From Stones to Snowdrops
St Andrews Day 1996, and the Stone of Destiny is returned to Scotland after 704 years of exile and kidnap by the English throne.
The stone is impressive by its very plainness - a rectangular block of red sandstone with a handle at either end, looking a bit like a thick, if uncomfortable, pillow. Its history is long, alleged to have been brought from the Holy Land to Scotland around 850AD, when it was given the Celtic name Lia Fail, The Stone that Speaks, after having announced the name of the next King of Dalraida - Kenneth I, 36th Monarch of the ancient Scottish kingdom of Dalraida - and thereafter adopted as Scotland’s Coronation Seat.
MacBeth was the first Scottish monarch to be crowned whilst actually sitting on the stone, and John de Balliol the last, because in the year de Balliol was crowned, 1292, Edward 1st of England whipped the stone away and incorporated it, quite literally, into the English throne in Westminster Abbey.
And there it remained, until four Glasgow University students crowbarred open the doors of the Abbey on Christmas morning 1950, heaving the stone from the throne and carrying it away.
Four months later the stone reappeared on the altar of Arbroath Abbey draped in a saltire flag.
Conspiracy theories abounded – was this the real stone?
Was it a fake?
Had the students accidentally broken it in two and stuck it back together?
Had it really been buried in a field in Kent unable to be retrieved because gypsies had settled right on top of it?
Whatever you believed, the Stone was back in Westminster again by February 1952, and remained there for another 44 years, until it was officially returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.
The heist back in 1950 wasn’t just a prank, but a serious political statement made by four serious students, at least one of whom had served in the RAF during the war, and who believed passionately in Scottish Devolution. Ian Hamilton, the most outspoken of the four (who were never charged, there being a dispute of ownership about the Stone itself) went on to become a respected QC.
‘When I lifted the stone in Westminster Abbey,’ Hamilton said, ‘I felt Scotland’s soul was in my hands. The seminal point was breaking the door of the Abbey – the centre of the British Empire – to bring Scotland out again.’
1996 is also remembered in Scotland for quite another reason, as this is the year Thomas Hamilton, a former scout leader (sacked by the Scout Association) burst into a school in Dunblane and opened fire, leaving sixteen children and one teacher dead, before killing himself.
Why he did what he did is still unclear, but is still as shocking today as it was then. It launched the Snowdrop Campaign which was successful in changing the law the following year, making it illegal to buy or possess a handgun.
Too late for Dunblane, but almost certainly saving the lives of many others, and in that there is some comfort, no matter how small.
13th March 1996
We will not forget.