I’m sure most of our readers have either read Dan Brown’s book ‘The Davinci Code’ or at least watched the film of the same name. The connection with Scotland is seen as the story reaches it’s climax in the enigmatic Roslyn Chapel. The tale of intrigue surrounding an ancient biblical artefact is a popular subject for storytellers, from the tale’s of The Holy Grail and even films such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
But strangely the story of one such artefact has so far not been turned into a Hollywood blockbuster – and yet it contains more twists and turns than the B869 to Drumbeg, more mystery than the contents of an Aberdonian’s wallet. We are of course referring to the Stone of Destiny.
Its difficult to know where to begin with this story – Since it appears to have several beginnings, depending on which version of the legend of its origin you adhere to. So let’s begin somewhere in the middle…
The year is 1296 – Scotland has been ravaged by Edward I ‘The Hammer of the Scots’ He arrives at Scone Palace in Perthshire with his army and drags off a large sandstone block (the metal rings seen on the stone were attached by them in order to remove it). They happily set off for London and have the stone installed under a specially designed throne in Westminster Abbey. This is the Stone of Destiny, a sacred artefact going back through the millennia that had been used in the coronation of Scottish Kings since Kenneth MacAlpin in 843.
Or was it?
The legend of the stone begins in the Holy Land where Jacob used it as a pillow. In the story he falls asleep on the stone and during a dream witnesses angels ascending into Heaven – there is also a story that this stone was anointed and became the pedestal for the Ark in the Temple of Solomon (so that’s the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ reference) so the stone was linked to the Ark of the Covenant.
The stone then travelled through Egypt and was brought to Spain by Gaythelus (the original Gael), A Greek prince. From there is moved to Ireland where St Patrick blessed the stone so that it could be used as a coronation stone for the kings of Ireland. The legend also says that the Stone was accompanied by Scota a Pharaoh’s daughter. From Scota we get Scotia and so Scotland!
As the settlers from Ireland began to cross over to Scotland to establish the Kingdom of Dalriada the stone came with them. At first setting in Dunstaffnage or Dunbeg. But this was a troubled time with frequent Norse Raids so the stone was moved to Scone where it was safer. And there it stayed until Edward arrived in 1296.
Edward sets off to London with his prize but what did he actually take away, there are some strong suggestions that the monks realising that Edward was approaching made a quick switch – the English had no real evidence of what the stone looked like so the ancient sandstone block could well have been the real thing – except that some accounts say the stone was white marble – others still that it was of a black basalt and that the original stone bore an inscription: “Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocumque locatum Invenient lapidiem, regnasse tenetur ibidem”: “If the Destiny proves true, then the Scots are known to have been Kings wherever men find this stone.” There was no such inscription on the official Stone. The fact that this type of Sandstone is indigenous to Perth does suggest that it was switched and that the original was hidden – some say in nearby Dunsinnan Hill. The great joke perpetrated by the monks on the subsequent kings of England is that the stone probably covered a cess pit in the castle so every king of England since Edward’s successor right up to Queen Elizabeth has been crowned – perched over an old drain cover!
And so the ‘stone’ sits comfortably in place under the throne in Westminster Abbey and presides at the coronation of subsequent Kings – the stone is unmoved for centuries until four Scottish Nationalist supporters decide to ‘liberate’ the famous Stone of Destiny.
Its Christmas day 1950 and four Scottish students are about to break into Westminster Abbey and perpetrate the biggest show of Scottish National defiance since the Jacobite uprisings. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart are the unlikely heroes (or villains depending on your outlook). The stone was reluctant to leave the spot where it had lain comfortably for so long and in the process is broken in two – both halves are then smuggled over the border to Scotland (the border had been closed for the first time in 400 years!) where the stone was repaired by stonemason Robert Gray. A major hunt is undertaken by the British police force but draw a blank until April 1951 when the stone mysteriously appears in Arbroath Abbey. The stone is swiftly returned to Westminster but again the rumours abound that the stone had been copied. even that the stone was swapped with a copy that stands in Scone Palace meaning that the palace’s real drain cover had finally returned!
One would have thought that there would have been some medieval penalty of death for such an act but amazingly the culprits were never charged. The Crown prosecution had trouble with presenting a case against them as they could not actually PROVE ownership of the stone!
In 1996 as the pressure in Scotland for a referendum on a devolved parliament began to gain momentum the British Government came up with the plan that passing back a lump of sandstone that was ours in the first place might take the heat out of the argument. So with great pomp and ceremony the stone is returned to Scotland (but to Edinburgh Castle rather than Scone – a decision intended to please the Tourists rather than the Historians. The stone is here to stay – but – when the time comes for the next Coronation it still has to go back to England to perform its civic duties.
With the nationalists in power in Scotland it may be a matter of time before the campaign for full independence becomes a serious possibility – what happens then? I’m guessing Mr Salmond (or his successor) will be saying ‘awa an bile yer heid – ye cannae have it’!’. If England decides to come and have a go at taking it back there will be more fakes lying around the castle esplanade than there are dodgy tartan souvenirs in the Royal Mile!