The UK, as you might have heard, is not in the best shape politically. While we try to figure out exactly what happens next with Brexit, a good chunk of the country are actually looking for the door. Scotland, most of all, is seriously considering sawing a line down the middle of the country and sailing off into the Atlantic alone.
But that’s not really anything new. Fans of historically dubious Mel Gibson films will know that there’s a long history of discontent between our northern neighbors and their London-based overlords. And not all of the stories from this centuries-long dispute involve battles and bloodshed.
Today we’ll be looking at one of the most iconic crimes in modern Scottish history, famous as much for its symbolic significance as its brass-balled daring. This is the story of the Stone of Scone: a very Scottish heist.
What is the Stone of Scone?
If for some reason you decided to visit Perthshire, in Scotland, and popped into the ancient Scone Palace for some sightseeing, you’d find in the courtyard a slab of stone, a little over 2 feet wide. You could easily mistake it for a beat up old bench, but really this rectangular chunk of sandstone holds a lot of significance in Scottish history. It’s a replica of the Stone of Scone.
Also known as the Stone of Destiny, this was the traditional coronation stone of Scotland, where kings and queens were… well, made into kings and queens. The original stone is the subject of all kinds of myths and legends stretching all the way back to the Book of Genesis.
The story goes that the Hebrew leader Jacob used it as a pillow while having trippy visions of angels. From there it made its way to Scotland via Egypt, Sicily, Spain, and Ireland, eventually ending up as one of the country’s most important holy relics. That’s most likely fiction, of course — the type of sandstone it’s made from means it was probably sourced from a quarry near the palace.
No matter though, because the stone has also been the subject of some very real legendary events. Over the past 700 years or so, the English and the Scots have been snatching it back and forth.
It started with the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, when King Edward the 1st of England gloriously brought the renegade Scots back into line (I’m sure they teach it a bit differently up north). No, this wasn’t the Braveheart one; that came a little later. Stabbing each other to death was basically the national pastime of England and Scotland for much of history. The only reason we stopped is because football was invented.
As a punishment for not helping him bash the French, Edward took the stone back to Westminster Abbey, and fixed it into the base of England’s coronation chair, where it remained for centuries. If you’re thinking to yourself, “that story hardly counts as a heist,” be patient, we’re getting to that.
It’s said that in ancient times, there was a metal plaque affixed to the stone which read:
Unless the fates be faulty grown
And prophet’s voice be vain
Where’er is found this sacred stone
The Scottish race shall reign.
That might seem like an attractive sentiment for anyone who wanted to smash apart Queen Elizabeth’s glorious empire and reinstate Scottish home rule. Symbolically, recovering the stone would be a pretty big deal.. Where lords and armies had failed for centuries, some patriotic uni students would one day succeed.
Fast forward to the mid 20th century, and the two countries have been joined as the United Kingdom for about 450 years, but there are some in Scotland who feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick in the arrangement.
By this point the people of the British isles have swapped out their longswords and crossbows for arguably more civilized methods of settling disputes: political parties and votes. Support for Scottish nationalism was still relatively weak back in 1950 though, which is why a group of students from the University of Glasgow cooked up a plan to make a big statement in its favor…
Their plan was daring: they were going to break into London’s Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, and recover the ancient stone from where it had rested for centuries. This is one of those rare instances when a heist isn’t done for monetary gain, so you don’t have to feel bad about supporting it. Their aims were purely symbolic.
The four-man team consisted of leader Ian Hamilton, and his accomplices Kay Matheson, Alan Stuart, and Gavin Vernon. Hamilton, a law student with a promising career, had spent much of the previous year reading everything he could about the abbey, looking for some exploit in its design.
Satisfied that it was theoretically possible, Hamilton brought his plan to some nationalist figures in Glasgow, and managed to secure funding from the leader of the Scottish National Party, Jack MacCormick. He offered a fifty pound contribution to the cause — worth about a thousand pounds nowadays.
With this, Hamilton decided to do some fieldwork, as planning a heist in the library was proving pretty fruitless. He repeatedly visited the abbey to look to an entry point, and one night ended up staying after hours. When he was discovered by one of the abbey staff, they assumed he was a homeless man looking for somewhere to keep warm, so they gave him a bit of money and sent him on his way.
That little humiliation was worth it though, because Hamilton discovered on his visits that one of the side doors was made of pine wood, rather than the sturdier oak used for the rest of the entrances. This was their weak point; they could easily pry this door open, and quietly gain entry in the middle of the night.
In the early hours of Christmas Day 1950, the four students gathered in London to make their plan a reality. Hamilton, Stuart, and Vernon made for the door, while Matheson kept the engine running in the getaway car. Getting into the abbey turned out to be the easy part.
After prying the door open using a crowbar, they made a beeline for the coronation seat. Had camera phones been invented back then, they would’ve been obliged to stop for photos, but instead they just got straight to work removing the stone from its nook under the chair.
What they hadn’t reckoned with is that a 152kg chunk of rock is heavy, and they hadn’t brought any means of easily shifting it. Things took a disastrous turn when they slid it out of its resting place, and the whole damn thing snapped in two. Cue a flurry of uniquely Scottish expletives when one chunk landed on one of their feet, breaking two toes.
But at least this solved the weight issue. Hamilton was able to carry one of the chunks outside by himself, placing it in the back of their Ford Anglia. What happened next was like something straight out of Hollywood.
As he reentered the abbey, the mastermind heard a policeman outside, asking Matheson why she was loitering outside the abbey. Thinking on his feet, Hamilton rushed back outside and kissed his accomplice, explaining that they were a couple of lovebirds looking for a bed and breakfast. The officer seemed satisfied enough with that, and the couple drove off with the first chunk of the stone.
When they got far enough away, Hamilton hopped out and returned to the abbey. He discovered that Stuart and Vernon had made a run for it when they heard the officer, leaving the second chunk where it had landed. He was able to scramble back to the second car with it by himself, where his skittish mates had retreated to.
It didn’t take long for the night watchman at the abbey to notice the stone was gone — it was pretty conspicuous, after all. He called the police, who set up checkpoints along the roads leading out of London, and closed the borders with Wales and Scotland. It makes sense to suspect the Scots of stealing back their stone, but why rope the Welsh into it?
Matheson had managed to get ahead of all this by leaving early, so she didn’t get much trouble from the police. She was able to slip back across the closed-off border and deliver the first chunk to her family farm.
As for the other one, it was going to be tough for the three young Scottish guys to get out of London unnoticed, so instead of heading north, they travelled to Kent in the southeast. There they buried the stone in a field, and left until the heat died down.
Back home in Glasgow, the group enjoyed seeing how their crime had stirred up previously repressed nationalist sentiment, and brought international attention to the cause. The UK government had to tread very carefully as a result, not wanting to further fan the flames (a policy since abandoned by Boris and his crew).
When the gang returned to the burial spot to retrieve the stone some months later, there was the slight complication that a group of Romani gypsies had set up camp on the field, but they didn’t interfere with the recovery. They probably just wondered why these weird northerners were treating a slab of rock like it was made of gold.
When the lads crossed the border back into Scotland, they gave the stone a splash of whisky to welcome it home. The group had finally managed two reunite the two halves of the stone, and rejoined them with the help of a Glasgow stonemason.
The Capture and Return
Meanwhile, the authorities were hard at work trying to track down the renegade Scots. They knew they were likely dealing with students, so they started doing the rounds in the places students spend the most time. No, not the pubs — the libraries.
They canvassed all of the major libraries in Glasgow and Edinburgh to find out if there had been anyone with a particular interest in the stone during the year before. This was essentially the old-fashioned equivalent of checking your Google search history, just with far less porn to sift through.
At the Mitchell Library in central Glasgow, they found exactly what they had been looking for: one student had been checking out dozens of books on the Stone of Destiny, and even more on Westminster Abbey itself. The police brought Hamilton in for questioning, and interviewed people at the university to find out the names of his accomplices.
Despite the threat of losing their places at university, and ruining their future careers, none of the gang folded. They stayed tight-lipped while the police searched their homes for the stone, coming up with nothing in the end. Still, things were getting a bit too real now, so the students started to plan their exit strategy.
It was now the start of April, and they felt there was nothing more to gain by holding onto the stone. If anything, keeping it hidden would actually dampen the publicity they had brought upon Scottish devolution.
So they contacted a pair of Scottish nationalist councillors from Arbroath, and with their help placed the stone inside the ruins of the town’s abbey, where the altar once stood. This was one last little symbolic flourish, because Arbroath Abbey was where Scotland’s 1320 Declaration of Independence was drafted up. Yes America, you’re to the only country with one of those.
After the students dropped off the stone, the custodian of the abbey locked up the site, and waited for the police. They in turn moved it to a jail cell back at Forfar Police Station. This all happened on the 11th of April 1951, meaning the stone had been absent from Westminster Abbey for over 4 months. Thankfully no coronations needed to happen in that time, because our fair queen is — as you all know — immortal.
Nonetheless, the stone was transported back down to the abbey, and installed under the seat, just in case Lizzie ever gets bored of this monarchy malarky. The students ended up facing no charges for the theft, which proves just how successful they were: Scottish nationalism had been whipped up to such a degree, the government couldn’t risk lighting the fuse on the powder keg by throwing the book at the young thieves.
That’s not to say that was the end of the rabble rousing Scots’ troublemaking though. By the time the 1990s rolled around, they were making all sorts of wild demands, like asking for their own parliament (the gall of this lot!). So in 1996, the UK government decided they could have their bloody stone back — hopefully that would shut them up.
The Stone of Scone was transported to Edinburgh Castle, where it remains to this day. Regardless, the Scottish did end up getting their own parliament in 1997, and if you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll know that the matter didn’t end there.
As for the culprits of today’s crime, they went on to graduate from university and each enjoy successful careers. Hamilton, the mastermind, became a top criminal lawyer. While looking back on the most daring deed of his youth, he told a reporter: “I’ve defended a lot of daft people during 30 years as a criminal lawyer but I doubt very much if I’ve defended anyone who was as daft as we were then.”
Daft or genius, either way they were pretty successful — the PR power of their legendary theft was a major factor in getting the stone reinstated to Scotland four and a half decades later. The understanding is that when the next coronation happens, the Stone of Destiny will be transported back down to England for the ceremony. But with the Scottish nationalists now essentially in control of the country, I’d be very surprised if they give it back quietly.
Looks like we’ll need to get those longswords and crossbows out again after all…
1. If some other legends about the Stone of Scone are to be believed, this whole thing might have been a moot point to begin with. One story states that, instead of letting their sacred stone be carried off down south, the monks at Scone Abbey actually hid it away in a river. If this is true, any intrepid treasure hunters out there could seize the chance to become de-facto king of Scotland by claiming it as their new coffee table.
Note: I decided to start adding just one Dismembered Appendix to the shorts, because it’s a nice feature.