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Platinum Jubilee: Balmoral’s close neighbour

27 May 2022

Iain Torrance explains the Chapel Royal in Scotland


The Queen sits in Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral, for a service of commemoration on 4 August 2014 to mark the start of the First World War

The Queen sits in Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral, for a service of commemoration on 4 August 2014 to mark the start of the First World War

THE relationship between the Sovereign and the Church of Scotland is completely different from that between the Crown and the Church of England.

With the possible exception of the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle, there are no royal peculiars in Scotland. Historically, the court of the King of Scots moved between several royal palaces (Stirling, Linlithgow, Falkland, Holyroodhouse), and a chaplain and musicians moved with the King. The Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle was founded by Pope Alexander VI at the request of James IV, and was endowed as a school for church music. It was there that James VI was baptised.

After his succession to the throne of England in 1603, the practice of maintaining an ecclesiastical household in Scotland fell into desuetude, though a series of Chaplains to the King were appointed by James VI, Charles I, and Charles II.

James VII expelled the reformed congregation that had met for weekly worship in the abbey church at Holyroodhouse, and intended that the building should become the chapel for his Order of the Thistle. The expelled congregation was housed in the newly built Canongate Church, but, suspicious of Catholicism, an Edinburgh mob sacked the abbey church on 11 December 1688, leaving the Order of the Thistle without a home.

The estate and original castle at Balmoral were bought by Prince Albert in 1852, and remain part of the private property of the royal family. Balmoral became a favourite place for Queen Victoria and her descendants, who always worshipped in the small village church at Crathie, less than a mile from the castle. Queen Victoria — scandalising some of the English bishops — regularly received communion in Crathie Kirk, as her descendants have.

To this day, the Queen spends every August and September at Balmoral. Though Supreme Governor of the Church of England, when the Queen crosses the Border she becomes a loyal member of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Crathie Kirk is not a Chapel Royal or a royal peculiar.

Crathie Kirk has a number of royal memorials. The Queen enters the church by the south door and sits in the royal pew, but, in a way perhaps impossible in England, she is a regular member of the congregation. Worship at Crathie, led by the much-trusted present Minister, is reverent, welcoming, and suffers from no artificial formality. The local worshipping community is used to the presence of their Queen, and they love her.

Scripture is usually read from a modern translation, and the structure of the most recent edition of Common Order is followed at communion services. Although the Sovereign is present (and very often the Prince of Wales also), this is the characteristic domestic worship of a Scottish country parish.

During the months of August and September, the Queen invites visiting preachers to be her guests at Balmoral for the weekend. A list of possible preachers is discussed by the Dean of the Chapel Royal with the minister, whose responsibility it is to send a list for the approval of the Queen. A result of this practice is that the Queen has a remarkably good first-hand knowledge of the Church of Scotland.

In 1905, Ronald Ruthven, 11th Earl of Leven and 10th Earl of Melville, planned to restore the ruined abbey church at Holyroodhouse as the chapel of the Order of the Thistle. It turned out that the walls were unsound, and the project was continued in 1909 by his son, the 12th Earl, who, with the permission of the Minister and Kirk Session of St Giles, funded a new chapel built against the southern wall of the cathedral, with its own entrance from the east.

The chapel was designed by Robert Lorimer and is a tiny masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement, with elaborate carvings and a marble floor. The Dean is appointed by the Queen and is not necessarily the Minister of St Giles, making the chapel closer to a royal peculiar than any other ecclesial foundation in Scotland. The green service book compiled for the opening of the chapel on 19 July 1911 is still used on each St Andrew’s Day.

Currently, there are ten Chaplains to the Queen in Scotland, one of whom is Dean of the Chapel Royal and Dean of the Thistle. The Minister of Crathie has traditionally been a domestic chaplain, and the Minister of the Canongate has been since 2008.

Professor Iain Torrance KCVO is a former Dean of the Chapel Royal in Scotland (2013-19) and Dean of the Order of the Thistle (2014-19). He is Pro-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, President Emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary, and a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

This piece is adapted from the appendix that he contributed to Bryan Spinks’s Scottish Presbyterian Worship (St Andrew’s Press, 2020).

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