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Student thieves of the Stone of Destiny

A passing police officer did not for a second think that the pair he saw in a passionate embrace in a car outside Westminster Abbey may be engaged in one of the most daring robberies in British history.

Ian Hamilton was a third-year law student at Glasgow University© Getty Images

Ian Hamilton, who just passed away at the age of 97, was the man in the car.

He was a 25-year-old student at Glasgow University who was in London in 1950 with the goal of making a significant statement about Scottish nationalism.

The police officer was called to find out why they were parked in front of the Abbey in the early hours of Christmas Day after witnessing him get into the Ford Anglia next to fellow student Kay Matheson.

They had just arrived from Scotland, the cuddly pair said, and had been unable to locate a motel. The compassionate policeman engaged them in conversation before advising them to continue.

As he watched them drive away, he was unaware that concealed in the car was a broken chunk of the Stone of Destiny, the ancient symbol of Scotland, which had been seized six centuries earlier by English King Edward I.

Before the night was over, Ian Hamilton had snatched the other part of the 150kg (336lb) red sandstone block and spirited it away from the Abbey.

The Stone of Destiny was originally used during the coronation of Scottish kings© PA Media

Prior to being looted during the Wars of Independence and transported to Westminster Abbey where it was placed on King Edward’s carved-oak coronation chair, the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, was used in the crowning of Scottish kings for hundreds of years.

“The Stone of Destiny is Scotland’s icon,” Ian Hamilton told the BBC in a rare interview many years later.

“In one of the many invasions by the English into Scotland, they took away the symbol of our nation.

“To bring it back was a very symbolic gesture.”

So during the Christmas holidays from university the four students set off for London in two elderly Ford cars. The other members of the gang were Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart.

This picture shows the Coronation Chair and the Stone of Destiny in 1937© Getty Images

Prior to the Abbey’s nighttime closure, their initial strategy called for Ian to skulk into a shadowy area of the building and then later unlock the entrance from the inside. However, the night watchman spotted him and sent him outside while taking his claim that he had accidentally locked himself in as true.

They tried again the following evening. By 4 am, one of the automobiles was parked nearby, while the other had been driven directly up the lane behind Westminster Abbey.

The men approached the Poet’s Corner door and attempted to jemmy it open as Kay waited in the car.

Later, Kay remarked that she was certain people on the opposite side of London could hear the noise.

The Coronation Throne in Westminster Abbey after the theft of the Stone of Destiny© Getty Images

Having managed to break open the door, the group were now feverish with excitement and set about removing the stone from its cavity beneath the throne.

Ian removed his coat so they could use it to drag the block along when they set the stone down on the ground.

Ian grabbed one of the chains fastened to the stone, but as soon as he began to pull, the stone gave way and split in half. They each plucked an arm from the coat.

Ian claimed that out of disbelief, he took up the lighter stone, which weighed around 40 kg (90 lbs), and ran with it like a rugby ball.

Kay reported seeing him leave the Abbey by a side door.
Then, to her dismay, she noticed a policeman scanning the roadway.

“Then to my horror I saw this policeman looking down the lane,” she said. “I realised if Ian crossed over to the car with the stone the policeman was bound to see him.

“So I drew the car in as closely as I could and Ian quickly pushed the stone into the back seat of the car and threw a coat over it.”

After the encounter with the policeman, Kay and Ian set off with the smaller of the two pieces in the back of their Ford Anglia.

Gavin and Alan fled without the larger section, thinking they had been abandoned.

They did not know that Ian had got out of the car and was now making his was back to the Abbey.

The keys to the second car had fallen out of his coat pocket so Ian had to go back inside the pitch black church to find them.

In another stroke of luck, he found the keys when he stepped on them by accident near the door of the Abbey.

It was now left to Ian to manhandle the larger section of the stone into the boot of the car.

The Stone of Destiny was left in Arbroath Abbey months later and returned to Westminster© PA Media

Just as morning was beginning, he drove away from the Abbey and, by coincidence, saw Gavin and Alan trudging along towards the Old Kent Road, looking bewildered.

The massive chunk of the stone was buried by the gang in a rural area close to Rochester, Kent.

The smaller portion, which Kay had left at a friend’s house, was lying in a Birmingham garage.

The heist produced a worldwide sensation when it was found, and for the first time in 400 years, Scotland and England’s borders were sealed.

A group of Scotland Yard investigators were dispatched to collaborate with Scottish authorities when the Metropolitan Police accurately predicted the stolen stone was traveling north of the border.

The Stone of Destiny in the custody of James Wiseheart in April 1951© PA Media

Ian Hamilton claimed that he had originally planned to bury the stone until the “hue and cry” subsided, but changed his mind after becoming concerned about the stone’s vulnerability to the elements after 600 years.

He left on Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve, with Alan Stuart and two other people to get the larger piece from Kent.

When they arrived in Rochester, they discovered a Traveler camp on top of the stone, but they were able to persuade them to assist in carrying it to the car.

When they eventually returned to Scotland, the stone was given to other supporters of the Scottish Covenant Association, who were working to establish a Scottish Parliament.

Hamilton was glad to get rid of it as suspicion was already falling on him.

Detectives discovered that Hamilton had taken out nearly every book in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library on the subject of the Stone of Destiny in the months before the theft.

The stone was taken back to London after it was found at Arbroath Abbey© PA Media

At a factory in Bonnybridge, the primary portion of the stone was by this point concealed beneath the floors.

Later, it was moved to a more secluded area next to Cambuskenneth Abbey in Stirling.

A stone mason eventually used copper tube doweling to rejoin the second component with the bigger piece after having it transported from Birmingham.

The Scottish Covenant Association determined the stone should be returned after a few months. The heist’s goal of raising awareness of Scottish home rule had been accomplished.

They made the choice to leave the stone in the abandoned Arbroath monastery, the site of a famous proclamation of Scottish independence in 1320.

On 11 April 1951, the stone was taken back to London and returned to Westminster Abbey.

Members of the Royal Archers escort the Stone Of Destiny across Edinburgh Castle Esplanade in 1996© PA Media

The stone was replaced in the Coronation Chair and two years later, in June 1953, King Edward’s chair – with the Stone of Destiny underneath – had a greater prominence than ever as Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was broadcast on television.

Forty years later, in July 1996, the Queen, along with Prime Minister John Major, agreed the stone should be returned to Scotland. It can now be seen at Edinburgh Castle.

In the next couple of years the Stone of Destiny will move once more, to become the centrepiece of a planned Perth City Hall museum.

It has also been announced that it will return to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Charles III.

Ian Hamilton went on to have a successful career in criminal law.

Kay Matheson welcomed the stone back to Scotland during a ceremony at Edinburgh Castle in 1996© PA Media

Inverasdale in the west Highlands was where Kay Matheson went back to. She was a primary school teacher in the neighborhood and passed away in 2013.

After earning his electrical engineering degree, Gavin Vernon immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. He passed away in March 2004.

Glasgow-based businessman Alan Stuart passed away in 2019 at the age of 88.

The student gang’s crimes were never brought to justice.

The administration claimed that despite the stone’s rocky journey, nobody had been hurt.

Ian Hamilton added: “The home secretary made a statement to the House of Commons: ‘It was known who had done it but it would not be in the public interest to prosecute the vulgar vandals’.

“That’s been a phrase that I have always enjoyed all my life.

“To do something for your country that spills not a drop of blood is, I think, something to be proud of.”

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