Orcadian Column, 07 September 2021

I have a sneaky feeling that Orkney holds a special place in the Queen’s affections. This hunch first took hold back in 2007, when I was introduced to her Majesty at a Holyrood Palace reception held for MSPs following the Scottish Parliament elections that year. “Oooh Orkney,” she exclaimed as Tamsin and I were presented to her.

The obvious delight in her voice contrasted with the polite indifference with which she greeted confirmation of the constituencies represented by those MSPs who came before and after us in the line-up.

My suspicions were only reinforced last Saturday at the formal opening of the sixth session of parliament. As a Deputy Presiding Officer, I was in the welcoming party to greet our royal visitors and near neighbours upon their arrival. As she reached out to shake hands, Her Majesty once again appeared more than usually thrilled to be meeting someone from Orkney.

I put this down, of course, to her fondness for our islands, rather than the calibre of my small talk. Both incidents, though, reminded me of that iconic photo of the Queen during a visit to Westray back in the 1960s. Sat in the front seat of a minibus, driven by her late husband, the Queen looks helpless with laughter. I suspect it is a cherished memory, much like the memories those lucky enough to attend Saturday’s event will now have.

After the past 18 months, it was such a relief to be able to hold the opening ceremony in person.  Particularly for those newly elected, it will have been a special occasion, made all the more so by being able to share it with close family. For my part, while I joked about initiating a “take your mum to work” day, I felt very proud to have my mother there with me for the proceedings. Her day was complete when her jacket then attracted much admiration from the fashionistas on Twitter and Facebook!

In keeping with the occasion, the Queen, Presiding Officer and First Minister all used their speeches later to emphasise the importance of having our differences without resorting to divisiveness. A fine sentiment, no doubt, but it will be interesting to see how long it survives in the current parliamentary term.

Most of the media coverage, though, focused on the Queen’s declaration that Scotland has ‘a special place’ in her heart. It was a simple statement expressed with great sincerity and leant added poignancy by this being her Majesty’s first formal engagement in Scotland since the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Between speeches, our royal visitors, MSPs and guests were treated to some truly wonderful music performed by musicians from across Scotland, including a group comprising asylum seeking and refugee musicians based in Govan. I don’t think I’m betraying confidences when I say that the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay were bowled over by Musicians in Exile, talking animatedly afterwards about the fusion of different styles.

For me, though, the highlight of the day was meeting the ‘local heroes’, nominated by MSPs. For a parliament that prides itself on being open and accessible, it felt so good to hear the place filled again with the voices of people, many visiting for the first time, all with wonderful stories to tell.

I had the responsibility of escorting the Duchess of Rothesay as she met around 30 of the local heroes, each eager to explain what they had been doing during the pandemic. From supporting refugees in Glasgow to offering befriending support in the Borders; from operating ‘food larders’ in Fife to providing bike repairs for key workers in Ayrshire. And then, of course, there was Neil and Sarah Taylor from Stromness, whose soup deliveries, run from the kitchen at their Hamnavoe restaurant, proved to be a lifeline and even a life saver for many of those they supported. It was a pleasure to have them there as my local heroes.

All exemplified how, in so many ways, the past 18 months has brought the best out of people in communities across Scotland. Nowhere is that more true than here in Orkney – and I strongly suspect the Queen would be the first to agree.

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