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I first toured Edinburgh Castle in 2014, with my cousins Mindy and William. On that dreich day in August, we stood huddled around our tour guide Jonathan as he spoke passionately about Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, housed nearby in a room of the castle.
With his long red hair blowing in the wind and fire in his fierce blue eyes, Jonathan epitomized the proud Scots warrior, ready to defend his beloved country. I shivered as he spoke in his heavy Scottish brogue and it had nothing to do with the cold. He shared how the stone left Scotland for a time…a very long time…and eventually returned home where, he declared vehemently, it will remain.
And he intrigued me with a tale of the infamous theft of the Stone of Destiny.
When my cousins opted to leave the castle complex to attend a whiskey tasting, I chose to stay behind and see this Stone of Destiny that stirred such passion in our guide.
The Stone of Destiny Backstory
The Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone and in England, the Coronation Stone, is an oblong block of red sandstone. This rather ordinary looking block of stone served for centuries as the coronation stone for the monarchs of Scotland.
The Scone Abbey near Perth, Scotland originally housed the artifact. Historian Walter Hemingford described the stone as “hollowed out as a chair on which future kings were placed for their coronation, according to custom.”
The stone measures 26 inches by 16.7 inches by 10.5 inches. A roughly etched cross decorates one surface while embedded iron rings aid with transport. It weighs 335 pounds.
In 1296 the English king Edward I took the stone as spoils of war and moved it to Westminster Abbey. A special wooden coronation chair became the stone’s resting place. Edward sought to claim status as the “Lord Paramount” of Scotland with the right to oversee its king.
All subsequent English monarchs sat in the chair, above the stone, when crowned. Queen Elizabeth II last used the coronation chair in 1953.
A Daring Rescue Plan
In 1950, more than 650 years after the stone left Scotland, a group of Scottish college students concocted a bold plan…steal the Stone of Destiny and bring it home.
A law student at the University of Glasgow, Ian Hamilton joined with Alan Stuart, Kay Matheson and Gavin Vernon to break into Westminster Abbey and recover the stone.
Ian read everything he could find about the Abbey and scouted out the building several times. On one visit, he deliberately stayed past closing time, hiding near the Coronation Chair. A janitor discovered him and thinking the young man drunk, offered him a coin and let him out a side door.
During these surveillance trips, Ian found the side doors made of pine, making them easy to break into after hours.
On Christmas Eve, 1950, Ian and his companions drove to London in two separate cars. Arriving early on Christmas Day, the group parked near the Abbey. Kay remained in a running car, ready for a quick get away, while the boys stealthily entered the Abbey. That’s when the plan began to fall apart.
Stealing the Stone of Destiny
The heavy stone rested in a chair made specifically for it. The young men found it difficult to remove the stone and ultimately broke part of the chair. Tugging the stone free at last, it fell to the floor, breaking toes on one of the men’s foot. More alarming to them, the stone broke in two.
Ian quickly grabbed the smaller piece and carried it to the car where Kay waited. He stashed the stone segment in the back seat. As he re-entered the Abbey, he heard a police officer approaching. Dashing back to Kay, Ian took her into his arms and kissed her. Questioned by the policeman, the pair claimed to be a couple searching for accommodations for the night.
Once the officer left, Kay drove off with the smaller stone segment hidden beneath a blanket. When Ian returned to the Abbey, he discovered the other men had fled. With great determination and ingenuity, the lad used his coat to laboriously drag the heavier stone segment out of the building.
As he heaved the stone into the trunk of the second car, his comrades returned. They all left together.
The theft discovered, roadblocks sprang up on all streets out of London. Kay did not draw suspicion, as a single girl driving a car. She made it through and crossed the border, taking her part of the stone to her family’s farm in Scotland.
The young men chose to hide the larger segment in England, fearing they could not make it across the closed border. They buried the stone in an empty field in Kent. Eventually they returned for the stone and successfully transported it to Scotland.
Back to England
With the help of the Scottish National Party leader, the courageous college students had the stone repaired by a stone master. The theft made international headlines and brought a united sense of joy to the Scottish people.
As the investigation into the theft of the Destiny Stone came closer and closer to the perpetrators, the four decided that they had accomplished their purpose. By stealing the Stone of Destiny and bringing it home they raised awareness of Scotland’s subordination to England.
The four contacted two Arbroath town councilors and turned over the stone.
On April 11, 1951, the councilors helped the college students set up the stone on an altar in the abandoned Arbroath Abbey and called the authorities. The English got the stone back and returned it to the Coronation Chair. The students disbanded and never met again. Ian completed his studies and became a criminal lawyer.
The way was paved, however, for the stone to return to its rightful place in Scotland. In 1996 the English handed over the Stone of Destiny, on the condition that they may “borrow” it for any future coronations.
Viewing the Stone of Destiny
Twice I’ve viewed the Stone of Destiny in Edinburgh Castle. Both times I felt deeply moved.
The stone rests within a plexiglass case along with the Crown Jewels of Scotland. I can’t touch it yet I feel the hum of sacred energy that flows from it. My Scottish DNA responds, causing my eyes to fill with tears and my heart to beat faster. Photographs are not allowed so I spent several long minutes studying the stone, searing its image into my mind and soul.
What an amazing history this stone possesses. I love the courage and resourcefulness of the four young adults who accomplished what no one else dared. They took back what was rightfully theirs. That feat ultimately resulted in a permanent return of the stone and the Scottish are extremely protective of it now.
As an older adult, Ian said:
“When I lifted the stone in Westminster Abbey, I felt Scotland’s soul was in my hands.”
What a marvelous representation of Scotland’s hardy, warrior soul is the Stone of Destiny. Long may it remain in Edinburgh.
Want to watch a fun depiction of this true story? Check out the Stone of Destiny film, available through Amazon Prime. Click on photo to rent.
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