The eyes of the world turned to Scotland on Thursday after the death of Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral, her Scottish summer residence.
The U.K.’s longest reigning monarch, aged 96, the Queen had suffered several years of ill-health. Her son Charles, who has immediately become King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and his wife Camilla, now Queen Consort, have gathered with the rest of the royal family at Balmoral and will remain there until Friday, Buckingham Palace said in a statement.
Plans for the Queen’s death have been held for decades by palace staff and U.K. officials, with elaborate ceremonial protocols regularly discussed and updated. But the fact that the Queen has died in Scotland—rather than in England—adds a new layer of complexity.
Her death is also likely to have political implications as Scotland’s leaders push for the nation to consider independence from the U.K. in the next few years. While Scotland, with a population of 5.45 million, is part of the United Kingdom, it is a separate country from England—where London is located—and has many of its own laws, and has historically been less supportive of the monarchy.
Why was the Queen in Scotland?
Ever since her youth, Queen Elizabeth has spent most of her summers in Balmoral, a sprawling highland estate in Aberdeenshire, northeast Scotland. The castle was purchased by the royal family in 1852 under Queen Victoria’s reign. In a 2016 documentary, her granddaughter Princess Eugenie said the castle is where the Queen is “most happy.”
Clive Irving, author of Elizabeth II biography The Last Queen, says he believes The Queen had wanted to be in Scotland for the final months of her life. “Balmoral was always the one [royal residence] that had the qualities of a real home, compared to Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace in particular, which is a soulless sort of place.”
In 2022, the Queen’s staff have increasingly limited her travel and engagements, citing “mobility issues”. Just this Tuesday, she broke with protocol when she opted to stay in Balmoral for her formal appointment of the U.K.’s new prime minister Liz Truss. The Queen had appointed 14 previous prime ministers during her 70-year reign, and this was the first time the ceremony had taken place outside of Buckingham Palace.
Images of the meeting with Truss on Tuesday, showed the Queen looking unusually thin and frail, sparking concern in the media about her health.
How does the Queen’s death in Scotland change royal ceremony?
Official protocols for the Queen’s death, in place for decades, have been the subject of extensive leaks in the U.K. media over the years. The overarching plan is known as “Operation London Bridge,” and includes rules for everything from how the Prime Minister will be informed (“London Bridge is down”), to how King Charles III will address the nation, and what will happen to the Queen’s body.
That last part is more complicated since the Queen died in Scotland, a scenario that activated so-called “Operation Unicorn.” The Queen’s body will need to be moved from Balmoral to Holyroodhouse, her residence in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, to lie in rest for a short time. The body will then be carried in a procession up the Royal Mile, a central avenue, to St. Giles Cathedral for a reception service.
Afterwards, Queen Elizabeth II’s body will be taken to London on a royal train from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. Crowds are expected to meet the coffin at several points along the journey to throw flowers, according to The Guardian, with another locomotive following behind to collect debris. If a train journey is not possible, the coffin will be taken to London via plane (“Operation Overstudy”).
The coffin will be welcomed in the capital by the prime minister, and taken to Buckingham Palace. The Queen will receive a state funeral at London’s Westminster Abbey ten days after her death (business in parliament will be suspended after confirmation of her death for the preparations.) She will then be buried at Windsor Castle.
What does the Queen’s death mean for Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the U.K.?
The transition of monarch from Elizabeth to her son, King Charles III, arrives at a tumultuous time for the union of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s semi-autonomous government is controlled by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which advocates for Scotland to become an independent country.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has argued that the U.K.’s departure from the E.U., which Scottish voters opposed, means it is time for a new referendum on Scottish independence. (Scots voted down an independence referendum in 2014). Sturgeon insists a new poll should take place in 2024—though Truss, the new prime minister, has said she will block efforts to hold one.
So far, the SNP has said it would keep the monarchy as head of an independent Scottish state. That made sense under Elizabeth, whose often-stated love of Scotland has been relatively well reciprocated. A Yougov poll published this May found 75% of Scots think the Queen did a good job in her role (compared to 84% in the U.K. as a whole.)
But the monarchy overall has always been viewed with slightly greater hostility north of the border than in England or Wales. A poll by the think tank British Future, ahead of the Queen’s platinum jubilee this May, found that more than a third of Scots said the end of the Queen’s reign would be the right time to abolish the monarchy and become a republic, compared with a quarter of Brits overall. Prince Charles is less popular than his mother in Scotland: per Yougov, only 52% of Scots predicted he would do a good job as king (compared to 57% in the U.K. overall). Irving, the biographer of Queen Elizabeth II, says the SNP’s commitment to the monarchy “will expire” with the Queen’s death.
If Charles proves an unpopular ruler, it may even weaken the Scots’ commitment to the union, he adds. “Having been on the throne for so long, she represented a depth of degree and continuity that can’t be replicated,” Irving says. “The Queen held everything together.”