A trip to remember

Scotland vacation puts schools superintendent in the middle of royal history

By Jim Wogan

In early September, Dr. Sedonna Prater, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Knoxville, and her husband, Ron, had an unexpected encounter with world history.

Their much-anticipated and COVID-postponed trip to Scotland finally happened, and it came during the death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Dr. Prater shared stories of their experience as part of her appearance on the “Inside the Diocese of Knoxville” podcast.

Dr. Prater called the timing of the trip providential. The podcast interview has been edited here for length and clarity.

Dr. Prater: That is a first for me in almost 30 years of teaching and being in the educational profession. I have never taken a vacation during the school year.

Our (wedding) anniversary is in August, and we had been planning for quite a while a trip abroad. But then the pandemic hit.

I have always had a fascination with history. That is part of the reason we went. Our ancestors are from Scotland, and we were kind of doing a historical jaunt, a little bit of a pilgrimage, but I have had a fascination with the monarchy. It just was providential because of the timing.

The Praters’ best-laid plans took an abrupt turn after they arrived. Originally organized as “a jaunt” around Scotland and England to connect with their family history, the Praters deftly adapted to the monumental circumstances that were about to unfold.

Ron and Sedonna Prater pose for a selfie in their Scotland hotel.

Dr. Prater: I think I have about 42-percent Scottish ancestry on my side, and we’ve done a little bit of ancestral work, so it was kind of a dream to go and visit.

Initially it was an 11-day trip, and we were going to circle around and hit key points in Scotland, and then the last three days we were going to go to England. I wanted to see Buckingham Palace.

But as it happened, and that’s why it was so providential, while we were there the prime minister (Boris Johnson) resigned and they (appointed) a new prime minister. It was two days before the queen’s death and we were headed to the Highlands, to Inverness, and we were going to circle around to Balmoral, where she was.

We were watching the Scottish news at a distillery and the waitress helping us, she was a political science major and a student at Stirling University, was saying, “You know, it’s just very interesting the queen is here, and these prime ministers are coming.”

We got into this discussion about the queen’s health and that possibly she may not be here very much longer because her health had not been very good.

We started hearing the news early in the morning, but we were up in the Highlands. What was interesting was the way the locals would talk about the news.

There wasn’t that much concern at first, and then about noon that day they put out a statement that the physicians were with the queen and that she was “comfortable,” and that statement with the locals resonated. Then all of a sudden there was just this flurry of action. I have chills thinking about it. I asked (the local people) why is that so significant, and they said “well, because they never talk about the queen’s health.”

Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on Sept. 8 at the age of 96. Her death set off a series of protocols and culminated in Britain’s first state funeral since 1965. It also impacted the travel plans for Dr. Prater and her husband.

Dr. Prater: After she passed, we had this decision to make: do we go down to Balmoral or drive on to Edinburgh? We were trying to talk to the locals, and we were finding out that they were going to shut down a lot of the roads.

The Scottish people were in a state of shock, but they were also in this state of “Oh my goodness, the queen has died in our country. Now what do we have to do?”

They were telling us that there are certain protocols. We decided it would be best not to go to Balmoral because we were afraid we were not going to be able to get to Edinburgh. This is where it is really providential. We went down a day before the queen arrived in Edinburgh. So, we were in Edinburgh when they were preparing for her arrival.

The queen’s motorcade from Balmoral Castle to Edinburgh weaved through cities and small Scottish towns along the way. The six-hour journey gave Scots living in the countryside an opportunity to witness the motorcade and pay respects. It also provided Dr. Prater and her husband enough time to move ahead.

Dr. Prater: It was about an hour and a half (drive), but we were concerned because they were going to shut the roads down.

We didn’t know the path of the queen’s (motorcade). We went down because we knew she was coming there. When we got to Edinburgh, the police had barriers up. You had the bagpipes and the marching bands and the military and all these different people.

They were practicing what they were going to do. We got to watch all of that. It turned out that the inn we were staying in was on the Royal Mile where the procession was going to be. We literally were three minutes walking distance from the church where they placed her.

Queen Elizabeth’s motorcade arrived in the Scottish capital city on Sunday, Sept. 11. She was initially taken to Holyroodhouse Palace. The next day the queen was taken to St. Giles’ Cathedral.

Diocese of Knoxville schools superintendent Sedonna Prater and her husband, Ron, found themselves in the middle of a historical moment in September. While vacationing in Scotland, Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle near where the Praters were staying. They shared photos of their encounter with the queen’s funeral procession and the church where the public could view her.

Dr. Prater: When she first came into town they took her to the palace the first night, so we saw them come in with her in the limousine and you could see her coffin and Princess Anne.

That night she stayed at the palace. There were all kinds of people from the news media from around the world, and they were inundating Edinburgh. There were English people coming; there were people from France, all around the world. And of course the Scots were there, and then people like me, Americans that were on holiday, so it was quite a spectacle.

The next day, King Charles came, and all the children came, but not the grandchildren. I wanted to see Prince William and Kate, but they didn’t come. But all the children did, and then they processed behind her. We watched them process by and go to the church.

They had a church service that was by invitation only and it was for (royalty) and government officials, which was also very interesting.

They could not drive into the city. They had to take public transportation. You had all these dignitaries coming in their full regalia, they were all dressed up, trying to get to this church service just out meandering around, and we’re just kind of watching it.

So, they had the service and then they opened the church for public viewing. You had to get wristbands to go in; they did not allow you to take pictures. It took us quite a while to get our wristbands. There were quite a lot of people trying to go.

When we first got into the line to go into the church to view the queen it was about an eight- to nine-hour wait. So, because we were so close, we decided we would step back and go early in the morning.

Reports stated that tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Edinburgh for the queen’s motorcade and many of those people waited many hours outside St. Giles’ Cathedral to finally get inside to view the queen’s coffin and pay their respects.

Dr. Prater: We ended up going the next morning. It is just a surreal experience. She was someone, like many people, she is all I have ever known as the queen, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen of England. Also, for me, as a working mother and grandmother, who has had a career, I just admired her so very, very much because, whatever you think of the monarchy or the British, she had a job, and she did her job with grace and dignity.

And she was in the public eye for 70 years and she had a family and she had grandchildren, so she was very real. I think about her messages, and the things that she said were just beautiful.

Historians will forever analyze and discuss the impact of Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign over the United Kingdom. The events of her death and the tributes and religious services that followed were witnessed by millions all over the world—mostly through the lens of the media. Dr. Prater witnessed those events in person and experienced history as it was unfolding in front of her.

Dr. Prater: It was very impactful because you are walking along her history. She did handle things with grace, even difficult things. I think of just the recent history with the pandemic, her words of encouragement to her Englishmen when they were going through that.

That is what good leaders do, they pull their people together. They are the reassurance. The calming factor. That is the kind of stability, the kind of image that she was.

She was meeting with prime ministers; how many prime ministers? How many American presidents (and) popes? She met with all these world leaders and in some way had an impact on them, too, but yet she was not political.

She carried herself with grace and dignity and was what she was supposed to be to her people, so I just find that extremely admirable.

I was touched. I told my husband at one point “I don’t feel worthy to be here” because there were British people and Scottish people that were crying on the street, literally crying, and talking. There were two elderly ladies and they had come from Yorkshire, and they were just crying, and they were talking about their own memories of the queen and that they just had to view her and be there.

The Scottish church where she was placed was absolutely gorgeous. She was sitting there with flowers. They were flowers from Balmoral, which I thought was very touching. I watched the people go in.

I took my rosary because, you know, being a Catholic when you go to view, you pray the rosary, so I was praying the rosary. But then I watched them bowing and curtsying and just such respect to give dignity.

Being a student of history, you read about queens and kings and their deaths and the transitions and everything, but to be living and seeing that first-hand play out and to hear the impressions of the people at that time. Yes, it was powerful.

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, Queen Elizabeth left Scotland for the last time. Her coffin was flown to London for her final arrangements. The Praters returned to the United States the same day.

Link here for this episode of Inside the Diocese of Knoxville. You can find other diocesan podcasts by clicking on the podcast link at dioknox.org.

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