate effect is only one of the things I like about this family now.
PS: I looked up the price of hiring the Hebridean Princess, as the Queen does now, for a ship and shore holiday in the Isles of Scotland next summer but found it to be out of my price range.