Victoria Day – Edinburgh's Fading Celebration of Things Victorian19th May 2017
Until recently, Queen Victoria enjoyed the honour of longest ever reigning British Monarch. After ascending to the throne in 1837, she continued as Queen until her death almost, but not quite, 64 years later in 1901. This was despite the untimely loss of her beloved Price Albert in 1861, leaving her a widow for some 40 years. It took until late 2015 for this incredible achievement to be finally surpassed by our present Monarch, HM Queen Elizabeth.
Despite bestowing the title ‘Second city of the Empire’ on our deadly rival, Glasgow, Edinburgh proudly celebrates Queen Victoria and her reign in a variety of ways to this day.
One of these is the traditional Edinburgh public holiday which takes place on the Monday preceding 24 May each year, traditionally known as ‘Victoria Day’. The date was originally chosen to celebrate the official birthday of Victoria herself. It is very much a local rather than a national holiday and definitely not a bank holiday. Interestingly, it is not celebrated in Glasgow. Regrettably in these modern times of internationalisation and standardisation of holiday arrangements, Victoria Day no longer holds the special place of affection in the hearts and minds of Edinburgh citizens it once did. Indeed, many people do not even know it exists. But for those lucky – and declining - few who continue to be granted this somewhat unusual reminder of times gone by it comes as a welcome little bonus. Chief beneficiaries are school children, as City of Edinburgh Schools continue to observe the holiday. Less so with other City of Edinburgh Council employees, as libraries and Council offices nowadays remain open.
Talking of school children, another reminder of the illustrious reign of Queen Victoria in Edinburgh is the little primary school in Newhaven, the ancient fishing village suburb of the city, which proudly bears her name to this day. Remarkably, in this age of school closures and consolidation, it is considered to be the oldest remaining functioning primary school in the city. Reflecting the independent spirit of the Newhaveners themselves, this school has fought off many closure attempts over the past decades due to a falling school roll. Paradoxically, it has had to be extended in recent years, as more and more families settle in the new houses springing up on the reclaimed land surrounding Newhaven.
More obviously, there are two fine statues of Queen Victoria in the city centre. (As a slight aside, when it comes to non-religious figures, Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus vie for the honour of most statues anywhere in the world – Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland - incidentally comes third). A sylph-like statue of the young Queen presented as ‘Empress of India’ sits atop the Scottish Council of Nursing offices on the corner of Castle Terrace and Spittal Street. It is such a pity most people don’t know it exists, as there is little doubt the Queen herself would have much preferred this statue than the other. The alternative statue sits atop the Royal Scottish Academy Art Gallery building in Princes Street. It portrays the Queen as an older, more matronly, woman in the style of ‘Britannia’. It is rumoured she did not like this statue at all as it apparently made her look a little too plump. On this basis, she apparently refused to allow it to be taken to London as originally intended, preferring it instead to remain in its native Edinburgh. This latter statue was the creation of Sir John Steele, the king of Edinburgh statue sculptors, who also created the Prince Albert memorial statue in Charlotte Square. This one apparently moved the Queen to tears as it was such a good likeness. It also led to him being knighted on the spot, there and then, at the time of its unveiling.
If you are lucky enough to enjoy some free time this Victoria Day, you could always come explore some hidden gems in Edinburgh with us.