The Groan of Destiny

Submitted by AWL on 3 November, 2008 - 11:14 Author: Dale Street

In 1950 four young Scots stole a lump of rock from Westminster Abbey and took it to Scotland. It was the “Stone of Scone”, reputedly used in the coronation of kings of Scotland, but taken to London in 1296. The piece of rock was eventually abandoned in the grounds of Arbroath Abbey, and police took it back to Westminster Abbey.

One of the four, Ian Hamilton, wrote a book about it in 1952, No Stone Unturned. Re-titled Stone of Destiny, and provided with a foreword by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, the book has been republished to coincide with the release of a film of the same name.

The Glasgow Herald's reviewer has written:

“Just when you thought the Scottish cringe might be on its way out, along comes Stone of Destiny to give the nation a collective beamer. … For sheer tartan-draped, pipe-skirling hokum, Stone of Destiny makes Braveheart look like Bergman. … (The film) is what we in this part of the world call a steaming pile of mince.”

“Groaning at the crowbarred cultural references at least keeps the viewer awake. Though it’s hard to take a great story like this and make it dull, hats off to (director) Martin Smith for succeeding. Onward, endlessly onward, the tale goes, dragging itself along like a three-legged elephant.”

An American critic adds: “This unabashedly sentimental and outright anti-English film is as stodgy as a cheap haggis with nationalistic sentimentality. The film essentially represents a political broadcast for the SNP disguised as a caper movie, where nearly all English people are bad and cops lurk on every London corner — like Stalinist Russia, but with funny hats.”

The film critic of the Herald notes: “The four (lead characters) trade patriotic declarations as if staying out of jail depended on it. All four are graduates with honours in nationalism for numpties. No cliché is left unspoken as they lose their nerve, find it, lose it again, and so on.”

By the end, the film has abandoned all pretence at following the actual course of events from 1950. It degenerates into a party-political broadcast – more so for Siol nan Gaidheal (“Seed of the Gaels”, a cultural-nationalist sect) than for the calculating, oil-based, European-oriented nationalism of Alex Salmond's SNP.

No — when the news of the Stone of Destiny’s seizure was announced, the Scottish masses did not pour into the streets, dancing, waving Saltires, and climbing statues in Glasgow’s George Square. Nor was it a warm summer day when news broke about the seizure of the Stone — it was a cold Christmas morning.

The nationalism for numpties, the endless patriotic declarations, the tartan-draped, pipe-skirling hokum — they are all to be found in Hamilton’s book.

Hamilton’s references to women, and particularly to Kay Mathieson, who took part in the raid on Westminster Abbey, induce the same toe-curling embarrassment as the film.

Kay was “small and dark and large-eyed, and remote as a Hebridean island.” Kay would “catch the imagination of Scotland as her countrywoman Flora MacDonald had done in the Islands two centuries before. … If the English imprisoned Kay, there would be such an explosion in Scotland as would rock Westminster to its venerable foundations.”

Kay’s feats “should be remembered wherever Scotswomen wish to honour their kind. … We were both in love with something greater [than profane human flesh], something too sacred to dwell on. Patriotism is never out of fashion, but it is not the fashion to speak of it. She loved the Gaeltacht more than any man, and, lovely as she was, she never married.”

When Hamilton went to London on a “reconnaissance” mission, in his mind he was really taking part in the uprising of 1745:

“As I crossed the Border I was seized with shaking excitement. The Blue Bonnets were over the Border, and not for the first time. I thought of how my forefathers from Clydesdale had many times passed this way in defence of the liberty of Scotland, or bent on hearty plunder.”

“It was like the ’45 all over again,” writes Hamilton of the period following the seizure of the Stone. But it is not just the uprising of 1745 that Hamilton is still fighting. He’s still waging the Wars of Independence of the 1300s:

“Edward I of England was as treacherous a Plantagenet as ever raped a child or lied in his teeth. … Six hundred years is a long time, but there was a continuity of strife from his time to ours, and his sacking of the Abbey of Scone was, I hoped, to have its more civilised counterpart here in Westminster that very night.”

Hamilton has nothing against monarchs in general. He speaks of George VI, king of England in 1950, with reverence. “That old gentleman had led us, Scotland as well as England, through one of the most dangerous times in our history. He personally symbolised us all. … It was the King who was one with the nation.” The four who seized the Stone decided to petition the king:

“The Petition of certain of His Majesty’s most loyal and obedient subjects to His Majesty King George the Sixth humbly sheweth … That in removing the Stone of Destiny they have no desire to injure His Majesty’s property nor to pay disrespect to the Church of which he is temporal head. … That his Majesty’s humble petitioners who have served him in peril and in peace, pledge again their loyalty to him.”

In his foreword, Alex Salmond writes: “It was Ian who – by means of a single act — started the modern process of waking this country up to its history and its potential.” In fact, Hamilton represented a brand of Scottish nationalism which needed to become extinct before the nationalist movement could transform itself into a modern political force.

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