In 1938, 80 summers ago, twelve-year-old Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and her younger sister, Margaret, looked forward excitedly to their annual holiday in Scotland during August and September. Only the recent death of their beloved maternal grandmother, the Countess of Strathmore, would mar their visit to Glamis Castle, still occupied for part of the year by their grandfather, the eccentric but kindly Earl. Although ominous clouds were gathering in Europe, no-one knew that this holiday would be the last one in peacetime for seven years.
The Princesses and their parents had usually travelled to Scotland on the royal train and divided their holiday between Glamis Castle and Birkhall on the Balmoral estate. A Stuart house set in glorious countryside, Birkhall had been acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for their son, the future Edward VII. Although the décor was old-fashioned and the house still lit by oil lamps, the royal family loved the cosiness of the place. Princess Elizabeth ‘almost cried when she left’, her mother wrote after one of their visits.
The Abdication of the Princesses’ uncle, King Edward VIII, in December 1936, had changed everything. Their parents became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and after the Coronation in 1937 the family no longer stayed at Birkhall but at baronial-style Balmoral Castle, bought by Queen Victoria, who loved the Scottish Highlands.
Now, in 1938, the Princesses were excited by another change of routine. They cruised on the royal yacht Victoria and Albert, arriving in Scotland on 4 August: it was only the second time a reigning monarch had ever arrived in Aberdeen by sea. The fanfare that greeted them was all the more extravagant because it happened to be the Queen’s 38th birthday. Princess Elizabeth seemed enthralled by the scores of ‘dressed’ boats in the harbour that came out to meet them, little imagining that the following year she would fall in love with a handsome Royal Navy cadet, Prince Philip of Greece.
The royal family always loved relaxing in Scotland: shooting on the moors, fishing, entertaining close friends and, for the Princesses, playing with their cousins, their mother’s nephews and nieces, who visited and helped celebrate Princess Margaret’s birthday, also in August. Although they were on holiday, the Princesses still had their French lessons with their tutor, Georgina Guérin, every morning, usually followed by pony riding. If the King was hosting a shooting party, the girls had lunch with the Queen and her guests and any children. Games or music often followed before everyone tucked into a huge afternoon tea. Later the adults enjoyed a lavish dinner, after which the Princesses loved to peep over the bannisters to watch the seven pipers playing as they walked solemnly through the great hall and dining room.
That year, the royal family attended a special service at local Craithie Church. Before a congregation of farmers, ghillies and estate workers, among whom the late King George V had worshipped, George VI unveiled his gift to the church of a marble bust of his father. Then came the eagerly anticipated annual highlight: the Braemar gathering at Ballater, an ancient event which still takes place today, where teams compete in tossing the caber and throwing the hammer, and light-footed locals perform sword dancing and listen to pipe playing. The Princesses were smart in Hunting Stewart tartan and lemon jerseys, and dark-blue berets with gold thistles. The Queen’s sisters, May and Rose, joined the royal party with their families, and Princess Elizabeth was seen tapping her feet in time to the bands. A broad mix of people made the event memorable: local farmers chatted to Cabinet ministers and shopkeepers cheered teams with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a happy occasion, at which old friendships and family ties were renewed.
But in early September an unexpected visitor arrived at Balmoral. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came to update the King on Hitler’s threat in relation to Czechoslovakia. If it became necessary for the French to act in support of their Czech allies, Britain could not remain impassive. Chamberlain told the King that he thought peace could nevertheless prevail. But events moved quickly. On 12 September came Hitler’s venomous speech at Nuremberg. Chamberlain still thought war could be averted and on the 14th, with the King’s approval, flew to Germany to meet Hitler.
Leaving the Queen and the Princesses at Balmoral, the King was back in Buckingham Palace by the next morning, accessible to his ministers at a crucial time.
Chamberlain made three more trips to Germany over the next ten days. On 21 September the Queen left the Princesses at Balmoral and joined the King in London, where emergency war measures began. London’s population was registered and fitted for gas masks. On the 27th Their Majesties were expected in Glasgow to launch the Queen Elizabeth. The King could not go, so the Queen returned to Scotland alone and found the stations en route full of children preparing for evacuation to the country.
Overnight the Princesses were taken from Balmoral to Glasgow and enjoyed the excitement of having their breakfast in a railway siding, guarded by local police, while they waited for the mother to arrive. At Clydeside they watched her deliver a message on behalf of the King, broadcast live to millions: ‘He bids the people of this country good cheer in spite of the dark clouds hanging over them….He knows….that they will keep cool heads and brave hearts.’
Chamberlain returned from Germany with the Munich Agreement, which appeared to avert the threat of war; later he spoke of ‘peace for our time’. But the hope was short-lived. During their next summer holiday war would break out. The world as the Princesses knew it would change forever.
© Jane Dismore 4 July 2018