My Lords, when a Knight of the Thistle dies, the surviving spouse or a child attends on the sovereign to return the knight’s insignia. Shortly before Christmas, as we started to recover from Covid, that extraordinary honour fell on me. Appointment to the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s equivalent of the Garter, is, as noble Lords well know, in the personal gift of the monarch. My father had no other titles but was thought of, I suppose, because as a young teacher at Gordonstoun he took Prince Charles under his wing. We were proud of our modest tradition of royal service, exemplified by my grandfather, who used to travel to Balmoral, tape measure in hand, to fit the Royal Family for their kilts. Her Majesty seemed to remember everything—that included.
Her Majesty explained that the insignia did not actually need to be returned, pointing to my father’s thistle collar and the badge already laid out on the small round table in Windsor Castle. But she had reckoned without our family incompetence in matters of protocol. I fished out of my pocket a gold-coloured medallion, feeling ashamed that I had not ironed its green ribbon first. We had wrongly believed that it was our duty to keep it safe at home. Royal surprise turned to triumph when the Queen’s sharp eyes spotted that the medallion fitted into an indentation in the jewellery box which contained the badge. She pressed it in like the last piece of a jigsaw.
“It’s been a funny time, hasn’t it?” said Her Majesty, as she drew the audience expertly to a close. “Do you think things will go back to the way they were, or have some things just changed?” That question, posed in the context of the pandemic, came back to me after her death. Some things will never go back to the way they were, and in that there is infinite sadness. The future, by contrast, affords us no comfortable memories and fear often weighs more heavily with us than hope. But our national future can be happy and glorious if we unite to make it so. After an unparalleled life of service, Her Majesty has left us in good hands. Thank you, Ma’am, and long live the King.