Category Archives: Scotland

When “Britannia” Ruled the Waves


A short bus ride from central Edinburgh, the royal yacht “Britannia” is permanently moored and efficiently packaged as a prime tourist site. It’s one of the best ways for a mere commoner to ponder British royalty, past and present.


The ship was in active use between 1954 and 1997, when the expense of maintaining it was deemed too high and the Queen had to find other ways of sailing.  In its heyday, the ship served as a floating official residence where the queen entertained heads of state. She could anchor her yacht anywhere on the globe and summon leaders to come to her.  Hardly anyone turned down the invitation. The salon above was furnished in the height of stodgy royal elegance for its time. (In their inner sanctums, do royal Brits now go in for sleek HGTV-inspired square lines and neutral colors?  I’ll have to wait for my invitation to a cozy afternoon tea with the Duchess of Cambridge to  find out).


The Queen had her own stateroom, of course, with a handy bedside desk. Visitors can peer at her twin-size bed through a window, but nobody gets to bounce on Her Majesty’s bed.


Prince Philip’s adjoining stateroom is more masculine, but less businesslike.  I’ve read that when staying at various palaces, the Prince always demanded that the personal bathroom he was to use be freshly painted a particular shade of pink, even if it was usually painted blue. (Can’t remember the source).  Onboard the “Britannia,” I think he had the exclusive use of a bathroom that no one else used, so there was never a need to pitch a fit about the color of the walls.


For onshore jaunts, a Rolls Royce was always at the ready. Who’s going to drive?  Not the Queen. A crew of 21 officers and 250 yachtsman stood ready to serve the royal family’s every whim.

There’s a lot to ponder on the Queen’s yacht.  As an American, I always wonder how Brits put up with the lavish lifestyles of royalty. But then, how do we put up with the huge income disparities that seem to get wider every day in our own country? I’m sure that in the world of yachts, the Queen’s “Britannia” does not stack up as impressive, especially nowadays.  But a visit gives a rare glimpse into royal life.  Whenever they had the chance, the royals used set off on their boat and lived life on a smaller scale than they were used to in palaces.  Clearly they enjoyed the close quarters and the more modest digs.  Clambering around the boat as a tourist somehow makes the royals seem more like ordinary mortals.  Maybe on the boat they enjoyed pretending they were more or less like the rest of us.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!



Remembrance of Wars Past: A Sea of Poppies at the Tower of London

Ceramic poppies fill the Tower of London moat

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” is the title of an art installation taking place at the Tower of London from August to November of this year, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.  The title comes from a poem written by an unknown soldier. People are invited to buy a ceramic poppy for the installation, up to a total of 888,246 poppies, one for every death in the British forces. The photo above is from The Guardian at The designer of the installation is Tom Piper.  Poppies are made by ceramic artist Paul Cummins.

The poppy above was photographed in the small military museum on the estate of Hever Castle, southwest of London.


The memories of World War I extend all over England this year, into the smallest villages in the country. Most towns have a memorial built to remember the local soldiers fallen in the
“Great War.”  Sadly, within a few short decades new names had to be added from each town, with the outbreak of the Second World War.

Soldiers who fell in battle were buried in identically marked graves, regardless of their social or military rank.


Many grieving families put up special memorials to their loved ones close to home. This plaque, in Salisbury Cathedral, poignantly remembers a nineteen-year-old soldier, Edward Wyndham Tennant. the son of a lord. He must have entered the war as an officer. He died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. On the plaque above his marble relief portrait, a fellow soldier describes the young man’s leadership:  “When things were at their worst he would go up and down in the trenches cheering the men; when danger was greatest his smile was loveliest.”


Those who could not fight helped the war effort in other ways, in both great wars.  All of the great British country houses I’ve visited on this trip have displays recalling their days as hospitals or military bases. Operating rooms were established in kitchens, and convalescent wards occupied Great Halls. Young aristocratic women rolled up their sleeves and cheerfully served as nurses.


This is a year for Britons to recognize the sacrifices of those who served their country in the Great Wars.

Scotland’s Still In


The people of Scotland voted yesterday, pretty resoundingly, to remain in the United Kingdom. Considering the turmoil and violence of the past, this was a very civilized historic event. British government leaders made impassioned appeals to the people of Scotland to reject independence, and promised significant changes if they did. Now it’s time to make good on those promises. I’m in England, watching British TV, and this is the big news story of the week.

It’s surprising to learn how important the 1995 movie, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, was to Scots in their drive for independence.  The 13th century real-life William Wallace was probably a much darker and more complex man than he appears in the movie, but the stirring scenes of battle and eloquent speeches on freedom are still affecting Scots two decades after the Academy Award-winning movie. Leaders of the independence drive regularly referred to the movie as a source of Scottish pride.

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British people seem to have a special fondness for Scots.  In large cities, it is fairly common to encounter a bagpiper in kilt and full Scottish regalia, playing on a street corner. Today at Blenheim Palace I spotted a Scottish soldier in a display of hundreds and hundreds of accurate models, made by the British Model Soldier Society. The Society, founded in 1935, meets monthly in London. Its members do extensive historical research before approving any of the wonderfully detailed models (which are about 3-4 inches tall). The model above depicts a private in the Black Watch regiment in 1815.

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Above is an even earlier Scottish soldier from 1684, the Royal Scots 1st of Foot. The union of England and Scotland has deep historical roots.  I hope the Scots get the changes they were promised and the union continues with benefits to both sides.

The Braveheart image above is the theatrical release poster.  The film is available from Amazon.


“Belle:” A Tantalizing Glimpse Into History

Last week in Washington, DC,  sights like the Lincoln Memorial and the new Martin Luther King Memorial made me think about the history of slavery. A film now in theaters examines slavery, and race, from a unique perspective.

"Belle" theatrical release poster

“Belle” theatrical release poster

“Belle,” written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amman Asante, is a 2013 film about a real person, Dido Elizabeth Belle. She was the niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. She was the daughter of his younger brother, a Royal Navy Admiral, and a free black woman who had died. She was left in the care of her uncle to be a companion to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle was raised as an aristocrat even though she was black. In the film, certain lines are drawn: Dido is not allowed to sit with the family at evening dinners when there is company,  but she is welcome in the drawing room afterward. Actually, little is known about Belle’s life, but the filmmakers have fashioned an absorbing story based on real-life events close to Belle.

Just as she was coming of age, Belle’s uncle had to decide a notorious case in which owners of a slave ship, the Zong, had thrown their cargo of slaves overboard in order to collect the insurance on their “property.” The Lord Chief Justice’s ruling was eagerly anticipated all across England.  If he went one way, slave traders would have a free hand in the future. If he went the opposite way, his ruling would spell the beginning of the end of slave trading in England.

To further complicate matters, Belle inherits a sizable fortune on the death of her father, while her white cousin is penniless.  Suddenly Belle has aristocratic suitors.

In the movie, Belle’s forbidden romance with a passionate, idealistic but impoverished young lawyer influences her uncle’s eventual decision. The luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Belle. The stellar cast includes the great Tom Wilkinson as the uncle, as well as Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, and James Norton.

Dido and Elizabeth, Public Doman

Dido and Elizabeth, Public Doman

In 1779, Belle’s uncle commissioned a portrait of his two young nieces. The portrait is unique because it is one of the very first paintings that depict a black aristocrat as an equal to a white aristocrat. The painting, by an unknown artist, hung until 1922 at Kenwood House in Hampstead, where Belle grew up.  It is now at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Angel with a Shot Glass

Want an antidote to the recent overload of royal news?  I just saw a wonderful movie about a group of people about as far from the doings of the aristocracy as it’s possible to get in the British Isles.

Movie poster, from NYT review cited below

Movie poster, from NYT review cited below

The Angels’ Share, directed by Ken Loach, takes its title from the traditional name for the 2 percent of the volume of single malt whiskey that somehow gets absorbed or evaporates from every barrel distilled. The movie opens in a Glasgow courtroom, where asorted young petty criminals are being sentenced to community service for their misdeeds.  The most serious offender is a young man named Robbie.  For no good reason other than generalized rage, he has mercilessly beaten another young man to a pulp.  His victim has lost the sight in one eye.  And this is only the last in a long string of violent offenses.  By rights, he should be sent to prison.  But sitting in the courtroom is his girlfriend, about to have his baby at any moment.  The judge gives him a break:  he’s off to community service with the others.

The girlfriend is middle-class, smart and tough with Robbie.  He is strictly on probation with her, though she loves him.  Her family not only detests him, but chases him down and beats him up.  Her father tries to pay him off to disappear.  But the girlfriend sees something in Robbie, and he sees something in her and the newborn son.  He just needs a break.

How many caper movies have you seen where the hero just needs to pull off one more crime in order to escape from his past forever?  How many times have you seen it work? In this movie, miraculously and hilariously, it does work.  Robbie and his misfit friends are taken under the wing of the kindly but tough supervisor of their community service.  He happens to be a devotee of fine whiskies.  After sharing a congratulatory drink with Robbie on the birth of his new son, the supervisor invites him to a very posh whiskey-tasting event in Edinburgh.  His new friends Rhino, Albert and Mo invite themselves along, and we’re off.  It seems Robbie has an incredible nose for fine whiskey–totally unexpected in a young man who previously spent most of his life getting plastered on whatever was cheap.  He also has a fine analytical mind and a talent for leadership.

The version I saw had subtitles, and it needed them.  The Scottish low-life brogue used by the characters is fast-moving, profane, and howlingly funny.  The very dimmest bulb of the group comes up with the very best idea:  wearing kilts to pull off a daring heist.

The story is a bit of a fairy tale; the crime is pretty much victimless.  What is special is the look inside the lives of lower-class Scottish youth, contrasted with the lives of much more refined Scots, Brits, and one American with way too much money. Who knew that whiskey had such an intricate and proud history?  Who knew that single malt whiskey is a way of literally tasting history?

The movie won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  The stellar cast includes Paul Brannigan, a newcomer totally convincing as Robbie, plus Jasmin Riggins, Gary Maitland, William Ruane, John Henshaw, and Siobhan Reilly.

One of many positive reviews of the movie is in The New York TImes at  It’s by Stephen Holden.

There’s a movie trailer at The Angels‘ Share (2012) – Official Trailer [HD] – YouTube

I visited Edinburgh a couple of years ago and passed on the distillery tour.  Health nut that I am, I wasn’t interested.  Now I’m putting it on my list for the next time I go.