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Where does the real Stone of Scone lie?

WHEN SCOTLAND'S Stone of Destiny was returned to Edinburgh in 1996, a nation thought that its holiest relic, used for coronations a millennium earlier, had at last come home.

The Stone of Scone had been away, with one celebrated exception, for 700 years, since the Hammer of the Scots, Edward I, took it to England as war booty, and its return seemed to offer modern blessing to Scottish nationalism.

Until this week, when the story gained more twists than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Knights Templar announced that, actually, they had the real stone, reputed to have been used as a pillow by Jacob in biblical times, and offered it to the new Scottish Parliament.

The knights revealed that they acquired the stone after it was stolen from England by Scottish nationalists in 1950. During the four months before the police caught up with the thieves, a couple of copies were apparently made by a Glasgow stonemason.

The one that went back to England (and subsequently was returned to Scotland in 1996) was a fake, say the knights.

All this has finally come to light because of the recent death of the Rev Dr John MacKay Nimmo, a character with whom Indiana Jones would feel familiar.

Dr Nimmo was a Chevalier with the Knights Templar of Scotland and a Church of Scotland minister and had for decades regarded himself as guardian of the stone.

Dr Nimmo led a shadowy double life because of the stone, which weighs 33lb, and whose only decoration is a Latin cross. Three years ago, when the "Other Stone" came north, he hid his "original" under the beaten earth floor of a farmer's Perthshire outhouse, for fear that all the interest would lead to its discovery.

However, it was Dr Nimmo's dying wish that it should be given to the Scottish Parliament. "My husband was never in any doubt that this was the genuine stone stolen from Westminster Abbey," said Jean Nimmo, the minister's widow.

The experts are convinced that Dr Nimmo was wrong. Historic Scotland said that it is satisfied that the stone already in Edinburgh Castle is the real thing.

They are confident it is "the stone that was taken south by Edward I in 1296". The Scottish Executive agrees. But the Scottish Parliament will debate the matter in September.

There are,however, two further twists to the saga.

First, the death this week, aged 99, of Margaret Pearl Cook, one of the five founder- members of the Scottish National Party.

Miss Cook told her nephew that the stone apparently returned to England in 1950 after the theft was a fake and she knew the location of the real one. No one knows whether she was referring to Dr Nimmo's stone, currently under the guardianship of the knights beneath an iron grille in a church in Dull, Perthshire.

However, she may have been thinking of a separate stone said to have been buried on Dunsinane Hill by the monks of Scone in the 13th century.

The monks are said to have cleverly made a copy of this original. The joke, say Scots in the know, is on Edward I. The Stone of Scone never left Scotland, they insist.