The Stone of Scone (/ˈskuːn/; Scottish Gaelic: An Lia Fáil, Scots: Stane o Scuin) is one of the multiple stone artifacts associated with the semi-mythological ancient history of the British Isles. More precisely, it is a national symbol of Scotland that has been used in coronation ceremonies since at least seven centuries (and likely a lot more). It is presently guarded in the historical Edinburgh Castle along with many other national artefacts of Scotland and the current British Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, was also inaugurated on it. The Stone’s early history is shrouded in mystery and has given rise to a range of conspiracy theories.
Name and Dimensions
The Stone is known by multiple names due to its long history and cultural significance. In Celtic culture, it was often known as An Lia Fáil (“The Destiny Stone”), after another similar artefact in Ireland. Otherwise, it is more neutrally known as the Stone of Scone or the Coronation Stone in modern times. This present name is derived from the city of Scone near Perth in the southern Scottish Highlands. Scone was the site of the early-medieval Scone Abbey, where the Stone was situated for centuries.
The Stone of Scone is rectangular in shape, 66 cm long, 41 cm wide and 28 cm thick. It is carried with the help of two old iron hoops and used as a stool after being placed on another stone or wooden structure. The Stone is made up of reddish-yellow sandstone of Scottish origin, and is quite heavy, weighing around 152 kilograms.
Countless theories and myths have developed around the origins of the Stone of Scone over the course of centuries. According to most origin myths, the Stone is either derived from or is actually the real Lia Fáil, an ancient stone artefact in Ireland. According to this myth, the Stone was brought to Scotland by either Fergus the Great, the supposed founder of Scotland, or his descendent Kenneth MacAlpin, the legendary first king of the Picts. Indeed, connecting the Stone to Lia Fáil was a beneficial way to drastically increase its symbolic significance, for the actual Lia Fáil of Ireland was so important to the Celts that medieval Ireland eventually came to be known as Inis Fáil, the Island of Fáil (which, in turn, denotes ‘king’ or ‘ruler’).
Another theory also gained ground in the nineteenth century and to some extent, survives to this day in some very traditional groups. It was based in the idea of British Israelism, the claim that Anglo-Saxons are a Semitic, rather than Germanic people. Proponents of the idea claimed that the Stone was, in fact, brought from the Holy Land by the early migrants and has been identified with the Stone of Jacob mentioned in the Book of Genesis (28: 11, 18, 22). However, this not-so sophisticated conspiracy theory is believed by few today and has been disproven repeatedly.
Capture by England
The first explicit mention of the Coronation Stone of Scotland comes in the accounts of the First War of Scottish Independence. During the War, King Edward I of England personally invaded the Kingdom of Scotland in 1296 and captured huge areas of the Lowlands. The Stone of Scone was also taken away from its original location to England, where it was placed in Westminster Abbey in London. In 1307, Edward sponsored a special throne specifically designed to hold the Stone of Scone under its seat, thus serving as a symbol of subservience of the Scottish crown to the English one. When the War ended in 1328 with the Treaty of Northampton, Edward III, King of England, agreed to return the Stone to Scotland. He issued an order to that effect to the Abbot of Westminster, but the transfer could not take place because of mass protests in London.
There are a number of research scholars who believe that the true Stone of Scone was hidden and lost during the English invasion, and that Edward carried away another local stone to boast his prestige. Evidence for this comes from the ordinary characteristics of the Stone known today, and the probable mismatch between it and early descriptions of the Stone of Destiny. The theory has been refuted by the majority of historians, however, primarily on the basis that there was no reason for the original Stone to be kept hidden after the English retreat or to negotiate for its return. Archaeological analysis has also confirmed that the stone has gone through multiple layers of masonry work, confirming its importance since ancient times.
The Stone, when it was stolen by Edward I, allegedly included a prophesy carved in a metallic plate attached to it. The stanza read as follows, according to Sir Walter Scott:-
Unless the fates be faulty grown
And prophet’s voice be vain
Wherever is found this sacred stone
The Scottish race shall reign
The prophesy remained unfulfilled for three centuries after the Stone was captured by England, but faithful Scots never doubted its veracity. Eventually, King James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, proving its truthfulness.
In Modern Times
The Stone has been used in the coronation of every British King since. It did not make big headlines for centuries, until the twentieth century. In 1914, advocates for women’s voting rights exploded a small bomb near the Stone in protest, inflicting some physical damage. But this was nothing compared to the incident of 1950.
The theft of 1950 was carried out by a group of four Scottish university students. The Stone was sneakily stolen during a night in December, but fell and broke into two pieces. On discovering the removal, authorities shut down the border between England and Scotland, forcing the students to bury the Stone for some time, before it could be safely taken back to Glasgow. It was only in April next year that the Stone was found by the police. The four suspects were discovered and charged, but further persecution was withheld for the fear of political tensions (after all, Ireland had fought a war of independence against the England-dominated Great Britain only three decades earlier). The Stone was professionally repaired and returned to Westminster in February 1952. Speculation about the loss of the original artefact during this incident still persists in popular culture.
In 1996, the British government found it appropriate to fulfil its six-centuries old promise to return the Stone to Scotland amidst rising nationalist sentiment in the country. The Stone was placed in Edinburgh Castle on 30th November 1996, where it remains in public view to this day.