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Scotland’s Stone of Scone

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Scone Abbey in Perthshire, central Scotland, was home to the rectangular block also known as the Stone of Destiny. For centuries, the stone was used in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish monarchs. Then, the English stole it.

The Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny.

Origin of the Stone of Scone

How the Stone of Scone (pronounced skoon) came to reside in the abbey from which it took its name is shrouded in mystery.

One legend has it that Jacob rested his head on the 400 lb (181 kg) rock as he dreamed of seeing God’s angels. But, the stone has never been anywhere near the Holy Land, which is where Jacob had his vision, so a wee bit of doubt has to be attached to that story.

Some say the stone came from Ireland where it was used in coronations. Various Scots such as Fergus, son of Erc are alleged to have brought the rock to Scotland.

Geologists discount all these legends by pointing out the block was probably quarried from a sandstone deposit near Scone.

The Battle of Dunbar

In 1296, King John Balliol of Scotland had signed a treaty with France, England’s eternal enemy. So, Edward I of England invaded Scotland to teach the Hibernians a lesson about loyalty.

The two sides met at Dunbar about 30 miles (50 km) north of the border on the east coast. The battle, if it can be called that, was over quickly. One cavalry charge from Edward’s forces and the Scots were scampering off the field of play.

King John had to surrender and King Edward had a fun time tearing his opponent’s badges of office from his tunic. (As an aside, King John Balliol was known to his people as “Toom Tabard,” which means “empty coat;” so it’s apparent his subjects did not think very highly of their king).

Anyway, not content with humiliating King John, Edward I then marched to Scone and pilfered the hallowed stone. He took it back to London, so the Scots couldn’t crown any more kings. The Scots, of course, went about crowning monarchs without the stone.

Edward I brandishing his sword.

Edward I brandishing his sword.

The Westminster Abbey Stone

Edward had a wooden throne built with a chamber underneath into which the Stone of Scone was placed. It was set up in Westminster Abbey and most future monarchs of England and, later, Great Britain have sat on that throne during their coronations.

In 1328, the English and the Scots laid down their swords and pikes for a while and signed the Treaty of Northampton. In the peace accord, Robert the Bruce and his heirs were recognized as fully independent monarchs of Scotland and the Stone of Scone was to be returned so they could have a sacred crowning. Did they get their rock back? No, they did not.

Even when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, the Stone of Scone remained in London.

It continued in residence at Westminster Abbey for six more centuries. Its peaceful slumber was disturbed in June 1914, when suffragettes put a small explosive charge near it. The bang caused some damage to the chair but the stone was unharmed.

The throne and stone in 1859.

The throne and stone in 1859.

The Stone Is Repossessed

On Christmas Eve 1950, four university students set out from Glasgow headed for London. In the small hours of Christmas Day they arrived at Westminster Abbey, and pried open a flimsy pine side door with a crow bar.

Ian Hamilton, Alan Stuart, and Gavin Vernon went straight to the oak chair with the stone set in it, while Kay Matheson remained in a car with the engine running in case a quick getaway was needed.

The three men, who may have been top students, proved to be ham-fisted burglars. As they tried to wrestle the 400 lb stone out of its nook they dropped it and it broke into two unequal parts. It also broke two of the toes of one of the students.

Hamilton picked up the smaller chunk and put it in the car that Matheson was driving. The three men then manhandle the bigger piece into another car and took off. When the theft was discovered roadblocks out of London were set up, but the students escaped.

They had the stone repaired in secret and, after three months, left it in the ruins of the Abbey of Arbroath in the place where the high altar had once been. The students had achieved their goal of raising the issue of Scottish nationalism so the authorities were notified as to where they could find the Stone of Scone. It was recovered and returned to Westminster Abbey.

Through clever police work, the four students were identified but not charged.

The Stone Goes Back to Scotland

In June 1953, Princess Elizabeth sat on the ancient chair above the Stone of Scone and was crowned Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1996, 700 years after Edward I’s original robbery, the British government returned the sacred stone to Scotland. It is now on display in Edinburgh Castle along with other Scottish royal regalia. But, is it the real thing?

There are persistent stories that the monks of Scone Abbey, learning of Edward I’s intention to take the stone, hid it. A replica was set in its place, so the story goes, and it was this fake Stone of Scone that Edward purloined.

A silver gilt model of the coronation chair made to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee.

A silver gilt model of the coronation chair made to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee.

Bonus Factoids

  • A few English monarchs were not crowned above the Stone of Scone. Edward V was 12 when he inherited the monarchy in 1483 but he was never crowned having been deposed by his uncle Richard III. Queen Mary I was crowned in 1553 in a chair given to her by Pope Julius III. In 1689, Mary II was crowned in a replica chair alongside her husband, King William III. Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 so he could marry Wallis Simpson, so his coronation never took place.
  • At the time of the 1950 repatriation only one percent of Scots supported the Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for the separation of Scotland from Great Britain. Today, the SNP is Scotland’s governing party and support for independence stands at 52 percent.
  • Ian Hamilton, the mastermind, if that’s the correct word, of the 1950 Stone of Scone caper went on to become a criminal defence lawyer. He is quoted as saying “I’ve defended a lot of daft people during 30 years as a criminal lawyer but I doubt very much if I’ve defended anyone who was as daft as we were then.”

Sources

  • “The Battle of Dunbar, 1296.”BBC, undated.
  • “What Is the Stone of Scone?” Christopher Klein, history.com, August 22, 2018.
  • “An Infamous Theft: The Stone of Scone.” Victoria M. Lord, theultimatehistoryproject.com, undated.
  • “The Stone of Destiny.” Ben Johnson, historic-uk.com, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 22, 2021:

Qepartriation and repossesion correct.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 22, 2021:

Thanks Mr. Happy. I was careful to call the original appropriation by Edward I theft, pilfering, etc, and when the students took it back I called it repatriation and repossession.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on May 22, 2021:

I am of Scottish ancestry and this little tidbit of history is fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 22, 2021:

"Then, the English stole it." - Five words that perfectly describe not only English/British Imperialism but Imperialism in general.

"When the theft was discovered roadblocks out of London were set up, but the thieves escaped." - Can't be a thief if what You are taking has already been stolen because theft, or stealing is " To take (the property of another) without right or permission. So, if I take something which someone has but it is not their property then, it's simply fair game. But in the case of the stone, it's not stealing because the Scots took what was theirs back. Please do not call it stealing - it is so, very wrong.

Nonetheless, this was a fascinating read. Thank You very much for the opportunity to learn some history. All the very best!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 21, 2021:

An interestingly read indeed. Thanks.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 21, 2021:

That Tone of Scone has a fascinating history. Thanks for writing about it and the English, Scottish history accompanying it.

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