IN England they call it the Coronation Stone, in Gaelic it is An Lia Fáil or clach-na-cinneamhain, in Scots it is the stane o scuin, but most of us call it the Stone of Destiny.

In the first of a two-part look at the stone, I will examine the myths and facts that surround it. Next week I will recount in detail the tale of the 1950 attempt to reclaim the Stone for Scotland – one of the most significant events in the history of the growth of nationalism.

No other stone is so renowned in Scottish history, and for good reason. For centuries the kings of Scots were crowned upon it at Scone, and it was so important that like so many objects associated with kings in those days it gained mythical status – it was credited with miraculous powers such as knowing who the true king was, and groaned if an imposter sat on it, while it could also rejuvenate the king if he was tired.

The stone – for sake of clarity I will refer to the Stone of Destiny currently residing in Edinburgh Castle as “the stone” even though many doubt its authenticity – was stolen by King Edward I of England in 1296 and returned 700 years later by John Major’s Tory Government, though it was briefly repatriated in 1950-51.

Prior to Longshanks’s theft, the Stone was variously supposed to have been brought to the ancient kingdom of Dalriada based in modern Argyll and Bute by the Scots from Ireland around 500 AD. It was supposed to have been Jacob’s Pillow on the night he saw a divine vision at Luz, a place later called Bet-El meaning House of God. Allegedly the prophet Jeremiah brought the pillow to Ireland where it became part of the Lia Fáil that was used in the crowning of the High Kings at Tara.

Taken to Dalriada – some say by St Columba for his altar – and used in the crowning of the kings of Scots there, when the Scots and Picts came to join together to form Alba, the stone was reportedly moved to Scone by King Kenneth MacAlpin where it came under the care of monks at the local worship place – at first these were Culdees of the Celtic Christian community and then from the mid-12th century the stone was cared for by Augustinian friars who built the priory that later became Scone Abbey on Moot Hill. Only in 2007 did archaeologists prove that the long-destroyed abbey was much larger than thought and had defences proving its importance as the coronation venue.

Early chroniclers write of the stone being anything other than a piece of Lower Devonian Old Red Sandstone. Indeed it was supposedly of much darker hue and shaped like a backless chair, which would make sense.

So much for myth and legend. Let’s deal with the facts: John Balliol was the last king of Scots that we know for certain that was crowned on the stone. That happened in 1292 and four years later Longshanks came north and humiliated the Scots at Dunbar.

As he had done in Wales the previous decade, to prove his dominance Edward decided to take the historical artefacts most dear to the beaten Scots, and took what he was told was the stone south to London and had a coronation chair made to order to contain the stone. That English monarchs would have the stone under their bottoms must have tickled Longshanks’s sense of humour. It didn’t bother Robert the Bruce – he got himself crowned at Scone in 1306, stone or no stone, and we don’t know either way if there was a stone involved.

Its next appearance in written history came with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328 when Edward III recognised Scotland’s independence. Side letters accompanying the Treaty saw the Bruce being promised the return of the stone, and a written order from Edward III to the Abbot of Westminster confirmed that arrangement, though its removal was opposed by a London mob and the Bruce died the following year. That he never pressed too hard for its return suggests he was possibly not too bothered about getting back a counterfeit … and the stone remained in the coronation chair from then until 1996.

Further facts: The stone weights 336lbs or 152kgs and is the size of a suitcase. As attested to in the Scottish Journal of Geology in 1998, the stone “resembles that of Lower Devonian sandstones from the Perth area. In particular, the texture, mineral assemblage and colour are similar to those of sandstones from the Scone Formation in the vicinity of Quarry Mill, near Scone Palace itself.

“It is thus possible that this area contains the bed from which the stone was hewn, although comparable rocks may exist within other exposures of the Old Red Sandstone lithofacies in Scotland.”

In other words, the stone may well have been hewn locally to Scone, and if it was, that would lend credence to the theory that it was indeed made to hoodwink Longshanks.

Incredibly, we know for a fact that the stone in Edinburgh Castle is not exactly the same as the one Edward stole, for it has been changed over time. Official records show that in 1727, during repairs to the coronation chair prior to the crowning of King George II, the stone was hacksawed and reduced in size to accommodate the new seat board on the chair.

Frankly the English haven’t always taken great care of their stone. A crack in it was recorded in the 1860s when it was first photographed, and then in 1884 a plot to steal it by Irish nationalists was only just foiled.

Worse still, suffragettes attached a small bomb to the chair in 1914 and the damage to the stone was thought to be tiny, though there is a theory that the explosion cracked the stone and it only showed up later, as we shall see next week. Both chair and stone were removed to places of safety during both world wars.

WHICH brings us to 1950 and an event that shook Britain and which will be examined in greater detail next week. That Scottish nationalists should want to repatriate the stone was nothing new – stonemason Robert Gray had the idea in 1929, and constructed one and possibly two replicas, planning to use a specially adapted wheelchair to take the stone out and replace it with the fake.

That project came to nothing but 21 years later, Gray featured in the most famous tale surrounding the stone – its removal from Westminster Abbey by a group of four young nationalists on Christmas Day, 1950, by law student Ian Hamilton, later a distinguished QC and thankfully still with us, and his fellow nationalists Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart.

A much underrated film was made in 2008 which told the story of Hamilton and his friends. It was no classic and took a couple of liberties but Stone of Destiny was a mostly accurate account of the events of Christmas 1950 and is well worth watching. Next week we will look at the whole story in detail – it’s unmissable even though I say so myself.

The point is that more attempts were made to steal the stone, one in 1967 and then in 1974, but details of these were scanty and the Unionist press took the Government’s hint not to make too much of these attempts.

Such was English paranoia about the stone being repatriated when the SNP began its rise in the 1970s, that there were calls for much greater security around it. The 1974 attempt to take it led to the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric putting a tiny lead tube inside the stone at the place where it was cracked and sealing it with wax. The tube contained a piece of an authentication document so that if the stone was ever taken again, they would know it was the “real” one.

Fast forward to 1996, and the astonishing decision by then Secretary of State, Michael Forsyth, to ask the Queen for permission to bring the stone back to Scotland. No-one saw it coming, and Forsyth did not have the idea himself – he credited his young daughter with suggesting it. More than 10,000 people lined the streets of Edinburgh to see its return with the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s Bodyguard in Scotland, accompanying it up the Royal Mile from the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Until the coronation of King Charles III, the stone will stay in Scotland, though whether that is in Edinburgh Castle or a new facility at Perth is a decision that must be made soon. I personally favour the latter as the castle has plenty of other attractions.

Historic Environment Scotland states on its website: “Under the conditions of the Royal Warrant, the Commissioners are responsible for ensuring that the Stone returns to Westminster Abbey for the next and all future coronations of monarchs of Great Britain.” Well, as long as the United Kingdom and the monarchy lasts ...

There is still one glaring mystery to be solved about the Stone of Destiny, and that is whether it is the real stone used at Scone until John Balliol’s coronation. There is one very curious piece of evidence dating from 1818 when the site of what was supposedly Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane was excavated. The following letter appeared in the Morning Chronicle and several other newspapers in late December 1888, and early January 1819.

“On the 19th of November, as the servants belonging to the West Mains of Dunsinane-house, were employed in carrying away stones from the excavation made among the ruins that point out the site of Macbeth’s castle here, part of the ground they stood on suddenly gave way, and sunk down about six feet, discovering a regularly built vault, about six feet long and four wide.

“None of the men being injured, curiosity induced them to clear out the subterranean recess, when they discovered among the ruins a large stone, weighing about 500lbs which is pronounced to be of the meteoric or semi-metallic kind. This stone must have lain here during the long series of ages since Macbeth’s reign. Beside it were also found two round tablets, of a composition resembling bronze. On one of these two lines are engraved, which a gentleman has thus deciphered. – ‘The sconce (or shadow) of kingdom come, until Sylphs in air carry me again to Bethel.’

“These plates exhibit the figures of targets for the arms. From time immemorial it has been believed among us here, that unseen hands brought Jacob’s pillow from Bethel, and dropped it on the site where the palace of Scoon now stands.

“A strong belief is also entertained by many in this part of the country, that it was only a representation of this Jacob’s pillow that Edward sent to Westminster, the sacred stone not having been found by him. The curious here, aware of such traditions, and who have viewed these venerable remains of antiquity, agree that Macbeth may, or rather must, have deposited the stone in question at the bottom of his Castle, on the hill of Dunsinane (from the trouble of the times), where it has been found by the workmen.”

How very intriguing – there’s no doubt the letter was real and the events took place as recounted, but the writer clearly misunderstood history as Macbeth reigned from 1040 until 1057 and there is plenty of evidence that the stone was used during coronations of Scottish kings right up to 1292.

Still, if the stone of Dunsinane-house could be found and tested, might that not add to the doubts which still surround the Stone of Destiny? And to make certain, can someone please decode the marks on the stone in Edinburgh which, as far as I know, have never been translated?