Scotland welcomes the new Stone age

Neal Ascherson hears mutters of nationalism as the `Destiny Stane' comes home
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The Independent Online
"It's a first step," said the woman from Greenock. She had travelled across Scotland to see the Stone of Destiny carried through the streets of Edinburgh yesterday; she had hoped all her life to see that. Now she would tell her grandchildren about it. "A first stepping-stone to freedom," added somebody nearby. He sounded uncertain.

The Stone slowly passed us, an irregular yellow slab on the back of a Land Rover, shielded - like a Pope - by a transparent perspex lid. The Royal Mile, from Holyroodhouse to the Castle, was filled by this procession with the air of a funeral, as if a dead hero was being escorted to his resting place.

For the people waiting on the pavement, the Stone belongs to the nation of Scotland: a fragment of its landscape and its history which belongs to everyone. But for the organisers of the St Andrew's Day ceremony, it still belongs to the Queen - her personal property. She has only lent it - "graciously" - to be housed in Edinburgh Castle between coronations, visible to her Scottish subjects for pounds 5.50 a peep.

This gave the procession a protective, alienating air. The Duke of York represented the proprietor. The High Street and the Canongate were lined with soldiers and sailors with fixed bayonets. In a string of black limousines (why couldn't they walk?) followed all sorts of robed big-wigs. A few were familiar, like the Scottish law lords and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Most, though, belonged to the heraldic class which is supposed to represent the continuity of Scottish ritual but which has become totally unknown to the Scottish people - the anglicised aristocrats who are Hereditary Flag-bearers, Captains-General, Gold Sticks, Lord High Constables, Commissioners of Regalia or Kings at Arms.

In the Canongate, only a handful of people watched this strange pageant advance uphill. But up near St Giles' Cathedral, the crowd thickened. They cheered quietly as the Stone passed. They booed quietly but spontaneously when the Royal Marines band played "God Save the Queen". Here and there, banners rose suggesting that self-government was Scotland's true destiny, or that the bread of democracy could not be replaced by a stone. Some of these banners were lifted by Braveheart lookalikes, long haired and brawny. Others were held by members of the Vigil for Democracy, who have slept on the pavement for exactly 1,694 nights outside the building which may become Scotland's parliament.

Before the ceremony began, the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, led by Sir David Steel and George Robertson MP, shadow secretary of state for Scotland, planted a rowan tree in the grounds of the future parliament. Canon Kenyon Wright, chairman of the Convention, said that the Stone of Destiny was welcome as a historic symbol, but that the tree was "a living symbol of our faith in a renewed nation within a healthier union and a changing Europe".

Yesterday's pageant, 700 years after the Stone was seized by Edward I of England and taken to Westminster, was one man's calculated risk. Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, had the idea and drove it through; he saw that the Scottish Tories - with a mere 15 per cent of popular support - were fatally identified with English rule, and he proposed to invest in shamelessly patriotic symbolism. He wore a kilt yesterday in Edinburgh Castle as he "spoke for the people of Scotland" to thank the Queen for graciously returning the Stone to its homeland.

Two weeks have passed since the Stone returned to Scotland and was handed over to a Scottish escort on the bridge over the Tweed at Coldstream. Since then, it has been held incommunicado in the laboratories of Historic Scotland, where it has been cleaned up, measured, weighed and examined to see if it is the authentic slab on which the kings of Scotland were inaugurated. There were a few discoveries. The Stone has somehow lost a third of its weight since it was last examined. But the iron tenons which hold it together - Scottish students who seized it briefly in 1950 found that it had cracked into two pieces - are in sound condition. Many like to believe that this is the wrong stone, a phoney sold either to Edward I in 1296 or to the Westminster Abbey authorities in 1951. But the evidence now is that this is at least the object which Edward removed from Scone.

Scottish politicians and intellectuals have been scornful. Keep the dead Stone, they say, but give us the living reality of self-government. The columnist Ian Bell, in yesterday's Scotsman, asked how "a level-headed sort like Michael Forsyth can pretend to believe in the mystical hold an old cesspit lid might have over the populace". A Vigil member who came to see the Stone pass suggested that the best fate for it would be to blow it to bits. His companion wanted it ground to dust and scattered about the landscape. But public feeling is not so dismissive. Scottish people are determined not to be grateful to anyone - the Queen or Mr Forsyth - for the return of stolen property. At the same time, the arrival of this block of sandstone does stir them in ways they find hard to analyse.

Judging by voices in yesterday's crowd, they did not see the Stone's return as the end of a story. Unfortunately for Mr Forsyth, they see it as an encouraging start on the process of getting back a lot of other things which Scotland has lost. First the Stone; last, whatever the Scots agree to mean by "freedom".