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The Stone of Destiny: sacred kingship in the 21st century

The Scottish Stone of Scone – or Stone of Destiny – is probably one of the most famous and only remaining reminders of ancient and sacred kingship.

Philip Coppens


Every story has a beginning. But this story, may have several. And it may have several endings. The “Stone of Destiny”, the stone placed inside the coronation chair upon which British monarchs are crowned, could be as recent as five decades old, seven centuries, or three if not more millennia. Known as the Stone of Destiny – or Stone of Scone, after the Scottish castle where the Scottish kings were formerly crowned – it used to sit under the coronation chair in London’s Westminster Abbey, until Thursday, November 14, 1996. On St Andrew’s Day, November 30, 1996, the stone went on display in Edinburgh Castle, with the intention to shuttle the stone to Westminster Abbey for future coronations of the British monarch.
Edinburgh Castle was one of several candidates and a tourist, rather than historical, solution. The stone used to sit in Scone, now a suburb of Perth, on the Moot Hill, next to Scone Palace. The Hill was created by sand taken here in the boots of those lords who had sworn allegiance to the Scottish king. Here, Scottish kings were crowned, coinciding with regal processions.
The relationship between Scotland and England has never been straightforward. In 1296, Edward I of England annexed Scotland – remember Braveheart? – and took the Stone of Scone, which functioned as a talisman to the Scots, south of the Border. The stone weighed 990 kilos and Edward I had iron rings fixed to each side for its journey South. It would remain there until 1996… or rather, 1951. For it was in 1950 that the Stone was stolen from Westminster, on Christmas morning 1950. Though often perceived as a student prank, one of the protagonists, Ian Hamilton, has always tried to make clear that he did it for political motivations. When the police believed the Stone would make his way back to Scotland, the border between Scotland and England was closed, for the first time in 400 years. But despite these efforts, the stone made it into Scotland, where it was “left to be found” shortly afterwards, upon which it was taken back to Westminster.

The culprits were never charged, as the Crown Prosecution could apparently never make the argument that the Crown actually owned the Stone. Possession, it seems, is often nine-tenths of the law when it comes to the Crown itself too. But amidst all of this legalese, modern legends were created – if not fabricated – to underline the pain of the Scots over “their Stone” being in England.
Hence, some believe that the real Stone was substituted with a copy in 1951. Amateur historian Archie McKerracher states that Bertie Gray not only made a copy of the stone in 1928, he also made one in 1950. He thinks that the 1950 copy is the one that was returned to Westminster Abbey. “The 1928 copy which wasn’t quite as accurate is in the church in Dundee, and the Westminster Stone is at a secret location in the Arbroath area… it is produced on certain occasions and taken through the streets of Arbroath. I don’t think the Westminster people, having got a stone back, were going to quibble.”

The coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, at a time when the Stone of Destiny was still in situ.

If the real stone was substituted with a copy in 1950, then this would make the stone in Edinburgh Castle… a fake. But even if that were the case, there are those who doubt that the stone taken by Edward I in 1296 was the real one. Author Pat Gerber believes a fake stone was given to him, with the real stone secreted somewhere nearby. It may explain why Edward I sent a raiding party of knights back to Scone on August 17, 1298. They ripped the Abbey apart in a desperate search. But for what? The real Stone? Whatever they were looking for, it is known that they returned empty-handed. Furthermore, Gerber and others point out that the Treaty of Northampton in 1328 included the offer of return of the Stone. But the Scots did not ask for the insertion of that clause. Edward III offered it again in 1329, even suggesting the Queen Mother could take it to Berwick. Offered a final time in 1363, again, the Scots did not seem to want their talisman back. Did they know the “real one” was false?

Is the “official” Stone of Destiny real? Cambray in his “Monuments Celtiques” claims to have seen the stone when it bore the inscription: “Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocumque locatum Invenient lapidiem, regnasse tenetur ibidem”: “If the Destiny proves true, then the Scots are known to have been Kings wherever men find this stone.” There is no such inscription on the official Stone.
In 1968, Wendy Wood wrote that she went to Wesminster Abbey “and slipped a piece of cardboard under the complicated iron railings, on which was printed, ‘This is not the original Stone of Destiny. The real Stone is of black basalt marked with hieroglyphics and is inside a hill in Scotland.’” She was referring to Dunsinnan Hill, a hill to the east of Scone, and a story that has been popular for many decades.
In the late 19th century, Seton Gordon stated that the Earl of Mansfield, whose family have owned the lands of Scone for more than 300 years, had told him of a tradition, which had been handed down through several generations. It stated that somewhere around the dates 1795-1820, a farm lad had been wandering with a friend on Dunsinnan Hill after a violent storm. The torrential rain had caused a landslide, and as a result of this, a fissure, which seemed to penetrate deep into the hillside, was visible. “The two men procured some form of light and explored the fissure. They came at last to the broken wall of a subterranean chamber. In one corner of the chamber was a stair which was blocked with debris, and in the centre of the chamber they saw a slab of stone covered with markings and supported by four stone ‘legs’. As there was no other evidence of ‘treasure’ in the subterranean apartment the two men did not realise the importance of their ‘find’ and did not talk of what they had seen. Some years later one of the men first heard the local tradition, that on the approach of the King Edward I, the monks of Scone hurriedly removed the Stone of Destiny to a place of safe concealment and took from the Annety Burn a stone of similar size and shape, which the English King carried off in triumph. When he heard this legend, the man hurried back to Dunsinnan Hill, but whether his memory was at fault regarding the site of the landslide, or whether the passage of time, or a fresh slide of earth, had obliterated the cavity, the fact remains that he was unable to locate the opening in the hillside. It may be asked why the monks of Scone, after the English king had returned to England, did not bring back to the abbey the original Stone of Destiny, but the tradition accounts for this explaining that it was not considered safe at the time to allow the English to know that they had been tricked, and that when the days of possible retribution were past, the monks who had known the secret were dead. This tradition, it is held, explains why the Coronation Stone in Westminster Abbey resembles geologically the sandstone commonly found in the neighbourhood of Scone.”

It does appear that the stone in Westminster Abbey/Edinburgh Castle is sandstone, and is thus perhaps local to Scone. And if so, it may be the official “Stone of Scone”, but not the real one. For according to legend, the Stone of Scone did not come from Scotland, but from Ireland, and before that Spain, and before that Egypt, and before that… the Holy Land.

But before retracing this voyage, amidst this myriad of possibilities, let us note what is known. It is known that at least by 906 AD, Scone was a royal city and that kings were crowned on the royal stone chair. According to an old chronicler, “no king was ever wont to reign in Scotland unless he had first, on receiving the royal name, sat upon this stone at Scone, which by the kings of old had been appointed to the capital of Alba.”

The Moot Hill, from the back

With the official – and perhaps real – Stone of Destiny in Edinburgh Castle, a conform copy now sits on the Moot Hill, marking the location where the Scottish kings were crowned. Scone, and not Scotland’s modern capital of Edinburgh, was the Ancient Crowning Place of the Scottish Kings. The mound has been known by many names: Moot Hill, Omnis Terra (every man’s land) and Boot Hill have already been explained. Another name is the Hill of Credulity (or Hill of Belief), which dates from AD 710 when the Pictish King Nectan came to Scone to embrace the customs of the Church of Rome. And as mentioned, the name by which it is best known today, is the Moot Hill.
From the time of Kenneth MacAlpin, who created the Kingdom of Scone in the 9th century, all the Kings of Scots were crowned upon the Moot Hill, seated upon the Stone of Scone. Even after the Stone’s removal by King Edward I in 1296, the Moot Hill continued to be the crowning place of the Scottish Kings. Probably the greatest historic event to take place at Scone was the coronation of Robert the Bruce, who declared himself King of Scots upon the Moot Hill on March 25, 1306. That the “official” Stone of Destiny was already south of the Border, may have made the coronation all the more emotional – if we believe Braveheart. The last coronation held at Scone was that of King Charles II as King of Scots on 1 January 1651, some nine years before he was restored to the English throne. Since 1707, there has been a Union between Scotland and England, though in recent years, Scotland’s devolution from a London-based government should no doubt be seen as a key as to why the Stone was returned in 1996.

Though “typically Scottish”, its origins do not seem to be Scottish at all. Around the time the Stone was taken to England, Robert of Gloucester (1240-1300) wrote that the first Irish immigrants brought the stone with them into Scotland, stating it was a “whyte marble ston”. So rather than sandstone, or black basalt, the stone is then said to be white marble. As Robert of Gloucester wrote at a time when an official stone was still in residence in Scone, his account of the nature of the stone carries much weight – and would indeed indicate that the official Stone is a fake.
But the history goes further back in time than Ireland. Hector Boece wrote in the “Scotorum Historiae” in 1537, that Gaythelus, a Greek, the son either of the Athenian Cecrops or the Argive Neolus, went to Egypt at the time of the Exodus, where he married Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh, and after the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, fled with her by the Mediterranean until he arrived in Portingall, where he landed, and founded a kingdom at Brigantium, now Santiago de Compostella. Here he reigned in the marble chair, which was the “lapis fatalis cathedrae instar”, or “fatal stone like chair”, and wherever it was located, portended kingdom to the Scots – those who had followed Scotia in exile.
Simon Breck, a descendant of Gaythelus, brought the chair from Spain to Ireland, and was crowned in it as King of Ireland. Later, Fergus, son of Ferchard, was first King of the Scots in Scotland, and brought the chair from Ireland to Argyll, and was crowned in it. He built a town in Argyll called Beregonium, in which he placed the Stone. The twelfth king, Evenus, built a town near Beregonium, called after his name Evonium, now called Dunstaffnage, to which the stone was removed. Dunstaffnage is near Oban, on the West coast of Scotland, and the same legend states that Fergus Mac Erc built a church on the island of Iona, and commanded it to be the sepulchre of the future kings. It should no longer come as a surprise that some argue that the “real stone” never came to Scone, but instead remained “somewhere” in or near Dunstaffnage.
Iona was indeed a sacred island, “in the West”, of pagan religious importance, for it became one of the key objectives of early Christianity to have as a powerbase. As funerals of kings and coronation ceremonies go hand in hand, the stone’s location in Dunstaffnage would make great sense, because of its proximity to Iona.

There are several ancient accounts that speak of the foreign origins of this stone, though not all accounts are identical – though largely do overlap. The “Scalacronica”, compiled in 1355, states that Simon Brec, the youngest son of the King of Spain, brought the stone from Spain, where it was used for coronations. Brec “placed it in the most sovereign beautiful place in Ireland, called to this day the Royal Place (Tara), and Fergus, son of Ferchar, brought the royal stone before received, and placed it where is now the Abbey of Scone.” In this account, there is no stop-over in Dunstaffnage, but the story does identify the Stone of Scone with the “Lia Fail”, “the speaking stone”, which named the king who would be chosen. Its residence was the coronation place of Ireland, Tara, near modern Dublin.
A similar account can be found in the “Scotichronicon”, compiled in 1386, which repeats that Gaythelus married Scota and led those that survived the disaster to Spain. Simon Brec then went to Ireland, setting up the stone in Tara, before Fergus took it to Scotland.

The Lia Fail, Tara

Legend, or a memory of a real odyssey? Historians are quick to condemn, but perhaps we should not be so quick. Herodotus stated that the enigmatic Etruscans that lived near Rome originally migrated in Italy from the Near East, an “opinion” archaeologists largely disregarded and denigrated. Herodotus stated they emigrated from Lydia, a region on the eastern coast of ancient Turkey. After an 18-year long famine in Lydia, Herodotus reports, the king dispatched half of the population to look for a better life elsewhere. The emigrating Lydians built ships, loaded all the things they needed, and sailed from Smyrna (Izmir) until they reached Umbria, in Italy. For millennia, that is where the debate rested. But recently, geneticists have shown that the Etruscans – and their cattle – did migrate to Italy from the Near East, vindicating Herodotus. And as there is a logical reason why these Egyptians would have fled their country, dismissing the possibility of the legend of the Stone of Destiny as a factual account, may come to haunt those who do so too vociferously.

The legend does not stop there. In origin, the Stone is believed to have been “Jacob’s Pillow”, referring to the Biblical story in which Jacob falls asleep on a stone and has a dream in which he sees angels descend and ascend to Heaven. It is during this mystical appearance that he utters the phrase: “How terrible is this place! This is none other then the house of the Lord and this is the gate of heaven.”
One tradition states that the stone Jacob used as a pillow at Bethel was then set up as a pillar and anointed with oil and that later, it became the pedestal of the Ark in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. But that is just one strand of the legend.
Jacob’s story is also very similar to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s description of the Grail Stone… and it is not the only parallel. For one, Wolfram’s account speaks of a mythical stone, set somewhere on Earth, and equally links it with the ascent and descent of the angels. He also sees this Grail Stone as part of the Covenant between Mankind and God, not unlike the Jewish Ark of the Covenant. And it was this Ark that was the expression of the unity of the Jewish tribes, and their special bond with God.

With the rise of Scottish independence, Scottish Nationalist John Mackay Nimmo, claimed to have the genuine Stone of Destiny. In the early 1990s, he used his group of Scottish Knights Templar to act as the mechanism to promote this heritage. The Templars bought a little church in Dull, near Aberfeldy. In it, they placed their Stone of Destiny, which they say was recovered in 1950 from Westminster Abbey and which was found in Parliament Square in Edinburgh in 1965 and kept by Nimmo in his church at Lochee in Dundee, where it lay in an iron case for all to see – until it was removed to Dull. Where to? My enquiries with some of these Knights was met with the implication that no-one wants to disclose its present location. But seeing that according to Wolfram von Eschenbach it were Knights Templar that had been entrusted with the safekeeping of the sacred Grail stone, this is a nice modern parallel.

Could it therefore be that the Stone is one of the few surviving Jewish relics? And does it remain hidden somewhere in a rather unknown and definitely ill-visited hill east of Scone?

Dunsanine Hill, near Scone

If so, that would make the Stone incredibly important… but hardly unique. Throughout the world, even in the New World, sacred stones are linked with sacred kingship. In Western Europe, the practice of such a coronation ritual is first recorded in 800AD, with Charlemagne, his marble chair still visible in Aix-la-Chapelle, France. The English were remarkably slow on the uptake, with Henry IV being the first king to be crowned in the coronation chair (containing the Stone) in 1399. But we know that the Irish had a similar stone in Tara and what to make of – for example – the benben stone in Heliopolis and its possible role in the Egyptian coronation ceremonies, or similar enigmatic stones, such as the ME, known to have been used in ancient Sumer? Or the infamous Ka’aba in Mecca…
In mythology, the Stone, and sacred stones in general, were said to provide sacred kingship and it is but a small step to link this “Seat” with the “Perilous Seat” of the Grail legends, as well as with the magical sword in the stone that only releases the sword when the righteous king takes hold of it.

In case you wonder whether in an Egyptian-Jacob context the stone might have been “white marble”, the answer is possibly, if not probably, yes. Though some have argued that Jacob’s stone may have been a meteorite and that its iron content may have instigated his vision, sacred stones made in marble are known in ancient Greece: the so-called omphalos stones, not only markers of the “centre of the world”, but also linked with oracles (sacred visions, such as Jacob) and centres of “divine kingship”, such as that of the Scottish monarchs. For the link between such stones and visions is definitely known to be extremely old, such as in the Egyptian coronation and Heb Sed festivals, in which the ceremony involved a ritual in which the Pharaoh was asked to not merely unite “the land”, but also the land with “the Afterworld”.
In Scone, the land was symbolised by the combined earth, carried in the boots of the vassals, making the Moot Hill into a primordial hill. But if this Stone was of Egyptian origin, it may indeed have been the desire of this Egyptian princess, Scota, to take the coronation stone with her, so that it would not fall into the hands of the invaders. And if – if – the Stone in Edinburgh Castle is indeed the original Stone, than it may – may – be that Scottish and British kings have been crowned according to a tradition of sacred kingship. The British Queen or King is, of course, even without the Stone, one of the few remaining heads of State that is also the Head of the Church. And thus, the Stone, whether real or merely symbolic, continues to play a key role in a tradition of sacred kingship, which in the 21st century has become extremely rare.

An abridged version of this article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 73 (January - February 2009).