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.”
In order to repair the divisions, the famous novelist Sir Walter Scott organized a massive pageant in Edinburgh. In 1822, the new King George IV was dressed in a tartan-kilt as he met chieftains from the surrounding area. 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.
A 2020 poll found that 70% of Scots 16-34 supported the United Kingdom’s dissolution. 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.”
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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.
The most pressing reasons for independence these days are the perceived corruption by London’s government, rising costs, and the tortuous exit of the E.U. 2016 was a year in which the Scots voted against. An unengaged sovereign, with no emotional connection to the people would certainly fuel anti-Union sentiment. King Charles III is therefore able to use his deft charm offensive.
“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 could look back on his family’s history to get 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.
Charles still faces great challenges. 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. The Queen spent any spare time at Balmoral in Scotland, which she died on Thursday afternoon. Charles has, however, made Restormel Manor his home in the 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.”
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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. (Despite this, SNP officials have stated previously that an independent Scotland would maintain the U.K. as its monarch.
While independence for Scotland and republicanism have many similarities, the two issues are ultimately separate. One does not need to be followed by 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.”
How fulsomely, and sincere Charles interacts with the Scottish people will determine how much. Charles was well known throughout his time as British heir to the throne for having outspoken views about everything, from architecture to the environment. He also faced accusations that he interfered in social and political matters. As a teenager, he was depicted in U.K. media to be an eccentric figure who loved gardening and was known for talking 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 believes that small things can make a big difference in maintaining strong 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
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