THE Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, was used in the coronations of Scotland’s kings for centuries, until Edward I invaded Scotland in 1296.

The English king took the Stone back with him to England, where it remained for 700 years, until it was returned to Scotland in 1996. That is, except for four months in the winter and spring of 1950-1.

Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Alan Stuart, and Gavin Vernon, four Scottish students at the University of Glasgow, took the Stone from Westminster Abbey on December 25, 1950, sparking a nationwide manhunt in England and a surge of nationalist feeling in Scotland. The Stone eventually reappeared at Arbroath Abbey, site of the famous Declaration of Arbroath, 71 years ago this month, on April 11, 1951. It was brought back to Westminster in February the following year.

The National: Kay Matheson was one of the leading figures of the planKay Matheson was one of the leading figures of the plan

The 2008 film Stone Of Destiny, starring Charlie Cox, Kate Mara, Billy Boyd, and Robert Carlyle, follows the Stone’s removal and return. How accurate is its depiction of the heist and of the Scottish independence movement in the middle of the last century?

The film opens with a meeting of the Scottish Covenant Association. This group, formed by John MacCormick (Robert Carlyle) in the 1940s, advocated for Scottish Home Rule. At its centre was the Covenant, a petition for recreating the Scottish Parliament. The movement was not advocating for full independence, as the film implies. The Covenant eventually attracted two million signatures out of a population of about five million, though many of these were shown to be fake. But the petition was rejected by Westminster, with one government politician in the Lords writing that the issues were “much too complicated” to be put to a referendum.

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MacCormick, the rector of Glasgow University who backs the students’ scheme, was an important figure in the Scottish Nationalist movement. He founded the National Party of Scotland in 1928, which eventually merged with the Scottish Party in 1934 to form today’s Scottish National Party. But the SNP’s failure to make any electoral breakthrough contributed to him leaving the party in the 1940s and beginning his Scottish Covenant campaign. MacCormick died in 1961, two years after his sixth and final unsuccessful attempt to be elected to Westminster.

Though the film depicts Ian Hamilton (Charlie Cox) and MacCormick meeting properly for the first time when the student reveals his plan to take the Stone, the two men already knew each other, as Hamilton had run his campaign for the university rectorship.

As the film alludes to, Ian Hamilton and his friends were not the first to consider bringing the Stone of Scone back to Scotland. Earlier activists like Wendy Wood, who famously tore down the Union Flag at Stirling Castle and replaced it with Scotland’s Lion Rampant, as well as Bertie Gray, Compton MacKenzie, and John MacCormick, had all thought of taking back the Stone themselves.

Early on, while Hamilton and his friend Bill Craig (Billy Boyd) are in a pub, one forlorn drinker complains that fighting for Scottish independence is futile and points to a sign that describes Scotland as “North Britain”. This term originated in the 17th century and was used particularly after the Union of 1707. It and its counterpart of South Britain for England and Wales was used by some supporters of the Union, both English and Scottish, to help create a new British identity for the United Kingdom.

On the whole, the heist is depicted fairly faithfully though the film leaves out one member of the group, Johnny Josselyn, who helped on the return journey south to recover the Stone from its hiding place. Ian Hamilton did indeed fail in his first attempt to take the Stone and was caught by a nightwatchman, and on the second try, broke the Stone.

The National: From left: Ian Hamilton, Dr John McCormick and Gavin VernonFrom left: Ian Hamilton, Dr John McCormick and Gavin Vernon

Rather than hiding the larger broken piece of stone in a field seemingly near the Scottish border, as in the film, Hamilton claimed that it was actually hidden in Kent, buried in the earth in a field somewhere near Rochester. The movie is accurate, however, in showing that when the students returned to recover the Stone, they found a group of Roma had camped at the site, who helped them carry the Stone to the car.

The movie’s climax has Hamilton and his friends bringing the Stone to the high altar of Arbroath Abbey and then being arrested by the police. In fact, the students had all been interviewed by police and released without charge weeks before they decided to return the Stone. Hamilton, Bill Craig, and Bertie Gray took the Stone to the abbey and left it there to be discovered. There were no police, and the feared arrests never came. The government, mindful of public feeling in Scotland, announced that a prosecution would not be in the public interest.

The choice of Arbroath as the place to leave the Stone was of course due to the famous Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, a letter purportedly written by many of Scotland’s nobles and addressed to the Pope, this document was part of Robert the Bruce’s propaganda campaign to win international support against the English. The film ends with Hamilton’s narration referencing the Declaration and their fight “not for glory, not for wealth, nor honours, but only and alone for freedom”.

The removal of the Stone from Westminster has since spawned many conspiracy theories that what was returned at Arbroath was not the real Stone of Scone but a fake. Ian Hamilton himself denied that anything but the real Stone was returned, and the archaeological study of the Stone in 1996 would have surely discovered any fake. However, this adds to a long history of suspicions about whether the Stone that Edward I brought from Scotland in 1296 was really the genuine Stone of Scone.

Though the Stone was eventually returned to Scotland, it remains “on loan” from the Crown. It remains to be seen whether this compromise persists once it is taken down to England for the next coronation.