I was not prepared for what we found at the Queen’s Gallery.
After an ample and leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room we set off from Hunter Square down the Royal Mile for the stroll to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. I cannot resist a brief stop to admire and enquire after the work of artist Georgina McMaster at the Edinburgh Arts and Picture Framers store. There’s just one small problem and those who know The Royal Mile well may have picked it up already. Hubby discovered it as he waited for me outside. The Edinburgh Arts and Picture Framers are not between Hunter Square and Holyrood. They are in the other direction heading towards the castle. For the life of me, even when I feel like I’m compensating for the sun being in the wrong place or for the fact that I should just do the opposite of what feels right, I STILL can’t get it right when I’m in the northern hemisphere and this time we did choose the direction that seemed to be heading downhill. Sigh. However, as we can see, hemisphere disorientation is not entirely a bad thing. On this trip and others it has caused me to see many things I’m glad not to have missed. Today I have found a limited edition print called Highland Fling featuring thistle flowers and bumble bees. Georgeous.
We correct our error by heading to a bus stop and getting the number 35 bus to save our feet. The first event of the day is a visit to the Queen’s Gallery. No queueing because we bought our tickets online some time ago. The entrance is through some glass doors with original door handles that are themselves a work of art. They are by Jill Watson and feature figures looking at art in a gallery, but I didn’t notice this at first as the door was opened for us and I was focussed on where I needed to go.
The current exhibition is Scottish Artists 1750-1900: From Caledonia to the Continent. The entrance space is dominated by the famous painting of George III in his coronation robes by Allan Ramsay, and what a masterpiece it is. I can see from the glimmer and sheen of the illustration that the King is wearing cloth of gold and the softness and luxury of his ermine mantle needs no touching to appreciate. The image is the epitome of regal majesty. On the opposite wall, Queen Charlotte and some of her 15 children are displayed. The main exhibition space is up a beautiful staircase which cannot be fully appreciated until we emerge at the top at which point the magnificent design of the conversion of the 1840’s building into gallery space really smacks us in the face. It is gorgeous and I wonder if Prince Phillip had a guiding client’s hand here as he did in the restoration of Windsor Castle after the fire. The same exquisite appreciation of high calibre woodworking in a modern but sympathetic style is very much in evidence. The staircase and railings in particular are a beautiful work of art. Simply stunning. I’m blown away. Luckily, photographs without the use of flash are permitted and photographing the gallery space is now my first priority. The architect used was Benjamin Tindall of Edinburgh. The Royal Collection website includes information about the gallery design and the artisans responsible for various items. I wish I had read that before visiting and taken more time examining the building itself and the many beautiful features.
As we entered the gallery we were issued with an audio guide and haven’t audio guides come a long way. Multiple expert voices converse about the items in the exhibition, the artists and other contextual information that will help us to appreciate what we are seeing. This is a touch screen device and at various points the commentary tells you to look at some images they are displaying on the guide for you. Brilliant.
The exhibition is just the right size. Enough to take in without being overwhelmed. There are 20 listening stations but this is only a sample of the artwork or objects on display. I start capturing my favourites but soon I resolve to simply obtain the book about the exhibition. I particularly liked the works by David Wilkie: The Penny Wedding and Blind Man’s Buff, but so many of the pieces are wonderful to see and include an exquisite level of detail. It’s a privilege to be able to get so close to the exquisite miniature portraits and to hear the story of Agostina Saragoza, a Spanish resistance fighter. Her story is truly remarkable and the associated painting beautifully rendered.
Time now to move on. It’s about lunch time, should we eat now or see the palace next? We have an early dinner reservation so best we eat sooner rather than later. We pop across the courtyard to the café to see what’s on offer and it’s an easy choice. We both have the Chicken, Ham and Leek pie with mashed potato and creamy jus, £8.95. I say yes to some vegetables and Hubby ends up with salad because the dregs of the vegetables have been taken away, presumably to be refilled. The weather is cool and pleasant, skies overcast. Rain is forecast. We take a seat outdoors under the ample umbrellas and tuck in. Our food is delicious and very filling. We’re glad we ate here.
Now. On to the palace. Again we just head in with our pre-purchased tickets and pick up an audio guide. This time the more old fashioned sort that is smaller and more work to hold up to our ears.
I have to confess to being somewhat at a loss what to think or say about the Palace of Holyroodhouse and I was actively wondering what Scots think of it, for itself and also in the context of royal buildings more broadly and Scottish history. I can’t help but feel a bit peeved on behalf of Scotland and I seriously wonder what “they” that is the people responsible for managing or more importantly, funding these estates, are thinking. What is behind the way the palace presents? This is the elephant in the room as I listen to the audio commentary. Case in point the entrance way. It has the ambience of a back entrance come store cupboard. What the? It’s a small space and I made a note of what they have um, put here – the result really is not worthy of being described as a display. On the wall are two shields with swords arranged in a circle, of themselves quite attractive. Then there are 3 large, randomly placed Asian pots, not arranged mind you, it just gives you the impression of someone needing to put them somewhere; a couple of beautiful high backed chairs over against the wall; a couple of tables, an old sedan chair and over against the wall glass display cabinets containing a gift to Edward VII from the Royal Company of Archers. On the wall there is a painting of the Queen and Prince Phillip at St Giles Cathedral on 24 June 1953. Am I missing something? Is there another State entranceway? This can’t be the impression the monarch of Scotland wants to give. But then thinking about it, I wonder, is there a monarch of Scotland or is there only a monarch of Britain, based in England? Serious question. I’ve always thought of it more like the Queen is the monarch of Australia. Australia is a separate country. It’s a separate title. Is the penny dropping? That's what Scotland lost with the union of the crowns / Act of Union? If so I have to say that SUCKS!! Seriously. Not good. I’m understanding the emotion behind the Yes campaign rather more, though I guess my reasoning in getting there, such as it is, may be wide of the mark.
Going up the staircase the carpet and walls seem old. Yeah, I know the palace is old but so is Windsor Castle and Blenheim Palace and they are absolutely schmick. The ceilings are extremely ornate and obviously they can’t be interfered with too much though they look like they have a bit of over painting going on and need to be stripped back. If so it would be one heck of a job. I’m no expert but perhaps there’s not much they can do with them. Perhaps I’m mistaken about their condition compared to when they were new, and have been overly impacted by the dreadful first impression as you walk in. The whole place seems to have a slightly mouldering air about it. Creaking floorboards, faded furnishings. I get the whole conserve versus restore philosophy and I can appreciate that many of the items are valuable antiques so perhaps the faded upholstery is what it is and should be appreciated as original. I appreciate the efforts of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Charles II to bring the palace up to scratch. It seems like a mark of respect.
There’s only two spaces that actually make a good impression, the dining room and the long gallery that is used for investitures. But again, the dining room is curious too. There’s a great portrait of George IV in a kilt (another brilliant effort by David Wilkie) and we hear that George IV’s 1822 visit to Scotland was the first of a reigning monarch since 1650 and thereafter Scots were allowed wear tartan again. Over on the opposite wall is a famous portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the uprising he led was the cause of the ban on tartan in the first place. Hmm. Yes, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s portrait is an interesting item and no doubt a conversation piece, but I am disturbed by seeing it here. I wonder how long it has hung there and why. In the context its presence in this room feels rather like gloating. I feel like I am gaining an understanding of why the craving for independence from Britain is still so strong in Scotland. This is tempered by my being all too aware that I surely know diddly squat about it, and it is no doubt very complex. My opinion doesn’t matter but gosh, if it affects me in this way I truly wonder what Scots think about this place. Compare the condition of this palace with Edinburgh Castle. The Castle is schmick. In the context of history, it’s hard not to conclude that the money is still prioritised towards control and defence in Scotland. Not that any violent uprising is on the cards of course, perhaps just the legacy of history. None-the-less, collectively I find it really rather disturbing.
We continue our exploration through the throne room and move on to a room with a truly lovely portrait of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother wearing the insignia of the order of the Thistle.
Eventually we reach the rooms of Mary Queen of Scots and the scene of the murder of Rizzio. It’s pretty busy with people looking around so the atmosphere doesn’t lend itself to contemplation. Nearing the end of our tour we enter a room where collections of curiosities are displayed. If memory serves they are items collected by monarchs and their family members over the centuries. The walls display portraits, a large one of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and across on the far wall there is the portrait of handsome Lord Darnley aged 17, standing with his young brother. I turn around and find with a start that I am confronted by a famous portrait of Mary I. Mary I? Do I have that right? I’m sure this is Mary 1 of England... A Tudor Queen. In the same alcove there is a portrait of Henry IV holding, I presume, the red rose of Lancaster. Why are they hung here? They were never monarch of Scotland.
In display cases around the room the curiosities are displayed. Some are quite remarkable and it’s worth looking carefully. I particularly enjoyed seeing the needlework portrait of Charles II and an engraved portrait of William III in a surround worked by Mary II in her own hair. The most incredible I think is a locket containing hair from the beard of Charles I taken from his coffin by one Sir Henry Halford in 1813. 1813? What the? What the heck was Sir Henry Halford doing rummaging about in the deposed monarch’s coffin 150 odd years after his execution? I ask, but the young lass staffing this room doesn’t know this. Does anyone? Immediately adjacent is a locket containing linen stained with Charles I’s blood. Nice. There’s even some hair of Mary Queen of Scots that has made its way into the collection.
Then there’s the Jacobite items. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s pistols and his garter; a box given by him to Patrick Grant for sheltering the Young Pretender after the Battle of Culloden; and a tiny silver case owned by Flora McDonald. There’s other items too of course, but I didn’t make an exhaustive list. I can’t say these items collected and displayed here lessened the impression of gloating described above!
We move out into the Abbey and take a turn around the garden, then I duck back in to watch the video presentations in the Royal Childhood exhibition which are only short and it’s time to head back home for a nap before dinner.
We race out at the last minute with lots of warm clothes and such in our bag just in case. We’re off to the Tower Restaurant. The ambience is a little frenetic and we are mildly chastised for being a little late, they still need their table back at 7. Sure. We still need to leave to get to the Tattoo and the limiting factor here is the efficiency of the restaurant rather than our lingering. Our table has a brilliant view of the castle. It’s a set menu for us tonight £18.95 for two courses. Our meals are tasty and hearty and tonight we each prefer our own starter selections. Hubby has Cauliflower soup with toasted almonds. For me Pork Rillette, celeriac and apple salad and toasted brioche. I win the main round. My slow cooked beef short rib, grilled summer squash (butternut pumpkin in Australian parlance) and chunky tomato salsa was very tasty and satisfying. Hubby enjoys his pan fried Hake, truffled new potato and spring onion salad but he wishes he’d got the beef too. Beer was St Giles Dark Ale. Nice and cold and Hubby says “It was very good. I liked that one.” He likes pretty much all beer, so this means he REALLY liked the St Giles Dark Ale.
I duck out onto the balcony and snap another photo of the view of the castle a last opportunity for a comfort stop and we are off to join the throng of people heading up to the castle.
This is brilliant. There’s not too much congestion for this early performance. We stop to claim the programs that come in our ticket package and turn around into Johnston Terrace and find, rather conveniently, that one of the security guards has opened the barrier a bit closer to where we are as the long queueing set ups isn’t needed at the moment. Through the bag search and on to the souvenir hut. They’re sold out of knee rugs but Hubby gets a couple of T shirts. They’ll be handy as we travel. The sizing is very big and we have to reduce the size down from our first assumption.
We make our way in and take our seats. I’m beside myself with excitement. The bloke on the commentary duties entertains us all as we wait to start by getting people from different countries to sing out. We start with the “big island” ie Australia – and that’s a kiwi term for Australia I note, hmmm. Not entirely PC in this context, but no worries. Yaaaaay sings the crowd. And New Zealand? Yaaay. Various others then how about the United States? YAAAAAAAAAY. Lots of yanks here! England? Yaaaaaay. Lots of them too. Clearly a challenge. French? Deathly silence. Germany? Yaaaaay. Scots – clearly challenged by previous efforts we have a resounding YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY. Scots win. It’s a very international crowd, and from the responses I couldn’t help but think of the scale of the Scottish diaspora. Scotland in 2011 had a population of a bit less than five and half million. There’d be many many times that number who identify with Scottish ancestry in North America, Australia or New Zealand alone, let alone other parts of the world.
We get down to the business of the night and first cab off the rank are the massed pipes and drums. I’m a mess. Seriously it’s ridiculous. I’m balling my eyes out. What an impact. I love pipe bands, perhaps in part because they are deeply associated with Australia’s most sacred national day. ANZAC day. I was thrilled to be coming to the Tattoo but completely unprepared for the emotional impact of being here in this magnificent setting with the pipes and drums, especially on such a scale. Lord, I’m balling typing this up! I am so going to do the Tattoo again before I die.
The massed pipes and drums are made up of individual pipe bands from all over the world. Including, we find later, the Manly Warringah Pipe Band from Sydney. I grew up in Warringah, so what an incredible coincidence that we should come when they are part of the show.
I won’t list every item or I’ll be here all day, so I’ll just pick a few highlights, difficult though that is. First emotionally stirring number was the Shetland Fiddlers who perform beautifully, are dressed beautifully too and who make me think of a friend whose forebears were from Shetland.
The theme tonight is East meets West and we are treated to the best the world has to offer in military music and performance. The Military Band of the People’s Republic of China was magnificent. I was in tears before and relieved to be able to wipe my eyes when the pipes and drums left the parade ground. I feel like an idiot. Then the Chinese break into Abide with Me, so beautifully rendered. So respectful a selection. I’m balling again. But they’re not done with us yet. They lower their instruments and sing in beautiful harmony. Fantastic! The crowds erupts in appreciation as they conclude their number and march away.
I’m an absolute sucker for precision marching and have been since I watched the Tattoo as a little kid, so I really enjoyed, well everything, but especially the Queen’s Colour Squadron. Bollywood items and Changxing Lotus Dragon Dance add colour and spectacle. Just Brilliant, but I nearly jump out of my chair when the Swiss flags emerge. We know who this is and I cannot believe my luck to be here to see them live – it’s the Top Secret Drum Corps and they are fantastic!
The United States Air Force Honour Guard was amazing and definitely one of Hubby’s favourites of the night. Or what could top the lone piper up on the battlements of the castle with the National memorial at his back? Everything was superb from go to whoah.
The forecast rain held off and the night was mild so we didn’t need any of our warm gear. Some people were in their shirt sleeves the whole time. As the announcer was giving instructions for exiting as the show concluded, light rain starts but just enough to give us all the hurry up. We are swept down Castlehill to the Lawnmarket among the crowd. The atmosphere is electric. What a high. The crowd for the later performance is penned in Johnston Terrace and the security people are shouting directions to the crowd exiting the Tattoo to keep everything flowing smoothly. It doesn’t get better than this night. It just doesn’t get better.
It’s a short walk back down the Royal Mile to home. The rain putting paid to any thoughts of lingering outdoors. Back in our room we hear the heavens open and it’s obviously bucketing down out there. I’m glad we were at the early show!
We have a look at our programs and head pretty much to bed. We’re both tired and we are driving tomorrow. We always rise early, so we need to rest. It’s been a fantastic day. FANTASTIC day. J