A Glorious Day

Diana O’Niell

The story of Charles and Diana’s wedding in Scotland began one summer night in a telephone conversation between the engaged couple. Where to have a small, quiet ceremony, with just the two of us? How to avoid all the fuss and stress of a big wed­ding? Not in Houston, Texas, my home town and where we both lived. Not in New Orleans, where Charles was born and grew up. So, with my sense of the absurd, I mentioned to Charles the far-fetched idea of marrying in my grandfather’s church in Scotland, which was over 3,000 miles away.

To my surprise, Charles, who as a geologist routinely used his creativity to find oil in unlikely places, had no trouble in making the leap from absurdity to reality. He liked the idea: ‘Let’s do it!’ Then both of us began to sense the romance and excitement of going to the tiny village of Dalserf, Scotland. The modest yet historic old church, which my mother and I had visited on a trip a few years back, would be the perfect place for an intimate, low-key wedding. The anonymity appealed to us as well. After all, no one in Dalserf would remember my family, since my grandfather had emigrated in 19o5—and this was eighty years later.

Soon Charles had found out exactly how to get married in Scotland: the forms, the fees, the timing. We had to post banns (sounded mysterious). We had to have premarital counselling (at ages forty and forty-four!) from the minister. Wait a minute—we had to find a minister. We called Edinburgh for John Craig, whom my mother and I had met at Dalserf Parish Church on our trip, and he persuaded his good friend the Reverend Donald Macdonald to perform the ceremony. We next called the church and reserved the date of 3 August with the Reverend Dr D. Cameron McPherson. We made the decision to invite no one; it would be just the two of us, that was all. Well, we did say that Cameron could announce the wedding in church and ask the villagers to come (how many were there—five or six or so?). Cameron and his wife Sharon offered to help us in any way they could, even though they had never met us. So we also asked Sharon to book a place for a small reception and to order a cake for us. I bought a dress and planned a three-week honey­moon in Scotland.

We thought no more about our quiet little wedding until we flew to Edinburgh and got settled in at the Caledonian Hotel. Walking down the Royal Mile, we came to the shop of antique-map dealer Carson Clark, who had befriended my mother and me on our previous trip. After I introduced him to Charles, we invited Carson and his son Paul to the wedding. The next day we drove to Dalserf—Charles for the first time—in order to finally meet Sharon, who lived at the manse. But where was it? As we proceeded down the lane that leads to the church, no one was about. We knocked on one of the colourful painted doors of the seventeenth-century cottages. A man named Andrew ­Newlands opened the door and said, ‘You must be Charles and Diana. The villagers are all in town buying a wedding present for you. We’re going to have your wedding videotaped, too, but it’s supposed to be a ­surprise.’ Charles and I gave each other a ‘What’s going on?’ look and asked for ­directions to the manse.

When we arrived at Dalserf Manse, Sharon had tea ready for us upstairs in the drawing room, which overlooked a storybook vista: the lush wooded hills of the Clyde Valley, with the green fields of Dalserf glebe in the foreground. From its agricultural bounty in times gone by, the glebe had provided ­income for the ministers at Dalserf. In the nineteenth century, the side window of the drawing room would have allowed a glimpse of the baronial towers of Mauldslie Castle, nestled in the trees. After offering us a cup of tea, Sharon presented us with an album she had made with a sample of the wedding invitations she had mailed to all the villagers, along with their ­formal handwritten replies. There was a photograph of the Cartland Bridge Hotel, where she thought we might have our reception. As we were chatting, villager Betty Grove came up the driveway carrying the rather large wedding cake she had baked. After she left, Sharon took us to see the Cartland Bridge Hotel, then to Larkhall to meet the photographer and the florist who had helped with her own wedding. Sharon insisted on decorating the church herself, with daisies and yellow chrysanthemums. We just followed right along after Sharon, who had planned the entire event as a surprise for Charles and me. This was too good to be true; it was, after all, Wednesday—three days before the wedding.

On Thursday we had to go to Larkhall to pick up our marriage schedule, and we noticed our names on banns (a public wedding announcement) posted in a window. We talked to an official there who gave us the document, but only after much consternation over how to describe the minister’s occupation. After a ­telephone call to Mr Macdonald, he decided on ‘principal clerk to the General ­Assembly of the Church of Scotland (retired)’. We drove to Hamilton to hand-­deliver the marriage schedule to Mr Macdonald, wondering what form our ­‘counselling’ was going to take. We need not have worried, because he put us at ease at once when he made several of his renowned jokes. Mr Macdonald was charming and witty, and treated us like old friends.

We then drove to Rosebank to meet Cameron and Sharon, her parents and aunt, and his ­father at the Popinjay Hotel for lunch. Referring to our new friendship, the elder McPherson said, ‘This is what life is all about, isn’t it?’ All of a sudden the press arrived at the Popinjay. A reporter and a photographer from the Glasgow Daily Record wanted an interview with Charles and me about our romantic story. They asked the entire party to go to Dalserf village for a group picture. Sharon’s parents produced a huge forty-eight-star American flag they had in Guernsey during World War II to use as a backdrop for the photograph. The following morning, Charles and I scrambled from the Caledonian to the nearest newspaper stand and bought a stack of papers, causing the vendor to exclaim, ‘I’m aghast!’

On Friday night, we gave a dinner party for the participants in the wedding at the Preston­field House Hotel in Edinburgh. Like Dalserf Parish Church, the building dates from the seventeenth century. In the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, the three-storey white façade provided a historic background for the peacocks strutting on the lawn. We ordered from outsize menus while having drinks in the lounge. Dinner was served in an elegant room that might have been in a private home. There were silver candelabra with black candles, and yellow ­flowers down the centre of the mahogany table. After many toasts to our happiness, we returned to the Caledonian. We slept well that night, feeling that we had made new friends and were in good hands for the wedding tomorrow.

On Saturday we awoke and Charles asked me how I felt. Then I asked him. We both felt great—and ordered a traditional Scottish breakfast (ham, eggs, tomatoes) from room service. Our room looked out on Edinburgh Castle, and was decorated some time ago in faded green silk and dark, highly polished furniture. Although the weather was sunny and warm, in deference to the vagaries of Scottish weather, I remember using several applications of hairspray ­before we left the hotel. Charles chose the scenic route to Dalserf—through the Clyde Valley, the ‘Garden of Scotland’. The River Clyde glimmered through the trees as we drove alongside its path on that beautiful August day.

When we arrived at Dalserf, Charles dropped me off at the manse and then went on to Robert and Rose-May Clarkson’s house to change. Time started speeding up for me when Peter and Mary Wilson arrived to collect Sharon (now my maid of honour) and me in their silver BMW decorated with streamers and flowers. As we approached the village, we saw garlands of British flags draped across the lane, and the forty-eight-star American flag on the old stone wall ahead. When we stopped in front of the church, Willie Knox opened the car door for me, exposing (to my astonishment) the flashing cameras of newspaper photographers. I felt like a movie star, or perhaps a princess. Bagpipes played while Willie escorted me to the church door. People were buzzing all around, and posted next to the church I saw a small UK flag from the 1981 royal wedding, on which was inscribed ‘our own’ Charles and Diana.

At the door, Mr Macdonald took my arm and walked me down the aisle of Dalserf Parish Church as the organist Moira Kerr played the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ by Jeremiah Clarke. Charles and his best man, John Craig, were standing at the altar. The ceremony began. We sang the Twenty-third Psalm and ‘Love Divine, All Love Excelling’. We promised to love and obey, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health—but Charles was so emotional that he could not look at me during the entire ceremony. We listened to a reading from Corinthians and said the Lord’s Prayer. Then Sharon sang ‘O Perfect Love, All Human Thought Transcending’, while Mr Macdonald, Charles and I went outside to the exterior stairs leading to the second-storey vestry. There we signed the marriage schedule. It was official!

When we re-entered the church, Mr Macdonald invited the congregation to the Cartland Bridge Hotel for the reception. Moira played Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ as Charles and I tried to leave the church together, but we were stopped by a smattering of rain, even though the sun never stopped shining. Some thoughtful person provided Charles with an umbrella, and we went into the churchyard where, standing on the stairs, little boys in kilts scattered rose petals over us. ‘Scotland the Brave’, played on the bagpipes, provided the soundtrack for  this classic scene. Our guests watched intently as the newspapers took more ­pictures—including one of me receiving the traditional kiss from the piper Tom Fleming.

On the grounds of the Cartland Bridge Hotel, I finally saw how many ­people had turned out for the wedding: close to sixty! The entire village had come! In front of the nineteenth-century manor house, several men were dressed in their kilts, and most of the women were wearing hats embellished with flowers or feathers. Several wore gloves, a sight I had not seen for many years. Champagne was served on the gorgeous lawn in full sunlight, as the bridal party had photographs taken by Elizabeth Fraser. My very favourite picture is the one of almost all the people who attended the wedding. It was, as Anne ­Macdonald said more than once—and many years afterwards—­‘a glorious day’.

After the group photograph, everyone began chatting again and ambled towards the hotel, where Charles and I greeted our new Scottish friends as they entered the dining room. Sharon’s parents, Clarrie and Fred Jones, volunteered to be my ‘substitute’ mum and dad, and so I asked them to hold flat shoes for me in case I needed them later. After the guests were seated, Mr Macdonald guided us through ‘the first combined operation of [your] married life together’, cutting the wedding cake. Then followed a formal toast from everyone in the room: ‘To the bride and groom!’ When the applause subsided, we sat down but could not eat a thing because we were so excited, although we did notice the artistically garnished hog’s head on the buffet table. Mr Macdonald was as charming as ever, and called me the ‘fairy at the top of the Christmas tree’. He and John Craig suggested that Charles and I visit all of the tables, which we did, Charles offering ‘Glad to have you all here’ in his New Orleans accent.

After dinner, Charles and I were asked to sit with our backs against the fireplace so that we could face the entire group of wedding guests. Behind us, the mantel was banked with lavender and pink flowers, accented with slender cascading ribbons. Mr Macdonald took charge of the programme and commented that ‘The royal couple didn’t look happier.’ Then Charles spoke the traditional (and absolutely required) phrase that John Craig had coached him to say as a new husband: ‘On behalf of my wife and myself. . . .’ This was ­approved by vigorous clapping and cheering by all.

Mr Macdonald then presented the marriage schedule to the group and asked Sharon to file it in Larkhall—and told her to ‘pay the fee’, at which everyone laughed. He told us that it was ‘going into a big steel-and-concrete vault where it will be held in evidence against you’. He added that from now on, even in Houston, Texas, ‘our hearts are with them, and their hearts are with  us.’ Next, Charles, who claimed he did not want to be the centre of attention, gave a lovely speech about the background of our coming to Dalserf. He remarked that we, ‘in our wildest imagination, could never have anticipated such a warm reception. It’s like we live here—and we don’t feel like strangers.’ Charles then gave the traditional ‘toast to the bridesmaid’ to our matron of honour, Sharon McPherson. Claiming equal rights for women, I tried to express my gratitude as well, but was overcome with emotion and sat back down very quickly.

John Craig then complimented Sharon who, by planning the wedding, ‘added a gilt frame to this lovely picture’. John explained that ‘Sharon has spent a great deal of time and effort in organising this function. All the work was done here in Dalserf by Mr and Mrs McPherson.’ Cameron then spoke of the ‘unique and remarkable day’ that brought the whole community together. He mentioned some specific names of people who might heed the admonition to ‘love thy neighbour’, to which someone in the audience jokingly replied, ‘Rubbish!’ Laughter followed almost all of the remarks made at the party, particularly when Cameron spoke of a man who said, ‘My wife is a woman of few words, but she uses them rather often.’

What came next was really a surprise. Willie Knox, looking so debonair in his kilt, entered the room carrying a tray of something indistinct. From the other side of the room, Mrs ­Murray came forward to meet Willie so that she could present us with a plate painted with Scottish bluebells and inscribed with the particulars of our wedding day. Then I saw, still on the tray, a five-piece place setting of bone china decorated with the softest pale grey and cream-coloured roses. All I could say was, ‘Oh, no!’ in disbelief, and Charles repeated, ­‘Beautiful . . . beautiful, beautiful.’ Mrs Murray gently asked me, ‘Do you like Royal Doulton, my dear?’ and I replied, ‘Who doesn’t?’ We both thanked Mrs Murray—and all the villagers—for the lavish gift of six place settings, and then we both kissed her on the cheek. She smiled.

An unexpected array of entertainment followed, for this was a ceilidh—a party, Scottish-style. Tom Fleming set the tone with an evocative mini-concert expertly played on the bagpipes, inspiring the guests to clap and sing along. Next, costumed in a white nightgown, nightcap, and wire-rimmed spectacles, Peter Wilson entered the room with a lit candlestick in hand. He proceeded to deliver an energetic dramatisation of Robert Burns’s satirical poem ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’.

The local Burns scholar John Braithwaite made several pithy remarks, followed by the poet’s staccato fishing song ‘Hey, Ca’ Thro’ ’. Another Burns poem, the romantic ballad ‘A Red, Red Rose’, found exquisite expression in Sharon’s clear soprano voice. Changing the pace, Charlie Greenhill bravely performed a fluid yet precise Highland fling in his green plaid kilt and lace jabot. ‘You asked for it,’ he reminded me before beginning. ‘If I fall on the floor, just pick me up.’ And then Moira Kerr, who had accompanied Sharon and Charlie on the ­accordion, elicited enthusiastic applause by treating us all to a medley of Scottish tunes. She played the haunting ‘Annie Laurie’, as well as ‘The Keel Row’, ‘Dancing in Kyle’, ‘A Highland Lad’, and ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’. Once again, most of the guests sang along.

After that, the whole room sang ‘Flower of Scotland’, followed by that poignant song about Bonnie Prince Charlie, which everyone now sang to Charles and me, ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again?’ After we dried our tears, we went to the ballroom where a country band played, and Charles danced the first dance with me. We tried to learn some Scottish country dances—great fun, but really fast! At the end of the party, several of the women carried me over the threshold of the hotel, in humorous imitation of the traditional gesture of the bridegroom entering the house with his bride for the first time.

When the dance was over, more than eight hours after the wedding had begun, Charles and I registered at the hotel, where the clerk told me to ‘start as you mean to finish’, meaning that I could indeed sign my own name if I wanted to. When we got to our room, we both called our parents to tell them about the day. Then we ordered one round of roast beef sandwiches, and after we finished those, another round of the same. It had been a fairy-tale wedding that we never could have imagined, much less planned. It had been a fairy-tale wedding that seemed to fall out of the heavens and sweep us along with its picturesque detail. It had been a fairy-tale wedding that, like the mythical village of Brigadoon, just unexpectedly appeared full-blown from another time and place.

How could we not come back again?

Houston, Texas

February 2006

See “The Groom’s Toast”