Sheena and the Queen
Picture: Dan Random
The Scottish attitude to the Queen is an odd one. Many Scots, in the 20th and 21st centuries, might have taken against an English monarch who dared to lord (or lady) it over them. But everyone finds the Queen hard to dislike. She rules as a Taoist would rule: quiet, unjudgmental, adapting to change like water negotiates rocks. But, of course, that’s the trouble with the whole principle of hereditary monarchy: the next one along could be a right git (though Prince Charles, who loves Scotland, is hardly likely to be that, even if he mangles too much of our wildlife).
The Queen praised Scotia for “the grit, determination and humour, the forthrightness and above all the strong sense of identity of the Scottish people – qualities,” she added cannily, bearing in mind the Union and all, “which contribute so much to the life of the United Kingdom.” Aye, right. That’ll be the oil and net contribution to the Treasury, presumably.
Presenting a new mace, she added: “Here’s a mace.You can steam off the Poundstretcher sticker on the bottom. Right, I hereby declare this supermarket, er Parliament, open.”
About time too. The late actor and theatre director Tom Fleming gave a powerful reading of The Beginning of a New Song, by Iain Crighton Smith: “Let our three-voiced country/sing in a new world/joining the other rivers without dogma/but with friendliness to all around her.”
Then came the highlight of the event, Sheena Wellington’s singing of A Man’s a Man for a’ That, with words soaked in egalitarian sentiment. When first mooted for the opening, someone rejoicing in the ruritarian title of Hereditary Bearer of the National Flag of Scotland fulminated that the song was a disgrace and that we should have the English-British national anthem, presumably (or presumably not) without its line about “rebellious Scots to crush”. Wha’s like us, eh? Weird, weird people.
Sheena had already criticised “the class of Scot who would eat deep-fried horse manure if you told him it was the latest craze in Islington”. It’s the real class divide in Scotland: the weird poodles and the doggedly bold.
Come the day and come the hour, Sheena smiled calmly and looked directly – boldly – at the Queen before she closed her eyes and sang: “Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord/Wha struts and stares an a’ that?/Tho hundreds worship at his word/He’s but a cuif for a ‘that/His ribband, star and a’ that/The man o independent mind/He looks and laughs at a’ that.”
One might have expected Donald Dewar, right-wing Labourite, safe pair of hands, the man who despaired at the sovereignty-of-the-people gestures during the swearing in, to tone down the leftie stuff but, to everyone’s surprise, he added to it. In an excellent speech – the best he ever gave – he said: “At the very heart of that song is a very Scottish conviction: that honesty and simple dignity are priceless virtues, not imparted by rank or birth or privilege, but part of the soul.”
In a magnificent passage, he conjured up aural echoes of Scotland’s past: “The shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns with its soul in the land; the discourse of the Enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe; the wild cry of the great pipes; and back to the distant noises of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.”
It was moving stuff, and made one think of how, given time and the right event, someone of Donald’s erudition could really say something meaningful and aesthetically impressive, whereas most of his hurried life in and out of committee rooms saw him read dull, formulaic verbiage, doubtless written for him by some party hack.
Given the occasion and the company, the whole event was magnificently, honestly and uninsultingly left-field. We just stated who we were and what we believed, beyond party and present-day concerns. When it was over, I’d to make my way to a BBC Radio Scotland caravan parked just off the Mound to throw in my tuppence-worth with a few other guests.
But I could hardly move in the crush outside. Crowds lined the streets and, while I could see the caravan, I couldn’t get across the road for a parade of children, soldiers, politicians and pipers. I wasn’t much bothered. It was a joyous day. The sun shone. Concorde flew overhead. Everyone, visitor and native alike, looked delighted. The earlier apathy appeared to have disappeared. It wasn’t the political prospect of anything much happening for Scotland under devolution. I’ve already put you right on that one. It was just that it was a lovely day and, for once, on an occasion outwith sport, saltires proudly flew. We were Scotland, come what may. And we’ll take any excuse for a pairty.
I was supposed to be at the radio caravan for 12.30. I made it for 12.55. Lesley Riddoch and her guests had been bemoaning the fact that the day had not been declared a public holiday and, being unaware of this consensus, I blundered in, saying it didn’t matter any more. Result: dirty looks from all present, who obviously felt passionately about the issue. I backed a holiday, but just felt it was yesterday’s debate. After that, as I recall, most of the discussion was taken up with my ponytail.
Later, I went home to let my hair down in a private celebration of the official opening of a parliament that was to take me away from news reporting – which I loved – and into a closed, school-like world whose rules I could never follow and where every utterance was examined by a newly formed political press corps, many of whom affected to detest the place that was to keep them in work for years to come.