Stone of Destiny Mystery Solved - The Inside Story

The Stone of Destiny has two enduring characteristics - one is to galvanise the nation of Scotland and the other is to twist the knickers of the British establishment.

This week that celebrated lump of sandstone has demonstrated its power yet again in the search for the “MacCormick fragment”.

At New Year the release of Scottish Cabinet minutes from 2008 featured an exchange between myself and the then Scottish Government top official , Sir John Elvidge. I said that Professor Neil MacCormick had given me a fragment of the Stone as a gift and the Permanent Secretary confirmed that he did not require it to be surrendered to Historic Scotland.

When this minute was published it set the peers of the realm and the “Plastic Macs” - as Winnie Ewing described high-born Scots with no loyalty to their country - of Westminster into a frenzy. I was accused of having “stolen” the fragment and its return was demanded to someone, somewhere. No stone was to be left unturned in finding the sandstone thimble insisted Lord Forsyth and that ever subservient member of the King’s bodyguard, the Royal Company of Archers, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack.

And then lo and behold it turned up in SNP HQ at the end of the week. No doubt this came as a red-faced surprise to the blue Tory gang. They tend to judge others by their own notoriously low standards and their grasp of integrity is about as secure as their understanding of Scottish history.

The Stone of Destiny is a symbol of Scottish sovereignty. Brought from the Holy Land to Iona and then to Scone, for centuries it was an integral part of the sanctification of Scottish Kings by which they swore to defend the land and the people.

In 1296 in was stolen by the English King, Edward Plantagenet taken to London and a new coronation chair in Westminster Abbey was refashioned so that he - and his successors- could sit on our rock to symbolise their claimed overlordship of Scotland. There is, it should be said, some doubt as to whether Edward Longshanks, a nasty piece of work memorably played by Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart, actually managed to pillage the real Stone of Destiny!

It remained in London for 650 years until a gallant band of Glasgow University students, led by the late Ian Hamilton, repatriated it on Christmas Day 1950 and spirited the artefact, by now in two parts, o’r the border and awa. An enormous hue and cry developed as the world press reported the audacious blow for the nation and the abject humiliation of the English establishment.

The ringleaders of the escapade were supported by key figures in Scottish nationalist politics, among them the leader of the National Covenant John MacCormick and Baillie Bertie Gray, a Glasgow stonemason who both repaired and hid the artefact.

The Stone was eventually handed over to the authorities, appropriately left on the High Alter of Arbroath Abbey. Significantly neither Ian Hamilton or his team was charged with any offence. The Crown would have had to assert ownership over the Stone to support a theft charge and the young nationalists would have relished arguing that it is not possible to steal stolen property. Note it was stolen by Edward 1st and repatriated by the Glasgow students.

And so things remained until 1996 when Lord Forsyth, as Scottish Secretary, made a great show and flummery of returning The Stone to Edinburgh Castle but in the form of a loan to be reclaimed for each coronation. The people saw right through this stunt and promptly removed Forsyth and every single one of his Tory colleagues from their parliamentary seats.

The Stone was duly recalled to London last year when King Charles sat on it as his ancestors had done before him and this year it is due to head for a new home in Perth.

So where does that leave the events of this week? Since John MacCormick helped organise the 1950’s “pinch” his son, the distinguished Professor Neil MacCormick, had every right to hold the artefact. As First Minister I was correct to clear that Historic Scotland didn’t want to claim it before handing it over to the SNP who, at that time at least, were honourable custodians of Scottish nationalism.

As for the Tory aristos, they can go and cry in their soup because the reality is that without the derring-do of the young Glasgow students way back in 1950 there would not just be no Stone of Destiny in Scotland there would be no Parliament in Scotland.


(First published in the Sunday Mail, 07/01/2024)

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