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A symbol of Scotland, the Stone of Scone has attracted many myths throughout its history but are any of them true or were they just a ruse to wind up the English?
If you’ve never seen it, then you could be forgiven for picturing the Stone of Scone (also known as the Stone of Destiny) – on which Scottish kings were historically crowned – as some elaborately carved ancient relic, with beautiful detail and intricate iconography.
However, for those who have seen it, the reality is rather less arresting. The understated stone, which can be found in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle, displayed alongside the Honours of Scotland, is a coarse lump of oblong sandstone with an iron ring at either end, with a rough rectangle cut into the top and a couple of crosses etched in.
Nevertheless, each year, many of the more than 2 million visitors to Edinburgh Castle will go to see it, such is its legendary status, and in 2023 even more people will see the stone as it looks set to star in the coronation ceremony of King Charles III on 6 May.
Just a year after its star turn in the coronation, the stone will be rehomed in the revamped City Hall in Perth, (renamed Perth Museum), where it will take pride of place in a new purpose-built pavilion and go on public display in spring 2024. This rehoming will mark the first time the stone will be back in its historic home of Perthshire in over 700 years. But just what is the Stone of Scone and why is it considered so sacred and valuable?
Legends of the Stone of Scone
Between the 9th century and the 17th century, 42 Scottish kings are believed to have been crowned at Moot Hill in the grounds of the modern-day Scone Palace. Notable exceptions are King James II, who presumably wasn’t keen to return to Perth so soon after the murder nearby of his father, and Mary, Queen of Scots, the only queen who might have been crowned here, who instead was kept under protection at Stirling Castle.
At the time of its use as a coronation site, Scone was an important religious centre, but while Scone’s role in coronations is not disputed, the arrival of the Stone of Scone, which was used in the ceremonies, is. There are some that say the stone was Jacob’s Pillow, brought back from the Holy Land, possibly by an Egyptian princess by the name of Scota, arriving in Scotland in the 9th century. If that’s true, it was certainly well timed, for just as the stone was reaching Scotland, Kenneth MacAlpin, was preparing to unite the Picts and Scots under a new Kingdom of Scotland: Alba.
JP Reid, Senior New Projects Officer: Exhibitions & Interpretation of the new Perth Museum, says it’s little surprise that stories like these were so readily accepted: “There are motives anchored in political motives – a lot to do with the legitimacy of the Scottish monarchy. Nationalism in light of incursions by the English,” he says. “The Scots are saying: ‘we’ve been a nation from ancient times, here’s the proof’”. Reid also pours cold water on the belief that the stone travelled from anywhere more exotic than Scotland itself.
He says: “We do know that the stone is made from Perthshire sandstone and was probably a threshold of an important building before it became a ceremonial piece, and then it becomes a threshold between a king and normal people.”
The truth is that the first concrete evidence we have of the stone being used in coronation ceremonies is during the coronation of Alexander III in 1249. There was just one coronation after that – of John Balliol in 1292 – before the stone was taken by King Edward I in 1296. There’s little doubt that the legendary status of the stone fuelled Edward’s desire to have it, as he saw it as a symbol that he had conquered Scotland.
Edward brought the stone to Westminster where he had a special throne made for it, in which the stone was placed under the monarch’s seat, thus demonstrating England’s dominance over its neighbour. It was after Edward’s theft of the stone that the number of myths proliferated. One popular myth is that the real stone was replaced by the friars at the abbey at Scone before Edward could get his hands on it and hidden elsewhere. Other romanticised stories say that Macbeth himself buried the stone outside a hill near Perth. However, Reid says it is unlikely that the stone was swapped as the wear on the one in Edinburgh suggests ceremonial use that predates Edward’s theft.
Reid also believes that if the stone was swapped, someone would have noticed. “There were some nobles that were present at both Balliol’s inauguration and Edward’s coronation,” he says, “and yet no-one said it looked different.” Nevertheless, the stories must have got back to Edward, as a year or so after his visit, he returned to Scone, presumably to check that he did indeed have the right stone.
Edward must have been satisfied that his was the right one, as the stone remained in Westminster for the rest of his reign and became part of the coronation chair for all successive English and British monarchs. However, in a modern-day twist to the story, in 1950, the stone was stolen back by four Scottish students on Christmas Day.
The move was a ploy to garner support for Scottish independence but the outcry was so big – the border between Scotland and England was closed for the first time in 400 years – that the students panicked and buried the larger part of the stone (it had broken in two when they had taken it) in a field in Kent until the fuss died down.
Though they later took the two parts to Glasgow to have it repaired before leaving the stone in Arbroath Abbey, their actions feed into another of the stone’s legends. When the stonemason Robert (Bertie) Gray fixed the stone, he also made several replicas, and some say that the stone that was returned to Westminster in 1951 and finally to Scotland in 1996, was one of these replicas, and not the real stone.
William, Viscount Stormont, eldest son of the current Earl of Mansfield, who now resides at Scone Palace, says: “We used to believe the stone to be a fake not once, but twice over. Recent scientific tests in 1998 however have all but proven that the stone currently in Edinburgh was the stone stolen from Westminster Abbey.”
However, the Viscount says it has long been believed that the stone Edward took was fake. He says: “Indeed the Scots would joke that the Abbot of Scone with plenty of warning swapped the real stone for the lid of the cesspit.” True or not, it’s indicative of the rivalry between the English and the Scots that the temptation for the Scots to be able to say to the English that the stone that they stole was just a stone and nothing more, is hard to resist.
Visiting Scone Palace, the seat of the Earls of Mansfield, is of course crucial to anyone interested in the stone’s story. Scone Palace stands on a site whose history stretches back millennia. The Romans camped here two thousand years ago, and it was later both the capital of a Pictish kingdom and an important seat of the ancient Celtic church, before developing into an abbey.
In 906 King Constantine held a council here, which became a forerunner for later medieval parliaments: Scone was where Scottish laws were made right up to the reign of James IV, who shifted the seat of power to Edinburgh.
The abbey was burned down during the Scottish Reformation and the lands were given over to the Ruthven family, the Earls of Gowrie, who soon fell from grace for conspiring against King James VI in what became known as the Gowrie Conspiracy. As a result, the newly built palace came to the king’s cupbearer, Sir David Murray of Gospetrie. One of his descendants became the first Earl of Mansfield and the current Earl of Mansfield and his family still live in private apartments within the palace today.
The palace as you see it today was rebuilt in the Gothic revival style in the early 19th century, though parts of the old palace remain, including the Long Gallery, whose wooden parquet flooring dates from the 16th century, and which Charles II would have walked down from the robing room on his way to his coronation in 1651. Despite the stone having been in Westminster for 350 years by this time, it just goes to show that Scone was still an important place in the hearts of the Scots in terms of making kings.
When Queen Victoria visited Scone Palace in 1842 as the guest of the 4th Earl of Mansfield, she was treated to a presentation of curling in the Long Gallery. Prince Albert thought it was so good they made him president of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club.
From the end of the Long Gallery, you can look out towards Moot Hill, where there is a replica of the stone. On some maps Moot Hill is written as ‘Boot Hill’ and one theory is that when a new king was announced, nobles had to swear an oath to him on their own land, so they would take some soil from their home, travel to Scone and then tip their boot up and swear their allegiance while standing on their home soil.
The Stone’s new home
From spring 2024, visitors to Perth will be able to see the stone in its new home, Perth Museum, which stands just opposite St John’s Kirk, scene of John Knox’s rousing 1559 sermon. The museum will place the stone both conceptionally and physically at its heart. A new pavilion inside will house the stone, while galleries will tell the story of the city and its surrounds, from its earliest settlers, through the Romans and the Picts, to its medieval history and the emergence of the Kingdom of Alba, where the stone starts to come into context.
The museum will approach subjects such as the role of the stone in King Charles III’s coronation, face on. Reid says: “It’s wonderful to see it as a live ceremonial object and the exhibition will almost certainly explore Charles’s coronation and the controversy around it.” And how do the residents of Scone feel about the stone’s new home? The Viscount says he wouldn’t say it is coming home, “It is the Stone of Scone of course”, but that he is supportive of the move to Perth, which is “just across the River Tay from Scone.” Perhaps one day it will make it back to Scone, until then, Perth will do.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the January/February 2022 issue of Scotland, available to buy from Friday 16 December.
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