In August 1822, Captain Henry Bayfield, an astute and meticulous surveyor in the service of the Royal Navy, was at work mapping all of Lake Huron, in the course of which useful endeavour the twenty-seven-year-old delineated a kind of sixth “great lake” and christened it Georgian Bay, in honour of the British sovereign, George IV.
At almost the same moment as that vast body, filled with fresh water and beautiful islands, was being so named, another vast body, this time comprising the dissipated blubber and stretched flesh that constituted the consecrated mortal frame of the King himself, was en route to Scotland for the first state visit by a reigning monarch since Charles II travelled north in 1651. There to greet George IV and to orchestrate the entire procession through the northern realm was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who more or less created out of the subsequent royal progress much of the cultural paraphernalia we still associate with Scots folklore, from the fetishism of tartans and kilts to the legend of that other royal chancer, Bonnie Prince Charlie.
On September 8, 2022, two centuries later, almost to the day, Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle. The building itself is part of the fanciful concoction of a faux medieval Scotland that Scott had encouraged in his once widely read novels, from The Lady of the Lake and Ivanhoe to Waverley and Quentin Durward. It was in Quentin Durward, actually, that the great romancer introduced his readers to the Royal Company of Archers, an ancient and occasionally noble company of loyalists who were dramatically transformed into King George’s “bodyguards” during the visit and have remained in the service of whichever sovereign ruled thereafter.
If you watched on television the remarkable obsequies for the late Queen, you would have seen members of the ceremonial unit in their forestry garb, complete with longbows and Balmoral bonnets festooned with eagle feathers, all inspired by Sir Walter’s imagination. They accompanied Elizabeth’s coffin from Balmoral all the way down to Edinburgh and then on to London, where they lingered to share guardianship at the four corners of the catafalque in Westminster Hall.
To be among their number today — as long ago — is an honour. And you have to be a bona fide Scot or be known to have strong Scottish ties. I happen to enjoy an enduring, warm friendship with a particular Royal Archer, a retired gentleman sheep farmer (and direct descendant of the famous author) from the Borders, those storied lands just to the north of England.
A few years back, on a holiday with my friend and his family, I ended up as his driver, when his services were called upon for the annual garden party at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. He didn’t have a driver’s licence, so I was tasked with getting him to Edinburgh in time to muster for a practice drill, which was great fun to watch. I quickly learned that Royal Archers come in all shapes and sizes and are not necessarily used to being regularly regimented. “Straighten up, sir, and pull in your chin,” said the inspecting officer as he toured his ranks. “And the second chin, too, sir!”
But it was my friend’s son, William, whom I watched this past September in Westminster Hall, as he twice mounted the guard at the catafalque in his own archer’s uniform. I have known and loved him since he was a young boy. As a seventeen-year-old, he spent a summer with my family on Georgian Bay, and, much more recently, I have been joyously jostled by his own sprightly children. Because of all that, the sight of him at such a solemn moment, in such an extraordinary setting, caught me completely by surprise. It left me profoundly moved and in tears of pride, mixed with almost inchoate sadness. In trying to catch as much of the official mourning period as possible, for a book I had just been commissioned to write, I had not had time, really, to ponder what I felt at Elizabeth’s passing, until that moment.
However many degrees of separation between myself and the remarkable events unfolding day by day in Edinburgh and later in London, they seemed to vanish when William stood on guard for his Queen and my Queen and the Queen of all of us. Sir Walter Scott would have understood and been quite pleased.