In a tranquil spot near Connel an elderly man overlooks a beautiful loch from his living room with hope, few regrets and an enduring fierce energy. Ian Hamilton reluctantly retells an oft told tale, how he and others reclaimed the Stone of Destiny and returned it to Scotland some sixty-seven years ago.
Ian Hamilton was born in Paisley in 1925, went to school in Paisley and Glasgow, and Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, was called to the Scottish Bar in 1954, appointed Advocate Depute in 1962, and is now a retired author and journalist, but will best remembered for one action.
Here’s my interview with him.
It was a cold winter on Christmas Eve, 1950 and Hamilton, then twenty-five years old and Alan Stewart, Gavin Vernon and Kay Matheson broke into Westminster Abbey and retrieved the Stone to its rightful home after an absence of over 650 years. The Stone of Scone (as some call it) had been the throne of Scottish Kings for centuries when it was taken by Edward Longshanks in 1296. It was an act not just of imperial conquest but a scorched-earth policy. Without your sacred coronation stone, Scotland couldn’t organise, couldn’t ‘be’. As Hamilton writes in The Westminster Abbey Chorister magazine (a fact that gives him immense pleasure): “By removing the Stone to England, Edward calculated that Scotland would no longer be able to make its own kings. The two countries would thus be united under the English crown.”
The coronation chair was made to house the stone.
The reclamation of the Stone, argues Hamilton, was as much as anything an effort to wake up a sleepy, complacent and marginalised country teetering on the brink of political obscurity and suffering a terminal identity crisis. “Scotland looked as though it was dead” says Hamilton. Seen through the lens of hindsight its difficult not to see the Stone of Destiny as a significant cultural marker, a milestone in Scotland’s inexorable journey to self-determination.
It’s difficult to imagine breaking into a key site in the very heart of London today, with security cameras and armed police everywhere. It’s difficult to imagine too seizing a large lump of stone and getting it across the country undetected in an unheated car with no mobile phones and coordinating a team of people with a bounty of £1000 on your heads. Hamilton scoffs that it ‘wasn’t that difficult’, and that they were aided by the incompetence of the police, who he recalls spent much of their time – for no apparent reason – dredging the Serpentine. He hints that he’s pretty sure people within the Scottish police force knew who had done it and chose not to act.
Hamilton is in parts scathing and disinterested about the wild mythology surrounding the history of the stone, its spiritual powers or ancient ancestry. He’s more than had his full of the conspiracies.
Is it the Lia Fail, Jacobs Pillow, one of the Black Stones of Iona? Hamilton is explicit: he doesn’t really care.
It’s the same stone he took, and, if it was good enough for Robert the Bruce to insist on, it’s good enough for him.
“The Knights Templar, a modern version of the ancient Order that was dispersed in 1308, say that they have the real fake. There are also others still kicking around, such as the one that turned up in Parliament Square in Edinburgh in 1960. But in 1996, the Stone of Destiny upon which we know at least one British monarch was crowned, was returned to Scotland with considerable ceremony. In future, the Coronation Chair at Westminster will have to do without it, except when it is loaned for the Coronation of the next British monarch. But if, as many allege, this is a fake, what of the real Stone of Destiny? Some say Robert the Bruce took it to Dunstaffnage, or Iona, or Skye. Others insist that it is buried somewhere on Dunsinnan Hill, above Scone. Occasionally, rumours have spread down the centuries that it has been found, and there are even those who claim that their own families guard the secret of its location, passed down the generations by word of mouth from father to son.”
Much of this is hokum, descending quickly into Da Vinci Code territory, but some of it remains very powerful. As a republican atheist I have no interest in the power of kings or the mythical energies of the Stone and neither does Hamilton.
For him the act was symbolic. It was a wake-up call to a nation that was in danger of becoming consigned to the status of a sleepy regional backwater. This was, he reminds us, the age of Empire, pre-Suez, post-War. Scotland then was a cold, Presbyterian and male-dominated society with no political representation and dominated by conservatism of culture and Conservatism of politics.
It was North Britain in all but name, and yet, still not.
In 1942 John MacCormick established the Scottish Convention to campaign for home rule for Scotland and later formed the Scottish Covenant Association, a “non-partisan political organisation which campaigned to secure the establishment of a devolved Scottish Assembly.” The Covenant was hugely successful – securing over two million signatures. There was an undercurrent of national identity and political dissatisfaction that survived under the edifice of conservative, thrawn Scotland. It was John MacCormick that would lend the young Hamilton fifty quid, then a considerable sum, to embark on his reclamation venture.
Hamilton is at times modest, even embarrassed about the attention his exploits have received, though he does have a laugh at himself that the very point of the exercise was to gain attention. Through McCormick, and Hamilton, from the Covenant to the derailed Assembly vote in 1979, to the Constitutional Convention, and to today’s independence movement we can see a lineage and a legacy.
Why, I ask him was he not thrown in jail?
There was considerable evidence to prosecute, for breaking an entry, vandalism, if not just theft. The workaround was that the law stated that theft was on the basis of ‘permanently depriving someone of their possession’, the reality was that to jail the four would have created a cause celebre and a band of martyrs, or that’s how Hamilton understands the situation.
There’s many people who consider the whole story a footnote of a bygone era, a quant irrelevance, of a time when Scottish nation nationalism was a fringe activity – but it’s significance has a more lasting relevance.
When the present Queen dies, the monarchy will be faced with a decision. Charles will need a coronation. Many people – it’s kind of intrinsic to the whole monarchy myth – believe kin the Juju.
Do they retrieve (and revive) the symbolism and power of the Stone? Do they believe? If they do they will have to return the stone from its present resting place as part of the Regalia of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle and take it to Westminster Abbey, then return it again., thus re-igniting its talismanic role as emblem of sovereignty in a time of heightened constitutional focus.
If they decide not to retrieve it then Charles will be the first king NOT to be crowned with his Royal Bahookie perched atop the Stone for 700 years.
There may be a legal challenge.
If the powers that be choose to bring it south they will inevitably provoke a renewed focus. If they choose not to they will signal a significant defeat.
When asked if it was a difficult thing to do he gently reminds me that he served in the Royal Air Force from 1944-48, and that “55,528 of my generation died”.
So, no it was not difficult.
In an age of professional contrived soundbites and career politicians, Hamilton’s actions speak louder and resonate down the decades. Sometimes memory, symbolism and direct action carry greater impact than carefully thought out policy detail.
“No country lives on politics alone”.