Clan Carruthers

CLAN CARRUTHERS: The story behind the return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland.

Stone of Destiny

According to Ben Johnson, a well known Scottish historian, the Celtic name of the Stone upon which the true kings of Scotland have traditionally been crowned is Lia Fall ‘the speaking stone’ or the stone which would proclaim the chosen king. Originally used as part of the crowning ceremonies of the Scots kings of Dalriada but was moved by Kenneth I (MacAlpin) to his capital in Scone, Perthshire around 840 AD. This was after he unified the Scots and Pictish kingdoms, although the Borders still remained outside his grasp.

All future kings would from that time be enthroned on the Stone of Destiny atop Moot Hill at Scone Palace. As such it has remained a considered and important part of Scottish Culture and history for well over 1000 years.

Below is a piece written by our good friend Gordon Casely regarding the Stone of Destiny and its return and his father’s involvement in the same. It was published in part in the Royal Celtic Newsletter No 22, from which the photos came, and reproduced here in full with Gordon’s kind permission.

Gordon Casely is an avid historian regarding all things Scottish and a great supporter of the Doric language. A freelance journalist working from his home on Deeside in North-east Scotland, Gordon writes for a range of publications – daily newspapers to monthly publications. He has worked in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London before returning to Aberdeen. In 1977, he was a founder member of the Heraldry Society of Scotland. A lifetime cyclist, he has toured by bike across every continent except Antarctica, and to date has logged some 184,000 miles. He lists his interests as pedalling the continents, painting, piping and promoting heraldry.  

Arms of Gordon Casely granted in 1988


by Gordon Casely

I’m taking an alternative look at the Stone of Scone, the Destiny Steen, the Lia Fail, Clach Sgain, the Coronation Stone, the Westminster Stone. We’ll touch on people from the Biblical Jacob to the political Michael Forsyth, we’ll mention Winston Churchill, and we’ll take in places from Israel to Ireland, Argyll to the Forth and Clyde Canal. I’ll also mention the tiniest family link with The Stone.

But first, what IS The Stone? And is it THE Stone? Today we rightly venerate it as it lies beside the Honours of Scotland in the Crown Room atop Edinburgh Castle. If you haven’t seen it there, then GO AND SEE IT NOW

The story starts in Genesis Chapter 28, when Jacob uses The Stone as a pillow. I’ve slept outdoors in many places, but I’ve yet to use a stone for a pillow.

The Stone that was Jacob’s Pillow leaves the Holy Land and heads west by way of Iberia and Hibernia, to Scotland, and becomes transformed into the holy Stone on which our monarchs are crowned. The once pillow has become a saddle-shaped seat. We have a notion of what it looks like from the Royal seal of King Alexander III.

Seven hundred years on, and in the late hours of Christmas Eve 1950, this holy relic had become transmogrified into an ungainly lump of Perthshire stone weighing two-and-a-half hundredweight and sitting in a shelf inside the wooden Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.

Then four young students – Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Alan Stewart and Gavin Vernon – break into the Abbey and perpetrate the so-called “crime of the century”. The advice they receive beforehand from the poet Hugh MacDiarmid is blunt: “…hurt no one and nothing except Establishment vanity”. The raid by these modern-day reivers was audacious.


It might be convenient to pause at this point and ask ourselves: “Why take The Stone at all?”.

A little background. In the 1945 general election, the Labour Party – established in Scotland by Keir Hardie, and founded on a plank of Home Rule for Scotland – the Labour party campaigned on this promise. But when Labour did come to power, Clement Attlee’s government conveniently forgot all about it. So the Scottish National Covenant Association was formed.

A petition containing nearly two million signatures was presented to Downing Street in 1949….and there the matter rested. Churchill, then leader of the Opposition, recognised the dangers inherent in the Covenant, and early in 1950 charged a young up-and-coming MP Alec Douglas-Home with the brief to return to Scotland and “wreck the Covenant”.

Well well, within months, the Covenant was suddenly found to contain signatures from people as disparate from Mickey Mouse to the Tsar of Russia – and thus the credibility of the Covenant vanished. Back now to our tale.

The Stone Leaves London

The raid by these modern day reivers was audacious. In the dead of night during an English holiday (Christmas then was barely celebrated here in Scotland. Some of you will recall buying Christmas Day papers, and having the postman make a delivery. I remember the binmen emptying the bins on Christmas Day, and the trams still running). Anyway, on this holy and then English holiday, a Stone as big as a ‘sack o tatties’ was prised out from below the wooden throne in the Abbey (Westminster), and spirited away. The job didn’t go perfectly: the Stone broke in two – but at least that made it possible to carry.

What effect did the removal of it have? Ian Hamilton – still with us in his 93st year – wrote many years later: “I quite simply wanted to make a gesture for my country – like a lover who sends flowers, however hopeless his love”.

In those days, England’s newspapers closed down for Christmas, but Scottish papers published as usual. Thus The Stone proved a Caledonian news bonanza, and covered the papers inside and out. So when England’s newspapers resumed publication on Wednesday 27 December, one story led.

Sacrilege at Westminster!” roared the Daily Telegraph. “A coarse and vulgar crime thundered The Times. “Is nothing sacred to these criminals?” yelled the Daily Mail.

The taking of The Stone captured Scotland’s imagination. But there was no laughter from the Establishment.

The Stone created the greatest manhunt ever seen in the UK. Every police force in Britain was involved. Ports were closed, cars were stopped and English policemen were sent to Scotland. Legally, English police have no jurisdiction here, but they were sent because of doubts in London about the loyalty of Scotland’s police forces. One Glasgow policeman, quoted at the time in the Daily Record, summed it up when he said “Aye we’re looking for them, but no so damned hard that we’ll catch them”.

Enter now the tiniest of family connections to The Stone. In August 1950, my father Fred Casely was involved in the hunt for it and it came about this way. My Dad served on the Allied Control Commission in post war Germany and headed the so called ‘Public Safety’ programme for Hamburg.

“Public Safety” was a euphemism for the Allied programme of deNazification, and my Dad’s boss was Col Frank Foley, who headed the MI6 desk in Berlin….though my Dad himself never served in MI6.  Col Foley was the man whom I called “Uncle Frank”, and of whom I still have the vaguest memories, for he was a frequent visitor to our home in Hamburg.

On arrival back in Scotland in 1950, my Dad’s experience saw him parachuted into Special Branch with Glasgow Police. Now what follows is from the many happy discussions with my Dad in his latter years.

In those days, Special Branch in Glasgow was the focus within Scotland for identifying recruits to, and members of, the Scottish National Party (It was never simply called “SNP” in those days).  

The Scottish National Party was then an organisation which had around 200 members – and that was on a good day with a following wind. But the Scottish National Party and its wicked cohorts such as the Scottish National Congress were seen as dangers to the state (especially a disgruntled few in the wake of the failure of the  Covenant).

Identifying Scottish Nationalists and keeping tabs on the blighters was the task led by my Dad and his colleague Willie Kerr – later chief constable of Dunbartonshire.

This was August 1950. Five months later, came the news that four students from Glasgow University had removed the Stone from Westminster Abbey. Churchill himself ordered every effort to find the Stone.

Then came the news that four students from Glasgow University had removed the Stone from Westminster Abbey. Churchill himself ordered every effort to find it.

The police combed Scotland, and came up with….nothing. Looking back now, it stretches credulity that the best investigative brains were apparently unable to crack the case, for the parts played by Ian Hamilton and his team were pretty obvious. For a start, in the summer of 1950, Ian Hamilton had gone to the reference department of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and read every book on The Stone and Westminster Abbey. In doing so, he signed every book slip with his own name.

A decade ago, my Dad spoke freely of his time in Germany and in Scotland and in Special Branch, pointing out “After all this time, who’ll bother about the Official Secrets Act?”. But his intriguing remark was his recall of the sentiment “Find The Stone and those who did it …..but don’t try too hard”.

To the end of his days – and my Dad lasted until 94 – he delighted in an apocryphal tale from days of hunting The Stone. A suspect was hauled in for questioning: “Who stole The Stone?”. After hours of third-degree interrogation – bright lights, thumbscrews, the rack – he finally cracked. “All right. I’ll tell you who stole it”. The bobbies leaned forward: “Right, who stole it?”. “Edward the First”.

All kinds of tales did the rounds about where The Stone was, or where it might be. The Forth & Clyde Canal was popular, as was “somewhere in Skye”. More realistically perhaps, there were thoughts from on high that The Stone might be unveiled on some iconic spot. In Argyll, Chief Constable Kenneth Mackinnon of Argyllshire Constabulary, received orders to guard Dunadd day and night

Now Dunadd is that enormous knob of rock that rises up on the huge plain between Crinan and Kilmartin, and it was on Dunadd that the early kings of Scots were anointed. If you’ve ever been to Dunadd, you’ll realise the difficulty facing three lads and a lassie in trying to haul a lump of stone weighting an eighth of a ton up this enormous edifice.

The unspoken order of “Find The Stone, but don’t try too hard” certainly gains credence given that The Stone was never found. Exactly 100 days after removal from Westminster, it turned up one April morning in 1951, wrapped in a Saltire, sitting on the site of the High Altar in Arbroath Abbey. It was my old Evening Express colleague Arthur Binnie, then a young reporter in Arbroath, and latterly a distinguished BBC producer, who received a tip-off about this, and thus he was there with a photographer to record the “discovery” of The Stone – gaining an exclusive that hit every newspaper here and abroad.

All this rather confirms the view that Scotland’s police didn’t over-exert themselves in searching for The Stone. This state of affairs in itself raises the question “Why?”. Why didn’t the police set to with a will? Why didn’t they haul in the criminals? Why didn’t they establish the location of the Stone? There’s a PhD lurking in here for someone. (Hector McNeill, was Secretary of state for Scotland at the time)

Exactly 100 days after removal from Westminster, The Stone turned up one April morning in 1951 on the site of the High Altar in Arbroath Abbey. It was my old journalist colleague Arthur Binnie, then a young reporter in Arbroath and latterly a distinguished BBC producer, who had the tip-off about this, and he gained an exclusive that hit every newspaper in the western world.

But what The Stone did do for Scotland was to unleash the most enormous flood of national feeling and what it means to be Scots – as well as creating a fountain of fun, laughter and merriment. Jokes and songs emerged at the expense of the Establishment. These were promptly banned by the BBC who po-facedly proclaimed that the theft was a combination of sacrilege and treason and no laughing matter. This censorship lasted for years. As late as 1960, the folk song The Wee Magic Stane was banned by the Beeb.

It takes an anecdote to convey how much the Establishment regarded removal of the Stone as an action against the British State. In 1966, the Glasgow kirk minister John Gray visited London to see the then exhibition marking the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Westminster Abbey.

He noted one item in the exhibition as labelled “The 20th century jemmy used in the theft of the Stone of Scone in 1950”. On his return, Mr Gray was quoted in the Scottish Daily Express: “The jemmy should have been described as ‘The tool used in the recovery of The Stone’”. This remark nearly cost Rev John Gray the Kirk Moderatorship.

Is the current Stone real?

When we speak of The Stone, the question is always asked: “Aye, but is it the real Stone?”.

You’ll recall that as The Stone was being taken, it came away in two pieces. It was put together in Glasgow by Robert Gray, master stonemason, and later a local magistrate. In doing so, Bertie Gray inserted a tube into The Stone confirming the work he’d done. He was also fly enough to make at least two copies of The Stone. A further copy or copies may also have been made by the engineer John Rollo at his works in Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire.

Years later, in 1970, Bertie Gray gave one stone to St Columba’s Parish Church, Dundee.  The Knights Templar also have a stone at Dull in Perthshire. My old heraldic friend Raymond Morris of Balgonie has a stone at his home in Balgonie Castle in Fife.

So how many Stones have there been? There’s Jacob’s Pillow; there’s the Lia Fail. There’s the Stone that was at Scone. There’s the Stone taken by Edward I in 1296. For simplicity, let’s count all these as one. Add say one duplicate made by Robert Gray or John Rollo: that’s two. The Knights Templar have a third. The Dundee stone makes four, and the Balgonie stone five. My father recalled a Stone found in the countryside above Cumbernauld in the mid-1950s: that’s six. And on Christmas Day 1970, Wendy Wood, leader of the Scottish Patriots, left a stone in the doorway of Parliament Hall in Edinburgh, making seven.

There’s only one problem with all these delightful stories. Ian Hamilton guarantees that The Stone he left in Arbroath Abbey was the one that he and his friends removed – and he should know.

But was the Stone that lay in Westminster, real?

But there’s another question altogether: was The Stone that lay in Westminster Abbey for 700 years itself the real Stone of Destiny? Beware now – we’re about to enter the Land of Conspiracy Theorists.

The “Westminster Stone Theory” holds that the Stone once under the Coronation Chair and now in Edinburgh Castle is not the true Stone but a 13th-century substitute – and it comes about this way.

Edward I had sworn to extirpate Scotland as a nation, and he planned to do this by removing the national relics that make us who we are. He had already taken our regalia, our records, and St Margaret’s splinter of the True Cross, the Holy Rood – from which Holyrood Abbey and Holyroodhouse take their names….a lesson in pronunciation by-the-by for those who refer to HollyRood.

The original Stone of Destiny was of sacred and cultural significance. A king of Scots was not so much crowned to indicate his kingship, but “set upon The Stone”.

So for Edward to confiscate an object so precious to us and so symbolic of our existence, would represent absolute humiliation. Edward was unwise enough to boast of his plans.

Enter one of my personal heroes, Thomas of Balmerino, Abbot of Scone for 21 years, and during whose time The Stone vanished. Thomas learned in March 1296 that Edward had reached Berwick. He also knew of Edward’s ambition to wrest The Stone. So Thomas had plenty of notice to hide The Stone. Since Edward couldn’t possibly have returned south without his prized Stone, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ had to allow himself to be fobbed off with a chunk of red Perthshire sandstone….the very piece of geology now on display in Edinburgh.

Consider this: The Westminster Stone is a rough lump. In appearance, it’s neither remarkable nor impressive. The only unusual thing about it is the presence of wrought-iron loops at each end, so that the Stone might be transported slung from a pole.

This hypothesis is backed by the historian and one-time Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Scotland, Dr James Richardson – who before he died in 1970, produced a monograph on the subject.

So where could the real Stone be, if the one on display in Scotland isnt it?

Treaty of Edinburgh

So where might the real Stone be? Have we three hours to discuss the logical and the rational, as well as mere wishful thinking?

Dr Richardson points out that there is no record of our requesting the return of the Westminster Stone in the century after its departure – which we would surely have done given its importance as a national relic. This absence of a request is quite marked in the Treaty of Edinburgh of 1328, a treaty very much drawn in Scotland’s favour. This treaty stipulates the return of the Scottish regalia, our national records and St Margaret’s Holy Rood, but doesn’t mention The Stone.  

Reports of the coronation of King Robert Bruce in 1306 refer to his ceremony as being done to “the full tradition”. This was a decade after Edward I went south with The Stone. Do these reports therefore suggest that the real Stone was involved?

Fast forward to 1996, and enter Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland, the apparent villain. At that time, the Tories (Conservatives) had 10 MPs in Scotland and were desperate to retain their existing seats, never mind gaining more

I liked Michael Forsyth. He was such a lovely chap whom we in the press just loved to hate. We gave him a whole variety of nicknames, of which the politer ones are Dracula, The Mekon, the Prince of Darkness.

At his Aberfoyle home one Sunday morning in June 1996, Michael Forsyth came up with the idea of placating us rebellious Scots and whingeing Jocks by having The Stone repatriated. Actually it was his elder daughter who thought up the whole brilliant scheme.

London vehemently opposed the idea, with the Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Michael Mayne, leading the charge against any notion that The Stone should ever depart his care. John Major’s government was most unhappy at the whole idea.

So it says much for Lord Forsyth of Drumlean that he successfully drove his idea forward, and in an unforgettable event bearing fullest trappings of State ceremonial, The Stone returned to Scotland, arriving back to Edinburgh on St Andrew’s Day 1996. It says much for the humanity of Michael Forsyth that he personally extended invitations to the four student rievers who’d removed The Stone back in 1950.

So today, The Stone lies inside the tiny Crown Room that houses our Honours of Scotland on the summit of Edinburgh Castle rock. How oddly curious that our Honours Three are dominated by an untidy lump of anonymous Stone, decorated by rusty rings at each end. Is this The Stone?

Where are we now?

In 1997, I was one of those members of the Heraldry Society of Scotland who enjoyed a privileged out-of-hours visit to the Crown Room to inspect the Stone at close quarters, and to hear a presentation on it by David Breeze, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Scotland. Dr Breeze is under no illusion that the Stone in Edinburgh Castle is the one taken from Westminster Abbey in 1950, and is the one taken to London by Edward I in 1296.

So what should the place of The Stone be when eventually Her Majesty is succeeded upon the throne by the Duke of Rothesay? In victory, magnanimity. I suggest that The Stone be despatched from Edinburgh south to Westminster with fullest honour and ceremony, to maintain the tradition of English kings since Edward II and monarchs of the United Kingdom since Charles I all being crowned on it. It would be the worst expression of synthetic victimhood for us Scots to deny The Stone a return passage to Westminster Abbey.

So The Stone is back home in Scotland, and I think we’d all agree that it rightly belongs here. It may not be the actual Fia Lail, nor the Stone of Scone, nor Jacob’s Pillow – but the importance of it lies in what it represents – and in this we have been victorious.

The movie.

The Film made on 2008 recounting the story of the reclamation of the Stone to Scotland

A film about the retrieval of The Stone was made and released in 2008. It was called simply ‘The Stone of Destiny’ and was taken from the book by Ian R Hamilton QC called ‘The Taking of the Stone of Destiny’.

In the film the students were seen being arrested at Arbroath Abbey where they left The Stone, however it wasn’t until sometime later that this occurred. The curator of the Abbey gave the group time to make their escape before calling the police. The film remains worth the watch if the opportunity arises.

Also one of the wee songs on the recovery of the Stone to Scotland was written in 1952 by Johnny McAvoy called the Wee Magic Stane, two years after it was rescued. This may be of interest to those who enjoy Scottish folk music and who understand or appreciate the Scots language.

Gordon Casely describes it as a bonnie wee ditty with a chorus that goes like this: Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay


Nou the Dean o Westminster was a powerfou man
He held aa the strings o the State in his hand
But wi aa this great business it flustered him nane
Till some rogues ran away wi his Wee Magic Stane
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Nou the Stane had great powers that could dae sic a thing
An athoot it it seemed we’d be wantin a king
So he sent for the polis and made this decree
“Go hunt out the Stone and return it to me”.
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

So the polis went beetlin right up tae the North
They hunted the Clyde and they hunted the Forth
But the wild folk up yonder just kidded them aa
Fir they didna believe it was magic ava
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Nou the Provost o Glesca, Sir Victor by name
Wis affa put oot fin he heard o the Stane
So he offered the statues that staun in George Square
That the High Church’s masons might mak a few mair
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Fin the Dean o Westminster wi this was acquaint
He sent for Sir Victor and made him a saint.
“Now it’s no use you sending your statues down heah”
Said the Dean, “But you’ve given me a jolly good ideah”.
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

So he quarried a steen o the very same stuff
And dressed it aa up till it looked like enough
Then he sent for the press and announced that the Stane
Had been found and returned tae Westminster again
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Fin the reivers found oot fit Westmminster hid done
They went aboot diggin up steens by the ton
And fir each een they feenished they entered the claim
That this wis the true and original Stane.
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

But the cream o the joke still remains tae be telt
For the bloke that wis turnin them aff on the belt
At the peak o production wis sae sairly pressed
That the real een got bunged in alang wi the rest
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

So if ever ye come on a steen wi a ring
Just sit yirsel doon and appoint yirsel king
Fir there’s nane wad be able ti challenge yir claim
That ye’d croont yirsel King on the Destiny Stane
Wi a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay.

3 thoughts on “CLAN CARRUTHERS: The story behind the return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland.”

  1. I have an insurance document whereby the Stone of Destiny was insured but my father’s insurance broker for the passage from London to Arbroath in 1953. I’m thinking this was after Queen Elizabeth 11 coronation. Is this of historical interest? I found it when clearing my parents house. It is framed. Rosemary Young

    1. This would be great, a pic of your dad, a bit about him and a copy of the insurance doc. We will do sa blog on it

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.