No single state or person can own the Stone of Scone: Leading Article

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When is a sacred piece of heritage somebody else's stolen property? And is the man or woman who takes it back a thief, a patriot, an agent of natural justice?

The Stone of Scone is not unique. Where, now, is the missing treasure known as the "Holyrood Bird"? The Stone was spirited back to Scotland in 1950 and spent some months on - or under - its native soil. The Bird, it seems, is still buried there.

It is a brass pre-Reformation lectern, made in Italy in 1498 and given by the Pope to the Bishop of Dunkeld. From there it was moved to Holyrood Abbey, now a beautiful ruin next to the palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. There it stayed until 1544, when an English army led by the Earl of Hertford attacked Edinburgh during the "Rough Wooing" - the attempt by Henry VIII to force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots to his son Edward.

Hertford, later Duke of Somerset, sacked the Abbey and brought the lectern back to England with him, presenting it finally to the parish church of St Stephen at St Albans. It was not until 1982 that the Bird made a brief return to Edinburgh as an item in an exhibition called "Angels, Nobles and Unicorns". The Bird was then brought back to St Albans but soon afterwards - on St Andrew's Night, 1985 - it vanished. Later, a group of "Scottish patriots" contacted the media and stated that the Bird was buried somewhere in the west Highlands. There it remains, while the Hertfordshire police pursue their vain enquiries.

The illegal return of historic relics to their "proper" place is tricky. Who is here the thief? The Government is desperate not to let the return of the Stone of Destiny seem a precedent for returning the Elgin Marbles (although most British people now feel that on balance they should go back to Greece). It could be said of the Bird, as of the Marbles, that removal to England protected them: the lectern would certainly have been destroyed by the Presbyterian mob which burst into the Abbey in 1688 and smashed everything they found. But British possession of the Marbles at least derives from something like a bargain or transaction between Lord Elgin and the Turkish authorities in Athens. English possession of these Scottish relics derives only from plunder.

Scotland is already launching into an enjoyable row about where the Stone should now be lodged. Mr Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, seems to incline to Edinburgh Castle, where the "Honours" - the regalia of the Scottish kings - are kept. The Church of Scotland leans towards the cathedral church of St Giles, on the theory that the Stone belongs on "consecrated ground". Mr Bill Walker, the Tory MP, thinks it should come to Scone, in his constituency, although it is not clear where it should be placed; it may originally have been located on the top of the "Hill of Faith" above Scone, perhaps as the capstone of a burial cairn containing ancestral Pictish bones. A fourth notion is that the Stone should be the central exhibit in the new Museum of Scotland, nearing completion in Edinburgh.

The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, plainly shocked by the whole scheme, think that the Stone is part of the coronation sacrament. "Coronation" - the Christian ceremony with crowning and anointing performed by Church leaders - is a rite designed to resemble baptism, which originally symbolised the spiritual authority of popes over earthly kings. But this sort of ceremony came very late to Scotland.

The old Scottish way was to seat the new king on the Stone, to recite in song the names and deeds of his ancestors and to greet him with the clashing of weapons on shields. In Christian times, bishops were present, but only to bless and witness. The whole ritual is better called "acclamation" than coronation, and the first conventional coronation in Scotland was only licensed by the Pope when David II became king in 1332 - more than 30 years after the loss of the Stone of Scone. In short, the idea of the Stone as a Christian sacramental object requiring "consecrated ground" is completely false to Scotland's history.

So if the churches cannot claim the Stone, who can? Mr Major and the Dean of Westminster have both said flatly that it is the Queen's property "by right of Crown". Nobody quite knows what that means, except that royal might is right in the sense that when the late Queen Mary took a fancy to a snuffbox in some country house, it had to be presented to her. Here again, Scottish constitutional doctrine is different. There is a view that an object like the Stone is the "property of the nation", which is not the same as the modern concept of "state property".

In the Middle Ages, Scots invented an imaginary ruler: "The Lion". When the land was under foreign occupation and the king a prisoner, the Lion ruled. The defenders of Stirling against the English in 1304 claimed that they were holding the castle "for the Lion", at a time when there was no king. It was from the Lion that popular resistance leaders like "Braveheart" William Wallace often drew their authority as Guardians of Scotland. From this comes the vague but persistent Scottish sense of popular sovereignty, of a collective which can own land, castles or even Stones without formal property deeds.

At present, Edinburgh Castle belongs to the state, although it is administered by the quango Historic Scotland. The castle holds the "Honours of Scotland" - the old crown, sceptre, mace and sword which were discovered there in a chest by Sir Walter Scott in 1818. But these are defined as royal property - perhaps fairly, because they were made to the personal order of kings whose heiress the Queen can claim to be.

The Stone of Scone, a great blind slab of Dark Ages magic, is something else. No single person or state can own a thing like that. It belongs to a community, and to those who understand themselves as the present generation of that community. The Stone belongs to the Lion. But who can be the invisible Lion's trustee?

The answer, by elimination, has to be the half-completed National Museum of Scotland. It is not a perfect answer. Some Scots fear that the Stone might be subdued and demystified as an "exhibit". But the Iron Crown of St Stephen, Hungary's beloved symbol of a thousand years of nationhood which was hidden in America until it was returned by President Jimmy Carter, has lost none of its power by taking a place of honour in the National Museum in Budapest.

I am convinced that the museum is the right place for the Stone of Scone, while the castle is the wrong one. It would dominate the ground-floor gallery for Scottish history from 1100 to 1707, due to open in 1998. In a visual coup which any museum would kill for, the Stone would lie opposite the Brecbennach, the house-shaped reliquary for St Columba's bones which was carried into battle at Bannockburn. The greatest of Scotland's symbols of power, royal and spiritual, would together create a field of force to draw and grasp the generations of the future.

If that is where the Stone goes, it matters little who claims to own it. It will be safe, it will be wonderfully displayed in the only context which can explain its true meaning, and it will satisfy the deep feeling of a people who believe that it is theirs. And that, I think, would be the will of the Lion.