This has been a huge year for Scotland, with a referendum on independence and a Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow in addition to the usual annual highlights of Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the Edinburgh Festival. Somewhat lost among all these events is the significance of the Stone of Scone, perhaps the single most important, mysterious and widely travelled object in Scottish history. This holy relic, also known as the Stone of Destiny, has been fought over by England and Scotland for centuries. According to one Celtic legend, the stone was once the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel when he beheld the visions of angels, hence its other famous moniker, Jacob’s Pillow. Thereafter, it was for centuries associated with the crowning of Scottish kings and then, in 1296, was taken to England and later placed under the Coronation Chair. It was finally returned to Scotland seven centuries later – the supreme symbol of Scottish independence for some and the ultimate symbol of the union with England for others. However, the Stone of Destiny has other, more mystical associations, which are known to few.
For an object of such mythical importance, weighted with meaning and clouded by controversy, the stone is an outwardly unremarkable thing: an oblong block of red sandstone inscribed with a rough cross, and with an iron ring embedded at either end for lifting and carrying. From the Holy Land it purportedly travelled to Egypt, Sicily and Spain, then reached Ireland about 700 years BC to be set upon the Hills of Tara, where the ancient kings of Ireland were crowned. Thence it was taken by invading Scottish Celts and removed to a monastery in Scone about AD 840. At Scone, historically, it came to be encased in the seat of a royal coronation chair. John de Balliol was the last Scottish king crowned on it, in 1292, but after the Battle of Dunbar the English king Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, seized it and took it south. At Westminster Abbey in 1307 a special throne, called the Coronation Chair, was built so that the stone fitted under it. This was to be a symbol that kings of England would be crowned as kings of Scotland also.
Various attempts have been made down the years to return the kidnapped stone to Scotland. In 1328, England agreed to return the Stone of Destiny, but by then it had already acquired huge symbolic meaning and angry English crowds prevented the stone from being removed from Westminster. The stone remained in England until 1950, when a group of nationalist Scottish students took it from the abbey (breaking it in two in the process), and then brought it north, where it was secretly repaired by a Glasgow stonemason before being brought back to Westminster. Then, in 1996, seven centuries after Edward I confiscated it, the stone once again made a journey north, after the Tory government, responding to the rising tide of nationalism, agreed that it should reside in Scotland when not in use for coronations. It is now held in Edinburgh Castle, alongside the Scottish crown jewels… or is it?
According to one theory, the stone taken by Edward I was in fact a replica, as the real stone was hidden by Scottish monks. Although the stone was used at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, once again there were rumours that the stone returned after its theft in the fifties was a copy, while the real thing remained in Scotland. Another legend concerning the stone is that attached to it in ancient times was a piece of metal with a prophecy translated (by none other than Sir Walter Scott) as: “Unless the fates be faulty grown/ And prophet’s voice be vain/ Where’er is found this sacred stone/ The Scottish race shall reign”. When Queen Elizabeth I died without issue in 1603, she was succeeded by her cousin James, who was crowned on the Stone of Scone. Patriotic Scots said that the legend had thus been fulfilled, for a Scotsman then ruled where the Stone of Scone was. While it cannot be disputed that the Stone of Destiny is indissolubly linked with Scotland, as a national symbol, as can be seen from the above, it has led a restless, uncertain and controversial existence.