Romancing the Stone - of Scone

A media circus awaits its return to Scotland, reports Graham Ball
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The Stone of Scone, the ancient talisman of Scottish nationhood, also referred to as the Stone of Destiny, could soon become equally well known as the stone of photo opportunity.

It emerged last week that a media circus will follow the progress of the yellow sandstone slab as it is taken north next month in accordance with John Major's promise to return it from Westminster Abbey to its land of origin.

The Scottish Office has arranged for a formal ceremony to receive the stone back on to Scottish soil at the border town of Coldstream, and it is thought likely that the Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, who claims credit for the repatriation, will be on hand to greet it.

"There has been a tremendous amount of media interest," said Paul Geoghan, a Scottish Office spokesman. "There will be live satellite broadcasting and we were surprised that even Japanese television has asked for official accreditation."

It will provide a potent platform for the Government's campaign to win over sceptical Scots in the run-up to an election where devolution and the very survival of the Tory party north of the border will be at issue.

On a date yet to be fixed in November, the stone is to make the 400-mile journey from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh by road. It will travel in the back of "a vehicle of suitable dignity" in a wooden travelling case.

It is thought the route through England will eschew motorways and the last leg will take it towards the bridge across the River Tweed - the boundary between the two countries.

Waiting on the north side of the bridge to welcome back the relic which was pillaged by King Edward I in 1296, in addition to local MPs and dignitaries, will be an honour guard of soldiers.

The decision to involve the military has sparked intense lobbying between the Scottish regiments for the privilege of escorting the mystical masonry on its way to its new home. Once safely back on Scottish soil the stone is to be taken to an Historic Scotland laboratory for "refurbishment". It will next emerge, restored for the cameras, on 30 November, St Andrew's Day.

With the care and respect normally reserved for the deceased, the stone, which has featured in the coronation of some 30 British monarchs, will begin the last stage, from Holyroodhouse to St Giles' Cathedral.

It will then be escorted inside for a service of dedication before being gently borne into Edinburgh Castle, where tourists and patriotic Scots may pay pounds 5.50 to see it.