In the December 1984 issue of the Scots Magazine, an article appeared entitled ‘Where is the Real Stone’. It electrified nationalists across Scotland. The author was Archie, ‘A C’, McKerracher, FSA, whose 2001 obituary in the Herald described him as a, “Scot – author, historian, writer, storyteller, and legend investigator, known to an enormous audience at home and overseas.”(https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12227284.archie-mckerracher/)
Archie’s detailed and meticulous research traced the likely origins of the Stone of Destiny, dispelling countless myths on the way, through its certain salvation from Edward I by the monks of Scone, to its eventual destination and probable resting place. This is a summary of his article, “What Was the Coronation Stone?”.
The Stone may or may not have been the Biblical ‘Jacob’s pillow’, as early authors have claimed, but it was almost certainly the portable altar used by St Columba. And it quite probably “came from the Holy Land”, a place from which several of the early Christian missionaries obtained their altars. (It was not the Irish Lia Fail stone, which is known to have remained at Tara until 1798.)
Of Palestinian origin and the resemblance of the biblical description of a stone set up as a pillar and used by Jacob as a pillow, to contemporary descriptions of Columba’s stone pillow and set up as a pillar at his grave, (Cummine, Adamnan), would certainly have been enough to suggest to imaginative chroniclers that these were one and the same.
Evidence that the coronation Stone of Scotland, if not Jacob’s pillow, was at least the altar of Columba, is provided by its arrival in Scone with relics from Iona and by the Privy Seal of Alexander III. The king is shown seated on the Stone with the motto, ‘Esto Prudens ut Serpens et Simplex Sicut Columba’: let me be as wise and humble as the Dove (Columba)’.
Whatever it was and wherever it came from, what it unquestionably was not, and is not, is the lump of rock that sat in the hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey for seven centuries and which was used for the coronation of Charles III.
A number of royal seals show the monarch seated on a cushion on top of a plain, altar like block: Alexander I (1107 -1124); David I (1124 – 1153); Malcolm IV (1153 – 1165) and William the Lion (1165 – 1214). (In the latter seal, metal hooks at the corners of the stone seem held in place by a perforated metal band.) The Great Seal of Alexander III shows the “now encased stone, placed beneath a freestanding throne, supported by pillars”. John Balliol’s seal shows a more ornate throne, now entirely encasing the Stone.
Great Seal of Alexander III
In 1954, after its famous removal from Westminster Abbey by Iain Hamilton and pals, a Dr James Richardson, (HM Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Scotland, retired), followed up on his own, longstanding doubts about the authenticity of the article Edward I had stolen. He enlarged the seat of the kings shown in the various seals and “rendered them to the same scale”. This established that all depicted a Stone of the same size, and one that, at somewhere between 18 and 20 inches tall, was considerably higher than the 10 3/4 inch block encased in the throne in Westminster Abbey.
It was Professor WF Skene (1809 – 1892) who proved conclusively that the stone in Westminster Abbey was of red Perth sandstone and could only have come from that area. He then went on to try to show that, its geological origins notwithstanding, it was somehow the real coronation Stone of Scotland so as to be able to argue that Victoria had been lawfully crowned Queen of Scots! But numerous early writers who described the Stone all agreed that it was marble-like. Some described it as black while others say that it was ornately carved. Balliol’s coronation gives the detail that the stone he was crowned on was hollowed out “in the manner of a chair”.
‘Smooth, marble-like, black, ornately carved, with a deep central hollow or bowl’ – not one of these details matches the rough hewn Perth sandstone block that has er, ‘graced’ the coronation ceremonies of English monarchs for the 726 years since Edward took it from Scone.
What Happened to the Real Stone?
What follows testifies to an act of heroic patriotism, one that has been erased by Longshanks’ successful propaganda campaign to obscure his humiliation by the monks of Scone Abbey and maintain the fiction that he had taken possession of Scotland’s true coronation Stone.
In 1296, a large, marching army gave unmistakable advance notice of its progress. The monks, therefore, had some six to eight weeks to prepare for Edward’s arrival. At that time, the exact appearance of the stone itself, now encased within the throne, wasn’t widely known, making it easy to substitute something of roughly the same size without fear of immediate detection. Doing so and being discovered, however, would place the monks in certain danger of Edward’s torturers and the swords of his army – a risk, it appears, that the brave monks were willing to take.
Edward seized all the relics of Scone and marched off in triumph to London. He immediately ordered a bronze throne, from a Master Adam, goldsmith, to encase his prize. The throne was only half completed when Edward cancelled it and sent a raiding party of knights back to Scone. They arrived on August 17th, 1298 and, according to the ‘Charturly of Scone’, ripped the Abbey apart in a desperate search for ‘something’, but returned to London empty handed. Edward, says McKerracher, was furious. He cancelled the bronze chair and ordered one of wood to house the stone instead. More importantly, he declared that this wooden chair with the supposed coronation stone it encased, was not to be used by the reigning monarch but only by the priest celebrant.
That instruction has been ignored by every English monarch since, presumably because he never explained why he issued this order. Explaining would have meant admitting he had been duped.
It appears that those in Scotland who needed to know the truth, did so, however. The negotiations for the Treaty of Northampton in 1328, confirming Scotland’s legal autonomy, included the English offer to return the Stone to Scotland. Oddly, given that no one could be legitimately crowned in Scotland without the Stone, the Scots did not bother to include this item in the final agreement. It was offered again in 1329, and again for a final time in 1363 and each time the offer was apparently met without even the courtesy of a reply from the Scots. Why? Possibly they had wiser heads than our own today!
Over time, however, the secret hiding place of the real Stone appears to have been lost, possibly during the Scottish reformation when the monk custodians of the secret were evicted from their Abbey. A legend persisted, however, that it lay concealed within Dunsinane Hill and around 1800, something closely resembling everything we know about the authentic Stone was indeed discovered there. McKerracher writes:
“… two farm boys were playing around the site of MacBeth’s Castle when they noticed a fissure cause by a landslip after heavy rain. Crawling inside, they found themselves in a small room with a staircase blocked be debris. In the centre of the room, resting on four short legs, was a large black stone inscribed with hieroglyphics. The boys told no one of their discovery until years later when they apparently informed Mr Nairne of Dunsinane House. He carried out an excavation in 1818 and the details sent to a London newspaper. A report in the newspaper tells how the labourers were carrying away stones from the digging when the ground gave way and they fell into the underground chamber the boys had found 18 years before.
This was cleared out to reveal a regularly built vault, about six feet by four feet. Sitting in the centre of the floor was a very large stone, estimated to weight almost 500 lbs – or about a third heavier than the Westminster stone – and composed of meteoric or semi-metallic rock. This is extremely interesting, for remnants of meteors were regarded as being both holy and sacred by the ancient people. Beside the stone were found “two round tablets, of a composite resembling bronze … the plates exhibit the figures of targets for arms.”
Close examination of the Great Seals of Malcolm I, Alexander I and David I, where the Stone is shown exposed, shows it is flanked on either side by two round plaques, or targes, which bear armorial signia.
The article goes on, “the curious stone has been shipped for London for the inspection of the scientific amateur in order to discover its real qualities.” And from that point it has disappeared. Possibly it still lies somewhere in London beneath some foundation or in a churchyard or perhaps it never left Scotland after all.
It is hard to say whether Archie McKerracher would have been pleased or not by the subsequent tracing of that “curious stone” to its present hiding place. The clue lay in a Reader’s Digest article, noticed by an alert Scot, one Bob Smith, who then contacted McKerracher about it but received no reply. The title of the article was Mysteries of the British Museum; it described a black, meteorite-like stone with designed, metal plates attached to it, which lay, apparently, uncategorised in the museum basement.
While we wait and hope to see, somehow, the restoration to Scotland of that mere curiosity unearthed from Dunsinane Hill in 1818, can we now follow the lead of our 14th century ancestors? Can’t we, now, enjoy the sight of the royal posterior, enthroned in pomp and ceremony on what is certainly a lump of Perth sandstone and worse, if legend and amateur geology is to be relied on, a match for the masonry in the cistern of Scone Abbey. In other words, a cludgie stane? A gimcrack coronation Stone seems an exquisitely fitting symbol for this sham of a United Kingdom.