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Home  >  Features  >  'A Giant in the Land'


'A Giant in the Land'

Thursday September 8 2022

Picture: Joel Rouse/Ministry of Defence Open Government Licence

The Very Rev Dr James Simpson pays tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

On her 21st birthday the Queen declared that her whole life would be devoted to serving the British people. How faithfully she kept that promise. What unstinting service she rendered as monarch, not only to our Nation but to the Commonwealth.

Throughout her long reign the Queen spoke often and openly of her deep Christian faith, a faith which supported her through good times and bad. In 1960 she marked the 4th centenary of the Scottish Reformation by attending our General Assembly.  She returned in 1969 to show, as she told the Assembly her affection for Scotland and its Kirk. Though the official head of the Church of England, the moment she crossed the border into Scotland, she effectively became a Presbyterian, ministered to by Church of Scotland chaplains. 

For over 30 years I was privileged to be one of those chaplains. Though she was the most famous and photographed woman in the world, she made ordinary people, like me, feel welcome and important. What fond personal memories I have of the four weekends I spent at Balmoral Castle, meeting her and various members of her family and conducting Sunday worship for them.  I first met the Queen in September 1981.  At the Castle gates a London policeman told me to proceed down the drive to the Castle where the Equerry would meet me. There being however no Equerry there, I consulted the guidelines I had been sent. As I was examining them, a lady out walking on the lawn, shouted over, telling me just to go in the North door. I waved and thanked her. Inside with the Equerry was the Crathie minister. A discussion followed about the church seating for the royal party the following day. There were to be 30 guests including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. An hour later I was taken to the drawing room to meet the Queen. When I bowed and said, as I had been told, “Delighted to meet you Your Majesty”, a warm smile came over her face. “Oh but we have already met”, she said. “I was the friendly policeman giving you directions outside!” Not surprisingly, for the rest of the weekend ,  I felt completely at ease in her company.

The barbeque dinner that night was to be in the log cabin which the Queen had given Philip to celebrate their Silver wedding. When it was time to set out for the cabin, the Queen said, “You come with me.” There were three of us in the Range Rover, the Queen who was driving, Margaret Thatcher and myself. Never have I travelled in such distinguished female company!   On arriving at the log cabin, the Queen began putting the finishing touches to the dinner tables. The barbeque food had been delivered in advance.  That night the Queen served me my meal and cleared away my dirty plates! When I said, “M’am, should I not be serving you?”,  she said, “Look I don’t get doing this often enough. I enjoy the role reversal.”

The following night at a formal banquet in the Castle, I again had the honour of being seated next to the Queen. Aware by now of her lively sense of humour, I told her about a family incident that had happened the day of Princes Anne’s wedding. We had been invited by a neighbour to watch the wedding in colour. We had at that time only a black and white television set.  Seated next to me was my six year old son Graeme, who had been taught by his brother and sister to play simple card games like Rummy and Whist. That afternoon he sat watching the Kings and Queens from all over Europe, arriving at the  Abbey.  When the Archbishop of Canterbury suddenly appeared in his gold robes, mitre and staff,  Graeme, never having  seen anyone dressed like this before,  asked me in a loud voice,  “Daddy is that the Joker?”  Where there were kings and queens, he was sure there had to be a Joker!  The Queen not only laughed heartily, she insisted on me retelling the story to everyone at the table. 

I won’t quickly forget her Majesty’s engaging personality, her agile penetrating mind, her great insights into national and international affairs, her sparkling eyes, her genuine humility and her deep love for Scotland.   What a debt we owe her as a nation.

The Very Rev Dr James Simpson was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1994.