On Christmas Day in 1950, four young Scots spirited the Stone of Destiny out of Westminster Abbey.
You could claim that those young Scots stole the Stone or you could insist that they retrieved it or repatriated it, but you can’t deny that nicking it was a symbolic gesture fitting a symbolic artefact. The Stone of Destiny has generated plenty of interest over the centuries since it was stolen by Edward ‘Longshanks’ in 1296 – and you can’t deny that theft. The ‘Lia(th) Fàil’ or ‘Clach Sgàin’ was the traditional coronation stone of the Kings of Dalriada and their successors, the Kings of Alba, and of the later Kings of Scotland, and the last such King to be crowned on the Stone was the ill fated John Balliol. After it was ensconced in Westminster Abbey, it was later incorporated into the traditional Coronation Chair of the Kings and Queens of what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thanks to Prime Minister John Major, perhaps the best thing he ever did, seven hundred years after it was stolen by Edward I, it was returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, amid much ceremony, on St. Andrew’s Day 1996.
But between 1296 and 1996, it paid another visit to the land of its birth. On the 25th of December, 1950, four students from Glasgow University, Ian Robertson Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart, broke into Westminster Abbey to recover Scotland’s Stone. Law student Hamilton was the idealistic, nationalist leader of the gang, but its escapade was far from being a professional heist. The story of the raid is almost comic in its simplicity as from the beginning of its planning, the group made absolutely no attempt to cover its tracks. As Hamilton said later in his 2008 book, ‘Stone of Destiny’, he had researched his plan in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, from where he had borrowed every book on Westminster Abbey. All the police had to do was to go to the Library and ask if anyone had been showing a special interest in the Stone of Destiny and to check the records of book borrowings.
Down in London, Hamilton had ‘cased the joint’ a couple of nights before the actual raid and had been caught by a night watchman, but he was mistaken for a drunk and the guard had just thrown him out. Later, on Christmas Day, the four tomb raiders approached Westminster Abbey under the cover of darkness. Hamilton and Kay initially remained by one of the getaway cars, a battered Ford Anglia, whilst the other two attempted to open a side door with a crowbar. Just then, a policeman plodded by and, in order to disguise their suspicious presence, Ian and Kay started kissing. Thankfully, the policeman was convinced they were just a courting couple and he walked on by. In those days, there was no high-tech security and most probably, nobody would have suspected anyone of wanting to break into the Abbey. Vernon and Stuart were able to get the door open without setting off any alarms and Hamilton joined them inside, leaving Matheson as lookout. The watchman of the previous night, as Hamilton has conjectured, was probably spending his time with his feet up against an electric fire, reading a book.
According to Wikipedia, in the process of removing it from the Abbey, the students discovered the stone was broken and probably had been for hundreds of years. However, in talking of his book to the Sunday Mail, Hamilton said that “When it came out from under the chair, it fell on to the floor with a big bump and broke.” So, the heavy stone was accidentally broken in the process of its recovery. It may well have been damaged in 1914, when the chair was blown apart by an improvised explosive device concealed in a lady’s handbag. Nobody was charged with that attack, but at the time the Suffragettes were blamed. The police report indicated that the damage to the chair was minor, but there was no comment about any damage to the Stone. In all its travels and travails, it wouldn’t be surprising if the odd fault line had occurred in the sandstone.
After hiding the larger piece of the stone at the edge of a wood near London, they went back to collect it, only to find a Travellers’ camp had sprung up around its hiding place. The A-team determined to risk the border road blocks and managed to return to Scotland with the Stone in the back of a car borrowed from a guy called John Josselyn. The smaller chunk was put into Matheson’s car and brought north a little while later in a similar fashion, involving a sojourn on Ilkley Moor, north of Leeds. Back in Scotland, the two parts of the Stone were reunited and handed over to a Glasgow politician, who arranged for it to be professionally repaired by fellow Glaswegian and stonemason, Robert ‘Bertie’ Gray. Legend has it that Gray made several copies and that the one that was sent back to England in 1952 was one such copy. As Alex Salmond has said, “There’s no question that Bertie Gray made copies.” In any case, on the 11th of August, 1951, a Stone, covered by a Saltire, was subsequently, and fittingly, abandoned on the high altar of the ruined Arbroath Abbey, the place associated with the ‘Declaration of Arbroath’, from where it was handed over to the police and returned to Westminster in good time for the Coronation of Elizabeth I, Queen of Scots. Significantly, Hamilton and his accomplices were charged, but never prosecuted.
Whatever the truth in the stories of replicas and fakes, and the origins of the Stone, there is a significant comment made by Ian Hamilton, QC, which is that “Had it been a substitute for Edward to carry off, it [the Rí(al) dais] would have been produced when the King [Robert the Bruce] regained his Kingdom. It wasn’t.” Whatever truth there is in the legend of the Stone of Destiny, the stone taken back to Westminster in February, 1952, and which is now in Edinburgh Castle, has been confirmed by geologists to be a ‘lower old red sandstone’ quarried in the vicinity of Scone. So, there’s one particular stone that never grew out Ireland or ancient Egypt for that matter. Nigel Tranter wrote a novel called ‘The Stone’, which involves an Oxford University research team discovering the whereabouts of the genuine Stone. Sparks begin to fly when an impoverished young Scots Baronet decides to take a hand. Aided and abetted by a burly Glaswegian ex-riveter and a local farmer’s daughter he sets out to ensure that the Stone remains in Scotland. It’s a riveting read.