Unless the fates shall faithless prove,
And prophets voice be vain.
Where’er this sacred Stone is found,
The Scottish race shall reign.
Some years ago I was involved in the publication launch for a book at Edinburgh Castle. Alex Salmond, the then First Minister of Scotland, was in attendance along with Sir Sean Connery and the great adventurer himself, Ian Hamilton, author of our book, The Stone of Destiny. At a quiet point in the evening, these three august men took a tiny group of those gathered to view the Honours of Scotland, and the Stone of Destiny. I was one of those on that tour and it was an occasion not to be forgotten. And Ian, a man not to be forgotten, has inspired both life and work from the first telling of his story to this day.
Myths about the origin of the Stone abound – does it date back to biblical times, could it have been Jacob’s pillow, was it the pedestal of the Ark of the Covenant? Was it taken from Syria to Egypt? From Egypt to Ireland? Was it brought to Argyll before the time of Saint Columba?
What we do know is that the Stone of Destiny is the stone on which all kings of Scotland were crowned – indeed it was originally used for the Scots kings of Dalriada.
When Kenneth I, the 36th King of Dalriada moved his capital to Scone in Perthshire the Stone of Destiny went too – or was it hidden from Edward I and a replica taken in its place – with the intention that all future Scottish kings would be crowned on the Stone of Destiny at Moot Hill, Scone Palace. But the Stone was removed by Edward I of England in 1296 and taken to Westminster Abbey in London. And from that time on, every English and then British monarch, has sat on the stone – housed in the Coronation Chair – for their coronation. For many Scots, it was and remains a symbol of the continued existence of the Scottish nation.
In the dark early hours of Christmas Day, 1950 – almost exactly 70 years ago – four students from Glasgow (including our own Ian Hamilton) removed the Stone of Destiny from the Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland. No easy feat. In the act of removal, a corner broke away from the main stone (perhaps due to a crack already there from a bomb blast of protest by the Suffragette movement in 1914). The fugitives were subject to a police hunt in England. They hid the Stone first in a field in Kent and then in chosen ditch by the side of the road before travelling north without it. They returned to retrieve it at New Year, bringing it home at last to Scotland. The two parts were reunited by a stone mason before the Stone was finally taken to Arbroath Abbey in April of 1951, where the Declaration of Arbroath had been signed in 1320. It was thought to be a safe haven but when the police were notified, although the gang were not charged, the stone was removed once again and taken back to the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey where it remained until 1996. In that year, arrangements were made for it to be returned permanently to Scotland (well almost).
I am now a member of the establishment, not of that old, worn-out, Anglicised establishment of second-raters, but of the new one, which proudly affirms the ancient doctrine of our law that the power of government resides with the Scottish people, and not at Westminster. I look back on my visit to that other Westminster without dismay or shame, but with a great elation. I done it. Me and some others.
That girl and those boys done well. I was one of them. It was a
great adventure.Ian Hamilton, Stone of Destiny
It should be noted that, in his own words, Ian is ‘a Scot. Not a Scottish Nationalist… a simple Scot, and I want my country to take its place in Europe and in the world. We Scots are European, not English, not British. In the muddled way of youth I set out to make these views public not by speech or writing, but by action.’
The Stone was transported north on 14 November 1996 and taken to a conservation studio to be studied and recorded in detail for the first time. It was exhibited in the Palace of Holyroodhouse for one evening before St Andrews Day 1996 and then taken from that place to the Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle, travelling up the Royal mile thronged with more than 10,000 people. There a representative of the Queen issued the Royal Warrant to the Commissioners of the Regalia, transferring the Stone into their safekeeping. BUT, the Commissioners are also responsible for ensuring that the Stone returns to Westminster Abbey for all future coronations of monarchs of Great Britain.
Although, it is now seventy years since that fateful night, it is the actual events surrounding the taking of the Stone which hold people spellbound when Hamilton recounts them. In the book, The Stone of Destiny, Ian Hamilton sets down the chain of events which led to his decision to go to London, remove the Stone and a minute-by-minute account of the act and the aftermath. But this is not simply a retelling of a stunt that made nationwide news, it is a book about how a nation’s conscience was stirred by a symbolic act that changed the lives of many. And a book made into a Hollywood film starring Robert Carlyle and Billy Boyd.
Today, aged 95, Ian feels that the time for symbols is in the past. I’m not so sure. Just as his mother told him the stories of his past, we tell our children his story. The Stone of Destiny still has the power to light a fire in the belly of a young, simple Scot today.
Two miles further on at half past two in the afternoon we came to a sign that said ‘SCOTLAND’. We passed the sign and gave a little ragged cheer, and shook hands. We were most moved. Success is a strange thing, much nearer to tears than to laughter.
A handful of miles inside Scotland we stopped. The symbol of her liberty had come back to Scotland, and we felt that some sort of rude ceremony was needed to mark the return of the Lia Fail to the custody of its own people.
We stopped and drew the coat back and exposed the Stone to the air of Scotland for the first time in 600 years. From the provision basket we produced the gill of whisky, and poured a libation over the Stone’s roughness.
Thus, quietly, with little fuss, with no army, with no burning of houses or killing of people, and for the expenditure of less than £100, we brought Scotland back the Stone of Destiny.