Popped into Scone Palace, the crowning place of Scottish kings, in deepest Perthshire. National Trust? I enquired hopefully of the kindly lady at the kiosk. No. I stumped up the £11.50. As I walked across the magnificent park, an air raid tocsin made me nearly jump out of skin. It was only a peacock, strutting ostentatiously around the entrance.
Scone Palace gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, though I’m not sure if that’s a recommendation. The site has been important historically for about fifteen hundred years. This was the northern limit of the Roman Empire. The Romans never defeated the Picts, but Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots, did so, it is said by an act of treachery, in 843. He murdered the Pictish nobles at a banquet. (This is what puts me off the study of history – all the gore.) It is said he set the king-making seat, the Stone of Scone, aka the Stone of Destiny, on Moot Hill next to where the palace now stands. Macbeth ruled here in the eleventh century. John Balliol was crowned at Scone in 1292. In 1296 he rebelled against his patron, Edward 1, and during the English invasion the Stone of Scone was removed to Westminster. Robert the Bruce was crowned at Scone in 1306. The Scottish medieval parliaments met at Scone until the mid-fifteenth century. James IV was crowned at Scone in 1488. Then the court shifted to Edinburgh and Holyrood Palace. In the early seventeenth century Scone passed to the aristocratic family whose descendants still hold it. Charles II was the last king to be crowned at Scone, in 1651.
A replica of the Stone of Scone stands on Moot Hill, but the real thing is somewhere else. In 1950 a group of students snatched the stone from Westminster and brought it back to Scotland. (Incidentally, it’s important that the perpetrators of that act were students. That made it a student prank. If they had been motor mechanics or, worse still, unemployed, they would have ended up in prison.) Then the stone was returned to London, then it came back, and I gather it’s in Edinburgh, or is it inside the palace at Scone under the crowning chair beside the Scottish crown? Nobody quite knows.
I confess I don’t much mind. It is only, after all, a stone. I have never really understood the quest for the Holy Grail. Why are people prepared to pay large sums at auction for such items as the dress Marilyn Monroe wore while singing Happy Birthday to JFK, or Elvis’s Fender bass guitar, or one of Winston’s cigars? I can understand somebody coveting the Macdonald Stradivarius viola. But that is not simply because it is the most valuable musical instrument in the world; it is because it produces a beautiful sound. But when an item’s intrinsic value is due entirely to its provenance, that has me stumped.
Yet is that entirely true? Suppose I found myself in possession of the autograph of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, or Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, or Lennon-McCartney’s No Reply, would I say to myself, we have copies, this is worthless – and put it through the shredder? I think not. I would preserve it. But I like to think I wouldn’t hoard it. Give it to a museum. What is the point of acquisition? This is what I find myself thinking when I wander through a place like Scone Palace. Why, as a private citizen, would you want to surround yourself with all this opulence? All the art, the plate, the furniture. I’m trying to imagine myself dining before one of these huge tables with all the glassware, withdrawing to a room the size of a tennis court, and finally retiring to a four poster in a huge scarlet bedroom. I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep. I’d feel such a prat.