LAST WEEK week we looked at the Stone of Destiny and the facts, myths and legends that surround it. This week we look at the most famous stone story of them all.

There is no doubt about the single most important event in the stone’s history after it was stolen from Scone by King Edward I of England in 1296, and that was its repatriation by a group of four young Scottish nationalists at Christmas 1950.

It is highly unlikely that the stone would have come back to Edinburgh in 1996 if the Stone Raiders, as I shall call them, had not had the courage and sheer gall to remove it from Westminster Abbey. As we saw last week, others tried and failed but the Raiders succeeded in dramatic, even glorious fashion.

The escapade was deadly serious, but had its lighter moments, and there is simply no way of understating the joy it brought to many in post-war Scotland.

The film Stone of Destiny (2008) captured the youthful exuberance of the quartet but also portrayed the gravity of their intent.

Charlie Cox, playing Ian Hamilton, sums up their motivation in his first lines: “It was only a rock, a big lump of sandstone, you might pass right by it, but to us, it was symbol of our freedom, of our independence. We all knew about it of course, we learned as children how it was the Scottish stone of kings, but they took it from us. And as a nation I suppose we’d forgotten about it. Time does that. It was history.”

Scotland in 1950 was a very different place to what it is now. Rationing was still in force and housing was the crucial issue in the many poverty-stricken areas across the land. The Tories ruled the roost, the Liberals were in decline and Labour had disgracefully removed Home Rule from its manifesto.

Nationalism was a latent force but the SNP’s standing was pitifully low, despite the election of the party’s first MP, Robert McIntyre, in a by-election in Motherwell in 1945, a seat he lost at the General Election three months later. Lawyer “King” John McCormick had left the SNP to form the Scottish Convention and the Glasgow University graduate succeeded in making his alma mater one of the few hotbeds of nationalism.

A Paisley-born nationalist law student at Glasgow, Ian Hamilton, ran McCormick’s successful campaign to become rector and the two became friends. Hamilton knew that a Glasgow stonemason and SNP councillor, Robert Gray, had previously hatched a plan to steal the stone and replace it with a replica which he had made in 1929, and desperate to strike a blow that would rekindle nationalist feeling, Hamilton adapted Gray’s plan and began researching how the stone could be removed from the abbey. He travelled south to reconnoitre the site and his thorough research was not exactly of MI5 proportions – he drew out every book on Westminster Abbey from Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, which is how the police eventually traced him.

The National:

Hamilton had approached engineering student Gavin Vernon, originally from Aberdeenshire, and domestic science student Kay Matheson from Wester Ross, both fellow members of the Glasgow University nationalist association. They later recruited another student Alan Stuart and McCormick gave them £50 to finance the expedition.

A few days before Christmas they drove south in two Ford Anglias and Hamilton went to the abbey to check it out – a guard found him asleep inside and gave him some money because he felt sorry for the young Scot.

Matheson had also developed influenza and had to be put up in a hotel. On Christmas Eve they readied themselves and in the early hours of Christmas Day, Hamilton, Vernon and Stuart broke into the abbey via a side door which Hamilton had scouted. It was the moment of no return, as Hamilton recalled decades later.

“You sort of know that when you take a crowbar to a side door of Westminster Abbey and jemmy the lock that there isn’t really any going back, don’t you? Not when you know that the next thing you are going to do is steal one of the ancient relics inside.’’

As the three men struggled to lift the heavy stone from the coronation chair built by Edward Longshanks to house the stone, the ancient wood was damaged and to their horror and amazement, the stone broke in two – roughly three-quarters to a quarter – as they pulled it on to the floor.

They used a coat to drag the larger piece outside and then Hamilton grabbed the smaller slab and took it out to the car in which Matheson was waiting. She spotted a policeman approaching and the two promptly started kissing – the cop had a pleasant conversation with the “lovers” and even lit a cigarette before watching them drive away.

Vernon and Stuart meanwhile were unaware that the policeman had arrived, but they saw him just in time and, leaving the larger piece inside the hoarding surround the abbey, they scarpered.

Hamilton got out a short distance away and went back for Vernon and Stuart who had made good their escape. As Hamilton got the bigger piece into the other car, Vernon and Stuart returned and all four now got clean away.

A nightwatchman, Andrew Hislop, was doing his early morning round when he noticed scuff marks on the floor. His torch led him to the chair and the missing stone.

On the chair someone had scratched JFS – thought to be Justice For Scotland – but no-one has ever admitted doing that. Right away police suspected Scottish nationalists, and a hue and cry was raised with appeals for the Stone’s return.

HEADLINES were made the world over and in Scotland the reaction was mostly indignation on the part of dyed-in-the-wool Unionists and happiness for almost everyone else at the thought that Scotland’s stone might be on its way home.

The search was laborious and sometimes laughable – police dragged the Serpentine in London after a rumour was spread that the stone had been dumped there.

The newsreels of the day were in almost mournful mood: British Pathé breathlessly reported on the “mixed” views of the Scottish people – the BBC would have been proud of them – including a kilted Scot who said: “When I heard the news I nearly killed myself laughing,” and an anonymous voice saying: “I don’t like this at all – it’s a dreadful thing that the Stone of Destiny on which the kings of England have been crowned should have been taken from London. After all, the Kings of England are the Kings of Britain, too.”

The Stone Raiders took their time going home, and dumped the two pieces in separate parts of England – Matheson had two toes broken when one of the pieces fell on her foot. They evaded capture for some weeks, yet the net was closing in on them and they were eventually all hauled in for questioning. They decided that the stone should be returned to Westminster and with the help of two councillors from Arbroath they got the stone – or perhaps Robert Gray’s replica – into Arboath Abbey where it lay under a Saltire beside the grave of William the Lion, not far from where the 1920 Declaration of Independence was signed.

All four of the Raiders were allowed to carry on with their studies and were never brought to trial, the prosecuting authorities deciding it was not in the public interest to take them to court, presumably because they knew the case would make embarrassing headlines and boost the nationalist cause. Hamilton even wrote a book about the removal and return of the Stone and it was published the following year.

What did it mean for Scottish nationalism? The Ian Hamilton character in the 2008 movie summed up the feelings of the Raider and many others besides: “On that day I heard the voice of Scotland speak as loudly as it did in 1320.

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never give in to the domination of the English. We fight not for glory, not for wealth, nor honours, but only and alone for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life.”

Within weeks, John McCormick announced the new National Covenant and eventually two million Scots would sign the demand for their own Parliament. Did they do so because of the stone? No, but there’s no doubt that the Raiders made nationalism a topic of discussion again.

The nationalist genie was out of the bottle and though it has often been two steps forward, one step back, the pro-independence cause has prospered.

There is a very intriguing postscript to this tale, a wee exclusive for this column. As the world knows, in 1996 the former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth announced that the Queen had agreed that the Stone could go back to Scotland, which duly happened. He said his daughter had given him the idea. Mmmm …

The National:

That kenspeckle figure Robbie the Pict has sent me his voluminous correspondence on the issue which strongly suggests that former Secretary of State Forsyth may have had the idea at least from more than one person.

For Forsyth was one of a number of people that Robbie wrote to from 1993 to 1996 asking for the return of the stone – at one point he even offered to buy it for £500,000.

The recipients of his polite pleas, some of which asked the Scottish criminal authorities to investigate the theft and reset (receiving stolen goods) of the stone, included the local police chief, procurator fiscal, Lord Advocate, Michael Forsyth, shadow secretary of state George Robertson, former Prime Minister John Major and the Queen.

They all replied politely declining to act on Robbie’s suggestion, including Forsyth. To prove the point, the following is the last reply from Her Majesty’s private secretary, dated May 19, 1995.

Dear Mr Pict (sic),

Thank you for your letters of 31st March and 10th May.

As I have said in the past, The Queen much appreciates receiving views and comments from the many people who write to her. Your particular letters concerning the Stone of Destiny have been very carefully noted and I am to thank you again for writing.

I believe that this, therefore, now brings our correspondence on this matter to a close.

Yours sincerely …

Whoever gave Forsyth the idea, the stone came back, though whether it is the original Stone of Destiny upon which the kings of Scots were crowned remains at the very least open to question.

Of the four who repatriated the stone in 1950, Kay Matheson was famously pictured next to it in Edinburgh Castle on the day it came home. Ian Hamilton refused an invitation to attend. After his leading role in 1950-51, he went on to have a distinguished career as a QC and at the age of 92 is now living in retirement, as reportedly is Alan Stuart who has never spoken of his role.

Gavin Vernon emigrated to Canada and pursued a career in engineering before dying in his adopted homeland in 2004 at the age of 77. Matheson became a much respected teacher of home economics and Gaelic and unsuccessfully stood for the SNP against the young Charles Kennedy in the then parliamentary seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye in 1983 – the two became firm friends, it should be known. She died in 2013, aged 84, having had her two broken toes amputated some years earlier.

Having had a film made of their exploits, and with their legend undimmed by the passage of time, it is fair to say that the Stone Raiders will never be forgotten, not least for the audacity of hope that they gave to Scotland.