"Scotland is a Nation
Interview with Ian Hamilton
It was the heist to end all heists. Four twentysomethings, two cars and the most unusual booty of all time. Backed with only their burning passion, a ramshackle group of idealists ventured into the heart of the British Empire to reclaim Scotland's Stone of Destiny, and settle a seven-hundred year old row. BooksfromScotland.com sent Tony Black to talk to ringleader Ian Hamilton about the 'crime' that rocked the world.
TONY BLACK: Firstly, for our readers who aren't up on their Scottish history, perhaps you could explain what the Stone of Destiny is?
IAN HAMILTON: The Stone has a long tradition. It is supposed to have been brought by the migrating Gaels from the east via the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter Scota... but that's just tradition. It was for hundreds of years kept at Scone, hence its alternative name of Stone of Scone. This was to keep it from Viking pirates in the 800s to the 1200s. As Stone of Destiny it was used by the Scottish Kings as their Coronation seat. The English call it the Coronation Stone. In 1296, when Edward of England invaded Scotland he took it away as he attempted to erase any sign of Scottish nationality. There followed the Scottish/English wars... Wallace (Braveheart) and Bruce... in which the Scots were victorious. Peace was finally made by the Treaty of Northampton in 1328. There was a clause in this by which the English undertook to return the Stone but they never did. It traditionally belongs to the Scottish people themselves not to their rulers hence the popular feeling for it. I think this latter is most important.
Edward had a special Coronation Chair made for it with a shelf underneath it to take the Stone; at present it is agreeably empty and forlorn.
TB:And you reclaimed it at a time (1950) when public feeling in Scotland, and I take this from reading your book, wasn't exactly filled with pride... you wanted to change that didn't you?
IH:1950 was still the very height of the British Empire. The Scots benefited financially from it but very nearly lost their identity to it. Ever since I was a child I had wanted to do something to try to waken the Scots to ensure that they hadn't lost their identity. The sudden and overwhelming response to the return of the Stone astonished everyone including me.
TB:One of the hallmarks of the book is the sense you convey of a young bloke caught up in momentous events -- it was one hell of an adventure wasn't it?
IH:It was a great adventure. I was a young man who had just missed action in the War by a hairsbreadth. I was a volunteer, not a conscript. I was nearly a pilot but I was just too young. Looking back we rode our luck and were carried along by the whole breathless adventure of the thing. I was caught by a night watchman and had to talk my way out, and twice we had to talk our way free of the police. We would never have used violence but four resolute youngsters, pressing on regardless, can achieve quite a lot. That's what we did. We pressed on regardless.
TB: You were a university student, and risking your entire future on this weren't you.
IH: Yes. We were risking our futures, and jail too. We were banking on the ordinary people of Scotland supporting on us. We thought it might be a forlorn hope but as always they supported their own.
TB: What did it feel like being in Westminster Abbey, in the wee hours of Christmas Day 1950, to finally get your hands on the Stone for the first time?
IH: I was too full of adrenaline to remember much. When I went back into the Abbey on my own for the fourth or so time that night, looking for the car keys which had been torn from my coat pocket as we used the coat as a sledge to drag the Stone, I stopped for a moment. I remember the utter black darkness of the place and sensed its vaulted ceiling 100ft above me, then I noticed a light at the far end, stationary, far away and tiny. Someone, an ex-serviceman from the First World War, later told me what I was looking at was the light, never extinguished, at the tomb of the Unknown warrior. This was told me by Professor Dewar Gibb my Scots Law Professor, who had been Churchill's adjutant in the trenches.
TB: And then the Stone spilt... your heat must have sank.
IH: Breaking Stone. No panic. It just made it easier to carry. I have never treated the Stone as something holy... merely as a symbol.
TB: There were a number of occasions when the wheels just about fell off your plans, when it looked like the attempt to reclaim the Stone would simply collapse; I'm thinking of the times you literally ran into police.
IH: Police. Gypsies... Yes, it was all strange, but I do underline the "press on" quality. One professional screenplay writer left out the gypsy scene saying it was too incredible for the cinema... I nearly went mad. 'The whole bloody story's incredible,' I shouted at him. The screenplay writer was Charles Martin Smith who did a great job.
TB: It's safe to say that there was a massive groundswell of support for your actions when you got back to Scotland, but how did it feel to be in the thick of it?
IH: We just played a part. I was enormously amused to hear one student 'friend' say, 'The only person who would suspect Ian Hamilton is Ian Hamilton' so we hid ourselves pretty well in our own identities.
TB: Interestingly, the powers that be never charged you and your partners in 'crime': Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart; what do you put that down to?
TB: To this day the authorities say that they couldn't prosecute us because they couldn't prove who owned the Stone. This is nonsense. Just think if your car is stolen the police don't have to make enquiries about its true ownership. It may be your employer, or an HP company. All they have to prove is whose possession it was in at the time. It was in possession of the Dean of Westminster. All they needed was evidence of an official to say that.
It was the people of Scotland who saved us. They made it abundantly clear that there would be riots if they attempted to prosecute us.
TB: You say you never really saw Gavin, Kay and Alan after the event.
IH: Never saw them again. We weren't close friends. People have tried to couple my name with Kay Matheson's. I had addressed envelopes with her in a political office and taken her to one dance/ball. That was all. I haven't seen her for 55yrs. The others? Can't see why we should. We joined together. We did what we set out to do. We were young. We had our different ways to make in life. We went our ways. I was glad to see Alan Stuart back for the film. He was always pleased with my book. Said it was very accurate. He has always lain low... not ashamed... just a very private person.
TB: We have the Stone back in Edinburgh Castle now, returned by Tory Government in 1996, but what few people realise is, it's on loan. They've a cheek have they not?
IH: I was invited to the Stone's return on loan. I refused to go. When the woman next door returns the washing she's stolen from your line you don't drink her champagne.
TB: What do you think the Scottish people will say when they try to take it back for the next coronation?
IH: I don't know. That's one for your generation, Tony.
TB: There's a movie of your exploits now - starring Robert Carlisle - did you like it?
IH: I loved the movie. Typically the Scottish critics did everything they could to kill it. However it got standing ovations at Cannes (where it wasn't even entered in the official Festival) and likewise at Toronto Film Festival, the biggest English-speaking Festival in the world. It opens in England on December 19 and in Canada early next year. I've forgotten all the places it has been chosen for distribution. It has been extremely well received by the audiences here in Scotland.
TB: In the fifty-plus years since you reclaimed the Stone, Scotland has changed immensely. We have a devolved government, a sitting government seeking independence and a renewed sense of national pride... I think the country has much to thank Ian Hamilton for, do you think independence is on the cards?
IH: At most we spoke for our generation but we hand on a better Scotland to you than we got from our parents, but there is still much to do. We are the only nation who struck oil and became poorer as a result. We are a wealthy country yet a third of us live in poverty. Over to your generation, Tony.
Independence is inevitable. Scotland is a nation.
"The Spectator"- 28 MAY 1959, Page 29
SOUTH OF SCOTLAND
By IAN HAMILTON
The longer I live out of Scotland, the more vivid is my awareness of its own individual 't self. Or so I imagine. Even in my lyrically nation- alist adolescence, when I had never been across the border, and no farther over the sea than to Ireland, even then I never held the country so clearly in mind and imagination as I do now. As I write these words I can hear the incredulous guffaws with Which a few professional zealots, very properly laking a virtue of whatever necessity has kept them pure and undefiled by Sassenach ways, feel obliged to greet any statement by someone less virtuous than they. But no matter : if there is amething despicable in pursuing a vocation impossible of realisation at home, at least I shoulder my guilt in the company of some scores of millions of fellow-countrymen, Irishmen, Sicilians, and others of small nationalities provid- ing much ambition but little room.
No doubt this clarity is partially illusory, in some degree the product of the exile's sentimen- tality; but not very much so; otherwise I must be curiously adept at deceiving myself, for I never feel cheated when I return. On the contrary, on each successive visit I find the country even more attractive than I had remembered it, more various, more stimulating; more saddening. I know of no other country which holds in such small compass such rich and subtle variety of landscape, accent, manner, attitude, atmosphere. In Glasgow, magnificent monster of the west, one can sense more energy to the acre than to the square mile else- where. Glasgow, in this, is closer to some of its sister-cities in America than to any in Britain, but this is no mere superficial resemblance : the people of greater Glasgow—that is, the majority of the population of the entire country—are far closer in feeling to America than is generally realised. No one could say anything so alarming of Edinburgh, scarcely fifty miles to the east across the smudged midland plain. Edinburgh still retains a Victorian, North British sort of charm, stiff with a slightly dowdy, Trollopian snobbishness and froideur, and its nineteenth-century stays creak touchingly whenever it unbends. The modern Scottishness' of Edinburgh is always slightly suspect to me : a rather genteel baakward-looking, the carefully correct kilt in Princes Street, a dally- ing with old forms emptied of their wild content. Yet I love it, westerner though I am, the handsome old North British frump, and its dogged provincialism saddens me (far more than the 'Americanisation' of the west alarms me), its envy of London so mawkishly expressed in so many ways.
There is a sense of incompleteness in the air there, a feeling of loss which is easily identified and which can indeed be recognised in one form or another throughout the entire country. No amount of festivalising will lessen it; Holyrood- house could be occupied all the year round by the entire Royal Family, and it would be nowise diminished; the bureaucracy under the direct control of Scottish Ministers could be doubled, St. Andrew's House made four times more impres- sive, and it would not matter a tinker's damn. No doubt about it : Edinburgh is an empty shell so long as it does not house a national legislature.
There was a time when I would have said as much a good deal more vigorously. There was also a later time when I should have denied it with almost equal vigour. But minds are for changing; and now, without being any the wiser, I am at least aware that in such matters there is neither black nor white but only the infinite gradations of grey between. Dilemmas and contradictions abound in all directions, and since (happily) there is a lack of blessed martyrs to sweep them into insignificance by forcing the issue on purely and fanatically nationalist grounds, we must take them into account.
The present arrangements are bound to go on provincialising Scotland, body and spirit. This is the inevitable outcome of a situation in which a nation has submerged its political identity in that of a more powerful neighbour and yet maintains with a passionate stubbornness a number of forms which clearly distinguish its nationhood and which make a continuing reality of the border.
There is no doubt at all about Scottish national sentiment. The Covenant campaign proved, not very scientifically perhaps but well enough, what most people must have already known: that a great majority of Scots would 'like to see' a parliament in Edinburgh, a sufficient political expression of their strong sense of national identity. It is unlikely, though, that many seriously think in terms of separation from England. All this is extremely vague and unformed, and there is often a strong element about it of mere play with words. Liberals, for example, are Home Rulers, but they can safely promise the moon for all the likelihood of their being called on to deliver. In the General Election of 1945 most of the Labour candidates in Scotland had Home Rule as a plank in their platforms, but they shut up smartly when they were told, once they had been sent to Westminster. The Covenant campaign petered out, but not before Westminster had taken some note of the state of mind which it represented. National senti- ment has certainly not been anywhere near the point of crystallising into effective political terms, but that is not to say that it never will. The temper of opinion is often shown more obliquely, as when the use of agents provocateurs to break up small 'republican' organisations caused a certain revul- sion of feeling. Then there was the complete reversal of public opinion during the weeks when Scotland Yard searched in vain for the Stone of Destiny and failed to get their hands finally on the undergraduates who had taken it. As time passed the initial feeling of pious outrage (as expressed in the newspapers) was replaced by something very different, and repeated assurances of alarm and despondency among the very highest in the south did nothing to arrest the trend : on the contrary, when the truth was out at laSt it was politically impossible for the police to take any action at alL.
I know very little, God knows, but that little is quite enough now to prevent me from saying that this or that is the line to take, and all others be damned. I know that I have a loyalty to that co plex which I call my country, and that it is not in my nature to think of it either as a recreation ground bright with Ye Olde Tartanne or as an industrial area into which North American capital can increasingly pour. If somebody at this point in time were to get me into a corner and force me to express myself positively I should say : (1) Nationalism is an abhorrent force; (2) London's preponderance is far too great and is draining the spirit out of Scotland, and not only Scotland; (3) The rational solution in the end will be a federation which will restore to Scotland its national dignity, allow Wales to be itself, and make possible (when the last representa- tives of the old intransigent generations have gone to better things) a breaking of the Irish deadlock; (4) In that happy event we should make some attempt to be 'Scottish' with as little conscious effort as the English are 'English,' for there are few things more painful than the two basic attitudes—on the one hand, 'Him; I kcnnt his faither!' and, on the other, 'Wha's like us?'