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King Charles' coronation: Moving the Stone of Destiny will be no simple task, judging by...

...its history of theft, fake bomb plots and the like

Here's my latest column, published on 27th March 2023.

There seems to be a row brewing about another move for the Stone of Destiny.

Some of our more peevish politicians are apparently objecting to the ancient symbol of Scottish kingship being sent south to take its place in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Charles. Churlish some may think, given the stone has played a ceremonial part in every coronation since 1296 when Edward I looted it from Scotland and had it built into his throne.

But if playground politics prevail, and the stone stays in Scotland, I suspect there will be a sigh of relief at Police Scotland. The 150kg block of old red sandstone may have no monetary worth, but its symbolic value is immense, making it a target for pranksters and political opportunists alike. And, of course, it’s been stolen twice already – in 1296 and 1950, when a group of students pinched it from Westminster Abbey.

A nationwide search ensued, and three months later it was recovered in Arbroath Abbey and returned to Westminster Abbey, where it remained until 1996 when, to some surprise, it was decided to send it back to Scotland. A gesture to placate rising nationalism perhaps, but whatever the reason, the old Lothian and Borders Police got the job of transporting it.

Speed was of the essence, before anyone changed their minds perhaps, and one of our stalwarts, Superintendent Laurie Gillespie, was given the job. An ex-Scots Guardsman, he was a formidable operator – nothing would be left to chance. But there were practical difficulties, including how to retrieve the stone without damaging the ancient throne. Then there were logistical problems and, of course, security.

In late November 1996, two police Range Rovers headed south to bring the stone back in time for St Andrew’s Day. Everything went like clockwork, the Abbey staff had done a meticulous job removing it from the throne, and it fitted snuggly in the back of the Range Rover.

The plan was that the Stone would enter Scotland, with some ceremony, via the bridge over the Tweed at Coldstream. Just south of the Border, the stone was transferred to an Army Land Rover so that it could be escorted across the Border by kilted soldiers. It was a cold day but all was set, and a reception party of VIPs had gathered on the Scottish side of the bridge.

But there was a glitch, a last-minute check found a suspicious package – a suspected bomb – on the English side of the bridge. It fell to me to tell the shivering VIPs there would be a delay. Thankfully the bomb was quickly found to be a fake, and the procession crossed into Scotland only 30 minutes late.

The plan then was for the stone to be taken to Holyrood Palace then, on St Andrew’s Day, it would process up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. It’s a long gradient up the Mile, and I remember watching with some trepidation as the elderly Royal Company of Archers gamely marched along beside the open-backed Landrover carrying the stone.

Everyone made it, and it was a great piece of spectacle for the crowd. But I was mighty glad when stone was safely in the Castle.

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