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To Steal a Stone

With the release of a new film about the liberation of the Stone of Destiny in the 1950’s Bill Scott looks at a radical song that commemorates that act.

The Wee Magic Stane

(Music: Trad /Lyrics: Johnny McAvoy)

The Dean o’ Westminster was a powerful man
He held a’ the strings o’ the State in his hand
But wi’ a’ his great business it flustered him nane
When some rogues ran away wi’ his wee magic stane
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

The Stane had great powers that could dae sic a thing
That withoot it it seemed we’d be wantin’ a king
So he sent for the polis and made this decree
Go hunt oot the Stone and return it tae me
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

So the polis went beetlin’ away up tae the North
They hunted the Clyde and they hunted the Forth
But the wild folk up yonder just kidded them a’
For they didnae believe it was magic at a’
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Noo the Provost o’ Glesca, Sir Victor by name
Wis awfy put oot when he heard o’ the Stane
So he offered the statues that stan’ in George Square
That the High Church’s masons might mak’ a few mair
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

When the Dean o’ Westminster wi’ this was acquaint
He sent for Sir Victor and made him a saint
But it’s no good you sending your statues down heah
Said the Dean, But it gives me a jolly good ideah
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

So they quarried a stane o’ the very same stuff
And they dressed it all up till it looked like enough
Then he sent for the press and announced that the Stane
Had been found and returned tae Westminster again
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

But the cream o’ the joke still remains tae be telt
For the bloke that wis turnin’ them aff on the belt
At the peak o’ production was so sorely pressed
That the real yin got bunged in alang wi’ the rest
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

So if ever ye cam’ on a stane wi’ a ring
Just sit yersel’ doon and proclaim yersel’ king
There’s nane will be able tae challenge yer claim
That ye’ve crooned yersel’ King on the Destiny Stane
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay


“Is nothing sacred to these criminals?” – Daily Mail

“Sacrilege at Westminster! A coarse and vulgar crime”. - Times

Nothing to do with Wossy and Brand but headlines from Boxing Day 1950. That Christmas Eve four young Scots students – Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Alan Stewart and Gavin Vernon - broke into Westminster Abbey and, depending on your viewpoint, carried out the crime of the century or restored some stolen property to its rightful owners. Their mission was ‘to hurt no one and nothing except England’s vanity, to save no one and nothing except the ruined hopes of their own country’. They stole (liberated) the Coronation Stone stolen from Scotland some 650 years earlier by Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, the same stone on which all of England and the United Kingdom’s subsequent monarchs had been crowned.

The four’s story is told in the film “The Stone of Destiny” and I’d recommend that you see it if you want to get all the details. The raid by the modern day Reivers, was certainly audacious. In the dead of night during an English Holiday (most Scots didn’t really celebrate Christmas then) a stone as big as a sack of potatoes and weighing four hundred-weight was pried out from below its throne in the Abbey, below the very noses of the police, and spirited away. It didn’t go perfectly as the stone broke into two pieces but that at least made it possible to carry. But why did the four do it and what effect did it have?

Then songwriter, anti-nuclear campaigner and socialist Morris Blythman had no doubt about what had achieved – “For the first time in generations Scotland had asserted herself in an active way. This was a departure from the passive whining about what England was doing to us and a real blow for freedom”.

Ian Hamilton the originator of the scheme had more doubts about his own motives but summed them up well – “Before that event became overlaid with publicity and hype it was a clear thing, yet intensely private. Since then it has become public, and not so clear. I quite simply wanted to make a gesture for my country, like a lover who sends flowers, however hopeless his love”.

Or as he said on another occasion, “Young people should have dreams and our dream was to restore the lost soul of our country. We dreamt of a Scotland taking its place as an equal partner in the recently formed United Nations”. Before carrying out the raid Hamilton sought out Hugh MacDiarmid’s sanction. MacDiarmid agreed that the action would be “poetic”.

Whatever the motive the theft captured Scotland’s imagination and exposed the English Establishment’s most grevious fault – the absence of a sense of humour! Throughout Scotland the theft inspired amusement. Even those who publicly had to deprecate it laughed privately at the skill and audacity of it all.

“… Scottish newspapers published on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Since their English colleagues were on holiday there was only Scottish news for them to publish. But when the English newspapers resumed publication everything else was banished from the front pages. Scotland had become news” - Hamilton.

The theft was regarded by many Scots as the righting of an ancient wrong and stirred their still re-emerging national identity. Scots nationalism as a political force pre-dated the theft but the raid gave much needed impetus to the wider nationalist movement. It boosted the confidence of independence activists and created many more future ones. “We woke Scotland....Every Scot wanted it to stay in Scotland” - Hamilton.

It alsoresulted in the greatest manhunt yet seen in British history. Every police force in Britain was involved. Ports were closed, cars were stopped and searched and English policemen were sent to Scotland (where technically they then had no jurisdiction) because of doubts about the Scottish forces’ application to their task. One policeman summed up the Scottish attitude when he went on record as saying, ‘Aye we’re looking for them, but no’ so damned hard that we’ll catch them.’

Scots’ made up jokes and songs at the establishment’s expense. They were promptly banned by the BBC who proclaimed that the theft was a combination of sacrilege and treason and thus no laughing matter.

Luckily a few have survived such as Johnny McAvoy’s “Wee Magic Stane” (to the tune of “The Ould Orange Flute”, wonderful recycling there!) with its great idea (based on fact?) of a multitude of stones being turned off a production line.

The following apocryphal tale was also widely told – ‘One suspect was hauled in for questioning. After hours of fierce examination under a bright light he at last said wearily: ‘All right, all right. Turn that thing off and I’ll tell you who stole it.’ The police leaned forward eagerly. ‘Right, who stole it?’ - ‘Edward the First!’ he replied.’

As Hamilton said - “They (the English authorities) were laughed at by the world, and laughter is a more potent weapon than armies”. The censorship lasted for years. As late as 1959/60 ‘The Reivers’ folk group’s, recording of the “Wee Magic Stane” was banned by the Beeb.

Finally in April 1951, exactly one hundred days after the theft, a stone covered in the Saltire was found on the altar of Arbroath Abbey. Police said that the Stone of Destiny had been recovered and it was returned to Westminster where it was used for the coronation of Elizabeth Windsor in 1952 (NB: Not Elizabeth II. As a Scots poster of the period said - “£2000 reward for information leading to the identification of Elizabeth I of Scotland DEAD OR ALIVE”).

In 1996 John Major and his Scots Baldrick, Michael Forsyth, came up with a cunning plan to save some Tory seats in Scotland. They decided to return the Coronation Stone to Scotland. Just as Edward stole the Stone to quell rebellious Scots, Forsyth hoped to achieve the same result by returning it. In a service at St Giles’s Forsyth accepted the Stone from Prince Andrew and promised to look after it until the Windsors wanted it back for a coronation. After due pomp and ceremony the stone was then ensconced in Edinburgh Castle. As a political ruse it failed completely. There were “No Tories in Scotland” after the ‘97 election.

The Coronation Stone has since been moved back to Scone but is this stone the real Stone of ‘Destiny’, the ‘Fatal’ Stone? The Stone of which it was said -

Unless the fates shall faithless prove and prophet’s voice be vain
Where e’er this sacred Stone is found the Scottish race shall reign.

The question must be asked for a number of reasons. First copies of the Stone stolen from Westminster were definitely made. The stolen stone may have been taken to Glasgow and given to Bertie Gray, a master stonemason and later Councillor. Bertie claims to have made at least two copies. Copies may also have been made by John Rollo, a factory owner who repaired the Westminster Stone for the raiders. Gray used to show people one stone which he claimed to be the original Westminster Stane in his yard in Sauchiehall Street. He then gave this stone to a Dundee church (1970) where it was held for 20 years before being displayed in an exhibition at the People’s Museum in Glasgow.

At that time the assistant curator of the Museum, claimed that it was one of the a copies that had been returned to Westminster. There’s only one problem with this story. Ian Hamilton guarantees that the stone left in Arbroath was the one that he and his comrades stole and he should know. But Hamilton himself has posed another question. Was the stone kept in Westminster for 700 years ever the original Stone of Destiny?

The original Stone was brought from Spain to Ireland and then Scotland sometime in the 9th Century. Called “Jacob” or “Columba’s Pillow”, it was of enormous sacred and cultural significance to the Scots. In accordance with custom a King of Scots was not crowned at the beginning of his reign, but ‘set upon the stone’. It supposedly groaned aloud if the claimant was royal but remained silent if he was a pretender. In 1292, John Balliol became the last Scottish king to sit on the stone. It’s not hard to believe that it remained silent when “Toom Tabard” sat on it. After the defeat of Wallace’s army at Falkirk (1296) Edward carried a stone his troops found in Scone back to England.

The English first promised to return that Stone to Scotland in the Treaty of Northampton of 1328 - which to quote the late Margaret Ewing – ‘shows that it takes London governments 670 years to honour their promises to Scotland!’.

The stone which the reivers took from Westminster was 11 inches high and made of coarse-grained sandstone fitted at each end with iron staples and rings, carrying fixtures which may have been added by Edward. But the Ancient Scots Royal Seals show the Stone to be of seat height. Early chroniclers also describe the Stone as being in the shape of a rounded chair, richly carved and made of “black merbill” (basalt?). Was the stone which Edward I removed from Scone just a block of red sandstone dug from a local quarry, a dummy left at hand for the English invaders? Scientific tests have since established that the Coronation Stone was indeed quarried in Scotland. So how could it be the same stone which had accompanied the Scots to Ireland from Spain?

It’s just possibe that the Stone of Destiny was removed for safe keeping and hidden near Scone (or even on Iona or at Dunstaffnage Castle, two of its earlier homes). Then the few who knew where it was hidden may have been killed soon afterwards by the English, without ever revealing its hiding place to others. That might explain why the Scots never enforced that particular clause of the Treaty of Northampton when they did enforce others which secured official documents, compensation and the return of Scotland’s “honours”.

So if the Coronation Stone was and is a fake does it matter? Not really. The symbolism of royal authority is already in decline - though it could pose a question mark over the legitimacy of all past English and UK monarchs if they were crowned on a fake. But the Stone whether real or fake is just that a symbol of nationhood, not nationhood itself. I’ll leave the last word with Hamilton - “The only badge of nationhood worth having is the right to run our own affairs”. Independence is the true magic talisman, not a stone.

See also Ian Hamilton, “The Taking of the Stone of Destiny” and Pat Gerber, “The Stone of Destiny”.