Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Stone of Destiny

The main reason why I did no little work yesterday evening was the decision to view a recorded film about the theft and return of the Stone of Destiny by Ian Hamilton and his friends and associates.

Given the emergence of a Scottish Nationalist majority in the devolved Parliament for the time and which was so structured as to prevent the situation arising and with the prospect of a referendum on separateness during the life of the Parliament, a film about how it all can be said to have found public voice and support is more than of passing interest. The film was rubbished in the “English” press at the time of its release a couple of years ago for essentially political reasons as it is a good broadly historically accurate account of the removal of the Stone from its location in Westminster Abbey and its subsequent return and has a great twist.

Ian Hamilton was born in Paisley in 1925 and after National service in the British army attended the University of Glasgow where he became active in the University Union and the University Scottish Nationalist Association. The film centres on the decision by Ian with others to successfully remove the stone from its location in the Abbey overnight on Christmas Day 1950.

The stone is recorded to have been originally located at the Monastery of Scone in Perthshire and was used for the coronation of the Scottish Monarchs. It was captured in 1296 by the English army under Edward 1st and brought to Westminster and placed under a wooden chair used in the Coronation of subject British Monarchs. There are those who believe that the original stone never left Scotland and that it was secreted but has not been located and that handed over was a duplicate. An Attempt was made to blow up the coronation chair and stone in 1914 allegedly by the suffragettes because the explosive had been placed in a lady’s handbag but no one was charged and it could have been a stunt, official or otherwise to discredit the Suffragette movement.

The film suggests that the precipitating motive of Ian was the rejection of the Scottish Home Rule Bill as part of the general apathy about Scottishness within Scotland allegedly existing at the time. I did not find this to be so ten years later when a temporary field organiser for the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War I spent a month in Scotland making arrangements for action opposing the location the Polaris Submarine base at Holy Loch. There was resistance to the involvement of the English in what was regarded as a Scottish matter although I met genuine warmth and help from many individuals at various levels within the community at a personal level for what I was arranging for others to do.

Mr Hamilton has written two books about his life and political interests that should provide insight into what led him to have the confidence and determination to undertake an act which was likely to so infuriate Unionists as to arrange for his long term incarceration and subsequent persecution prevention him having any public or professional role in society. Yet as in my instance he went on to have a successful career and political involvement and in fact although arrested he was not prosecuted which suggests that officialdom at the highest levels intervened in a positive way.

The film suggests that Mr Hamilton went about the task is a considered manner visiting the Abbey and working out how the removal could be undertaken and then approaching a leading Nationalist politician John MacCormick (played in the film by Robert Carlyle) for funds, humorously recounted in that Ian asked for 50 which John interpreted as £50000 and initially rejected the request because he assessed that at that price it was no more than a student stunt for a trip to London. Ian subsequently was successfully in a campaign to have MacCormick elected Rector of the University.

According to the film his best friend (played by Lord of the Rings Billy Boyd) did not participate in actual removal having become engaged/married and realised the potential implication for his future and it was MacCormick who introduced him to fellow student activist Kay Matheson who in turn recommended Gavin Vernon who drank excessively but who had a car and was strongly built, essential to undertake the removal of the stone which weighed several hundred pounds (156 kilograms). Gavin brought along another sympathetic and willing participant because he had a more reliable car

The film reveals that despite the planning Ian was caught by the night watchman on the first attempting having secreted himself in the abbey with the intention of letting his the others. Kay then became ill with a temporary fever which led them to securing her an overnight bed on Christmas Eve in lodgings where the landlady became suspicious and called the police and they were lucky that they were not searched as fortunately they had papers showing ownership of the two vehicles. There was then further police involvement when a beat constable approached one of the cars just after Ian had taken the small part of the stone that had been separated from the rest following its removal from under the coronation chair.

The news that the stone had been removed was greeted throughout Scotland with wild celebrations with those responsible immediately regard as heroes. The greater part of the stone was hidden on a travellers site in Kent but according to the film was then taken to Scotland after being made aware that there was the risk of its destruction if left out in freezing weather over the rest of the winter. The smaller piece was also brought into Scotland where with students and graduates there was an overnight party on Ikley Moor. The two pieces were then professionally repaired together by Glasgow Stonemason Robert Gray. The custodians of the repaired stone then placed the stone on the altar of Arbroath Abbey on April 11th. The British authorities were informed and London Police retrieved the stone back to the Abbey, arresting all those then known to have been involved in the theft and safekeeping.

It was only 45 years later that a more enlightened British Conservative Government agreed that the stone for everyday purposes should be returned and put on display in Scotland and was officially handed over at the border on 15th November 1996 from whence it was taken to Edinburgh castle. The agreement is that the Stone will return temporarily to London for any future coronation.

Queen Elizabeth II recently opened the Scottish Parliament during which ceremony Alex Salmond indicated it would be possible for Scotland to achieve full independence but retain her Majesty as head of State. I was recently surprised at media attacks on the Public Expenditure of Prince Charles contrasting with the praise for the role of the Duchess of Cambridge on her visit with her husband to Canada and the United States. With an element of uncertainty over the succession public interest in maintaining the Union is negligible, something which politicians should take not of.

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