Queen speaks of her 'deep affection' for Scotland as she officially opens parliament at Holyrood

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The Queen has paid tribute to "people who have made an extraordinary contribution to the lives of others" during the COVID-19 pandemic as she formally opened the new session of the Scottish Parliament.

The monarch, who has been in Scotland on her annual break in Balmoral, delivered a speech in the debating chamber to mark the official start of the parliament's sixth session.

She has been at the opening of every parliament since it was created in 1999 and has often spoken about her love for the nation, but it comes at a time when there is a renewed push from the Scottish government for independence.

The Queen said: "Today is... a day when we can celebrate those who have made an extraordinary contribution to the lives of other people in Scotland, locally or nationally during the COVID 19 pandemic.

"I have spoken before of my deep and abiding affection for this wonderful country and of the many happy memories Prince Philip and I always held of our time here. It is often said that it is the people that make a place and there are few places where this is truer than in Scotland, as we have seen in recent times.

"We all know of the difficult circumstances that many people have encountered during the last 18 months. However, alongside this, there've been countless examples of resilience and goodwill.

"Prince William has told me many heartening stories that he heard first hand of people and communities across Scotland uniting to protect and care for those who are isolated or vulnerable. It is only fitting that we use this occasion to acknowledge and thank these remarkable people who have made such a positive difference to so many."

The ceremony also featured music, poetry, and statements by Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the carrying in of the Crown of Scotland and the royal mace that sits at the front of the chamber.

Sky News understands the Queen's speech was written in close cooperation with the SNP majority-run Scottish government.

The relevance of the mace - which represents the link to the monarch but is stamped with the ideals and aspirations of the Scottish people - was referred to in the Queen's speech.

She said: "The Scottish Parliament has been at the heart of Scotland's response to the pandemic. People across this country looking to you for leadership and stewardship. And I hope you will remain at the forefront as we move towards a phase of recovery.

"While some of you will have differences of opinion, I trust you will continue to work together.

"Your service here is carried out in the presence of the mace and I encourage you to draw inspiration from the founding principles of wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity.

"These words are a reminder of your responsibilities to the people of Scotland, and in the years ahead, I hope you can reaffirm their importance to everything you do as a member of this parliament."

After the ceremony, Prince Charles and Camilla were due to join the Queen to meet Scots who have been recognised for their contribution to communities during the pandemic. Charles and Camilla are known as the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay when in Scotland.

Ms Johnstone said: "Our local heroes initiative is all about celebrating people from across Scotland for their contributions to their communities throughout the pandemic and beyond.

"The many actions and achievements of those nominated are truly inspiring. So many of our local heroes have put others before themselves, for the good of others."

Edinburgh shopkeeper Linda Williams, who raised money for her community during the crisis, is one of the "local heroes" who had the chance to meet the Queen.

She raised over £10,000 to help hundreds of locals pay for essentials such as utility bills and food, and was chosen by Ms Johnstone to join the ceremony.

Ms Williams said: "It has been such a hard 18 months for everyone, and I think we played a small part in making life a bit easier for our customers and neighbours by setting up a free same-day delivery service and starting a hardship fund to help those who slipped through the cracks of the financial help that was available.

"Our community rose to the occasion magnificently; people were incredibly generous with their donations, and the whole experience became a shining light of hope during a hard time."

Before the ceremony in the debating chamber, the Queen met party and parliamentary leaders including Ms Sturgeon.

Responding to the Queen's speech, Ms Sturgeon offered the parliament's "deep sympathy and shared sorrow" at the loss of her husband, thanked her for being a "steadfast friend" of the parliament but also picked up on a theme the Queen mentioned - the upcoming COP26 event in Glasgow next month.

The First Minister continued: "COVID has been the biggest crisis to confront the world since the Second World War... For those of us in public service, it has reminded us that with collective political will, changes that we might previously have thought impossible or just too difficult can indeed be achieved.

"In the months ahead, we must take the same urgency and resolve... and apply it to the hard work of recovery and renewal, to the task of building a fairer and greener future."

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