Scottish treasure returning home Heritage: After centuries in England, an ancient royal symbol is leaving Westminster Abbey for Scotland.


PERTH, Scotland -- For a slab of sandstone, the Stone of Scone sure does get around.

Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch, supposedly slept on it, pilgrims hauled it, Celts shipped it, Edward I stole it, Scottish students stole it back, and a line of kings and queens, including reigning monarch Elizabeth II, have been seated above it during coronation ceremonies at London's Westminster Abbey.

Now, 700 years after Edward I claimed the stone for the English, the 300-plus pound slab is returning to Scotland.

Now the argument is about where in Scotland it should go.

When British Prime Minister John Major revealed plans last summer for the stone's removal from Westminster Abbey and return to Scotland, he hardly could have envisioned the Scone-rush that ensued.

Critics claimed he was just trying to placate Scottish nationalists who for years have demanded an independent parliament for their land. One nationalist leader even derided "the return of a feudal, medieval symbol of tyranny."

Instead of winning votes, Major's action ignited a rock grab.

Everyone from patrons of a Glasgow pub -- where the stone was hidden briefly during a 1950 heist -- to the trustees of Edinburgh Castle, made claims on the stone. A lot of tourist cash could be at stake.

The race for the stone is expected to end in the next few weeks, when the decision is announced by Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland's No. 1 tourist destination, is the front-runner. The stone will remain the property of the Crown and will return to London for future coronations.

Here at Scone Palace they figure they have the best claim of all, because the stone reached a now-ruined abbey on this land in the ninth century and remained here for 450 years. A replica of the stone sits on Moot Hill, opposite the imposing palace.

"It's called the Stone of Scone," says Andrew R. Robinson, administrator of Scone Palace. "Why take it anywhere else? When the stone came here, Edinburgh didn't have a castle. It wasn't even a town."

The Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, links this country with its royal roots and its long-running feuds with England.

"Ever since the English took it, we've had a grudge," says Louise Yeoman, a curator at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. "Imagine how Americans would feel if the Declaration of Independence was pinched by agents for Saddam Hussein."

But the stone isn't a written document. It's not even that impressive, resting on a ledge under the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey.

Yet for centuries the stone has been a prize worth fighting over.

Legend says the stone was used by Jacob as a pillow, and that it reached Scotland via Egypt, Italy, Spain and Ireland.

The stone served in the coronation of Scottish kings from Kenneth MacAlpin in 839 to John Baliol in 1292. It was said that the stone groaned if a true royal sat upon it to be crowned. If the sitter were a pretender, the stone stayed silent.

In 1296, Edward I of England marched north, battled the Scots, and made off with the stone, taking it to Westminster Abbey, where it has been used in coronation ceremonies since.

The Scots were promised the return of the stone in the Treaty of Northampton of 1328. But the promise was never kept.

Scone-mania flared in 1950 when the stone was seized by four Scottish college students on Christmas morning. The students broke the stone in two as they were dragging it to a car. A Glasgow builder repaired the stone, which was recovered four months later in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey in Scotland.

Shortly before his death, the builder hinted that the recovered stone was a fake. But one of the student ringleaders, Ian Hamilton, later wrote that the returned stone was genuine.

Genuine or not, the stone is finally heading to a Scottish home.

Will Edinburgh Castle win the prize? Or will the stone be returned to Scone Palace?

"It depends on if you go with your heart or your head," Yeoman says. "Scone is the historic site of the Scottish kings. Edinburgh is where the tourists go."

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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