Royal Yacht Britannia - Scotland's Best Attraction?
HMY Britannia is deemed Scotland's top attraction. A fascinating world of privilege - or just a royal yawn?
HMY Britannia - Scotland’s Best Attraction?
The Royal Yacht Britannia's own website bears the striking legend ‘Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction (VisitScotland)’ on every page, as part of its header design. VisitScotland’s website, under the Britannia entry, repeats the same phrase, even ending it with its own name in brackets, as if to reassure us.
Has evenhandedness gone out through the porthole? Actually, no, because HMY Britannia scored 96% in the national tourism body’s Quality Assurance Scheme, making it the top 5-star attraction in Scotland. So it must be the best, right? Certainly, according to the advertising panels on the sides of all the buses throughout the city that also carry this branding. Yes, this particular boat is pretty heavily promoted.
Anyway, if VisitScotland, responsible for marketing Scotland to the world, gives it the thumbs up, then I should swallow my faint but possibly detectable antipathy to all things royal and feature it on our own wide-ranging, beautifully written and informative website. (That’s enough - Ed.)
HMY Britannia’s the Best Thing in Scotland?
To view this paragon amongst Scotland’s things to see, you have to go to Edinburgh. Then you go to Leith. Plenty of buses go down there, all the way to Ocean Terminal shopping centre, right by the waterfront.
HMY (Her Majesty’s Yacht) Britannia is moored alongside the shopping mall. There are views down to it from several of the ‘eateries’ on the first floor. But for a visit you have to go to the top floor by the lift or escalator. It’s well signed. A well-spoken young chap directs you to the pay-desk. It is not inexpensive. You pay your fee (£15.50 for an adult, at time of writing) and then you’re off…
Oh, they also give you what looks like an old-fashioned mobile phone on a handle. This tells you what you are looking at at various signposted points on board. It’s a self-guided tour (with a choice of 27 languages).
Obviously, if you can't contain yourself and just have to book in advance for the ship, then you can get advance tickets for Britannia on that link. A small commission comes our way. (Touches forelock, reluctantly.) Otherwise, read on.
The Britannia Tour
On past the info boards that set the scene. Phrases may catch your eye: ‘simplicity was the keynote’; ‘attractively old-fashioned air’; ‘ the new queen...took a keen interest in the Yacht…’ Was this to be a floating Winnebago on which the royals could rough it and have adventures? No, along with the five tons of royal luggage, we are informed they when they came aboard they even took a really talented military band with them. And on informal occasions the band could be found ‘socialising with the Yotties in Britannia’s Unwinding Room’. Eh? What kind of language is this?
Turns out the ‘yotties’ were a kind of pet name for the crew. The Unwinding Room is where the lower ranks would un-stiffen themselves after a day spent following orders often given by hand signal only - as no-one was allowed to shout orders in case it disturbed the royals.
It’s all beginning to sound a bit weird and we haven't even reached the ship yet. Still, we are told that this was the only navy vessel where the ratings were addressed by their first name: possibly as in: ‘I say, Gerald, fancy a quick one in the Unwinding Room later?’
On the Bridge of the Royal Yacht
Across the ‘gangplank’ and onto the actual bridge of the vessel for a first fiddle with the audio player-thing. There are worrying looking notices and labels here, and you may be subject to the mad urge to rip open a cupboard and press the ‘Denny-Brown Ship Stabilizer Hand-Roll Switch’. (I think this device made cigarettes for the crew when the sea was rough. But I’m guessing here.)
Other bridge warnings are completely mystifying, as you can see here.
More cabins, messes - and a Rolls Royce
OK, what’s next? Well, there’s lots. For instance, there’s a garage in which lives a Rolls Royce. Yes, they craned it on and off for the royals, so that they could avoid native transport on state visits. Eventually, you end up on a big space, I believe the word is ‘deck’, at the back, sorry, staaaarn, of the boat. Anyway, lots more below...keep reading.
By this time you’ve got into the groove, which basically involves staring into various cabins that look as though they have been only momentarily vacated by a variety of naval types. The food has been lovingly recreated, for instance, in the Admiral’s cabin, though I hope he liked beans. (I think it’s some kind of realistic plastic.)
We are also told that this admiral-bloke had to change his uniform up to 12 times a day and that his breeks etc were kept in his teak veneered wardrobe (of all things). Aaaargh, the vacuous detail is beginning to drive me mad already. Let's go aft. (Oooh, get him going all nautical and he’s only been aboard 20 minutes.)
Reeking of royalty
Somewhere beyind the admiral and his beans, this big deck thing, mentioned above, is where excitement builds as it’s starting to reek of royals. That’s why we came. We don’t care for all these yotties really. We don’t even care that, apparently, when a royal rolled past a crew member the poor chap had to stand and look straight ahead and not speak. Bizarre.
Anyway, the deck opens into a sitting room kind of place. It has a drinks cabinet for the evening royal snifters. The decor is all chintz and cane-work. Terribly middle-class, if you ask me. But wait, there’s a throng of folk looking through a glass partition.
Could it be? Yes, it’s the total highlight. It’s the queen’s bed. Gosh, isn’t it little? The headset by this time is droning into excruciating detail of how she used Victoria’s sheets but liked a good turn-down (the hussy) and had them stitched like that especially. Or something. Honestly, I so don’t need to know. My ears are now bleeding slightly.
And who’s this in the wee bedroom next door? Oh, right, it’s where the duke of Ed slept. The sycophantic voice in my ear says the room has a ‘more masculine feel’. Huh? Well? Why are you telling us this? It’s the bloody duke’s, isn’t it?
Somewhere in all this, there was the stateroom where the voice on the phone insisted on telling, like an over-attentive host, about every tedious artefact on the walls. ‘And, by the window, you can see a Bermudan pentatonic nose-flute, presented in 1955...and in the next alcove, an exquisitely-worked tennis-ball holder, made from a giraffe’s scrotum and given to the duke…’ Oh, stop, stop.
The Royal Yacht Britannia below decks
It’s all a blur now, but there’s more as we go down through the decks. It’s one mess after another. I honestly can’t remember and don’t care. It’s like been shown round the members’ area of a variety of gentlemen’s clubs, each with their own traditions. There is, for example, one class of officer who, in their unwinding time, liked to play Wombat Tennis in their mess. We are reverently told that this involved a soft toy wombat placed on the blade of a ceiling fan so that it careened off at a variety of unpredictable angles…what fun it must have been as an off-duty yotty.
What do you really learn from the visit? That the royal children did jigsaws and games - though this was long before Gay Mauve Thrones was invented. And their folks like a noggin or two. That one of the cold rooms was used to store the kids’ jellies. (Presumably that would have been royal jelly.) You learn that this whole ship of state was used for a variety of royal honeymooners, whose marriages didn’t work out. That in addition to its world-wide wanderings, the ship went cruising to the western seaboard of Scotland most years with its royal cargo who liked having picnics on deserted beaches.
This, incidentally, explains why a friend of mine, many years ago on the island of Gigha, nipped behind a sand-dune to answer nature’s call and was pounced on by several burly security guys. How was he to know Britannia was parked round the corner and the royals were cavorting on the shore?
A view into a world of privilege aboard the royal yawn
But, by this point, really, what was most striking was the symbolism of private apartments and spaces into which large picture-windows had been cut, so that the tourists could gawp almost literally into another world. It reminded me of one of those cross-section or cut-away shots you see on wildlife tv shows of a family of rodents in their burrow, getting on with their private lives.
Onwards and downwards. Now we’re really going behind the scenes. It’s the - wait for it - laundry. (I've skipped the 1950s sick bay as it gave me the creeps.) Again, that voice in my ear is soothing and reassuring - telling me that the queen’s washing was done on different days to the rest of the crew’s. Seriously, I think I would have guessed that. Well, you couldn’t have Clive-from-the-engine-room's socks getting mixed up with the royal whatevers, could you? The engine room was interesting though. They got 21 knots out of her, you know.
There is a variety of other craft around the main yacht...royal barge, racing yacht, zzzzz, that kind of thing. And a sailing exhibition at the end, where we learn that there was another, earlier Britannia. This one was a real racer, (ahem) a gaff-rigged cutter, eh, what-ho, built by the chap who became king Edward 7, then raced by his son king George 5. He in turn handed it on to a charitable institution for underprivileged children. No, wait, only teasing, actually Georgie ordered his beloved yacht to be scuttled on his death, presumably because he didn’t want anyone else to enjoy it. What a card, eh?
So, apart from the brightly lit and unavoidably gaudy gift shop, that’s it. That’s a visit to “Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction (VisitScotland)”.
Britannia - conclusion - would you enjoy a visit?
I’m glad I went. I’m glad I saw what the learned and good in this tourism business score as our best attraction. I’m sorry I couldn’t summon enough reverence to see the experience as a real insight into the hard work the royal family did or does on our behalf, apparently. But it was moderately interesting and you do need a couple of hours - because all these messes and bedrooms, and sundeck and stateroom and laundry and sick bay and engine room - and even the place where they stored royal jelly - all takes gawping time.
After the royal yacht was taken out of service, everyone fell over themselves to get the old girl, but the Scottish capital put in the best bid and here it is: berthed in Leith - though it would have been more logical to have it in Glasgow, where she was born (in John Brown’s shipyard). And, since then, the Forth Ports Authority, and the ship’s charitable trust and VisitScotland and everyone else, have extracted every last drop of prestige from the vessel and turned it into an attraction that visitors go mad for. Some, it is said, even go more than once and it’s a highlight of their Edinburgh visit. Mystifying.
It’s not an experience of real everyday people, obviously.
I can’t say whether or not you should visit the Royal Yacht Britannia. If interaction or engagement is important to you as a part of a Scottish visit, then this is not where you’ll find it. This is not about ‘real’ people. It’s a portrait of pomp and privilege and yet also a reminder that even royals need their washing done. In short, it’s just a curious mix of a weirdly ritualistic and protocol-bound life, along with the, frankly, trivial and everyday.
The Royal Yacht Britannia - $19.07
If you get a vicarious shiver at being close to where royals once trod, then you’ll like it. If you are seeking out real folk then you’d be better - and possibly cheaper - going by bus to Leith and popping in to Wilkie’s, a pub on Great Junction Street. I’ve had a couple of fine beers there in my time - and it’s very genuine. And it’s only a few minutes walk from Britannia if you want to compare and contrast.
As for that royal boat, I’m just left with the sense that I’m relieved I’ve done it and won’t have to go back. No, not even if they put on a special display of Wombat Tennis.