When Four Young Scots Shook the British Establishment: Ian Hamilton and the Stone of Destiny
Sunday National, December 20th 2020
Scotland has always had a tradition of stories, legends and myths which have given sustenance to history and identity. One of the most evocative over the years has been that of the recovery of the Stone of Destiny on Christmas Day in 1950 – the 70th anniversary of which is next week.
The Stone of Destiny has an important role in Scottish, English and British history; it even has different names and is known in official royal circles as ‘the Coronation Stone’ and also as ‘the Stone of Scone’. It was used to crown Scottish kings and queens in ancient times, was taken by the English Edward I in 1296, and used to crown English and then British monarchs. In the mystery and mumbo jumbo of all things monarchical, the Stone – which came to reside in Westminster Abbey was seen to possess mystical powers that were transferred to the monarch in the coronation ceremony. This mythical and magical powers were thus viewed as almost transcendental.
Many Scots had long thought that the Stone should be returned to Scotland – given the way it was taken from Scotland by force. Over the years many thought about ways to bring it back, and some even hatched and contemplated various plans which did not come to fruition including one such ill-fated venture from Hugh MacDiarmid where he blew the funds he raised to undertake his plan in a pub.
1950s Scotland and Britain and the Recovery of the Stone
In December 1950 that changed, when a group of Glasgow University students decided to act – led by Ian Hamilton and his co-conspirators Gavin Vernon, Alan Stuart and Kay Matheson. Ian, now aged 95, is the last alive.
The timing of the act is important. This was the height of the appeal of Britain. The Second World War had recently concluded. The post-war Labour Government had just established the NHS, nationalised utilities, embarked on a huge housing programme and championed full employment. But at the same time there was an element of Scottish discontent with the scale of centralisation and the National Covenant showed significant popular support for home rule. A whole host of young radicals felt that something had to be done.
On a cold winter day the four began their 18-hour drive south from Glasgow to London in two Ford Anglias. After various reconnaissance trips to and around the Abbey they succeeded, as Christmas Eve became Christmas Day, by breaking open a side door to the Abbey. There they removed the stone from the coronation chair, in the process dropping and damaging the stone. They then evaded the authorities, and by a circuitous route brought the stone back north to Scotland.
Ian Hamilton says now of his actions: ‘My prime qualification was that I did not know my place. I never have’ – a powerful attitude in what in 1950 was a very deferential Scotland and Britain. He reflects on the past and the Scotland of 2020: ‘I didn’t have any place. Scotland is unique in the British Isles – and I use that term including Ireland. Anyone becomes a Scot who comes to live among us, and becomes one of us.’
The taking of the Stone was a national and global story. Most of the Scottish press were sympathetic to its taking, with Ludovic Kennedy observing in 1995: ‘The only Scottish paper to disapprove of what had happened was the strongly anglophile Glasgow Herald which saw the incident as anti-monarchical.’ One Scottish journalist at the time, Wilfred Taylor, wrote of the act: ‘nobody was done any harm, and even those whose religious sentiments were so violently upset made a splendid recovery.’
The Guardian reported the story when it broke in the following tones: ‘One theory is that the thieves – or from the point of view of certain Scotsmen, “liberator” – hid in a chapel overnight in readiness for their coup …. Descriptions of them have been circulated, and the police say they speak with Scottish accents. It is taken for granted that the Stone has been stolen by Scottish Nationalists.’
A newsreel of the time entitled ‘The Missing Coronation Stone’ talked of the removal of the Stone as the work of ‘extreme Scottish nationalists’ but then calmly observed: ‘Many Scotsmen feel that the removal of their Stone of Destiny may be a gesture to stir up Scottish sentiment for home rule’. It then concluded by citing John MacCormick’s desire for home rule, and Labour MP David Kirkwood’s 1924 bill which proposed bringing the Stone back to Scotland and which was defeated in the Commons by 201 to 171.
Neal Ascherson reflected back on the sentiment of Scots then: ‘The Christmas break-in at the Abbey electrified people in Scotland, because it was cheeky and patriotic and put right an old wrong – but also because the Stone had prompted an authentically Scottish act’ which was not the act of a committee of the great and good, but four young people taking action. It also showed to James Mitchell of Edinburgh University that ‘the Stone’s symbolic significance was at least as great for the British authorities as for Scottish nationalists.’
The then Labour Government discussed the matter at the highest level. Attorney General Hartley Shawcross presented the different options open to government to the cabinet of Clement Attlee. He stated that any prosecution of those who took the Stone might not lead to a conviction in a jury trial and might be counter-productive, commenting: ‘I am satisfied that a prosecution would do no good except perhaps to the defendants to whom it would give the opportunity of being regarded as martyrs if they were convicted or as heroes if they were acquitted.’
Events moved quickly. The Stone was returned by the group who arranged for it to be taken to Arbroath Abbey on April 11th 1951 – a historic choice given the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320. The Cabinet expressed the view that any concessions could set a precedent, and encourage self-government movements around the world and such claims as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
The Scottish Secretary of State, Hector McNeil, was tasked with writing a memorandum for the government on the future location of the Stone. His paper included an appendix by Henry Meikle, Historiographer Royal for Scotland arguing that under the terms of the Treaty of Northampton of 1328 there was an obligation to return the Stone to Scotland. McNeil identified three options – leaving the Stone in Westminster Abbey; returning it to Scotland for custody between coronations; and displaying it in different Commonwealth countries, with his preference for the second.
The ruminations of government at the same time were shaped by the October 1951 general election and return of the Conservatives under Churchill. At the same time, anxieties began to rise about King George VI and what would happen when he passed away and the future coronation of Elizabeth. All of this aided avoidance of any dramatic action by the establishment, no charges being brought and the Stone being placed in Westminster Abbey.
The story though did not end there – either in Arbroath or the 1953 coronation. Rather it grew and became a mythical story; an account of Scottish cheekiness, ingenuity and standing up to authority and for Scotland. The 1950s were the most British of decades with, in 1955, the Tories winning over half the vote in Scotland and Labour winning most of the other half. The cause of self-government seemed to have extinguished itself in the era of ‘you’ve never had it so good’.
The story of the Stone not only became legendary. It kept alight an account of Scottish difference and defiance. It became something passed down through generations, told with a twinkle in the eye by those who recounted it. It became a counter-story in the 1950s – along with the 1953 John MacCormick court case and the defacing of Elizabeth II post boxes. James Mitchell states: ‘It created a new myth or at least contributed to a sense that Scotland was different and in this at least its legacy was greater than the Covenant.’
The Stone returned to Scotland in November 1996 – 700 years on from Edward I removing it – brought back over the border at Coldstream at the instigation of the Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth in the dying days of the Tory administration of John Major. From there it travelled to Edinburgh, where various tests were undertaken to prove it was the actual Stone (and not one of the many alleged fakes to bamboozle authorities) and then it was placed in Edinburgh Castle with onlookers underwhelmed and one banner declaring: ‘Scotland Asked for a Parliament and Got a Stone.’ Whatever symbolism it once had, which some thought translated into political power, the latter had now long gone as the unreformed Westminster system of governing Scotland had discredited itself – and the vast majority of Scots wanted real power and a real Parliament.
Even at the time some astute observers recognised the importance of what happened. Moray McLaren wrote just after the episode that ‘this daring removal of this Scottish Stone of Scone from the heart of the English capital drew literally world-wide attention to something unexpected which had been going on in Scotland for some time’ and that was the emergence of a different ‘spirit’ and ‘independent air’.
The great story of taking the Stone and its many meanings
Ian Hamilton reflecting back now on these tumultuous events comments: ‘Seventy years ago it was a symbol. But we don’t need symbols now, because we’ve very nearly got the reality of Scottish independence. I don’t consider that retrieving my country’s property was breaking the law. After all, the Home Secretary said at the time that we would not be prosecuted. He referred to us as ‘these vulgar vandals’ and that has been one of my favourite phrases ever since.’
In his account of the episode The Taking of the Stone of Destiny Ian said of his motives: ‘Nobody sang in Scotland in the middle part of this century. To be more correct, those who sang did not derive their songs from Scotland.’ He now says at the age of 95 about the Stone and the present: ‘It is an icon. A nation needs icons. [But] we are now voting for things that I dreamed of 50 years ago.’
He looks over his adult life: ‘I am the last person to make any assessment of that [the Stone]. I suppose the fact that people speak to me and reference it means that it has an importance.’ He says he has always baulked at being described and remembered as ‘the Stone man’ and that he lived ‘a busy life in which it was one small part’, stating: ‘I am fond of my profession (in law) and proud to be a QC. And I think that in many respects outweighs what I did with the Stone.’
The return of the Stone was a romantic adventure but it was also an expression of romantic and symbolic nationalism that played at least some part in the revival of a more political nationalism. All nationalisms and movements need symbols, stories and mythologies with which they can make a sense of history. Such romantic politics do not ultimately address power, but on the other hand political power without emotional resonance can descend into stale managerialism.
The account of the Stone is one of the great stories of Scotland. But the difference is that this one connected the ancient myths of Scotland to the modern day. Part of this is mythology and remaking history but then such continual reinterpretation of the past is always an element of the present.
It is also a story with many layers and interpretations – as all good stories have – which cannot be shoehorned into one version. James Mitchell recalls that it was presented at the time as ‘a bit of fun and a classic case of student politics’ to downplay the serious aspects, while another aspect that was rarely acknowledged was that it had ‘an obvious monarchist dimension’ – as well as to others an obvious ‘republican angle’. The nationalist account is one powerful version of this story but other interpretations should not be glossed over.
Symbols have a potency but Ian is more aware than most that they should be used not for diversions but to aid substantive change. He reflects on the Scotland he sees before him, that he modestly concedes he had an impact in aiding: ‘It is a very free society. My generation are handing over something so much better than we inherited. I would like to think the Stone of Destiny played a small part in that.’