It was officially called Lord High Commissioner’s Week but in the past few days in Scotland, the Duke of Cambridge has shown he wanted to do more than simply represent granny north of the border. Prince William and Kate have used his appointment this week to reach out far and wide across Scotland on issues far beyond the church and ones he and his wife care most about. The Queen appointed her grandson Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland last year. It’s a long title for a ceremonial role which dates back to the 16th Century.
Traditionally, it means representing the Sovereign and attending the General Assembly as an observer to maintain the relationship between the State and the Church. Of course, it’s a politically sensitive time in Scotland, following elections to the Scottish Parliament during which the debate about an independence referendum was front and centre. It meant the Duke and Duchess had to tread very carefully – given the strict rules on political neutrality for the Royal Family – but the Prince did not ignore the issue entirely. “I am here to listen”, the Duke said at the Opening Ceremony of the General Assembly.
So a meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is the chief campaigner for Scottish Independence, was counter balanced by a meeting with Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is campaigning to save the union. That meeting triggered some social media commentary after a camera crew was prevented from filming Mr Brown’s arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Neither meeting was publicised in advance but both meetings were recorded in the Court Circular, the official record of the Royal Family’s engagements. It was a reminder, if Prince William needed one, how sensitive this issue is in Scotland. The Duke of Cambridge, who holds the title the Earl of Strathearn when north of the border, promised that he would “have my eyes and ears permanently open” during his time here.
And he spoke at the outset of having a connection to Scotland which will “forever run deep”.
The country had been, William said, the source of his saddest memories – being told about his mother’s death when he was at Balmoral – and his happiest memories – it was where he met Kate at St Andrews’ University 20 years ago. But the couple wanted to use this week to tackle all the issues which Scotland is currently facing, from homelessness and mental health, to climate change and Covid.
Of course, Scotland faces many issues which the other nations of the UK share – but it also has problems of its own. When the Duchess of Cambridge joined her husband on Monday, their first stop together was to tackle an issue which is a particular problem for Scotland: deaths from drugs.
In 2019, there were more than 1,200 drug-related deaths in the country –the worst rates in the world.
It is a crisis with links to both to homelessness and poverty - and to the problems of the Early Years, which Kate has made a key priority of her public work. The Duchess has worked with experts in this field over the last decade to identify how the first five years of a child’s life impact on the following fifty years. Problems in adulthood like addiction and poor mental health have their roots in a the formative years of childhood. There was a similar visit in East Lothian on Monday related to youth violence – which the couple were told is “preventable, not inevitable.” It was a stark reminder of the need to break the cycle of these societal issues – to change the path individuals might be on and to stop issues in childhood become even bigger issues in adulthood. William’s week began with a topic close to his heart: mental health and the influence of football and footballers.
The ‘Mentally Healthy Football declaration” he was told how players and coaches at The Spartans FC are trying to change the conversation around mental health. And for anyone who wondered if Prince William had inherited his father’s passion for – and concern about – the environment, they only needed to watch his trip to Orkney. The reason why the Duke and Duchess travelled to one of the most northerly parts of the UK was to see the world’s only accredited test centre for tidal power. Marine renewable energy could play a key part in the Scotland’s future energy supplies – and Scotland will also host the important UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in November. It’s not been announced yet, but given Prince Charles’ decades’ long commitment to the environment and his son’s support for wildlife and conservation projects – they are both likely to have a key role in the summit.
Prince William also launched his ambitious Award scheme last year – the Earthshot Prize – to inspire groups and individuals over the next decade to find solutions to the key challenges facing our planet, like climate change. It’s always hard to measure public opinion on trips such as these and to read social media following his address to the General Assembly, was to be reminded of the debate about the relevance of the Royal Family north of the border. That said, even the SNP is committed to keeping the Queen as Scotland's head of state should independence become a reality.
But both William and Kate have looked at home here – not least at St Andrews University on Wednesday where they reminisced about their university years here from 2001.
The town on the Fife coast gave William the privacy he craved as an undergraduate and allowed his relationship with fellow student Kate Middleton to grow. No one can predict what decisions Scotland will make in the future, nor what role the Monarchy will or won’t have here after a referendum. The Royal Family’s links with Scotland run deep but, like in the rest of the UK, the Monarchy’s popularity - and therefore its survival - depends on its ability to keep itself relevant to the lives of the people in 2021 in every corner of the Kingdom.