Stone Destiny

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Stone of Destiny

Like the Great War before it, the Second World War pulled Scotland and England together in a fight against a common enemy - Germany.

Old rivalries and tensions between the two countries were put aside as the whole of Britain put its shoulder to the wheel to defeat the Nazis.

It was during the war, however, that the seeds of the idea of Scottish independence were quietly being sewn - seeds which, just over half a century later, would germinate in the country once again winning home rule.

In April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war, a remarkable event occurred. In a parliamentary by-election in Motherwell, the SNP won its first ever seat, sending MP Robert McIntyre to parliament.

McIntyre only sat at Westminster for a few weeks - he lost his seat again in the General Election later in the year. But his victory sent a shockwave through the British political system, and laid the foundations for the huge success the SNP was to enjoy in future decades.

Ever since the Act of Union in 1707, dissenting voices had been raised against Scotland's incorporation into the United Kingdom. But by the Victorian era - where Scotland was so integrated into the rest of the country that it was often referred to as "North Britain" - the protests had more or less died out.

However, in the aftermath of the Great War, voices started to be raised again. In 1921 an organisation called the Scots National League, advocating independence for Scotland, was established by Ruaridh Erskine of Mar. In 1928 another key figure in the movement, John MacCormick, formed the Glasgow University Student Nationalist Association. Yet another body was the Scottish National Movement, formed by the poet Lewis Spence.

In 1928, all these bodies joined to form the National Party of Scotland. In 1932, another body, the Scottish Party, was formed as a breakaway from the Cathcart Conservative Association in Glasgow. Yet again there was a merger in 1934, and a new organisation was created - the Scottish National Party.

While the new party was trying to establish itself and promote its policy of home rule within the Empire - a sort of early version of the SNP's current policy of independence in Europe - other nationalists we embarking on a campaign of civil disobedience.

In 1937, the Wallace Sword was taken from the monument in Stirling and the Union Jack was taken down and replaced with Saltires at various Scottish castles.

The authorities, needless to say, were unamused. However, tensions really increased when the war broke out. Some nationalists, such as Arthur Donaldson, who was later to become the party's chairman, condemned the war and were imprisoned as a result.

Others, however, felt that Scots should lend their support to the battle against the Nazis. The party finally split in 1942, with John MacCormick, who believed home rule would be much more popular with Scots than independence, walking out to form his own grouping, the Scottish Covenant Association.

Robert McIntyre's victory in 1945 was remarkable, though it was more of a protest vote against the wartime coalition than anything else. After losing the seat again, the SNP settled back into obscurity.

In the general election of 1950, it fielded only three candidates and in the seats it contested, won just over seven per cent of the vote. Scots clearly had little interest in fighting for their own independence.

They were, however, still excited by the idea of having their own parliament. After leaving the SNP, John MacCormick started up a home rule covenant - a petition for a parliament which he wanted ordinary Scots to sign.

In the event, the venture was a huge success. More than two million Scots - two thirds of the electorate - signed the covenant. However, it failed to make any real impact because the Covenant Association was apolitical and wouldn't fight elections, and because the Labour government of the day simply ignored it.

However, it did have one profound effect. Deprived of a political outlet for their frustrations, some Scots turned to romantic exploits to make their case for a Scottish parliament.

Among them was a young Glasgow University student, Ian Hamilton, who was a friend of MacCormick. Along with three friends, Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart, Hamilton planned a stunt which would ultimately bring the whole of Britain to a virtual standstill and unite practically the entire Scottish nation against the English establishment.

The four youngsters decided they would seize the Stone of Destiny, the ancient stone on which Scotland's kings were crowned, and bring it back to Scotland. The stone was stolen by Edward I in 1297 from the abbey at Scone in Perthshire and taken to London as war booty, where it had been ever since. It was installed underneath the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, and monarchs sat above it when they were crowned.

Hamilton's plan seemed audacious to the point of folly. He planned to break into the Abbey, drag the stone into a waiting hire car, and drive it north to Scotland. MacCormick thought it would be a wonderful wheeze, and the scheme went ahead.

The four chose Christmas Day 1950, when they felt Londoners would be too busy celebrating to notice what they were up to, for their adventure. They drove the car up a lane by the abbey and broke in through a side door.

At a critical moment, they were disturbed by a policeman on foot, but managed to persuade him they were simply innocent youngsters larking around. Hamilton hauled the stone out of the chair but, as it came out, he accidentally broke it in two.

They bundled the two pieces into the car and sped off, and the alarm was quickly raised. They fled back to Scotland with one half of the stone - the other piece was dumped in a field in Kent, from where it was later collected.

News of what had happened quickly swept the nation. Scots were delighted and hugely amused, but the English establishment were outraged. A massive search was organised and roadblocks erected to catch the culprits.

Despite the huge search, the students managed to get back over the border and the stone was hidden away, A home rule sympathiser, the industrialist John Rollo, kept it at his factory in Bonnybridge and pinned the two pieces back together.

Hamilton realised that the stone would have to be given back. It could not be hidden forever, and the police were closing in. In any case, the stunt had served its purpose.

On 11 April 1951, they wrapped it in a Saltire left it in one of the most symbolic places possible - on the site of the High Altar at Arbroath Abbey, where in 1320 Scotland's nobles had signed the country's historic Declaration of Independence.

The authorities responded by whisking it straight back to London and putting it back in the coronation chair, where it was used for the crowning of Elizabeth II on the death of her father.

Hamilton was never charged for taking the stone. The English, however, learned nothing from the episode. If anything, their insensitivity towards the Scots actually increased.

In 1953, the new Queen came to be officially crowned in Scotland. Instead of wearing the great robes of state, as she had at Westminster Abbey, she wore ordinary clothes, and many Scots felt insulted.

A bigger issue at the time, however, was the fact that she was termed Queen Elizabeth II. Since the original Queen Elizabeth had been a purely English monarch, with no jurisdiction over Scots, many Scots felt that their new monarch should call herself Elizabeth I of Scots when north of the border.

Some Scots took out their anger by blowing up pillar boxes containing the new symbol E II R. The authorities responded by redesigning Scottish boxes, making the symbol E R instead - and that's the way they are to this day.

In 1953, Ian Hamilton joined forces again with John MacCormick to mount a legal challenge to the monarch's status. The two men raised an action against the Lord Advocate challenging the Queen's right to call herself Elizabeth II in Scotland.

They lost their case - the court decided monarchs could call themselves whatever they wanted - but won an important moral victory when Lord President Cooper, delivering his judgement, said that the idea that parliament had complete sovereignty was a "distinctively English principle which has no counterpoint in Scots constitutional law".

What Cooper appeared to be saying was that in Scotland, sovereignty rested not with the Crown and parliament, but with the people. Scots were starting to reassert themselves against English rule. It was a process which would occupy the country's people and its politicians for the rest of the century.


Meanwhile...

  • 1928

Amelia Earhart is the first woman to fly across the Atlantic

  • 1928

Alvaro Obregon, the President of Mexico, is assassinated

  • 1950

The McCarthy "witch hunts" begin in America as the Senator searches for Communist sympathisers

  • 1951

Salvador Dali paints, "Christ of St. John on the Cross"

  • 1951

Colour television is first introduced in America

  • 1928

Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

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