Destiny Man

In a tranquil spot near Connell 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.

6353648091_88f1c0f743_bThe 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.

Nevertheless – speculation abounds – though Hamilton doesn’t care for either the Westminster Stone Theory – or the 1950s Substitution Theory.

“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.

gl247224For 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”.

Comments (17)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I like the idea of a stushie when they take it South.

    Might it be better that we insist that Charlie Comes North to the stone for his coronation?

    1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

      Hi Dougie,

      Might be better if we just got rid of him and his leeches on Lizzie’s death.

      Auld Rock

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      While, like Charles L Gallagher, I would prefer that Scotland become a republic, it would be interesting if there were two coronations, one in London for the King of England and one in Scotland (in Scone?) of the King of Scots. And, what if the person chosen as the latter were not Charles Mountbatten?

      1. c rober says:

        Might break my antigambling stance on that one , I assume we are talking about a lottery to define the Scots monarch?

  2. Brian MacLeod says:

    So how did the Stuart kings get crowned if the stone was in London?

    But I like the idea of refusing to crown another monarch of Scotland, unless of course, it is with the approval of the people of Scotland.

    We could insist that our next monarch support Scottish independence. 🙂

    1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

      Brian,

      The whole concept of monarchy is a relic of bygone times and is well past its ‘Sell-By’ date. Let’s start an Independent Scotland with an elected non-executive President along the lines of ROI and other modern states and a helluva lot cheaper than some ‘Windsor’ hanger-on.

      1. John B Dick says:

        President Thatcher, President Blair,

        …. President Salmond?

        If you are offering an automatic shortlist of former PO’s, I’d vote for that, otherwise not.

        1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

          Hi John,
          Yes former Presiding Officers would be included but surely it is down to the people to decide from as large or small a list of candidates who wish to face the electorate. Being President must not be seen as natural progression from PO. The post should also be open to Scots resident elsewhere in the world.

  3. Alf Baird says:

    Ian Hamilton is a man of great wisdom, who is delighted to share a platform with anybody arguing for Scottish nationhood, including Tommy Sheridan, and that’s as it should be, and something our political leaders should emulate, not run away from. Scotland’s greatest resource is its people, he once said, and we should cherish that also, and not discriminate against them, or our culture, as we do. And yes, the 56 SNP MP’s do have a mandate to deliver Scotland’s nationhood, any time they happen to feel the urge to fulfil the SNP’s raison detre.

  4. Ewan Macintyre says:

    Interesting article. Can the writer answer two questions?
    If Britannia was the Greek and Latin name for the entire island what is wrong with calling Scotland by the logical name of North Britain?
    If the original Scots and Picts called North Britain by the name of Alba why do nationalists insist on calling this country Scotland? That was the name given to it by the English, ca. 900.

    http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/en/cursaichean/cursaichean-goirid/

    1. c rober says:

      ITs an equal partnership , a brangelina perhaps , so lets take the ENG from one and the Land from Scotland …. and the new name , well same as the old and current one really.

    2. MBC says:

      Alba means white. It is Celtic. It refers to the whole island of Britain, called white because of the chalk cliffs of Dover. As the Celtic culture of the island of Britain retreated northwards, as the Celtic inhabitants of the south faced invasions and takeover by Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, then Normans, the name Alba latterly referred to that part of Britain inhabited by the Gaels of the north part of the island.

  5. Gordon McShean says:

    It was good to hear Ian Hamilton reminisce. His narrative made me again aware that our lives followed some strangely similar paths. We both took part in radical nationalist actions in the 1950s and both managed to avoid incarceration; also when our involvements became public we had trouble getting sympathetic media coverage; our memoirs were published belatedly because of a seemingly unsympathetic press. Of course there were differences in the nature of our radical ventures – it could be said he had been attempting to bring justice to an ancient cause, while my motive involved the removal of armaments that might have been used against civilians demanding recognition of more current nationalist grievances. The comparisons trail off there, however. My part in the Johnstone gun raid (described in my recently published memoir, RETIRED TERRORIST) certainly made me liable for prison (a ‘co-conspirator,’ Bill Brown, did serve some time). However, as Ian suggested, there may have been a reluctance on the part of authorities to facilitate nationalists by actions that might provide more publicity! Nevertheless, there has been a suggestion during the past sixty-plus years that (should I return to Scotland) I would still be liable to arrest. The fact that the late Robert Curran, Scottish Nationalist Party National Secretary (and a good friend of mine) had also been involved in planning the initiative could have influenced official and press behaviour.

    Ian Hamilton’s relatively free life subsequent to the controversies differed from ours. Poor Robert took refuge in the New York YMCA for more than a year, then reportedly was accepted back into the SNP after giving assurances that he would behave himself. And I’ve been in exile in Europe, the USA and New Zealand during all this time, awaiting some possible assurance of safety should I return home. That has proved to be quite a positive circumstance, despite my longing to be at hame!

  6. John Hutchison says:

    Your piece fully acknowledges how Ian Hamilton and his colleagues aimed to ‘wake up a sleepy, complacent and marginalised country’ and the recovery of the Stone certainly did that, while also inspiring many folk like me. I know that Ian gets frustrated at being remembered for the Stone since he did so much more in his life. For me his strongest inspiration was in having the Oath of Allegiance for advocates changed in 1954, allowing them to take an Oath to ‘QE, her heirs and successors’, rather than ‘QE the Second, her heirs and successors’. It took me from 1986 to 1993 to get a similar change in the Oath for Justices of the Peace even although MPs and sheriffs had been changed some time previously. Then it took the best part of another 20 years for some parties in the establishment to finally accept it. Eventually we got there but only a couple of years ago.
    With the same perseverance we will become an independent country and Ian will have played a fundamental role in that.
    Incidentally, I sang John McEvoy’s song that relates the incident, “The Wee Magic Stane”, at a ceilidh at Taynuilt only a couple of weeks ago, just across the Loch from Ian.
    You did well to get an interview with Ian, Mike; I had hoped to have him open Scotland’s first Rural Parliament in Oban in 2014 but he wasn’t well enough at the time.
    Thanks for your piece.

  7. Dominic says:

    Interesting that Hamilton..or any one else’/ surviving families… who were involved are asked aren’t asked for their opinions or quoted…only Million pound Mike Small speculating.

  8. Bert Logan says:

    My dad told me of this, from his time. He was a closet SNP in a world of Labour. He died a long long time ago now, but it made the hairs on my arms stand on end listening the the man telling the story my dad loved.

    Thanks Bella – you can’t imagine how you made me smile with tears in my eyes.

  9. MBC says:

    I think when he said ‘the historian Tam Tim’ whose history was ‘bunkum’ because it didn’t mention the SFA, he meant Prof Tom Devine. (Not Tam Dalyell).

Keep our Journalism Independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address to subscribe for free here and receive Bella direct to your inbox.

 
Bella Caledonia