Scottish stone shouldn’t be in coronation, says son of man who stole it back from England

As It Happens6:09Scottish stone shouldn’t be in coronation, says son of man who stole it back

Jamie Hamilton says his late father would be displeased to learn the ancient symbol of Scottish royalty he once took back from the British is being used for the coronation of King Charles.

The Stone of Destiny — a 150-kilogram chunk of sandstone, also known as the Stone of Scone — has a long and fraught history. It was used for the coronation of Scottish kings for generations before it was seized by the British as a spoil of war in 1296, then officially returned to Scotland centuries later in 1996.

But decades before Britain returned the stone, Ian Hamilton and three of his buddies managed to sneak into Westminster Abbey in the dead of Christmas night, snatch it from the British throne and smuggle it back to Scotland.

“We don’t like the word ‘steal.’ We like the word ‘repatriated’ or ‘returned,'” Jamie Hamilton, Ian’s son, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

Ian died last year, and the stone he once “repatriated” is now back in England, on temporary loan for the coronation.

“Scots make up a wide variety of different kinds of people, and so some will be absolutely offended, others will be utterly indifferent,” Jamie said. “The message it sends to me is one of oppression.” 

A big hunk of rectangular rock on a platform in front of a  throne, flanked by two men in uniform.
King’s Bodyguards for Scotland and members of Royal Company of Archers stand guard by the Stone of Destiny at Westminster Abbey on April 29. The stone, an ancient symbol of Scotland’s monarchy, will play a central role in the coronation of King Charles on Saturday. (Susannah Ireland/Reuters)

Ewan Hyslop, research head at Historic Environment Scotland, told CBC Radio’s Day 6 that Scotland’s earliest written records of the stone date it back to at least 1249, where it was used for the inauguration of King Alexander III of Scotland at Scone Palace. Though he says there are “stories” that it originated from the Middle East or Spain.

King Edward I seized the stone after the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 1200s, and had it built into the coronation throne at Westminster Abbey.

“To remove the stone was to remove the symbol of power and effectively the authority of Scotland to crown its kings,” Jamie said. 

It’s just one of many relics in British crown’s possession that were looted from other countries. 

‘They got away with it’

The stone remained in the British monarchy’s possession for 770 years — more or less.

The less is where Jamie’s father comes in. 

In the middle of the night on Dec. 25, 1950, Ian, then 25, and three of his follow Glasgow University students — Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart — carried out their heist. 

They jimmied the lock on Westminster Abbey, removed the stone from beneath the throne — accidentally cracking it open in the process — and scurried it back to Scotland in their getaway car.

“I think they got lucky,” Jamie said. “But they got away with it. And breaking into Westminster Abbey, which is one of the iconic monuments in London, is quite, quite a brave thing to do.”

Black and white photo of four young people — three men and a woman — standing arm-in-arm.
The University of Glasgow students who managed to steal an ancient, looted Scottish stone from Westminster Abbey in 1950. From left to right: Alan Stewart, Kay Matheson, Ian Hamilton and Gavin Vernon. (Submitted by Jamie Hamilton.)

But it wasn’t a story his father liked talking about, Jamie said. Not because that he regretted what he did, Jamie said, but because he was “very, very bored of the story.”

Ian once told the BBC: “In one of the many invasions by the English into Scotland, they took away the symbol of our nation. To bring it back was a very symbolic gesture.”

The theft caused international uproar and prompted the temporary closure of the border between Scotland and England, according to a BBC report.

The students handed it over to the Scottish Covenant Association, who repaired it and left it at the ruined Arbroath Abbey, where the 1320 statement of Scottish independence was written.

The stone was returned to Westminster in 1951, and later used in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. The students were never charged.

Ian kept a matchbook-sized piece of the stone from when it cracked open during the heist. He had it turned into a brooch, which he gave to his then-girlfriend — Jamie’s mother — for her 21st birthday. She still has it.

Asked whether his mother appreciated the gift, Jamie replied: “Well, she married him.”

WATCH | The Stone of Destiny returns to Scotland:

‘It was momentous’ Scotland celebrated when the stone of destiny was returned : Stuff the British Stole

In 1950, one of Scotland’s most meaningful royal objects, was stolen from Westminister Abbey by four students and taken back to Scotland.

England returned the stone to Scotland in 1996 to much fanfare — under the condition it would continue to be used to crown future British monarchs.

“My father was invited to attend the returning ceremony in 1996, but of course turned it down because he didn’t feel the terms and conditions of the stone’s return to Scotland were favourable,” Jamie said.

“The idea of returning something which was ostensibly stolen, albeit some time ago, and then you put conditions on the return of that stolen property, seems a bit counterintuitive.”

Jamie says despite everything, his father wasn’t anti-monarchist.

“Really, the feeling is that the stone is a Scottish stone, and that if people want to get crowned in it, they should come to Scotland,” he said. 

A middle-aged man and an elderly hold a baby boy between them.
Jamie Hamilton, pictured with his son Felix and father Ian. (Submitted by Jamie Hamilton)

It’s now in Westminster Abbey once again, but it will be returned to Scotland after the coronation.

Joseph Morrow, the heraldic authority for Scotland, said the stone’s return to England is an “act of unity and a symbol of friendship.”

Asked if he’ll be tuning in to watch the coronation on Saturday, Jamie quickly replied: “No, no, I’m not going to watch…. I’m going to launch my small sailboat, maybe go sailing if I can get it rigged.”

With files from Reuters, Paul Hantiuk and Mickie Edwards. Interview with Jamie Hamilton produced by Chris Trowbridge.