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Issue 37 - The Stone of Destiny

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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The Stone of Destiny

James Irvine Robertson turns his attention to the most contested artefact in Scottish history.

Alongside the Honours of Scotland – the Scottish Crown Jewels – in Edinburgh Castle, lies a large chunk of red sandstone. On one surface is a roughly incised cross and rusting iron carrying-bolts are attached to it. For seven centuries it lay in Westminster Abbey, part of the Coronation Chair, built to contain it, and upon which every English and, later, British monarch has been crowned since Edward II in 1307.

Its origin lies in the darkest days of the Wars of Independence. Edward I, whose tomb bears the epitaph Malleus Scottorum – Hammer of the Scots – came north in 1296 to counter a rebellion by John Balliol, whom he installed as his vassal king in Scotland. Balliol had defied the English monarch, accusing him of having ‘caused harm beyond measure to the liberties of ourselves and our kingdom.’ In so doing, Balliol renounced fealty to Edward and made an alliance with Philip IV of France.

No Scots force existed that could counter Edward’s army. The King had already wasted Wales and incorporated it into England. Now he was intent on crushing the last vestiges of Scots resistance.

He sacked Berwick upon Tweed, slaughtering all 17,000 of its inhabitants. With the dead rotting in the streets, he summoned the barons of Scotland and forced them to sign the Ragman Roll acknowledging him as their feudal superior. Then his army rolled north, through Edinburgh, Stirling and Perth. At Montrose, Balliol was brought before him in chains. The Great Seal of Scotland was smashed; the records of Scotland were carted south and never seen again. Then Edward turned to Scone and the Stone of Destiny. The whole country knew what he wanted. In early August, the Stone was taken from Scone Abbey and carried to London.

The Stone, sometimes known as the Lia Fail – the sacred Stone of Destiny, had been used as the seat of Scots monarchs at their coronations since the days of Kenneth MacAlpine in the middle of the ninth century. Its origins are shrouded in legend. In one version it was Jacob’s Pillow mentioned in the Book of Genesis, when the patriarch had a dream in which God appeared and promised him the land of Israel to him and his descendants.

When Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and looted the Temple, the Stone was spirited away to Egypt by the prophet Jeremiah, along with King Zedekiah’s daughter, Princess Tea or Scota.

From there, the refugees made their way to Ireland, courtesy of those great mariners, the Phoenicians. Scota married Eochaid the Heremon, High King of Ireland about 600 B.C. Her descendants, the Scotti, brought a chunk of it to Scotland when they crossed the Irish Sea and placed it in the Royal seat of Dunadd. When the Viking depredations started, Kenneth moved it to the Abbey at Scone. The other version of the legend holds that the Stone was St Columba’s altar, brought over by him to Iona from Ireland and thence to Scone.

There are varying descriptions of the Stone of Destiny. If St Columba’s, it was white marble. If Jacob’s Pillow, it would have been black basalt or even a meteorite. In either case, it would have probably been covered in carvings, because both Pict and Scot thus decorated important stones. The differing accounts agree that it was like a round chair.

But King Edward’s prize, wrenched from the Abbey of Scone is a ‘quarry dressed block of coarse grained old red sandstone’ of the type commonly found in the hills around Scone.

One does not need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the reason for the difference.

Edward’s progress was known to the whole of Scotland. Of course, the Abbot of Scone would have wanted to preserve this sacred relic of Scots independence. Of course, he must have hidden the true Stone of Destiny and palmed off a crude substitute when Edward’s thugs came to call. And if the King had suspected that a swap had taken place and kicked up a fuss, he would only have lost face because how was he to know what the genuine stone looked like in the first place? He therefore had to assume that he had achieved his object and having removed the Stone, true or false, to London, he built an oak throne around it. Since then, some 30 Royal bottoms have sat on the Coronation Chair above this humdrum piece of rock while being crowned. As a result, the Stone of Westminster has built up a mythology all of its own.

But even the Westminster Coronation stone may not be all that it seems. In the small hours of the morning of Christmas Day 1950, it was removed from Westminster Abbey by a group of Scottish nationalist-minded students who seeing it as symbolising an oppressed nation, spirited it back to Scotland. The British authorities were in a bit of a quandary. Was it theft? Who owned it? Had it not been stolen from Scotland in the first place?

Although the perpetrators of its removal were known, none were ever prosecuted.

The Stone turned up again on 11th April, 1951 draped in a Saltire flag, in front of the altar of Arbroath Abbey, and was promptly returned to London. But by that time several copies had been made, and much pleasure has been afforded to many in saying that the one returned was not even the original rock that had been palmed off on Edward.

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.

After 700 years, it appears that the authenticity of the Stone on display at Edinburgh Castle still remains uncertain. If it is, indeed, a fake, then the fact remains that the original has never turned up.

Not yet, anyway.