IT was 70 years ago today that one of the great mysteries of the 1950s was resolved, rather than solved, when the missing Stone of Destiny was recovered from the grounds of Arbroath Abbey.

On Christmas Day, 1950, four young Scottish nationalists – Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Alan Stuart and Kay Matheson – pulled off a stunning coup that briefly electrified the world. I have called them the Stone Raiders, because they secreted themselves inside Westminster Abbey and removed the Stone in a plan that had first been thought of by stonemason and SNP councillor Bertie Gray, who had made a replica of the Stone as early as 1929.

As they pulled the 152kg stone from under the Coronation Chair built in the reign of Edward I, nicknamed Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots, the Stone disastrously broke into two parts, roughly three quarters to a quarter. It later emerged that it had been previously fractured by attacks from Irish nationalists and suffragettes.

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The quartet gathered both sections and made their laborious way home while a hue and cry, the likes of which had rarely been seen in Britain, was raised as the police on both sides of the Border – it was even closed at one point – desperately searched for the Stone, accompanied by much laughter in Scotland and newsreels telling the story to the world.

Reading the press accounts and viewing the newsreels of the day, the British authorities were furious but a great many Scots were happy and it certainly boosted the nationalist cause.

It was a brave, romantic and clever ruse, but the pressure grew to return the Stone and all four of the Stone Raiders and nationalist leader “King” John MacCormick, who had funded the raid, were questioned by police.

Meanwhile, Bertie Gray got hold of the two sections of the Stone and put them back together again using three bolts, and here’s where further intrigue may have taken place – did Gray do the same with the replica he’d made 21 years previously? And did he give that one back?

In any case, what happened on April 11, 1951, was memorable. Three men in a black car turned up at Arbroath Abbey to be met by local politicians DA Gardner and FWA Thornton of the then Scottish Convention who helped carry the Stone, draped in a Saltire, to rest on the Abbey altar itself above the grave of King William the Lion. The Abbey custodian, James Wishart, accepted the Stone and shook hands with the bearers before the police were informed.

Two unsigned letters were left on the Stone, one to King George VI and the other to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, both asking for talks to begin on the repatriation of the Stone. John MacCormick said the police acted with “indecent haste” to get the Stone back to London.

The case was considered in Cabinet and word was passed to the prosecuting authorities that no action should be taken against the Stone Raiders.

The recapture of the Stone had been resolved, but the mystery of the Stone was not solved and probably never will be – is it the real original Stone of Destiny reportedly brought by King Kenneth MacAlpin from Iona to Scone in the middle of the ninth century?

One thing that can be said with certainty is that the Stone of Destiny currently in Edinburgh Castle is the same block of sandstone given back by Hamilton and his friends in 1951. In 1996, the Queen and Prime Minister John Major, at the prompting of then Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, allowed the Stone to go back to Scotland – on condition that it be returned for future coronations. It is due to move to Perth in 2024 to be the centrepiece of that city’s revived City Hall.

We know it is the same stone reclaimed as stolen property by Hamilton and his friends because after a further attempt to repatriate the Stone in 1974, the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric put a tiny lead tube inside the Stone at the place where it was cracked and sealed 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. It was found intact in 1996.

But is it the original Stone brought to Scone to be the coronation throne of the Kings of Scots all those centuries ago? Now that’s a whole different question for as I have written before, 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.”

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In other words, knowing Edward Longshanks and his cohorts had never seen the Stone that was kept in their care between coronations, the monks of Scone could have hacked out a new “Stone” and fooled the English raiders. That theory is plausible because ancient descriptions tell of the Stone of Destiny being black and chair-shaped, and despite Edward III promising Robert the Bruce it could go back in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton of 1328, the Scots never made much point of pressing the case.

Speaking to Gerry Hassan in this newspaper late last year, Ian Hamilton, the now 95-year-old former QC, said: “Seventy years ago it was a symbol. But we don’t need symbols now, because we’ve very nearly got the reality of Scottish independence. I don’t consider that retrieving my country’s property was breaking the law. After all, the Home Secretary said at the time that we would not be prosecuted. He referred to us as ‘these vulgar vandals’ and that has been one of my favourite phrases ever since.”

It won’t be vulgar or vandalism now to regain our nation, but it is, most certainly, our Destiny which we must be set in Stone.