The Stone of Destiny – is also known by many different names including Stane o Scuin, – Jacobs Pillow Stone-Tanist Stone in Gaelic as Clach-na-cinneamhain or Lai-Fail and in England as The Coronation Stone– is an ancient symbol of Scotland’s monarchy. For centuries, it was used in the inauguration of Scottish kings, until it was stolen by England’s king in 1296. The stone is formed from coarse-grained, pinkish buff sandstone similar to that found in Perthshire and Angus, within a few miles of Scone. Though seen as a sacred object, its earliest origins are unknown.
Each end of the stone is fitted with an iron staple, held in place by lead, which connects to an iron ring with a figure-of-eight link. The upper half of the stone is much better dressed than the bottom, which is broken away at the corners. The sides have a rough finish. The purpose of the rough ‘rectangle’ cut into the top surface is unknown – it may be unfinished. Two crosses are also cut into the top. It is 26 inches by 16.7 inches by 10.5 inches and weighs 335lbs
Historically the stone was kept at the now ruined Scone Abbey in Scone near Perth having been brought to there by Kenneth MacAlpin from Iona
Edward I stole the stone from the Scots and had it built into a new throne at Westminster Abbey in London. As part of the Coronation Chair, it was used in the coronation ceremonies of the monarchs of England and, later, Great Britain. Some doubt exists over the stone captured by Edward I. The Westminster Stone theory posits that the monks at Scone Palace hid the real stone in the River Tay, or buried it on Dunsinane Hill, and that the English troops were tricked into taking a substitute. Some proponents of this theory claim that historic descriptions of the stone do not match the present stone. This act of removal, Edward I was effectively declaring that Scotland was no longer a kingdom but a mere province of England.
In the 1328 Treaty of Northampton between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England, England agreed to return the captured stone to Scotland; riotous crowds prevented it from being removed from Westminster Abbey. The stone remained in England for another six centuries, even after King James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne as James I of England in 1603. For the next century, the Stuart kings and queens of Scotland once again sat on the stone – but at their coronation as kings and queens of and in England.
John de Balliol was the last Scottish king crowned on it in 1292, and on the 25th March 1306, Robert the Bruce (r. 1306-1329) was the first Scottish king to be crowned without the stone, although the ceremony was held as usual in Scone Abbey. As fate would have it, a Scottish king did eventually get to be crowned while sitting on the Stone of Scone. This was James VI of Scotland (r. 1567-1625) who also became James I of England CE (r. 1603-1625) when he was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1603. This happened because his predecessor Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603) had died without children, and James, Elizabeth’s closest relative, was invited by the nobles of England to take the throne. James was of the Stuart line, and that house would rule England until 1714, all of its monarchs taking their place above the Stone of Scone in their coronation. The Scots had finally turned the tables on the English after Edward I’s theft 300 years earlier, and one of the legends of the stone had proved correct: a Scottish king now ruled where the stone resided. it was last used in 1953 for the coronation of our current Queen of UK and Northern Ireland
On Christmas Day 1950, a group of four Scottish students (Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart) removed the stone from Westminster Abbey for return to Scotland During the removal process, the stone broke into two pieces. After burying the greater part of the Stone in a Kent field, where they camped for a few days, they uncovered the buried stone and returned to Scotland, along with a new accomplice, John Josselyn.
According to one American diplomat who was posted in Edinburgh at the time, the stone was hidden for a short time in a trunk in the basement of the consulate’s Public Affairs Officer, unknown to him, before it was removed The smaller piece was similarly brought north at a later time. The entire stone was passed to a senior Glasgow politician, who arranged for the Glasgow stonemason Robert Gray to repair it professionally
The British Government ordered a major search for the stone, which proved unsuccessful. The custodians left the stone on the altar of Arbroath Abbey on 11 April 1951, in the safekeeping of the Church of Scotland. Once the London police were informed of its whereabouts, the stone was returned to Westminster four months after it had been removed. Afterward, rumours circulated that copies had been made of the stone, and that the returned stone was not the original.
In 1996, in a symbolic response to growing dissatisfaction among Scots at the prevailing constitutional settlement, the British Government decided that the stone should be kept in Scotland when not in use at coronations. On 3 July 1996, Prime Minister John Major announced to the House of Commons that, seven hundred years after it had been taken, the stone would return to Scotland
On 15 November 1996, after a handover ceremony at the border between representatives of the Home Office and of the Scottish Office, the stone was transported to Edinburgh Castle. An official handover ceremony occurred in the Castle on 30 November 1996, St Andrew’s Day, to mark the arrival of the stone Prince Andrew, Duke of York, representing Queen Elizabeth II, formally handed over the Royal Warrant transferring the stone into the safekeeping of the Commissioners for the Regalia. It currently remains alongside the crown jewels of Scotland, the Honours of Scotland, in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle. There was one catch which illustrates the continuing power of the stone in the imaginations of the peoples on both sides of the border: the stone must be returned to Westminster Abbey on the occasion of a coronation ceremony of a British monarch.
As part of a consultation in 2019, the Scottish Government asked the public for their views on the preferred future location for public display of the Stone of Scone. Two options were proposed: featuring as the centrepiece of a proposed new museum in Perth (a £23 million redevelopment of the former Perth City Hall) or remaining at the present location at Edinburgh Castle in a major redevelopment of the existing display
In December 2020, the Scottish Government announced the stone would be relocated to Perth City Hall The decision to move it to Perth was announced last year by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
She is one of the four commissioners for the safeguarding of the regalia who advised the Queen about all matters relating to the stone.
Viscount Stormont admits to feeling mixed emotions about the Stone of Destiny coming that bit closer when it moves to Perth in 2024.
“Obviously we would love for it to be at Scone,” he said. “But it’s going to be a couple of miles away. It’s basically home so that’s good enough.”
Perthshire North MSP and deputy first minister John Swinney said he was “absolutely delighted” by the news of its move to Perth.
“As someone who has campaigned for the Stone to return to Perthshire for almost a quarter of a century, it sometimes seemed like this day would never come,” the SNP MSP said
Myths and legends
A letter to the editor of the Morning Chronicle, dated 2 January 1819, states:
On the 19th of November, as the servants belonging to the West Mains of Dunsinane-house, were employed in carrying away stones from the excavation made among the ruins that point out the site of Macbeth‘s castle here, part of the ground they stood on suddenly gave way, and sank down about six feet, discovering a regularly built vault, about six feet long and four wide. None of the men being injured, curiosity induced them to clear out the subterranean recess, when they discovered among the ruins a large stone, weighing about 500lb [230 kg], which is pronounced to be of the meteoric or semi-metallic kind. This stone must have lain here during the long series of ages since Macbeth’s reign. Beside it were also found two round tablets, of a composition resembling bronze. On one of these two lines are engraved, which a gentleman has thus deciphered.— ‘The sconce (or shadow) of kingdom come, until Sylphs in air carry me again to Bethel.’ These plates exhibit the figures of targets for the arms. From time immemorial it has been believed among us here, that unseen hands brought Jacob’s pillow from Bethel and dropped it on the site where the palace of Scoon now stands. A strong belief is also entertained by many in this part of the country that it was only a representation of this Jacob’s pillow that Edward sent to Westminster, the sacred stone not having been found by him. The curious here, aware of such traditions, and who have viewed these venerable remains of antiquity, agree that Macbeth may, or rather must, have deposited the stone in question at the bottom of his Castle, on the hill of Dunsinane (from the trouble of the times), where it has been found by the workmen. This curious stone has been shipped for London for the inspection of the scientific amateur, in order to discover its real quality.
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. From the Holy Land it purportedly travelled to Egypt, Sicily, and Spain and reached Ireland about 700 BCE to be set upon the hill of Tara, where the ancient kings of Ireland were crowned. Thence it was taken by the Celtic Scots who invaded and occupied Scotland. About 840 CE it was taken by Kenneth MacAlpin to the village of Scone Attached to the stone in ancient times was allegedly a piece of metal with a prophecy that Sir Walter Scott translated 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.
In another legend, the stone was brought from Ireland to Scotland by Princess Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh. There is also some confusion as to whether the present Stone of Destiny is the same stone as the one related to this legend because some early medieval chroniclers describe it as a carved stone throne. Alternatively, the present stone may once have been a part of a more elaborate throne.
The Celtic king Kenneth MacAlpin (also spelt Cinaed mac Ailpin or mac Ailpein, r. c. 842-858) ruled the Kingdom of the Scots or Alba as it is sometimes known. Kenneth is credited with taking the Stone of Destiny to Scone in Perthshire around 843, perhaps as a symbol of his subjugation of the Picts who may have used the stone for their own coronation ceremonies. It was used in the ceremonies held at Scone to inaugurate Scottish kings thereafter. Lords and bishops gathered at Scone, and later at Scone Abbey, to witness their king being acclaimed and to swear oaths of loyalty. The king’s long genealogy was also proclaimed to the gathered dignitaries. Scottish kings were, as yet, not crowned or anointed with holy oil – this form of coronation ceremony would only take place from the 14th century onwards. The king did not perhaps sit on the stone either but, rather, it was used as an altar during the ceremony and set upon the small artificial mound known as Moot Hill or the ‘Hill of Belief’. Alternatively, the stone may have been used in different ways over the centuries
The centuries old Stone of Destiny was winched out of the Coronation Chair inch by inch, taking collection and conservation specialists more than six hours in total to complete the careful operation. This information is among 20 facts to be released by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stone of Destiny’s return to Scotland.
On St Andrews Day 1996 the Stone of Destiny completed a 400 mile, police escorted journey from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh Castle. This was the culmination of months’ worth of highly detailed planning.
Other facts reveal that a Glasgow pub was suggested as one of the more unusual long-term locations for the Stone, as proposed by a member of the public during the consultation process.
The transportation of the Stone within the Abbey called for a specially designed hand barrow, which was based on the type used by medieval stonemasons. It was measured and built to specifications that would allow two men to carry the 152kg Stone by hand over the narrow footbridge leading from the St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel.
Whilst specialist conservation works following the Stone’s return – carried out before it was publicly displayed – uncovered a hidden message, dating from the 1970s. Cleaning of the 700 year old, red sandstone object found a wax seal and a small lead tube containing a triangle of paper; it was later discovered to be an offcut from an official authentication document, which had been inserted into the side of the Stone. It is thought to have been done as a measure to prove the Stone’s authenticity if it was ever stolen
The idea to return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland was first suggested by Michael Forsyth’s young daughter. Lord Forsyth was the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1996.
The whole operation was conducted under great secrecy. From the announcement in Parliament on 3rd July 1996 by the then Prime Minister, John Major, of the Stone’s intended return to Scotland to its public display in Edinburgh Castle on St Andrews Day that year, detailed arrangements were known to very few.
The van driven down from Edinburgh to collect the Stone wasn’t empty. It actually contained the St Andrews Sarcophagus – an early 9th century Pictish masterpiece from St Andrews Cathedral. It was leaving Scotland for the first time since its discovery in 1833 to be loaned to the British Museum as the centrepiece of the ‘Heirs of Rome’ exhibition.
The Historic Environment Scotland team – then Historic Scotland – were met by police officers at Kings Cross station on the afternoon of Wednesday 13th November and transported through London to the Hendon Police College. From there, a couple of hours later under cover of darkness, the team was taken into central London to wait covertly in a side street until the Abbey closed to visitors. Five of the original team of seven are still members of staff at Historic Environment Scotland.
A specially-designed scaffold had to be carried into the Abbey and carefully erected over the Coronation Chair. A running pulley was mounted above and a block and tackle used to winch the Stone up and out of the Chair inch by inch then slid forward and lowered onto a purpose built hand barrow. This procedure had been rehearsed many times over the summer at Edinburgh Castle, even ensuring the equipment could take the weight of the stone.
The slow and carefully planned operation of lifting the Stone out of the Coronation Chair took six hours, with collection and conservation specialists working from 8pm on Wednesday 13th November and completing the task at 2am on Thursday 14th November 1996.The specialist team were escorted and under guard by armed police throughout the operation.
A wooden hand barrow, based on those used by medieval stonemasons, which had been specially designed and made to carry the Stone out of the confines of St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel over a narrow footbridge. The Stone, which weighs 152kg, was then taken to the nave to wait overnight until being carried out of the Abbey’s West Door early the following morning to waiting vehicles and the start of its journey north, under police escort.
On its return to Scotland, the Stone was taken immediately to a ‘secret location’ to be prepared for its public appearance at Edinburgh Castle on St Andrews Day 1996. That location was at a Conservation Centre in Edinburgh, where the Stone was closely studied and recorded for the first time in its long history. At the Conservation Centre, the Stone, covered in decades of accumulated dust and debris, was gently cleaned, using steam, to reveal the surface details; including an extraordinary array of tool marks and incisions that still remain difficult to understand and interpret even today.
Famously in the early hours of Christmas Day 1950 three Glasgow students broke into Westminster Abbey and, using a mackintosh to drag it over the tiled floor, removed the Stone. In attempting to lift the Stone out of the Coronation Chair, it fell and a corner was broken off. The students escaped back to Scotland and the Stone remained hidden for several weeks during which time it was repaired in Glasgow before being deposited on 11th April 1951at Arbroath Abbey, the signing place of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.
In the late 1970s there was another attempt by a Glasgow student to take the Stone. It was unsuccessfully and little-reported but the Abbey’s then Surveyor of the Fabric was sufficiently concerned about how to prove authenticity if the Stone was ever taken that he arranged for a small lead tube containing a triangle of paper, an offcut from an official authentication document, to be inserted into the side of the Stone and sealed with sealing wax. This was discovered during cleaning and conservation work in Edinburgh.
The Stone was privately exhibited in the Palace of Holyrood house the evening before St Andrews Day 1996, before being taken to the Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle where Prince Andrew, representing HM The Queen, formally issued the Royal Warrant to the Commissioners of the Regalia transferring the Stone into their safekeeping.
.Around 10,000 people lined the Royal Mile to catch a glimpse of the Stone of Destiny as it made its way to Edinburgh Castle from the Palace of Holyrood house on 30th November 1996.
Two years after the Stone’s return to Scotland, permission was given for British Geological Survey staff to conduct a technical examination of the Stone. The survey team carried out the works locked inside the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle. The geological results were conclusive and confirmed that the Stone was made from Old Red Sandstone quarried in the vicinity of Scone.
The most frequently asked question – “Is it the real thing?” The consistent answer over the past 20 years is: Yes. It’s the Stone taken away from Scone Abbey by Edward I of England in 1296.
Every English – and, after 1707 and the Act of Union, British – monarch since 1296 has sat on the Stone for their Coronation. The Coronation Chair was made especially for the Stone by Walter of Durham between 1297 and 1300. It has recently been re-displayed to the public by the Dean and Chapter in a chapel near the west entrance to the Abbey.
In June 1914 Suffragettes targeted the Stone and Coronation Chair to protest on behalf of women’s rights. They exploded a bomb that damaged the top of the Chair. It’s been speculated that the blast might have caused a crack in the Stone that only became apparent on Christmas Day 1950 when Glasgow students famously tried mto return the Stone to its rightful home back in Scotland.
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.
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.”
In 1924 an MP David Kirkwood put forward a Bill which would have the returned the Stone to Scotland however was defeated in the Commons by 201 to 171.
After the Stone was recovered the then 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. However 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 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.”