The people of Scotland, from prime ministers to benefit claimants, have said an emotional goodbye to their Queen as her coffin was set at rest in the “parish church of Edinburgh” where she was first given the Scottish crown 69 years ago.
Psalms the Queen used to sing in Crathie Kirk on the Balmoral estate were set to soaring organ music as hundreds of dignitaries attended a service of thanksgiving for her life at St Giles’ Cathedral.
Thousands of members of what the minister of St Giles’, Calum MacLeod, described as “a grieving nation”, with backpacks filled with sandwiches and foldable beach chairs, queued patiently to file past and say farewell.
Among those paying their respects in the gothic cathedral known as the “High Kirk” of Edinburgh was Gordon Brown, who stood with jaw fixed watching King Charles and his siblings walk behind their mother’s coffin as it was carefully inched on to a catafalque to lay at rest for 24 hours. Also planning to say goodbye was Gary Birsdall, a recently homeless person who joined the snaking queue of people waiting to walk past her coffin to simply “say thank you”. And there was Simon Cook, who had brought his three teenage children from Livingston to witness what his 18-year-old son Conor said was “a bit of history”.
“She was our Queen, but she was also part of something so much bigger,” Simon said. “This is a massive shift for the country and the world.”
At 3.15pm, the Queen’s coffin, draped in the royal standard of Scotland, was borne slowly into the chancel by eight military personnel and lifted into place amid a forest of sandstone columns.
It was the start of a process the Duke of York was heard describing to a member of the public at Balmoral on Saturday as “handing her on” from the family.
As King Charles, Camilla, the Queen Consort, and other members of the party looked on, the Scottish crown, which dates to 1540 and James V, was placed gently on top. Alongside it was a wreath of white roses, chrysanthemums, dried white lavender from Balmoral and rosemary. The service pulsed with history. MacLeod reminded the congregation that the cathedral had been the place where John Knox confronted Mary Queen of Scots and where Oliver Cromwell preached. There was the 17th-century music of Henry Purcell’s Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of Our Hearts, which was sung with breathtaking beauty by the choir as the congregation fell – and remained – completely silent for 45 minutes before the cortege arrived.
Again and again there were moments in the hour-long service when Scotland seemed to firmly embrace the Queen.
Karen Matheson, the popular and charismatic singer who rose to fame with the folk group Capercaillie and an outspoken supporter of Scottish independence, sang, in Gaelic, a haunting version of Psalm 118:17 (“I shall not die, but live, and shall the works of God discovered”), set to harp.
“We gather to bid Scotland’s farewell to our late monarch whose love for Scotland was legendary,” said MacLeod.
The Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, described her “kind heart and gentle sense of humor” and stressed that when in Balmoral she was a “neighbor and friend” to many. “We acknowledge with gratitude her deep links with our land and its people,” he said.
On the other side of the coffin sat the prime minister, Liz Truss, who less than a week ago was shaking the Queen’s hand after being asked to form a new government. Now she was mourning the longest reign of a monarch in British history. In the next seat sat Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, who gave a reading from Ecclesiastes 3 (“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die” .)
It was only possible to imagine King Charles’s thoughts as she concluded with the line: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.”
Sturgeon bowed to the Queen’s coffin when she returned to her seat.
Among the groups from across Scottish society present inside the cathedral were representatives from Scottish charities of which the Queen was patron, including Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Football Association.
After the congregation, including former SNP leader Alex Salmond, former Liberal Democrat leaders David Steel and Menzies Campbell and former Labor defense secretary George Robertson, filed out, the cathedral was given over to the public and will remain open to those who have secured wristbands to gain access until Tuesday afternoon.
Shortly after the public began filing in, the King and the rest of his siblings – Prince Andrew, Princess Anne, and Prince Edward – stood vigil over the coffin. Taking their places at the four sides of the oak coffin, they stood alongside four suited members of the Royal Company of Archers, who were standing guard dressed in long-feathered hats and armed with longbows and a quiver of arrows.
The Queen Consort and Countess of Wessex sat on seats opposite the coffin while the vigil, which began at 7.46pm and finished at 7.56pm, took place. The archers have been completing 20-minute shifts of standing guard at the coffin.
Among those queuing earlier in the day was Jo Williams, 41, a former prison officer who had driven up from Manchester on Sunday night and was in the queue for the cathedral by 5.45am.
“Just the fact that I wore the crown for 15 years [on her prison officer epaulettes] … I just have a great respect for the monarchy,” she said. “I like Charles. There were a few points I was unsure of him, but seeing him now, he has been fantastic. He was among the public outside [Buckingham] Palace [on Friday]. He still has the old-fashioned values of his mum, but he is quite forward-thinking.”
“I have got huge respect for the Queen, but also for Charles,” added Pete Binder, 60, who had driven down from Scotland’s north coast, to be one of the first paying respects to the Queen. “I think he is going to be a brilliant king. I think he connects with people.”
Jen Cresswell arrived around 9am with three friends, camping chairs, a bag of sausage rolls and books to read to pass the time including, appropriately, JRR Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
“I can’t think of anything more British than being well-organized in a queue,” she said.
Cresswell, who lives in Edinburgh, said the Queen’s death at Balmoral allowed her “a Scottish farewell”. “Events like this can be very London-centric, but the Queen had a very personal connection to the people of Scotland. While there was great respect, she was also one of us.”