The Stone of Destiny
Or: SO Much Better than the Rock of Ages
So you've been down at pub all night, and you just want to crawl back home and rest up for tomorrow's big caber-tossing and kilt-wearing competition.
Half-blinded by the liter of whisky you drank, your poor big toe finds its way into a twenty-six inch long, eleven inch high, and sixteen inch wide block of yellowish sandstone weighing 336 pounds.
Oh, and you're the King of Scotland.
That thing you just kicked is the Stone of Destiny, a sacred piece of Scottish--and, quite controversially, English--coronation history. Every Scottish monarch was crowned on it until 1296, when Edward I purloined it during one of his many invasions of the country and reseated it under the English throne at Westminster Abbey--cheeky devil. Only recently--seven hundred years later, in 1996--did it find its way back.
A Stone By Any Name...
The Stone has many names, including, but probably not limited to:
That's about the chronological order of how it earned those titles as well. The first names come from thousands of years ago, in what religious types call 'Biblical Times.'
It picked up the first moniker by possibly having been part of a pillar Jacob dedicated to God after an all-night throw-down with an angel.
The Pillow story is a bit fuller. In Genesis 28:10-22, people who read the bible read of Jacob sleeping upon a stone pillow and having a vision--interesting how head trauma results in sweeping religious movements--that claimed his issue would spread across the globe and rule until their return to the Promised Land. When he woke up, he anointed the stone with oil, created it a holy relic and deposited it in the Temple at Jerusalem, probably just before trying to a get a decent night's rest with the help of some goosedown.
Fair Enough, But What the Hell Is It Doing in Scotland?
According to just one of the many myths surrounding the Stone, Jacob hadn't counted on those wily Babylonians, who, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, sacked the city in 602 BC and probably would have had non-kosher picnics on the thing had not Jeremiah and company pinched it and headed out at full tilt for the Egyptian border. From there it toured across Europe and ended up in Ireland, where it played to sold-out audiences. St. Patrick is said to have blessed it, and it may have been used during the coronation ceremonies of Irish kings as early as the 5th Century. Liath Fail is its Celtic name.
There are a couple of stories about how it finally ended up there, both set in the 9th Century. In about 850 AD, the Stone may have been lent to Fergus Mor Mac Erc for his coronation in Dalriada and he simply never returned it. Alternately, the Irish King at the time may have killed a man in a Church, thus rendering himself and the whole city unholy and necessitating the Stone's removal to another place, which turned out to be Scone (said scoon), located in what is now Perthshire, Scotland. Afterward, it was the opening act for coronations in Iona, Dunadd, and Dunstaffnage, but was eventually returned to Scone for the exclusive use of the Dalriadic monarchs--hence the Stone of Scone.
So that leaves us in Scotland, where the stone stayed until the Longshanks came for it in 1296.
But Didn't That Braveheart Guy Win Scots Their Freedom?
William Wallace died before the end of the conflict, but was instrumental to the success of Robert the Bruce, who was crowned King of Scotland just before his crushing defeat of the English at Bannockburn. He had to go through the ceremony sans Stone, but according to the Treaty of Northampton, signed in 1328, the English King Edward III promised to return the Stone to its rightful owners forthwith.
Granted, they stalled for a few hundred years, and in 1603 it suddenly made sense to leave the thing in London. Elizabeth I, a Tudor, left no heirs--so the throne of England went to James VI of Scotland, henceforth James I. He wasn't coronated King of Scotland over the Stone, but at least it was a Scottish King sitting over it again. The line of Stuarts that followed were all Scottish Kings--minus the Interregnum--until James II buggered off and left the field open to the Germans.
So Why Give It Back Now?
In fact, they sort of haven't. Though it was returned to Scotland for housing in Edinburgh Castle in 1996, to the great cheers of on-lookers and students who got a day off, it came back with some fine print: under British Law, the Crown still owns it, and has just let it out for permanent display. Every time there's a coronation, a couple of beefy guards will slip poles through the two iron rings embedded in it and drag it back down to London.
Now Is This the Real Deal, Or Is It Like One of Those Pieces of the True Cross that Everyone Seems to Have?
Again, stories abound, and the Stone of Destiny as seen in Edinbugh may in fact be nothing but an ordinary lump of rock. Ask a geologist, and he just might tell you the thing was quarried on Scotland's western coast, near Oban, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that geologists aren't much fun to talk to. Here are a few of the best Stone stories:
- One story suggests that the yellow sandstone, inscribed with a Latin Cross, isn't the genuine article at all, but a stand-in for the true version, which was carved from white marble and never left Ireland.
- Another claims that Edward I took the wrong rock entirely, grabbing instead of an ancient seat of religious significance and sovereignty, Scone Castle's stone cess-pit cover--and this is what British Kings have been crowned over ever since.
- In 1950, four students actually boosted the stone from its home in Westminster and vanished with it. It turned up four months later at Arbroath Abbey--but conspiracy theorists stress this was more than enough time to make a convincing duplicate and hide the original in a secret northern location.
- And finally--some say that the 'replica' at Scone Palace is actually the real thing, hidden from the English in plain sight.
So It's Probably Just a Rock.
Could be. But as with many things of ceremonial potency, the trick to building up prestige is time, and its place in British history cannot be denied. The provenance for the Stone of Destiny is at this point virtually a lost cause--there are too many stories, too many copies, and too many reasons not to know for sure. Believe it, and it is true. Believe it not, and it might still be true, but you won't enjoy it as much, will ye, ye wee cynical bastard?
Websites that helped put this together: