Rumour has it that the Stone of Destiny, kidnapped from Westminster Abbey in 1950 by a group of Glasgow University students and brought north of the border, is on its way back dyne scythe for the king’s coronation next month. But it’s all shrouded in mystery. Nobody is ever quite sure of the location of the stone. I once thought I saw it in Scone Palace, but it turned out to be a replica. I saw the real thing – as far as I know – in Edinburgh Castle. But there may be an advantage to the stone’s safety and security if its location is uncertain and there are various pretenders to its identity. It’s like that scene in Spartacus where the Roman soldiers demand of a group of insurgents that their leader identify himself. Everybody stands up and says, “I’m Spartacus!” Then there’s that gag about a cab driver who pulls up at a crowded taxi rank and calls, “Taxi for Spartacus!” A mythology grows up. Every stone of suitable dimensions claims to be the Stone of Destiny, just as, in the 1940s, every Scottish newspaper hack got the scoop when Rudolf Hess crash-landed his plane en route to seeing the Duke of Hamilton, and in the 1950s, every Glasgow policeman arrested Peter Manuel.
Back in 1950, the kidnappers, pulling the stone out of Westminster Abbey, dropped it, causing a chip to drop off the old block. They had to do a patch-up job. At the time the whole escapade was widely thought of, indulgently, as a student prank. I can’t imagine it would go down so well these days. At the very least, the students would be “rusticated”.
The stone is currently being analysed in minute detail by Historic Environment Scotland, and a team based in the Engine Shed in Stirling. It’s a fantastic place, a museum specialising in engineering and industrial materials in Scotland. Prior to the pandemic I was a frequent attender, but with the first lockdown it was closed to the public, and has never reopened for the casual visitor. They have a beautiful map of Scotland, a composite photograph taken from outer space, the size of a badminton court. And a very good coffee bar.
The Engine Shed specialises in 3D digital technology, chiefly used to map ancient Scottish buildings such that they can be visited virtually. Now this technology has been applied to the stone, much as Egyptologists might study a mummy using X-ray, CT, and MRI. 3D printing can also replicate the stone.
Once the coronation is over, I believe – barring any Perfidious Albion skulduggery – the Stone will end up in Perth, in the City Hall, currently being refurbished as a museum. It’s a beautiful building, not far from the banks of the River Tay, and in the vicinity of Perth’s theatre and concert hall. A fitting destination.
But personally, I can’t get too enthusiastic about a piece of rock. Relics don’t appeal to me. A stone is a stone is a stone. I’m not in search of the Holy Grail. One grail is much like another, if you ask me. If somebody tried to sell me a sliver of wood from the Holy Rood, I would instantly recognise a scam. And even if it was the real deal… Why should a Fender bass guitar be worth a fortune just because Elvis played it? Martin Luther knew the sale of indulgences to be a scam. He pinned this, his thesis, alongside 94 others, on the church door at Wittenberg.
Still, there is a stone atop a hillock at the ancient site of Dunadd Fort, by Kilmartin, in Argyll, which is well worth a visit. The site is not a particular tourist attraction and can easily be missed on the route from Lochgilphead to Oban. Here, the ancient Scottish monarchs were crowned. There is an indentation in the stone, a footprint, into which it is said the crowned monarch placed a bare foot. The total lack of the trappings and accoutrements of tourism around this site seems to enhance its mystical atmosphere.
Justin Welby, in his Canterbury persona, was exercised about another stone on Easter Sunday, the one that closed up Jesus’ tomb. Who moved the stone? I’m not sure that there’s much to be gained from the forensic approach to Easter, though I can see how people might be attracted to attempts at historical reconstruction. The actor Robert Powell, who played Jesus in film, described during a recent appearance on Michael Barclay’s Private Passions, how when he came to render the Sermon on the Mount, in one take, he was struck by the reverberation of his own voice echoing from the stones of a natural amphitheatre. The effect was to reduce the film unit, the hard-bitten sound engineers and camera crew, to tears. Powell, without any particularly strong religious belief, became convinced that Jesus the person must have existed.
Some stones, of course, are more precious than others. There’s a gold mine just up the road from me, in Tyndrum. There’s gold in them thar hills. The human activity of mining gold, or panning for gold, strikes me as being quite odd. Gold is a soft metal. Aside from its decorative value, and its role in dentistry, it doesn’t have much utility. Certainly it is immutable, but then so are many other elements, for example, helium. Gold, for some reason, is the ultimate precious metal. You might say mankind conferred the property of preciousness upon it, recognising it as being rare and non-corrosive, and therefore a potential candidate for the basis of a currency. And yet it seems unlikely that gold became precious just because some ancient Witenagemot declared it to be so. Rather it has a mystical, talismanic quality that is quite irrational. Of course, it’s all very well my saying that gold mining is futile, but no doubt if I dug up an ingot in my curtilage, I would be perfectly happy.
Or would I? Somebody in my village won £92 on the lottery at the weekend. He showed me the ticket. I don’t do the lottery so I don’t know how these things work, but he showed me two groups of six numbers. If two of them had swapped places, he would have won forty six million pounds. “Count yourself lucky!” I said. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…”