Robert Hardman watches the first emotional trek of the Queen's coffin

The saddest journey… now the long goodbye: ROBERT HARDMAN watches as the Queen’s coffin is transported from Balmoral to Edinburgh on first leg of emotional trek back to London

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin arrived at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh
  • The hearse carried the coffin for more than 175 miles from Balmoral Castle 
  • Thousands lined the streets of the Scottish capital to pay their respects  

She left to morning birdsong, the muted sobs of her devoted Balmoral staff and Glen Gelder, a favourite lament played by a lone piper – her own piper, of course.

More than six hours and 175 miles later, following a final journey across the land she loved perhaps more than any other, Elizabeth, Queen of Scots arrived in the most handsome of her capitals last night to find its most famous thoroughfare filled to capacity. In between, she progressed at a stately pace – saluted by tearful subjects, livestock and even tractors – as she meandered her way through the rugged glens, villages and cities of eastern Scotland.

She had known them all as well as anyone alive. For there cannot have been very much of this route which she had not either owned, opened or visited at some point in her record-breaking reign. (Indeed, as her motorcade reached the Queensferry Crossing over the Firth of Forth, which she opened in 2017, it was astonishing to think that she had also opened the adjacent Forth Road Bridge in 1964).

Robert Hardman: ‘She left to morning birdsong, the muted sobs of her devoted Balmoral staff and Glen Gelder, a favourite lament played by a lone piper – her own piper, of course’

Princess Anne curtseys at the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it arrives at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh where it will lie in rest for a day

People gather along the streets of Edinburgh to pay tribute as the cortege carrying the coffin of the late Queen Elizabeth II passes the Royal Mile

Finally, the late Queen arrived yesterday evening to spend one last night at her official Edinburgh residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, ahead of today’s grand formalities by the Scottish state.

Yesterday was a day for informal tributes from the Scottish people.

It is safe to say that there was nowhere Elizabeth II felt happier than at Balmoral, her free-range sanctuary since childhood. At ten o’clock yesterday morning, she left it for the last time, carried out of the castle on the shoulders of six gamekeepers.

Her father and grandfather had also begun their final journeys carried by their keepers (from Sandringham, in their cases). This was not just about tradition, however.

The Queen had known all the Balmoral keepers, even before she stalked her first deer as a teenage girl. She knew the names of their children and adored their stories. During the Nineties, she and Prince Philip were on a hillside with a much-loved keeper when the poor man had a heart attack and died. It was the Queen who stayed with him until help arrived. Such were her bonds with this solid, trusted breed of men.

Princess Anne and Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence travel behind the hearse yesterday afternoon

Robert Hardman: ‘It was Princess Anne who spoke to the Queen almost daily in her later years, who had been working in Scotland and staying with her mother in her final days. She was the one who had sounded the family alarm last Thursday morning’

Her coffin of Scottish oak was placed in a hearse, beneath the Royal Standard of Scotland and flowers from the Balmoral estate, including sweet peas from the walled garden of which she was so proud and white heather from the hills.

The public’s first glimpse of their late and much-mourned monarch came as she emerged through the gates of Balmoral.

Following behind the hearse, in the Queen’s State Bentley, was the Princess Royal accompanied by her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence. Amid the shock of the succession, we have naturally been preoccupied with our new King and Queen. It was, therefore, right and proper to see the late monarch’s only daughter leading the cortege yesterday.

Robert Hardman: ‘On the Royal Mile, there was simply no room left. Some had been waiting for hours. Jennifer McLean, 61, from Peterhead, had risen at the crack of dawn and driven for more than four hours, bringing three generations of the family’

Robert Hardman: ‘Many had come in large family groups. Interestingly, none of those I met were tourists. They were all true Scots saluting one of their own’

It was Princess Anne who spoke to the Queen almost daily in her later years, who had been working in Scotland and staying with her mother in her final days. She was the one who had sounded the family alarm last Thursday morning. Her links with and love of Scotland are a source of great pride here (just ask any Scottish rugby fan).

Following behind was the Reverend Kenneth Mackenzie, minister of Crathie Kirk, where the Queen had surely worshipped longer than anyone, and the Earl of Dalhousie, Lord Steward of the Royal Household.

The convoy was led by a single outrider (the Queen was never one for monster motorcades) and was soon on the A93.

They could hardly have picked a better day, Deeside looking every bit as majestic as its departing resident. Aerial television cameras beamed it all around the world. How thrilled the Queen would have been to think that her last journey might also have served as a turbo-booster for a recovering Scottish tourist industry.

After a few miles of lush farmland, with intermittent clusters of cap-doffing farmers and bowing campers, the Queen encountered the first notable gathering of mourners in dear old Ballater.

This is the village which has been supplying the castle since Queen Victoria’s time. It must have more royal warrants per square foot than anywhere in the kingdom. Even the newsagent has one. No wonder. Years back, when the Queen Mother’s telly conked out just before Dad’s Army was due to start, the village TV repair man managed to save the day with moments to spare – and was promptly invited to sit down with her and watch the show. The village was packed, of course, as the convoy slowed to jogging speed past shop-fronts filled with pictures of the Queen. ‘She’s the kind of person we should all be, but sometimes fail to be,’ said Elizabeth Alexander, 69, from Huntly, Aberdeenshire, who had arrived shortly after 7am with her two daughters, Melissa Simpson, 42, and Claire Green, 44, and three young grandchildren, Gracie, Florence and Hamish. They set up their picnic chairs near Glenmuick Church in the village centre and tied Union flags to barriers.

Prince Andrew, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence, Prince Edward and Princess Anne receive the hearse carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it arrives at the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Robert Hardman: ‘Finally, the hearse swept through the gates of Holyroodhouse as light rain began to fall. As her mother’s coffin processed through the state entrance, the Princess dropped into the deepest curtsey. This was, after all, the Queen of Scots coming home’

Sophie, the Earl of Wessex, puts her arm around Princess Anne as the late Queen’s coffin arrives at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh

Not long after the convoy had passed by, the Proclamation of King Charles III was read out on the steps of the church by the chief executive of Aberdeenshire Council.

It followed the very much grander proclamation ceremony a little earlier in Edinburgh, one performed simultaneously in Belfast and Cardiff. We may live in the online era of instant digital information yet nothing quite stirs the soul like the dissemination of news the medieval way. All over Britain yesterday, the same proclamation was being delivered in identical ceremonies, from cathedrals to town halls. As the Monarch of the Glen continued her way along the A93, there were some utterly lovely sights. Near Banchory, a group of cattle farmers had lined the road with dozens of tractors (clean ones, too). Many had their diggers raised in salute, reminiscent of the cranes along the London docks when Sir Winston Churchill went to his Maker. It would have touched Her Late Majesty as much as any 96-gun salute.

Outside Peterculter, the local equestrian community had turned out on their horses and ponies. By the time the Queen reached Aboyne, respectful solemnity had given way to something else – applause. I noticed that the Royal British Legion were out in force in village after village. Here and there, someone threw a white rose, though the police had specifically asked people not to do so. A few flowers were not a problem but if it caught on while going through a big conurbation, the convoy might have had to keep stopping to clear the windscreen or else take a detour.

As the suburbs of Aberdeen approached, long stretches of pavement started filling up. Given that the Scottish public had been given less than 24 hours’ notice of this motorcade and its route, the numbers were both surprising and heartening.

After three hours on the road, the convoy took what officials like to call a ‘refreshment break’ at Brechin Castle which, conveniently, happens to be Lord Dalhousie’s ancestral seat (albeit now on the market due to the costs of upkeep). One royal source told me that the stop was nothing to do with the Princess Royal, however. She often skips lunch and can cheerfully get through a whole day sustained by a kiwi fruit from her handbag. However, some of the outriders and support vehicle drivers needed to stretch their legs and also to refuel. Back on the A90, the convoy soon reached Dundee. Hotbed of Scottish nationalism these days it might be, but here were the largest crowds yet for the late Queen of Scots. In any case, her mother had been raised in these parts at nearby Glamis Castle, seat of the Bowes-Lyon family (and birthplace of Princess Margaret).

At Perth, it was finally time for a stretch of motorway down to the Queensferry Crossing, sealed off to all other southbound traffic. The sight of this tiny convoy moving sedately over this colossal feat of modern engineering straddling the Forth was suddenly incredibly moving. Here was all the best of ancient and modern which our late Queen embodied.

The nearer she came to Edinburgh, the greater the throng. It was just a pity they didn’t squeeze in a detour past that honorary member of the Royal Family, HMY Britannia, berthed in the docks at Leith.

On the Royal Mile, there was simply no room left. Some had been waiting for hours. Jennifer McLean, 61, from Peterhead, had risen at the crack of dawn and driven for more than four hours, bringing three generations of the family. ‘She’s just been there all my life,’ she said, adding that she had every faith in the new King. ‘I loved his speech. Just right.’

Many had come in large family groups. Interestingly, none of those I met were tourists. They were all true Scots saluting one of their own. Cassie Stewart, 12, and younger brother, Peter, actually live near Balmoral and had been competing at last week’s Braemar games near the royal residence (she in the Highland dancing competition, he in the sack race).

They had come to Edinburgh to stay with their grandmother, Penny McKerrow, but were not going to miss the chance to say goodbye to their late royal neighbour.

‘It’s the Queen’s calmness which I will remember,’ mused Penny. ‘Nothing seemed to ruffle her and I don’t know how she managed that.’

The sight of the convoy starting its descent from Lawnmarket down towards Holyroodhouse and the sea beyond was perhaps the most stunning of the day. But for the solemnity, this could have been a cup-winning homecoming for the national football team. Edinburgh is immensely proud of its royal connection and it showed. (My only concern is how on earth the city will manage the crowds likely to turn out for today’s procession to St Giles’ Cathedral.)

Finally, the hearse swept through the gates of Holyroodhouse as light rain began to fall.

As her mother’s coffin processed through the state entrance, the Princess dropped into the deepest curtsey. This was, after all, the Queen of Scots coming home.

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