Elizabeth was born in her parents’ London home, or in a horse-drawn ambulance on the way to the hospital. Maybe it was those Scottish genes and her challenging entry into this world that led to her long and hardy life.
She was educated by a governess until the age of eight. When she was fourteen, Britain declared war on Germany. Four of her brothers served, and her elder brother, Fergus, died as an officer in the Black Watch Regiment. Another brother was captured and held as a POW until the end of the war. Glamis Castle was turned into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, which the future Queen helped run. One of the soldiers she treated wrote in her autograph book that she was to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”
She was never meant to be Queen. She married the Duke of York – second in line to the throne. And her beloved husband, Bertie, was shy and had a speech impediment now made famous by the movie “The King’s Speech”. But, as her biographer James Wentworth Day writes, “Her gaiety conquered his shyness. She gave him confidence. When he rose to speak, she flashed him a quick smile. It gave him the spur he needed.”
In the Second World War, Adolf Hitler described her as “the most dangerous woman in Europe.” During the Blitz, when the Cabinet asked her to take the children and leave London, she said: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” So they stayed throughout the war. She regularly visited the factories and neighborhoods of the East End of London, which was under constant bombing attack. Buckingham Palace was bombed several times, prompting her to remark: “I’m glad we got hit. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
A typical Scot, she was famous for her strong principles, physical courage and sense of duty. Peter Ustinov wrote of her facing a student riot at the University of Dundee in 1968. When students were throwing toilet rolls like streamers, she got out of her car, picked one up, and approached the student who’d thrown it. “Was this yours? Oh, could you take it?” The student was dumbfounded, and the mob quieted and backed away.
She was well-known for her dry wit. When she heard that the Duchess of Mountbatten had been buried at sea, she said: “Dear Edwina, she always did like to make a splash.” Once she accompanied the gay writer Noel Coward to a gala, and noticed him eye the soldiers on guard – she whispered: “I wouldn’t if I were you, Noel. They count them before they put them out.”
If you want to know how to live to be a hundred, you might look to her love of the occasional alcoholic beverage. She drank gin – and Dubonnet – and port – and martini – and champagne. She is estimated to have enjoyed 70 alcoholic drinks a week! Once, when a case of drink was given for the Royal party at Christmas, but it wasn’t known if they would be coming, she said: “Well, I could polish the whole lot off myself.” But nothing ever interfered with her performing her duties. She opened events, attended funerals, was never concerned about the popularity of her duties. She was active in showing herself and helping end racial inequality in South Africa.
She survived many illnesses. She was twice a cancer survivor, and overcame many accidents. When a fish bone stuck in her throat, and she was rushed to an emergency operation, she joked afterwards “the salmon have got their own back.” What else would a Scot say? Her beloved husband, King George VI, died in 1952, and she became “Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother” to avoid confusion with her daughter Queen Elizabeth II. To the public, she was affectionately known as the Queen Mother, or simply the Queen Mum.
She loved dogs and horses, and was an excellent judge of race horses, particularly steeplechasers. She owned horses that won more than 500 races, although she never placed bets.
In 1995 her right hip was replaced. In 1998 her left hip was replaced, following a fall at Sandringham stables. Her 100th birthday was celebrated with a commemorative £20 banknote issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland (Scottish banks are allowed to issue their own banknotes – if you’d like to see, I have some. Last time I was back, they had become unacceptable in Scotland, but were still legal tender in England!).
At one celebration event, the Archbishop of Canterbury mistakenly went to pick up her wine glass, only to be admonished by the alert centenarian’s “That’s mine!” which caused widespread amusement. She broke her collar bone later in the year, and in December 2001, the 101 year old fell and broke her pelvis – but still insisted on standing for the National Anthem at the memorial service for her late husband. Just three days later, her second daughter, Princess Margaret died. The queen Mum fell at Sandringham House and was in a wheelchair with a badly cut arm – but she was determined to travel from Norwich to Windsor, to attend Margaret’s funeral, two days later. Seven weeks later, she passed away in her sleep, at the age of 101, with Queen Elizabeth II at her bedside.
As Army Cadet of the Year, I had the honor and pleasure of being presented to the Queen Mother at a garden party in Buckingham Palace – and she was every bit as others have described her – a true Scot – interested – chatty – hospitable – unassuming – a genuinely charming lady. Among all the uniforms there that day – the Royal Marines Band – the Regiment of Guards – she noticed my hodden grey uniform and came over to chat. Hodden grey, the tartan of the London Scottish Regiment, came from the tartan worn by the common folk in Scotland – made from blending one strand of black wool to twelve of white before weaving – and made famous in Burns’ “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”
“What though on hamely fare we dine; Wear hodden grey, an’ a that; Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; A Man’s a Man for a’ that.”
The London Scottish, wearing the hodden grey since 1859, became part of the Gordon Highlanders in 1937.