It belongs, in legal theory, and no doubt in her opinion, to the Queen. But Mr Major stated that she had agreed to the transfer "on the advice of Her Majesty's ministers". The Stone, on which Kings of Scotland were crowned until Edward I of England seized and removed it in 1296, may be placed in Edinburgh Castle later this year.
Politics is often symbolic. But nothing in this British century is stranger, or more touching in its faith in magic, than John Major's attempt to propitiate the Scots by returning the Liath Fail, or Stone of Destiny, after 700 years of exile.
And nothing more plainly reveals the superstition which still underlies this monarchy than the plaintive half-protest issued yesterday by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. To them, the "symbolic and emotional significance" of the Stone, its "intimate association with the Sacrament of Coronation" and its "religious associations" raise an agony of anxiety in "those who are advising the Queen in this matter". The working of a mighty spell seems to be endangered, a reaction as unpolitical - and indeed non-Christian - as the old myth that the monarchy will fall when the ravens of the Tower of London perish.
Edward I was much more rational when he took the Stone, together with archives and holy relics, in 1296. Like a Victorian conqueror in West Africa, calculating that removing the sacred stool of a king would demoralise his subjects and cow them into accepting foreign rule, he thought that this would break Scottish morale. It had seemed to work when the Crown of King Arthur and a fragment of the True Cross were seized from Wales in 1284. But this time Edward was wrong. The Wars of Independence followed, culminating in the crushing Scottish victory at Bannockburn in 1314. Edward's grandson acknowledged the mistake and, at the Treaty of Northampton in 1328, agreed to give the Stone back. But the London mob rioted in protest, and the Stone remained in Westminster Abbey.
There it stayed, a mysterious great slab which was once thought to be basalt but now seems to be a sort of limestone, until a group of young Scottish patriots, led by Iain Hamilton, broke into the Abbey and took it back to Scotland on Christmas Day 1950. When the tidings came on the BBC, a vivid flash of exultation ran all over Scotland - one of those instances when everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.
More than a year later, after negotiations which are still obscure, the Stone was laid in the ruined Abbey of Arbroath for the seekers to find, and returned to Westminster. Nobody was prosecuted. Some believe that only a fake Stone was returned, and that the real one still lies somewhere hidden in Northern darkness. But Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State of Scotland, promised yesterday that X-ray tests, to be published shortly, will show that the slab on which the young Queen Elizabeth sat to be crowned two years later was, and remains, the real thing.
Talk about "the return of cultural heritage" is beside the point. It is all too clear that this lump of rock is anything but dead heritage. This heritage is alive, and, in England even more than in Scotland, still radiates an awesome charge of power and legitimacy. The origins of the Stone are unknown. The medieval Scots invented fancies: that it was the stone which had been Jacob's pillow when he dreamed of the ladder to heaven and saw angels ascending and descending, brought to Scotland by the mythical Prince Gathelus from Egypt. It seems to have been taken to Scone, near Perth, by King Kenneth MacAlpine in the 9th century. Stones sometimes played a part in the Dark Age ceremonies for inaugurating kings, together with bardic recitations of ancestry.
Slightly less primitive is the provision that the Stone must be trundled back to Westminster for future Coronations. This is not just superstitious fear that the ritual may not be effective without it, although that fear is obvious now. It also contains a political thought. If the Stone on which the Kings of Scotland were crowned until the 13th century were to remain north of the Border, there would be strong pressure for a separate Scottish Coronation of all future British monarchs.
The Habsburgs fell into this trap. The Emperors of Austria-Hungary also became, by marriage and conquest, kings of Bohemia and Hungary, and there were coronation ceremonies in Prague and Budapest as well as Vienna. The effect of this was to preserve the sense of injured pride in those two kingdoms, later to develop into full-blown nationalism.
Will the return of the Stone, an idea put to Mr Major earlier this year by the ingenious Mr Forsyth, appease the Scottish hunger for self-government? It is likely to have the opposite effect. Once, it might have worked: when Sir Walter Scott discovered the ancient regalia of Scotland in a box in Edinburgh Castle, romantic excitement seemed to strengthen loyalty to the Hanoverians rather than weaken it.
Today, 170 years later, national feeling will only take strength from the righting of an old wrong. As Sir David Steel said in the Commons yesterday, most people in Scotland "want not just the symbol but the substance of the return of democratic control". This Stone is going to roll a long way before it comes to rest.Reuse content