Britons stayed up until the early hours, as referendum vote results slowly trickled in from Scotland’s 32 council areas. A light had burned at Balmoral Castle throughout the night. Queen Elizabeth II had watched the television coverage “very closely,” a palace official said. In the end, Scotland rejected independence, 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
For the current occupant of the united thrones, the idea of sundering the United Kingdom was such a concern that, five days before voters went to the polls, the Queen said, “I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” While palace officials said her comments weren’t an attempt to influence the outcome of the referendum—as monarch, she always maintained a strictly neutral stance—it was a sign of her intense interest in the outcome. As the BBC’s royal correspondent, Peter Hunt, stated, “This wasn’t a slip of the tongue by the head of state of the United Kingdom—rather, a reflection of how seriously she, like many others, views the significance of Thursday’s vote.”
The crowns of England and Scotland have been united since the childless Elizabeth I died in 1603. Noblemen headed north to Edinburgh, reportedly with a ruby ring removed from the dead monarch’s finger, to offer it, and the English throne, to James VI of Scotland. If Scotland had voted Yes in the referendum, the thrones of England and Scotland would have been separated, after more than four centuries together.
For the 88-year-old monarch, the turmoil raised over a possible Yes vote would no doubt have resurrected memories of the last time the Crown was in constitutional crisis: in 1936, when the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, wanted to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, over the objections of politicians and clergy. That debacle was only resolved when he abdicated, leaving his duties to his unprepared brother, George VI, and throwing 10-year-old Elizabeth into the role as heiress presumptive.
This time, the upheaval of separation would have been even more disruptive to the monarchy, and to Elizabeth herself. The Queen may have a regal pedigree, but she’s also half-Scottish through her mother, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, youngest daughter of the 14th earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, who spent much of her childhood in the ancient family seat of Glamis Castle. Wallis Simpson acidly nicknamed her the “fat Scottish cook.” Indeed, Elizabeth and her husband loved nothing more than retreating to the bracingly cool, rainy climes of Glamis and the royal estate of Balmoral, where they’d indulge in deer-stalking, fly-fishing and brisk walks. In 1930, Princess Margaret came into the world at Glamis, while Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother spent long stretches of her widowhood at her private home, the Castle of Mey, isolated on the north coast.
For the current Queen, Scotland is not merely a part of her kingdom that she visits regularly, but where she’s truly free to relax and enjoy the company of her extended family in the peace and tranquility of the Highlands. In addition to her regular duties and engagements around Britain, the monarch has carved out a specific Scottish role. Every July, she moves north, first to Edinburgh for a series of official engagements, then to Balmoral for two months of vacation. Aside from the odd visit to a horse farm, the Queen has never holidayed outside the U.K.
The original estate was bought in 1852 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert after the couple fell in love with the Highlands during a holiday. Today, it’s a working estate encompassing 20,000 hectares, and it’s such a popular attraction, with so many paying vistors—nearly 100,000 each year—that the Queen spends her first week at the estate’s Craigowan Lodge, waiting for the last of them to leave. Then she moves into the tartan-clad hallways and rooms of the castle, where baby carriages and rubber boots line entryways. Kilts and plaid skirts are de rigueur, as are hours spent outside, sometimes cleaning up meals barbecued by Prince Philip. Such is the royal family’s affection for Balmoral that Charles and Camilla regularly visit Birkhall, their house on the estate, during the year.
Aside from her personal feelings toward Scotland, there was the very real concern about the impact a Yes vote would have had on her job. She takes her duty seriously. On her 21st birthday, she made a vow: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” During the referendum, the Yes campaign took pains to reassure voters that the Queen would stay the head of state of Scotland—“Elizabeth, Queen of Scots,” First Minister Alex Salmond said. The pro-independence platform stated, “The Scottish government’s proposal is that the Queen remains head of state in Scotland, in the same way as she is currently head of state in independent nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” Yet that was by no means certain, as the Yes platform implicitly acknowledged the substantial republican element among Scottish nationalists: “This would be the position for as long as the people of Scotland wished our country to remain a monarchy.”
Retaining the monarchy would have required Scotland to radically rethink its relationship to the Crown along the lines of Canada and Australia. For one, Scotland would have needed a governor general. Also, the sovereign is an institution of state, not merely a person. This is why the state, in Canada, is often referred to simply as “the Crown.” And, as legal experts point out, as this country has evolved in its federalism, relationships with Aboriginals and the Constitution, the Canadian Crown has become uniquely our own, separate from those in other nations where Elizabeth is head of state.
Just as a Scottish Crown would have eventually become distinctly Scottish, so, too, would the Scottish people’s relationship with their Queen. As with all foreign countries, the monarch’s official visits wouldn’t be as frequent as they currently are, but would have had to be scheduled at the pleasure of the government in Edinburgh. And although the Queen doesn’t have a passport—they are issued in her name—her family would likely have needed them to cross the new border on the informal visits that will undoubtedly continue.
Now there are to be negotiations over the powers held by the legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, perhaps even the creation of one for England itself. But the nation will stay together. In a statement release on Friday, the day after the vote, the Queen said, “as we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.”
Every year, as the Queen’s time at Balmoral draws to a close, the monarch throws a ball for her staff, at which everyone takes part in such complicated country dances as The Dashing White Sergeant. The royal family always comes out in force, dressed in formal Scottish attire. This year, the Ghillies Ball was pushed back a day—to allow the Queen’s employees to vote in the referendum. In the end, Aberdeenshire, which includes not just Balmoral but First Minister Alex Salmond’s constituency, voted more than 60 per cent in favour of staying within the United Kingdom.