ALTHOUGH it was an inflammatory act of nationalist protest, the day Ian Hamilton and his Glasgow University chums stole the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1950 was more like an Ealing Comedy than a serious blow to the Union. In the early hours of Christmas Day, having helped free the stone from its chains and drag it to the back door, Hamilton dashed out to the getaway car, driven by his friend Kay. As his fellow burglars waited anxiously for the all-clear, a policeman strolled into view, suspicious of the loitering vehicle. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hamilton pulled Kay into an amorous clinch and pretended not to notice the officer tapping at the window. In those nerve-wracking minutes his future as a memorable QC was assured as he managed to convince the PC that he and Kay were merely a couple loathe to say goodbye. The idea that they were stealing the most politically sensitive lump of rock in Europe clearly never occurred to him.
And why would it? The Stone of Destiny, which the Glasgow gang successfully if briefly repatriated, weighed 336 pounds, roughly the same as a sumo wrestler. You would have to be remarkably, indeed ridiculously, committed to the cause of Scottish independence to consider heaving it into the boot and expect to reach your destination with the chassis intact.
A less thrilling-looking object for a police hunt and the potential ruination of the culprits, is hard to imagine. Its significance, however, is enormous. This was the ceremonial block upon which Scottish monarchs from the ninth century were crowned at Scone Palace. On it figures like Alexander III and John Balliol were seated as they took the oath of kingship.
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In the weeks following Hamilton’s escapade, thanks to some elementary deduction by staff at the Mitchell Library, who looked up recent readers of guides to Westminster, he and his co-conspirators were traced. The stone itself was found in Arbroath Abbey, in April 1951, in a wheelbarrow draped in a Saltire flag. While Scotland found the case amusing – with the exception of this newspaper, which took a po-faced line – its disappearance prompted splenetic outbursts south of the Border. The Church of England called it blasphemous, and George VI was apparently “very distressed” at its loss.
Well he might be, of course. It was his forebear, Edward I, who stole it after the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, and carted it back to London. A so-called legitimate spoil of war, it belongs as a consequence to the Royal Family. Where would they and their ilk be if everything carried off by armies over the centuries were to be repossessed? Clearly aware of the potential for an unedifying wrangle, in 1996 Westminster, in an act of wily appeasement, allowed the stone finally to be returned. Seven centuries after its capture, it was put on display in Edinburgh Castle.
Also known as the Coronation Stone and the Stone of Scone, the slab is once again the subject of a custody claim. As part of its bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021, Perth is asking for it to be returned to its original hometown. Thus the saga of the most restless stone this side of Krakatoa continues. This crudely cut piece of masonry, with an iron ring on each end, is like the biblical baby which was almost cut in half as two women fought over it. Nor do the Old Testament associations end there. Legend once had it that the stone first reached Scotland from Egypt, where it was the pillow upon which Jacob slept and dreamed.
Compton Mackenzie was not the only one who found that myth too big to swallow. Yet while he was convinced it had been quarried in Oban, it is widely believed to be of Perthshire sandstone. It seems therefore entirely fitting, then, as well as right, that Perth wants it back. An arresting promotional ploy, their proposal also seeks to remind the world that this elegant city is one of the most historically important locations in the country.
For many years Scone was known as the Ancient Capital of Scotland. Though it’s hard to picture now, there was a time when its royal associations and geographical position midway between north and south gave it as strong a claim as Edinburgh to be the fulcrum of government and power. And while memories of those days are long gone, there could hardly be a more recognisable or stirring emblem of the area’s noble heritage than the Stone of Scone. Unassuming though it looks, it evokes aeons of royal favour, bringing an echo of an older, less subservient, more combative land. It was while it was in situ, after all, that the country forged the Declaration of Arbroath, thereby putting its parliament at the leading edge of democracy by insisting on keeping a check on kings and queens, even though their powers were bestowed by God. Rather superstitiously, I sometimes wonder if Edward’s symbolic act of larceny, intended to strike at the very heart of Scotland’s identity, in some insidious, poisonous way eroded our confidence and sense of national legitimacy in centuries to come.
Thankfully, all that is behind us, as are old resentments and bitterness. To its credit, Perth’s demand to have its property returned is as forward-looking as it is nostalgic. Deliberately or not, it has been wise to exercise patience all these years. As a result, one suspects there might be widespread support for an idea whose hour has surely arrived. Who could or would argue against the legitimacy of this plea, either on grounds of provenance, precedence or reason?
The principle of repatriation, meanwhile, has already been won. Unlike the tussle over the Elgin Marbles, or other valuable archaeological and historic items that found their way into the possession of those with little or no right to them, there is no question of Scotland forfeiting its stone. Not, at least, so long as we acknowledge the Queen or her heirs as our sovereign.
Nor could anyone deny that Edinburgh is awash with ancient and priceless national artefacts. For Perth, by contrast, regaining this tangible piece of history, the very seat of medieval power, would be an enormous additional attraction. One can hardly wait for it to happen. And should its petitioning be successful, Perth will have achieved something far more important than merely increasing tourist numbers or bolstering its cultural credentials. It will have righted a very old and sorely felt wrong. How many places can say that?