March 28, 2022
Unless the prophets faithless be
And the Seer’s words be vain
Where’re is found this sacred stone
The Scottish race shall Reign!
- Sir Walter Scott
In 1980 I was the designer of a BBC Scotland dramatised documentary called The Pinch. Written by George Reid it was the story of four young Scottish nationalists removing the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and returning it to Scotland. The film was made in monochrome to look like and included newsreel footage of the 1950 actual event.
At that time, and since, I’ve wondered about the origins of the stone and if indeed it was the 'real' stone that Edward I of England, Longshanks, stole from Scone in Perthshire in 1296.
Periodically interest in the origin and authenticity of the stone, the most renowned stone in Scottish history, re-emerges in books, press articles and a feature film in 2008. Sir Walter Scott, Compton Mackenzie and Nigel Tranter have all investigated the mystery surrounding the stone. Also known as the Stone of Scone, Jacob’s Pillow, the Coronation Stone, the Tanist Stone, Lia Fail; every name carrying a different story of its origins.
The legend goes back to biblical times and states that it is the same stone, also known as Lia Fail, which Jacob used as a pillow in Bethel (Genesis 28:18-22) then carried to Egypt by his sons and became sacred to his descendants.
And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it.
It was brought to Spain, then Ireland, by Princess Teia Tephi, the daughter of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah in 583BC. She married Eochaidh, the High King of Ireland, and became Queen of Ireland, thus beginning the ancient Tara Dynasty of Gaelic (Scots) Royalty.
The stone stayed in Ireland for over a thousand years and was kept at the Hill of Tara in county Meath. All the kings of Ireland were crowned on it right up to Murdoch, son of Earc, Columba’s uncle. Around 506AD, Fergus Mor, Murdoch’s brother, invaded Western Scotland (previously occupied by the Picts) which they called Dalriada (Dal Riata) or Scotia, and wanted to be crowned King of Scots (Irish). Fergus was crowned at Dunadd around 563AD in the Kilmartin valley, the capital of their kingdom. The stone was moved to Iona in the same year that Columba arrived and later to Dunstaffnage.
Some confusion arises in early texts of the stone being described as a stone carved like a backless chair and of a much darker colour than the present stone. Some say of a calcareous ‘freestone’ of purplish colour with quartz pebbles embedded In it from a stratum of limestone found near the Dead Sea. Hetor Boece in his "Chronicles of Scotland" in the 16th.century adds some details:
"Fergus, son of Ferchard, was first King of the Scots in Scotland, and brought the CHAIR from Ireland to Argyll, and was crowned on it. He built a town in Argyll called Beregonium, in which he placed it. From him proceeded FORTY KINGS of Scotland. The twelfth king, Evenus, built a town near Beregonium, called after his name Evonium, now called DUNSTAFFNAGE, to which the Stone was removed, and the remainder of the forty kings are all crowned in Dunstaffnage, reign there, and are buried there."
Boethii Scotorum Hist., ed. 1527. Bellenden's Croniklis of the Scots
300 years later the Scots Gaels of Dalriada and the Picts (or Caledonians) were united to form the Kingdom of Scots by King Kenneth MacAlpin ( c.841-c.859) and the stone was moved to Scone Abbey on Moot Hill where it was cared for by Augustinian friars. Some believe that it never left Dunstaffnage.
In 1292 John Balliol became the last king to use the stone in Scotland. The stone was removed by the English Edward I after his victories in 1296 as a symbolic scornful reminder of Scotland’s subservience to the English crown.
An interesting legend of the time is that the friars of Scone, on the approach of Edward, hurriedly removed the stone, hid it, and replaced it with another stone of similar size and shape. It was this stone, of sandstone commonly found around Scone, that the king carried off to Westminster.
It remained there for the next 700 years. The coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, which was made to house the stone in 1301, was first used at the coronation of Edward II and from then to crown every king and queen of England to the present day. The stone was finally returned to Edinburgh Castle, Scotland in 1996.
The mystery doesn’t end there. In 1818, during an excavation on the site of Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane part of the ground gave way to reveal a vault about six feet by four feet, that contained a large stone of meteoric or semi- metallic kind. It is surmised that Macbeth may have concealed the stone there for safe keeping.
Another theory is that Angus Og of Islay was asked by King Robert the Bruce to look after the stone. It may be that the stone was concealed in Finlaggan, the seat of Angus Og in Islay.
The writer and researcher, A.J.Morton, quoted in an article in Scotland on Sunday in 2010 suggests that Irvine could have been the real site of Evonium, not Dunstaffnage, and that old Devonian red sandstone outcrops similar to Scone are found there.
Finally, the events of Christmas 1950 when four nationalists Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Alan Stuart and Kay Matheson repatriated the stone to Scotland. Ian Hamilton went on to become a successful QC and, now in his nineties, lives in Oban. The story is well known and has become part of popular Scottish folklore raising at the time a great hue and cry in the press and broadcasters even finding space in Time magazine. Police closed the road to the north, dredged the Serpentine all to no avail as the perpetrators managed to allude them. No prosecutions took place for fear of public sentiment for nationalism being inflamed. Although the stone was eventually returned the following April to Arbroath Abbey, modern myth questions whether it was the same stone that was returned.
Robert (Bertie ) Gray, a Glasgow Baillie and monumental stonemason, had made two replicas of the stone; one in 1928 and one in 1950, with a view to one day making an exchange. On hogmanay evening 1950 the stone was handed over to Bertie Gray by Ian Hamilton and Alan Stuart outside the King’s Theatre in Glasgow and taken to John Rollo’s factory in Bonnybridge. John Rollo was an industrialist and nationalist sympathiser. He hid the stone and concealed it in a specially constructed packing case. The stone was moved to several different locations before In March 1951 the 'stone' was taken to Arbroath Abbey near the grave of William the Lion and where the Declaration of Arbroath was signed and given back to the authorities. The Rev. John Mackay Nimmo, minister of St. Columba's church in Dundee claimed that the real stone was given to him by Bertie Gray, a fellow Knights Templar, and has been in the safekeeping of the Templars ever since. Ian Hamilton, however, believes the same stone taken from the Abbey was returned.
For there the stone of wonder,
To Eastern Magic known,
Was brought, the Oak thwarts under,
Great Britain’s Crowning Stone!
Kinloch, Dunadd, Dunstaffnage’
Three forts of old renown,
Safe kept that stone, the presage’
Where Scot shall wear the Crown.
She knows she gave the cradle,
From whence has Empire grown,
And proudly minds the fable,
“Scots rule where stands yon Stone.”
From “ Argyllshire” written for the London Argyllshire Association in April 1902
by His Grace The Duke of Argyll.
Whether or not the stone in Edinburgh castle is the real coronation stone of Scottish kings it remains a powerful symbol of Scottish independence.
So if ever ye come on a Stane wi’ a ring
Just sit yersel’ doon and proclaim yersel’ King.
For there’s nane wid be able tae challenge yer claim That ye’d crowned yersel’ King on the Destiny Stane.