Scotland’s part in the coronation of King Charles will be to provide the Stone of Destiny, which will be taken sometime soon down to Westminster. This will be the fourth time it has made the journey between Scotland and England since 1296, when it was taken as a trophy of war by Edward 1.
When we talk about “the taking of the Stone of Destiny” we tend to mean not the original theft, but the group of four young people who took it back to Scotland from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950, just after the Scottish Convention of 1949. Ths petition demanding an Assembly was signed by 2m. Against this backdrop the seizing of the Stone was greeted with joy. For three months, police scoured the countryside for it until the group left it at the altar of Arbroath Abbey.
Ian Hamilton famously said that he was: “A Scot. Not a Scottish Nationalist…a simple Scot and I want my country to take its place in Europe and in the world. We Scots are European, not English, not British. In the muddled way of youth I set out to make these views public not by speech or writing but by action.”
A few months after the Stone was removed, my grandfather Robert Kemp’s play ‘King of Scots’ was staged in the nave of Dunfermline Abbey as part of the 1951 Edinburgh Festival. It is a stirring tale starring the Stone, which even appears on stage, carried in on a stretcher. In1297, William Wallace demanded the Stone back. Wallace was eventually defeated and executed in 1306, and in 1307 Robert l was crowned King of Scots.
The heart of Kemp’s play is Robert l’s coronation in 1306. Bishop Wishart tells the crowd: “The venerable Abbey of Scone, where our Kings were wont to receive their consecration, has, by Edward’s malice, been pulled to the ground…The Stone he has also reft from us, and the young Earl of Fife, who by ancient right must place the crown upon the King’s head, he keeps at his court in London.”
As they are about to proceed, the scene is interrupted by the arrival of the Countess of Buchan, Isabella MacDuff, a member of the clan that are ancestral keepers of the Stone, who has come and crown the King. Bruce says: .
“Brave lady, who can make this rite complete!
The Stone of Scone I now may do without…
But yet I must remember, for your sake,
The rancour and black spite this deed will wake
Against you, even in your husband’s heart,
Much more in Edward’s.”
Isabella replies: “That will be my part
In my country’s battle! You are not to spare
Such thoughts for me, for every risk and care
From this day forth will rain upon your royal,
Your consecrated head; unending toil
And peril to the utterance will be
The air you breathe! You’re not to think of me,
Only of Scotland!”
Soul of Scotland
After the ceremony, Robert l and his men head for the hills. Isabella is captured by Edward’s men and suspended in an open wire cage on the windblown exterior of a castle. In real life, she survived for four years of this torture before being taken to a convent, probably to die, but there is no record of her after that.
The play starts at the Court in London where the nobles discuss the recent murder of William Wallace. Edward gloats about the way he killed Wallace, who was disembowelled while still alive. The Stone of Destiny is brought on stage and Edward taunts Robert with his possession of it. The Scots believe, he claims, that: “If there be no stone, the very soul of Scotland is undone. And they are right”.
“I’ll fix it in the Coronation Chair
So that all English kings whom we crown there
In their first moment shall on Scotland sit!”
Later, Bruce receives a warning in the form of a pair of spurs from a Scottish sympathiser at court and flees north. He is set upon by his rival John Comyn in Dumfries Abbey. Bruce fights back and kills Comyn. Then he rides to Glasgow where he receives a pardon for this act from Bishop Wishart.
Before the coronation, a cleric arrives hotfoot to excommunicate Bruce. Bishop Lamberton opens the letter “not as one shocked but as one who had expected some such missive”.
In a classic bit of what we would now call “whataboutery” Bishop Lamberton asks:
“What excommunication has your master spoken
For Berwick, or for Wallace, all the long
Record of Edward’s rape and brutal wrong?”
‘Tartan gesture politics’
After the ceremony, Robert l flees to Orkney. Returning to the mainland, he harries the enemy. Robert wins the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and Scotland’s independence is restored.
The Stone was moved for the third time when it was returned to Scotland by John Major’s government in 1996, amid another rising tide of demands for Home Rule. In “Stone Voices” Neil Ascherson describes this as “tartan gesture politics”, an attempt to fob off demands for devolution. He records that as the Stone processed up the Royal Mile on a blue cushion in a converted Landrover with a military escort:
“The sheer lack of popular enthusiasm was impressive…Especially on the Left, exasperated voices wanted to know why London thought the Scots so dumb that they could be bought for an ‘auld cludgie cover, or (as lan Bell translated the thought in his Scotsman column) an old cesspit lid’.
Some argue that King Charles, instead of taking the Stone to London, should come north to sit upon it and receive the Honours of Scotland, a more modest and ancient set of Crown jewels than the Imperial bling. Others feel that moving the Stone to London, perhaps with enormous pomp, will give Scotland a symbolic role in the ceremony. Either way, disturbing the Stone releases odours that remind us of the past.
First published on the author’s Substack blog A letter from Scotland
Featured image of replica Stone of Destiny via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0; image of Ben Aden courtesy of Rob Bruce
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