The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II will soon arrive in Edinburgh, where she will be taken to Holyrood Palace—her official residence in the Scottish capital—and later St. Giles Cathedral on the city’s cobbled Royal Mile, replete with tourist shops festooned in the nation’s iconic checked tartan cloth.
In truth, however, the widespread adoption of tartan—the distinctive woolen pattern most commonly associated with Scottish kilts—is owed to a royal public relations stunt designed to win local approval for the British crown. Traditionally, tartan had been the sole custom of arcane highland tribes but shunned by the lowland “elites.”
But to heal rifts across the border, in 1822 the famed novelist Sir Walter Scott stage-managed a vast pageant in Edinburgh, during which new King George IV wore a tartan kilt while meeting similarly attired local chieftains. It was a roaring success and the popularity of the monarchy and tartan—today one of most potent and vivid symbols of Scottish identity—soared in tandem.
It’s a sign of how deftly the royal family has handled its relations with Scotland in recent centuries—a relationship that is entering uncharted waters following King Charles III’s formal accession to the throne on Friday.
In a 2020 poll, 70% of Scots aged 16 to 34 supported breaking away from the United Kingdom. And a separate poll by the think tank British Future in May found that more than a third of Scots overall said the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign would be the right time to abolish the monarchy and become a republic, higher than the quarter of Brits overall who said the same.
“Anyone who’s followed Scottish politics over the last 30 years will be familiar with the idea that the passing of the Queen may be the final nail in the coffin for the Union,” says Alan MacDonald, a professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee. “There’s definitely a concern that might happen.”
Of course, tensions between the “English” crown and Scottish nationalism have long existed. On Christmas day 1950, a group of Scottish students even briefly seized the revered Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey—arguing that it was stolen from the Scots during England’s invasion of Scotland in 1296.
These days, the more pressing drivers of independence are the perceived bungling by the London-centric government amid soaring costs and a tortuous exit from the E.U. that Scots voted overwhelmingly against in 2016. A disengaged, aloof sovereign would no doubt catalyze anti-Union sentiment and it falls on King Charles III to engineer his own deft charm offensive.
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“The arrival of King Charles is definitely a boost for [the independence] movement,” says one prominent independence advocate, asking to remain anonymous for fear of appearing insensitive. “The Queen was universally popular; Charles isn’t. Simple.”
Charles can look to his own family history for advice. Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until 1901, was adept at “interpreting and manipulating history, adopting national identities and evoking a significant response” in Scotland, writes Richard Finlay, a professor of modern Scottish history at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. On top of making frequent visits north of the border, Victoria revived the use of a distinctive Scottish protocol—co-opting local dress, customs, and symbols—for her visits and cultivated an elite social circle that would be most sympathetic to anglicization.
Still, there are steep challenges for Charles. Elizabeth II’s fondness for Scotland was genuine. Her mother was from Glamis—a small village in Angus—and part of Scottish aristocracy going back many generations. Any spare time the Queen had was spent at her Scottish estate of Balmoral, where indeed she passed on Thursday afternoon. Charles, by contrast, has by choice established his own residence at Restormel Manor in the far south of England.
“Charles is a fake Scotsman,” says Clive Irving, author of Elizabeth II’s unofficial biography The Last Queen. “He puts on a kilt but never looks really at home in Scotland because he’s not basically inclined that way.”
Irving adds that a deal with the independence-backing Scottish National Party (SNP)—currently in control of Scotland’s semi-autonomous parliament—that it would not seek becoming republic during Elizabeth’s reign has now expired. (That said, senior SNP leaders have previously stated that an independent Scotland would keep the U.K. monarch as head of state.)
Of course, Scottish independence and republicanism are related but ultimately distinct issues, and one does not necessitate the other. “I think the royal family is a huge boost to Aberdeenshire [where Balmoral Castle sits],” says Nick Allan, a geologist based in Aberdeen. “I don’t why our relationship with the royal family can’t continue as normal if we are independent, just like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.”
Much will rest on how fulsomely and genuinely Charles chooses to engage with his Scottish subjects. Throughout his seven decades as heir to the British throne, he was known for outspoken views on everything from the environment to architecture, leading to accusations of meddling in political and social matters beyond his purview. And as a young man, he was portrayed in the U.K. media as an eccentric figure, who was obsessed with gardening and would talk to his plants.
Still, as heir he was mindful to use his Scottish titles—Lord of the Isles and Duke of Rothesay—when north of the border. And he increasingly stepped in for his ailing mother for engagements, most recently on Saturday to attend the Braemar Highland Gathering—an iconic, annual celebration of Scottish sports and culture. MacDonald says these small details can go a long way toward maintaining close bonds.
“Nobody’s quite sure yet how the relationship between the monarchy and the public will evolve,” says MacDonald. “But whatever way it changes, it’s certainly going to change.”
—With reporting by Ciara Nugent/London