TQueen Elizabeth II’s coffin will soon arrive in Edinburgh, where she will be taken to the Palace of Holyrood – her official residence in the Scottish capital – and later to St Giles’ Cathedral on the city’s cobbled Royal Mile, lined with tourist shops decorated in the nation’s iconic plaid fabric tartan.
In truth, however, the widespread adoption of tartan – the distinctive wool pattern most commonly associated with Scottish kilts – is due to a royal public relations ploy designed to win local approval for the British crown. Traditionally, tartan was the sole custom of the arcane highland tribes, but shunned by the lowland ‘elites’.
But to heal the differences across the border, in 1822 the celebrated novelist Sir Walter Scott organized a huge pageant in Edinburgh, during which the new King George IV wore a tartan kilt while meeting similarly attired local chiefs. It was a spectacular success and the popularity of the monarchy and the tartan – today one of the most powerful and vivid symbols of Scottish identity – soared in tandem.
It’s a sign of how dexterous the royal family is manages its relations with Scotland in recent centuries – a relationship that is entering uncharted waters following the official ascension of King Charles III to the throne on Friday.
IN 2020 Survey70% of Scots aged 16 to 34 support separation from the UK. And separate poll by think tank British Future in May found that more than a third of Scots as a whole said the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign would be the right time to abolish the monarchy and become a republic, more than a quarter of Britons as a whole who said the same.
“Anyone who has followed Scottish politics for the last 30 years will be familiar with the idea that the Queen’s death could be the final nail in the coffin for the Union,” said Alan Macdonald, professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee. “There’s definitely a concern that could happen.”
Of course, the tension between the “English” crown and Scottish nationalism has long existed. At Christmas 1950, a group of Scottish students even briefly seized the revered Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey – arguing that it was stolen from the Scots during the English invasion of Scotland in 1296.
Today, the more pressing drivers of independence are the perceived indolence of a London-centric government amid rising costs and an agonizing exit from the EU, which Scots voted overwhelmingly against in 2016. An disengaged, isolated sovereign would no doubt catalyze anti-Union sentiment and it fell to King Charles III to create his own deft charm offensive.
“The arrival of King Charles is definitely a boost for [the independence] movement,” says one prominent independence advocate, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of appearing callous. “The Queen was universally popular; Charles isn’t. Simple.
Charles can look to his own family history for guidance. Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, was adept at “interpreting and manipulating history, embracing national identities and provoking a significant reaction” in Scotland, write Richard Finlay, Professor of Modern Scottish History at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. In addition to frequent visits north of the border, Victoria revived the use of distinctive Scottish protocol—co-opting local dress, customs, and symbols—for her visits and cultivated an elite social circle that would be most amenable to Anglicization.
Still, Charles faces serious challenges. Elizabeth II’s attachment to Scotland was genuine. Her mother was from Glamis—a small village in Angus—and part of the Scottish aristocracy for many generations. Any free time the Queen had was spent at her Scottish estate of Balmoral, where she did pass on Thursday afternoon. Charles, on the contrary, had by choice established his own residence at Restormel Manor in the far south of England.
“Charles is a fake Scotsman,” says Clive Irving, author of the unofficial biography of Elizabeth II The last queen. “He wears a kilt, but he never looks at home in Scotland because he’s generally not inclined to.”
Irving adds that a deal with the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) – which currently controls Scotland’s semi-autonomous parliament – that it would not seek to become a republic during Elizabeth’s reign has now expired. (That said, senior SNP leaders have stated earlier (that an independent Scotland would retain the British monarch as head of state.)
Of course, Scottish independence and republicanism are related, but ultimately different issues, and one does not necessitate the other. “I think the Royal Family is a huge boost for Aberdeenshire [where Balmoral Castle sits]says Nick Allen, a geologist from Aberdeen. “I don’t know why our relationship with the royal family can’t continue as normal if we are independent, just like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
Much will depend on how fully and sincerely Charles chooses to engage with his Scottish subjects. During his seven decades as heir to the British throne, he was known for his outspoken views on everything from the environment to architecture, leading to accusations of meddling in political and social matters outside his remit. And as a young man he was portrayed in the UK media as an eccentric figure who was obsessed with gardening and will talk to his plants.
Yet, as heir, he meant to use his Scottish titles—Lord of the Isles and Duke of Rothesay—when he was north of the border. And he has increasingly stepped in for his ailing mother on engagements, most recently on Saturday to attend the Braemar Highland Gathering – an iconic, annual celebration of Scottish sport and culture. McDonald says these small details can go a long way in maintaining close relationships.
“No one is quite sure yet how the relationship between the monarchy and the public will develop,” Macdonald says. “But however it changes, it’s sure to change.”
— With reporting by Ciara Nugent/London
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