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Stone of Destiny - Ian Hamilton

When we moved to London in February 1951 the search for those who ‘lifted’ (a lovely use of the word by my Scottish mother) the Stone of Destiny from the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey was in all the headlines. I didn’t follow the story each day because I was at school in Marylebone and study came first. Anyway I promised myself I would read the book by Ian Hamilton re-titled Stone of Destiny and now I have and it is enthralling.

Apart from a couple of chapters to bring the story up to date (this edition was published in 2008 to coincide with a film of the same name) the wording hasn’t been altered since 1952. It is very much a straight forward account of the adventure written from the viewpoint of the four Glasgow University students who did the ‘lifting’ on Christmas Day 1950. It is nearly sixty years since then and I tend to agree with Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland when he says in the foreword that this act put Scotland on the way to devolution in 2000 and maybe to full independence one day.
The group became national heroes in Scotland whilst in England they would be pursued as vandals. In recounting the story Ian Hamilton has a good turn of phrase. For instance on his return to Scotland on New Year’s Day there was the small matter of an alibi for the days in London. He had to meet his father, an Elder of the Kirk, and try and convince him his actions were true to Scottish aims. His father loved the truth and Ian was asking him to give him an alibi if the police came calling. His father agreed to lie, despite his conscience and beliefs, and Ian’s comment is It was the only Christmas present I’ve ever valued.

Ian is a very staunch Glaswegian but that doesn’t stop him from alluding to one of the most shocking novels, even talked about in the fifties, about the conditions in the Gorbals district of the thirties. As two of the students are driving through Glasgow with the Stone, Ian writes We were home again and proud to be citizens of no mean city.

Now that is an obvious reference to the 1935 novel No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums - Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long. I read it in the early fifties and it has remained in my memory as one of the few memorable novels about the working class in a large city. In the immediate post-war years it was thought that the social degradation portrayed would be eliminated under the new Welfare State being set up in Britain. Seventy-five years on, drunkeness, crime, drugs and incest still exist in parts of the cities of the world, Auckland not excepted, amidst the affluence experienced by most of the people.

Luckily Ian Hamilton was born in Paisley, became a successful QC and served a term as Rector of Aberdeen University. He does mention that three of the students are still alive, although they never met again after 1951 because there was no need to; they had achieved their aim of reviving Scottish political aspirations.
Joe Mac

Thanks for that, Castorboy. I saw the film - or part of it at least - recently and was quite taken with the story as a caper. The matter of Scottish identity doesn't interest me much, I have to admit, but it's a good story regardless.

Caper is a good word for it and although I missed the film when it came out, I am sure it will be on TV shortly. Maybe closer to the 60th anniversary of the caper!

I don’t think eighteen months qualifies as shortly but I am glad I finally saw the film. It is a surprise to see Westminster Abbey without any seats in the nave so I turned to the IMDbase for the answer – the producers used Paisley Abbey for the abbey scenes. Quite appropriate really as Hamilton was born there and and as a further tribute he is allowed to do a Hitchcock with his appearance as a passer-by during the first attempt to lift the Stone.

I thought the film was a fairly accurate rendition of the book; there is little discussion of the political aims of Hamilton and the others which does feature in the book and if put in would have slowed down the pace of an enjoyable watch.

We watched that too, Castorboy, and enjoyed it, though without much knowledge of the events.  The Listener did say that the English weren't enamoured with it, but I have noticed English people are not particularly keen on Scottish nationalistic ambitions generally and manage to find plenty of historical inaccuracies in anything on those lines.

Yes the English can be rather ambivalent in regard to Scotland. Someone said disparagingly that the best thing to come out of Scotland was the road to England and yet that symbolic road provided over a third of Britain’s prime ministers in the 20th Century!

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