When the Queen last observed a landmark birthday, she sought to play down the occasion.
Addressing an audience at London’s Mansion House in 2006, she noted that her birthdays seemed to come around with increasing frequency and were “less obvious excuses for wider celebration than personal moments to count one’s blessings”. A quote appropriated from Groucho Marx made clear her reluctance. “Anyone can get old,” she said. “All you have to do is live long enough.”
Ten years on, as she prepares to enter her tenth decade, her view remains the same. As well as unveiling a plaque in Windsor, and going on a walkabout with Prince Philip, the only other public event planned for her 90th birthday consists of lighting the first in a chain of beacons sited around the country, continuing a symbolic tradition stretching back to her Silver Jubilee. Less than 24 hours later, she will play host to President Barack Obama at Windsor Castle. Even for a monarch known for her redoubtable work ethic, her diary for the week ahead indicates the final years of her reign will be business as usual. While she may not wish to count the candles come Thursday, the question of how the nation at large will observe a momentous day in the life of the longest lived British sovereign is more difficult to answer. It comes just months after events commemorating her record-breaking reign and only a few years after the Diamond Jubilee’s pomp and circumstance. The promise of further festivities means it is not only confirmed republicans who would be excused for exhibiting symptoms of royal fatigue.
Observers of the monarchy are agreed that the birthday events will be inconspicuous compared with recent proceedings and indeed, the reigns of previous monarchs. Back in 1853, celebrations for Queen Victoria’s 34th birthday were particularly exuberant in Dundee, where drunken crowds smashed every window in the High Street and sacked the town hall. The prospect of similar scenes of abandon being played out in four days’ time is remote. Indeed, it seems that Scotland’s role will especially restrained.
From the summit of Ben Nevis to the cliff tops of Unst, there will be 35 beacon events north of the Border. At first glance, it seems like an impressive figure, until you consider the scale of the celebrations taking place around the UK, where upwards of 1,000 beacons will be lit; in Yorkshire alone, no fewer than 97 beacon lighting gatherings are being held.
For longstanding chroniclers of the Queen and her family, there is an acceptance that the plans are modest. “There hasn’t been much publicity about the beacons, I’d rather forgotten about it,” concedes Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and author of The Queen’s Speech, a 2015 biography of the monarch. “People have been talking about the EU referendum and it’s probably not been at the forefront of their minds. I think the celebrations will be slightly more low key compared with what we saw with the Diamond Jubilee.”
Others taking a less favourable view of the monarchy’s role in Scottish life believe the Queen’s birthday events – which include the opening of a fashion exhibition at the Palace of Holyroodhouse – will remain muted, regardless of any late publicity drive.
“The usual sycophants will no doubt try to stage manage something along the lines of the recent Clean For The Queen events, but I do not anticipate masses of people dancing in the streets,” says Dennis Canavan, the former Labour MP and chair of the Yes Scotland campaign during the 2014 independence referendum.
“The influence of the monarchy has certainly waned over the years but it still epitomises an obscene inheritance of wealth and power in the hands of one over-privileged family.”
For all that a 90th birthday might give the Queen and her country reason to look back, it will also concentrate minds on what the future might hold. In recent months, there has been mounting speculation that the Queen intends to spend more time in Scotland in the twilight of her life, with reports that she plans to make Balmoral her “second home”.
“At Balmoral she feels she doesn’t have to be a caricature of a queen,” one source told a Sunday newspaper. “Everyone will play it by ear but the feeling is the Scottish plan will be what she wants to do.”
There is no doubt that the 50,000-acre Aberdeenshire estate has long been cherished by her family as a place of sanctuary, somewhere to escape the formalities and strictures of the monarchy and combine work and rest.
It was there, after all, that the Queen awoke on the morning of 19 September, 2014, to find her kingdom remained intact. From Balmoral, she sought to begin the process of reconciliation, issuing a statement in which she reminded the nation of her “enduring love of Scotland”.
According to the Court Circular, the official record of the Queen’s engagements, she has been spending less time at Buckingham Palace over the past five years. Whereas she stayed 109 nights at the residence throughout 2011, the number dropped to just 88 last year.
But those who regard such figures as proof of her desire to flee north should think again. The records also show that, over the same period, there has been a 10 per cent decrease in the number of nights she has spent at her residences in Scotland. Compared with 62 nights in 2011, she stayed at Balmoral for 58 nights in 2015, with her infrequent overnight stays at the Palace of Holyroodhouse declining from seven to four.
By contrast, she has spent considerably more time at Windsor Castle, her place of work, spending 159 nights there last year compared with 119 in 2011, with her nights at Sandringham also increasing from 51 to 54.
While the Queen’s love for Balmoral is not in doubt, most agree that her desire to continue her duties will stave off any notion of a quieter life. She may have scaled down the number of engagements she carries out from 393 over the course of 2014 to 341 last year, but as Seward points it, this remains a formidable undertaking for a woman her age.
“The work is what keeps her going,” she reasons. “It’s the discipline and the sheer determination to continue to fulfil her role. As long as she’s well enough, she will just keep it up. I think her staff will try to convince her it’s far too much and try to cut it down, but it’s what she’s always done.
“I’m sure she’ll stick to the routine as long as she thinks she can do it. If something happened to Prince Philip, or something else interfered with her life, things would probably change. But if she suddenly decided to retire to Balmoral – which I don’t think she will do – then she would age very quickly.”
Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most distinguished historian, also believes there is little likelihood of the Queen withdrawing from public life in her advancing years.
“Unless there’s some catastrophic mental decline, I don’t think there’s any chance at all of her abdication,” he says. “It’s about her sense of duty, and the Royal Family may have memories – bitter memories – of a certain other abdication in the 1930s.
“The Queen Mother had a bitter memory of that experience because she believed the abdication of her brother-in-law was one of the reasons for the early death of her husband, who had to become monarch, and was not really fitted by personality or aptitude for that role.”
The conservative scale of this week’s events support the idea – endorsed by the Queen – that little will change once she reaches 90, but it is worth noting that Thursday is just the first of the two birthdays she enjoys each year. The main event will come on 11 June, when a host of gatherings will take place around the country.
“It’s important to remember that it’s still a couple of months until her official birthday,” says Seward. “The events in April might seem quiet, but they are being staggered over the next eight weeks.”
Indeed, late spring will herald an altogether more visible show of revelry. In May, a four-day pageant will be held in the grounds of Windsor Castle, culminating in a celebratory show featuring more than 1,500 performers. The spectacle, hosted by Ant and Dec, will be broadcast live on ITV, with a giant screen also erected in the grounds of Balmoral.
Along with the annual Trooping the Colour parade, the weekend in June will be notable for the Patron’s Lunch. Billed as one the largest street parties ever organised, it will see the Queen join an estimated 10,000 guests at a vast gathering on The Mall in St James’s Park.
With myriad tea parties and street events also expected around the country, it may well be the case that the euphoric scenes of the Diamond Jubilee will be replicated, at least in part.
While the anniversary will be seen by many as cause for jubilation, it will harden the resolve of others who believe the Queen and her kin have no place in modern society – at least not under the existing framework of constitutional monarchy. In Canavan’s view, the coming years should usher in a wholesale review of the position of the Royal Family.
He says: “The present monarch still has her fan club and shows no sign of handing over the baton. However, any would-be successor should not simply inherit the job of head of state without some form of democratic mandate.
“In an independent Scotland, an increasing number of people will realise that the sovereignty of the people is far more important than the sovereignty of any monarch and a hereditary head of state should have no place in a modern society based on equality and democracy.”
In Devine’s estimation, the major anniversary of the Queen’s birth is unlikely to presage a party atmosphere in Scotland, but neither will it foster feelings of resentment. Instead, he says, it will allow ordinary people to show their regard for her service.
“My sense would be that there’s a recognition that the Queen, throughout her reign, has conducted herself blamelessly and has carried out her duties with great diligence,” he explains. “I think the anniversary will be marked more by respect than rejoicing.”
Whatever the reception, royal observers will be paying close attention to the Queen’s remarks on Thursday. As another special birthday rolls around, it is expected any speech she gives will be subdued. But if she decides to borrow a phrase from Groucho Marx, there is a fitting aphorism she would do well to consider. “I intend to live forever,” the great comic once observed. “Or die trying.”