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Kings and Queens and Great White Stags

Kings and Queens and Great White Stags


It’s been a week of kings and queens so we thought we would give you a royal story.


One morning a king set out to hunt in one of his royal forests. It wasn’t any old day; it was the feast of the Holy Cross, the 14th of September. He should have been in church and his chaplain reprimanded him for going hunting, but he was in no mood to listen to him. He set out with a party and soon they spotted a great white stag. The king gave chase and rashly ran ahead of his companions. He became separated from them and suddenly in a clearing, the stag turned round and charged him. His horse bolted and ran away. The king was on the ground and the stag approached, antlers lowered, ready to gore him. As it did, a cross appeared between its antlers. The king reached out for the cross and as he did, the stag and the cross disappeared into the mist.


Suitably chastened, the king got up, marked the place where the apparition had happened and went back to his palace. He cleared the hunting forest that was there and built a chapel, then an abbey there. And he gave it a coat of arms which was a stag with a cross between its antlers. That place later became a great seat of power in his kingdom.


Do you know the story? If you’re a Scot you should. Because the king in question was King David of Scotland and today, the 14th September 1128 is the date that Holyrood (or Holy Rude as it would have been rendered then) was founded. All round the Canongate and at Mercat Cross where Charles was recently proclaimed king, you’ll see that coat of arms with the stag on it. Its ghost has also probably found its way into the Scottish coat of arms, but as a white unicorn. Holyrood was where Robert the Bruce held Parliament, where James II, III  and IV were married. It was where Mary Queen of Scots met John Knox. It has been a seat of kings and parliaments in Scotland for centuries and is the site of our current Parliament. This week a queen laid in state in its grounds and a king processed up the Royal Mile in imitation of the monarchs and parliamentarians before him. All round them the history of those people is written in the stones and street names of the Mile and we doubt that one Scot in a hundred knows it.


Why does this matter? It matters because we have forgotten who we were. We were a nation. We had a king, a parliament, a place and a name. The rituals that were performed this week go far back before the Union but our memory of them has been wiped. Westminster has appropriated them as their own. We have to claim those memories back. The Scottish Crown is ours, not Westminster’s. And it is Scottish; made of Scottish gold and studded with Scottish gems and freshwater pearls, not loot taken from other countries.  


We need to remember. If we would be a nation, we must start thinking like one. The BBC might have an excuse for being illiterate in its inane commentary on the royal funeral procession this week, but we don’t really have one. This is our place, our nation and we need to take possession of that again. Digging further into the Scottish collective memory, sighting a white stag in Celtic tradition was a harbinger of great change. Great changes are now upon us and that stag is running. Let’s mark this day; Holyrood day. And let’s be alert and ready for what is to come.


Julie McAnulty

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