The Stone that just keeps on giving: a year in the media life of the Stone of Destiny

Photograph of miscellaneous newspapers and magazines that feature the Stone of Destiny / Stone of Scone

[one of] the five most important rocks in the world
(Snopes, 23 December 2023)

This was always destined to be an interesting year for the Stone of Scone in the media, what with the Coronation and its imminent move to the new Perth Museum. That’s why my research is taking place now, of course, because of the unique opportunity to ask questions about the Stone’s meanings and values in real time, while it moves around. What follows here is a summary review and description of over 800 Google alerts for ‘Stone of Destiny’ and ‘Stone of Scone’ collected since April 2023, after eliminating references to racehorses, baking, gaming, the Tara Lia Fáil and so forth.* This media interest and coverage reinforces the relevance of my research: this is the Stone that just keeps on giving.

This is starkly illustrated by events over just the last three months, a period when I was diverted from my work by illness. On 10 November 2023, I had completed my last ethnographic fieldwork at Edinburgh Castle (see last blog). This had included observing visitors filing past the Stone in the Crown Room, what is in practice a large safe. Five days later, from a hospital bed – events unconnected! – I learnt that activists for social justice, This is Rigged, had attacked the Stone:

We targeted the Stone of Destiny because Scotland is at a critical point in its history. The reality of our present day is deeply concerning: a quarter of Scotland’s population have experienced food insecurity in the past year. A thousand children were rushed to hospital with acute symptoms of malnutrition. Civil disobedience isn’t an artefact, inaccessible behind glass, a relic of the past. It is the core of Scotland’s heritage – The Stone of Destiny was repatriated to Scotland from Westminster Abbey in 1950 by 4 students from the University of Glasgow. Two Glasgow students have broken the glass to demand a better future for the people of Scotland (Evening Standard, 15 November 2023

The Stone was safe, its protective case impressively pockmarked, and the arrested activists will eventually have their day in court. How ‘good’ it would have been to have been there to have captured this moment, from a purely ethnographic perspective of course.

Then with the 1 January National Records of Scotland’s annual release of Scottish Cabinet Papers, the media ‘discovered’ the chip of the Stone given to the SNP in 2008. If such archival records (see below) are valued for giving us ‘facts without the spin’ (Tom Gordon in The Herald, 3 January 2024), we then saw how such stories can spin out of control.

The First Minister said that he had met with Professor Sir Neil MacCormick who had presented him with a fragment of the Stone of Destiny as a personal gift. The Permanent Secretary agreed that the fragment need not be surrendered to Historic Scotland. (National Records of Scotland SCR14/71/63).

In one sense this second example also intensified my researcher’s chagrin. I had already discovered this fragment – from oral histories in the University of Stirling’s Scottish Political Archive, as it happens – and SNP HQ in Edinburgh had been kindly helping me with my ongoing enquiries since September 2023. On the other hand, the political and media storm, which extended to taunting of the SNP on the floor of the House of Commons (see below), offers extremely rich pickings for research on the potency and significance of the Stone and what are, in fact, its many fragments (see my next blog).

Indeed, to top the excitement in the three months while my back was turned, the existence of a Stone fragment not already known to scholarship has surfaced (again, see the next blog).

To return to the year since April 2023, it began knowing that the Stone would soon temporarily move to Westminster Abbey for the 6 May Coronation. It had been called back to do its work in making a king. On 5 April, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) held a press event at its Stirling Engine Shed to announce new scientific findings and publication online of a Sketchfab 3D model. The world’s media pounced again and again on this. Secretly leaving its secular home of Edinburgh Castle overnight on 27 April, albeit preceded by a new, specially devised ceremony, the Stone was formally welcomed in the ecclesiastical context of Westminster Abbey on 29 April, with another new ceremony. This was the Stone’s first visit to London since it was returned to Scotland in 1996. The Coronation Chair and integral Stone were on public display as part of the Coronation Theatre from 8 to 13 May. Returned secretly to Edinburgh Castle by 16 May, the Stone returned quickly to public display before travelling in secret down the Royal Mile to St Giles’ Cathedral for the 5 July National Ceremony of Thanksgiving and Dedication, popularly referred to as the Scottish or second Coronation.

Much of the year’s media commentary appears to have depended on little more than institutional press releases, and there has been repeated recycling of factual inaccuracies and popular tropes (a stand-out error is the Stone’s weight, which is 152 not 125 kg). Many media sources have been indiscriminate about whether the Stone they depicted for their readers was the historic one or the Scone replica, interesting and very worthwhile in its own right but loosely based on the Stone. With the Coronation, we saw worldwide interest and evident relish in the story of the daring 1950 heist from Westminster Abbey, and its roots in events of 1296. As promotion of the expanded Scotsman online archive indicated, the events of 1950/51 are indeed a Scottish political landmark. Comparison of police spying and issues of territoriality in 1950/51 and today also emerged.

Not surprisingly, the myths around the Stone also featured prominently. Likewise, stories about the Stone not being the real Stone (the canny Abbot of Scone tricked Edward I / the 1950s students returned a fake). Readers have tended to be left to choose their own interpretations – as Professor Ian Bradley put it, ‘facts should not get in the way of myths and legends’ – although geological science was often cited to evidence the Perthshire provenance. Modern-day identities have been nourished by advertising links to places that the Stone has passed through in its life, such as Kent or Bannockburn, and likewise in its mythical travels (an Ulster-Scots link, as well as Spain). The biblical myth is adhered to by some Christians, held to be otherwise ‘blotted out because of embarrassment in its connection to the Bible’ (The Trumpet, 24 May 2023).

One particularly zany bit of historical reporting, surely AI-generated, told us Charles II had to bring the Stone back from Scotland in the seventeenth century. But there are also good instances of reflective, critical and stimulating writing. And, as I’ve already intimated, we’ve seen some attention-grabbing new stories.

The Stone of Destiny is the most ancient symbol of Scottish sovereignty. I mean, I  know it’s a lump of rock, but it’s our lump of rock (Alex Salmond cited in the Express, 2 May 2023)

As the Coronation approached and when the Stone departed for London, Alex Salmond MSP and his colleague Ash Regan MSP (both Alba Party, formerly Scottish Nationalist Party) argued doggedly that the Stone should not go to London but should remain in its ‘rightful place’ because it is a symbol of Scotland’s national rights, They weaponized the Stone to criticise the authorities who were allowing this, with the SNP First Minister Humza Yousaf described as ‘parading dutifully behind it like a pet poodle’ during the Edinburgh departure ceremony (e.g. here). They wanted the Stone not moving to make a point that would be noticed across the world, namely that the Westminster Parliament was wrong to refuse Scotland a second independence referendum. Salmond’s Party was later roundly mocked for trying to take credit for return of the Stone (e.g. here).

Disturbing the stone releases odours that remind us of the past (Jackie Kemp, The National, 13 April 2023)

The Stone was moved with highly symbolic pomp matched with supreme secrecy, in what Historic Environment Scotland (HES) euphemistically referred to as a ‘non-public move’. This attracted extensive newspaper coverage, with questions asked about aspects of the ceremonies (HES bearers, wearing work uniforms, were accused of looking like ‘Amazon deliverers’, for example).  Speakers at these ceremonies and other observers described the journey south as a symbol of voluntary union between Scotland and England, while co-ordinated press releases emphasised an act of Scottish kindness in the spirit of friendship, respect and goodwill (for example the Scottish Government Statement). Care, partnership and teamwork were core messages in terms of the HES and Westminster Abbey handling and handover of the Stone.

Diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies are sure to make dazzling appearances at the coronation of King Charles III this weekend, but a far more precious rock will also play an important, if subtle, role (Harper’s Bazaar, 5 May 2023).

Explaining the arcane rituals associated with the Coronation, including the role of the Stone as it did its thing, its ‘magic’, fascinated observers around the world and generated a media bubble: it was such a long time since the last Coronation, plus this one was to be different. How to pronounce ‘Scone’ generated its own media following, culminating in it being designated one of the top ten mispronounced words of 2023 in both the US and the UK.

Reportage of the 5 July Scottish Coronation was pretty mute when it came to the Stone: ‘it plays a part’ said the BBC, rather enigmatically. Dundee’s The Courier contrasted the stark simplicity of the Stone in comparison to the Honours. Exposed for the first time in this ecclesiastical arena, the Stone’s Gaelic background was curiously not foregrounded, unlike the music composed specially for the event. The most thoughtful commentary I have found came from a historian:

The Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, was there this time, but Charles wasn’t sitting too close to it … So they’re trying to manage this. You know, it’s not a coronation, it’s something else. It’s about recognizing … a degree of Scottishness in terms of what the monarchy stands for (Professor Ewan Cameron cited in CBC News, 16 July 2023).

Replicas of the Stone have had a strong outing, with the Arlington Bar in Glasgow very assiduously and merrily promoting its Stone as the real one. Scone Palace’s crescendo of marketing in the lead up to the opening of the nearby Perth Museum underscores that Scone is where the Stone came from. Their 1980s replica, sat on the Moot Hill where kings were inaugurated, is central to planned activities for visitors. Stories of other copies argued to be the real thing also emerged, with repeated and usually well-kent claims for where the real Stone lies.

The bottom layer of Charles III’s massive Coronation Cake represented the Stone, and a loyal English citizen joined the festive spirit by making a celebratory model of the Chair with Stone for passers-by to enjoy.

When the Scottish Cabinet papers were released to the public on 1 January 2024, journalists (e.g. here) jumped upon an ‘intriguing revelation’ (see above). Politicians of non-nationalist persuasions now had their opportunity to weaponize the Stone, albeit a tiny fragment, to criticise not just Salmond, but to mock his former nationalist colleagues in the SNP. Penny Mordaunt MP, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, was delighted to mock the SNP’s Deidre Brock MP about the ‘discovery’ of what was being represented in the media as an object illicitly acquired and carelessly looked after [cupboard-/Tupperware-gate], with allusions to Nicola Sturgeon MSP, former First Minister’s, own unresolved police matters (video here).

But if Salmond were a dog, the Stone would clearly be a favourite bone:

The Stone of Destiny has two enduring characteristics. One is to galvanise the nation of Scotland and the other is to twist the knickers of the British establishment. Last week, that celebrated lump of sandstone has demonstrated its power yet again (cited in The Daily Record, 7 January 2024).

In the context of the Coronation rituals, including the Stone, it was observed that ‘Britain might now seem like a fading power, but we are a world-beating exporter of metaphors about the state of our nation’. We also witnessed the imbrication of the Stone and its metaphors in post-colonial debates, not least repatriation (the Indian Kohinoor, Parthenon Marbles). But we were also told that society’s problems are greater than a ‘magic Stone of Destiny can solve’. That we are better as a society talking about social justice, values and principles, rather than the Stone, nationalism and identity, was a repeated mantra, including by Humza Yousaf in his responses to Salmond.

Yes, I’ve really only covered 11 months. On 10 March visitors will have their last opportunity to view the Stone at Edinburgh Castle, after living there for over 27 years, and the Stone will shortly be installed in the Perth Museum, opening to the public on 30 March. Just what will the media now report about its fêted centrepiece? What will we learn from reported public perspectives? Just before the Coronation, GB News noted that many young adults don’t know what the Stone is (their sample was in Glasgow). Just what will the Stone come to mean to forthcoming generations of people living in Scotland, of all ages?

For certain, not everyone knows or cares about the Stone. Yet – Destiny Bridge– how many carved stones have or will have a new bridge named after them? This reflects the enormous weight of responsibility and expectation resting on the tangible and intangible qualities of this superficially unprepossessing lump of Perthshire sandstone – to make the City of Perth more ‘sticky’ and prosperous, let alone enable alternative destinies for people in Scotland.

*For purposes of this blog, please note that my referencing is minimal / representative.

Queries or further information: Professor Sally Foster. Full project website: https:\\thestone.stir.ac.uk.

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