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HMY Britannia: A Country House at Sea


I'm not normally a fan of royal families and their toys, but my traveling companion on a recent trip to Scotland was interested in seeing the Royal Yacht Brittania, and I was intrigued by the idea of a 'yacht' the size of a small cruise ship.


It turned out to be a fascinating visit to a unique ship that offers a view of the ship as social history (think 'Upstairs, Downstairs' or 'Downton Abbey' as well as a view into political events of the past century and of the ship itself, built to give the royals a sense of what signs called 'A Country House at Sea' where the passengers could relax as well as entertain.


The retired Brittania is moored at Edinburgh's port area, Leith, and is the anchor attraction (pun intended) for a sizable shopping mall. It's about a half hour bus or tram ride from the city center.

20230623_11503820230623_130404Special equipment was installed for moving the royal Rolls and Rover aboard. A royal launch was also carried for excursions away from the ship.

Over 400 feet long, it has the look of a small cruise ship; its 82 predecessors, going back to Charles II in 1660, have included racing yachts, warships, sizable liners and more. Charles had 25 royal yachts, and in 1831, there were five. But Brittania, the last of them all, is the only one you can visit.

20230623_11131220230623_11132120230623_110652Ornate compass housings were from the Royal George, built in 1817


The self-guided tour of the ship, audio available, begins with the bridge, on the upper deck, as a command post; the wheelhouse is below it, protected from weather. The cabinet contains a full set of signal flags, with a chart explaining how they can be used for alphabetic signals or whole messages.


Sleeping quarters on board, as well as dining and recreation, are provided for each group or rank on board; the two pictures above are quarters for the captain, usually a Commodore or Admiral on Britannia. Lesser officers got lesser space, with the lowest-ranking sharing quarters.


Quarters for the petty officers (red curtains) are just a bit more private and less spartan than those for the rest of the 200 or so sailors, referred to by the nickname of 'Yotties.'


Quarters for the royals and their guests, of course, were a different matter altogether, with spacious rooms richly decorated, in different styles for the Queen's room and Prince Philip's.


Family lounging areas had storage (including a bar) hidden behind movable sections of wall paneling. The painting on the easel was made by Prince Philip, who painted the artist Edward Seago who was painting a portrait of the Queen.


Sitting room and mess for the ship's officers, and a pub-like bar area for the petty officers; we didn't see the crew mess. The fittings for the officers are quite pleasant, but nothing like the formal dining and reception areas used for official entertaining.


The formal spaces were an important part of the main justification for the expense of a royal yacht: Entertaining business and political leaders in whatever port it was sent, often with a royal family member aboard. When it came time to either spend more on a major overhaul of the yacht or replace it, its defenders claimed it had helped raise £3 billion for British industry.

20230623_124942When on official missions, Britannia had a Navy band aboard for events

Aside from diplomacy and royal family vacation cruises, Britannia was built for a second mission, to potentially serve as a hospital ship in time of war, with portions of the ship prepared for conversion or expansion, including its mini-hospital. In 1986, it came near that role while helping evacuate thousands of foreign nationals during a civil war in Aden.


After over 40 years service, and with the equivalent mileage of having sailed around the world once a year, Britannia needed a serious overhaul by the later 1990s, but experts concluded the money spent would only buy a few more years. The decision was made: Brittania, launched in 1953 by the Queen, was decommissioned by her in 1997 and sent off to Leith. Plans for a new yacht have been floated in election campaigns over the years, most recently in 2019, but nothing has come of them.


Behind all the polished wood and luxury materials, the 'behind the scenes' of the ship have a beauty of their own, from the ordered rows of piping and cables that connect power and communication to the powerful steam-driven turbine engines that could develop 12,000 horsepower.


All that entertaining meant serious kitchens were needed, and a copious supply of china and tableware for different occasions. The main kitchens are still a working area, as Royal Yacht Britannia, which operates the site, rents it out for evening dinners, receptions and other events. It also owns a second ship nearby which it operates as a luxury hotel.


More working accommodations for ship and crew include a large-scale industrial laundry to handle both linens and uniforms, and a mailroom to handle letters and packages for the crew as well as the royals.


The small shop that once supplied crew members with incidentals, sundries, snacks and more now supplies visitors with a different sort of necessity, souvenirs—including this Yottie-themed rubber duckie!


In all, an unusual, in fact unique, place to visit!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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