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The Stone of Destiny (the Liath Fàil) and the Honours of Scotland

Scotland's Stone of Destiny

The Liath Fàil, the "Stone of Destiny," or a Fraud?

Is Scotland's fabled kingmaking "Stone of Destiny" (also known as the "Coronation Stone," the "Stone of Scone," the "Liath Fàil," "Jacob's Pillow," "Jacob's Pillar" and the "Tanist Stone") a fake, an historical artifact, a magical talisman, or a medieval cess-pit cover fobbed off on the English by the Scots as a rather crude (albeit well-deserved) practical joke? Or is it, perhaps, "all the above?"

How important is the Stone of Destiny to Scotland? The web site of Scotland's Board of Tourism proclaims: "It is arguably the greatest symbol and touchstone of Scottish nationhood and, as such, has been a very potent icon for more than a thousand years."

The Highland Heritage Society web site says, "Today, the stone is still the greatest Scottish icon of all times."

And the Scottish people heartily concur! On St. Andrew's Day, November 30, 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland, exactly seven hundred years after King Edward I of England "carted it off to Westminster Abbey" in 1296. According to one account, "About 10,000 people lined the Royal Mile to watch the procession of dignitaries and troops escort the stone from Holyrood Palace to the castle. In a service at St. Giles Cathedral, the Church of Scotland Moderator, the Right Reverend John MacIndoe, formally accepted the stone's return saying it would 'strengthen the proud distinctiveness of the people of Scotland.'"

What do the poets have to say?

Except old seers do feign and wizard wits be blind,
the Scots in place must reign where they this stone shall find!

What do the prophets have to say?

He who is crowned upon the Liath Fàil is destined be the true King of Milesian people and rule all the lands.

According to legend, The Liath Fàil was lent to the Scots by the Milesians (Irish) for the coronation of their new king; the Scots neglected to return it. It was later stolen by King Edward I of England, "the Hammer of the Scots" (more below). The Liath Fàil may have both taken revenge and fulfilled its purpose, for the next king of England was of the Milesian line and no relation of Edward's! The Liath Fàil was one of the "thirteen hallows (gifts) of Ireland," and is the only known to exist today.
The Stone of Destiny is a large (152 kg) slab of sandstone on which Scottish kings used to be crowned, when there were indeed such mythic and fabulous creatures as Scottish kings, and as such it has connotations of the rock into which Merlin legendarily thrust Excalibur. The English, hated and despised by the Scots, put their faith in the sword as proof of legitimate kingship. The Scots, hated and despised by the English, put their faith in the rock itself. Must the English and the Scots always be a loggerheads? Unfortunately for them, but entertainingly for us, it seems they must! Whether they were one and the same rock is, of course, a matter of speculation, and there is no real reason to believe they were. But, as symbols, the sword and the stone are utterly compelling and seem to tell us a tale beyond mere historical facts and words. 

The Celtic name of the Scottish Coronation Stone is Liath Fàil, "the speaking stone" because it named the king it would soon enthrone, and might sing or roar with joy when he sat on it! Cambray in his Monuments Celtiques claims to have seen the stone when it bore this inscription: Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocumque locatum Invenient lapidiem, regnasse tenetur ibidem ("If the Destiny prove true, then the Scots are known to have been Kings where'er men find this stone"). Methinks the poets said it better:

Except old seers do feign and wizard wits be blind,
the Scots in place must reign where they this stone shall find!

At Scone the Coronation Stone was "reverently kept for the consecration of the kings of Alba" and, according to one chronicler, "no king was ever wont to reign in Scotland unless he had first, on receiving the royal name, sat upon this stone at Scone, which by the kings of old had been appointed to the capital of Alba."

The Stone appears in the legends of the great Celtic kings and heroes. For instance, Riabhdhearg (Lugaid Riab nDerg, Réoderg, Sriab nDearg, "Red Stripes") was a legendary High King of Ireland and the foster-son of Cúchulainn, the greatest of all Celtic heroes. Cúchulainn split the Liath Fáil with his sword when it failed to roar under Riabhdhearg. According to legend, it never roared again except under Conn Cétchathach ("Conn of the Hundred Battles").

The Coronation Stone was used to inaugurate Scottish kings going back at least as far as Kenneth I,  also known as Kenneth Mac Alpin, "the Hardy" and "the raven feeder" (presumably because ravens dined well on the bodies of those he had slain in battle). Kenneth I (c. 810-858 AD) was the first king to unite the Scotti and the Picts, two warlike tribes, in 843. The Stone was thereafter used to coronate Scottish kings famous and infamous (and sometimes both, like MacBeth), and thus was a highly visible (and hard to misplace) symbol of Scottish power. But when the English took the Stone to Westminster Abbey, they inserted it into the base of the new English coronation throne, St. Edward's Chair, which had been commissioned by Edward I and was specifically designed to house the Stone. The chair was named after Edward's namesake, Edward the Confessor, England's only canonized king. Thus, subjugated to "English arses," the Stone of Destiny became symbolic of England's destiny to rule over Scotland.

All British sovereigns since 1308 have been seated in St. Edward's Chair at the moment of their coronations, with the exception of Queen Mary I, whose coronation chair was given to her by the Pope.  However, if what the Scots actually handed Edward I in 1296 was, as has been claimed, the cess-pit cover from Scone Castle rather than the real Stone of Destiny, "a long succession of English and British monarchs have been crowned while atop a medieval toilet-seat lid!"

Coronations of Scottish kings took place at Moot Hill at Scone Palace. John Balliol was the last Scottish king to be crowned on the Stone at Scone in 1292; he was defeated four years later by Edward I. Today there is now only a replica of the stone at Scone. That is, unless the "Stone of Scone" at Edinburgh is a replica, or a toilet-seat lid, in which case the stone at Scone might be the real thing ...

For those who wonder about such things, there is a reason Edward I was not the first King Edward of England (he was actually the fourth, with "the Confessor" being the third). Edward the Confessor (1004-1066) was England's penultimate "Englisc" or "Anglisch" king (i.e., Angle or Anglo-Saxon king). Edward the Confessor was devout, so devout that when he married Edith of Wessex in 1045, he refused to consummate their marriage and thus died without heirs. In those days there were two classifications of saints: martyrs (who died for their faith) and confessors (who died natural deaths). Hence it would seem the third Edward died in bed, albeit not from over-indulging his wife or himself! The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 by his successor, Harold Godwinson, England's last Anglo-Saxon king, and William "the Bastard" of Normandy. William won, obtaining the sobriquet "the Conqueror" and the crown of England. The regnal numbers assigned to English kings began with the Normans, hence Edward I rather than Edward IV. Edward I was known as "Longshanks" because he stood six foot two, a veritable giant in those days, and as "the Hammer of the Scots" for obvious reasons. His tombstone read: Hic est Edwardvs Primus Scottorum Malleus, "Here lies Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots." To which epitaph the Scots might add, "Whose heirs were all coronated on a toilet lid!"

The Stone of Destiny has now joined the Scottish crown jewelsthe "Honours of Scotland"in a museum in Edinburgh Castle.

The Scottish royal regalia, the Honours, consist of a crown, a broadsword, a scabbard and a scepter—like the Stone of Destiny, they too fall into the category of "things mysterious." For reasons to be explained shortly, unlike the Stone of Destiny, the Honours are no longer used today. The Honours were first used in the coronation of the nine-month-old Mary "Queen of Scots" in 1543. The crown was last worn at the coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651.

According to Scotland's National Tourism Board: "The Sceptre of Scotland and the Sword of State were both gifts given to James IV by the Papacy, the sceptre in 1494 and the sword in 1507. The original silver-gilt sceptre was restyled and lengthened in 1536 to its present design, which has a polished rock globe atop a finial featuring various religious figures. The sword is 4.5 feet (1.4 m) in length with an elaborately decorated silver gilt handle and etched blade. It is accompanied by a wooden scabbard covered in velvet and silver and a woven silk and gold thread belt. The Crown of Scotland was refashioned in 1540 from an earlier crown for James V. The base circlet is made from Scottish gold and encrusted with 22 gemstones and 20 precious stones taken from the previous crown; freshwater pearls from Scotland's rivers were also used."

The following article has been excerpted (with slight rewordings) from with marginalia added in square brackets ...

The Honours were among the most potent symbols of Scottish nationhood, and thus during Oliver Cromwell's occupation of Scotland in the 1650s, they were among his most sought-after targets. Cromwell executed Charles I, King of Scotland and England, in 1649. The following year his son (soon to be Charles II) arrived in northeast Scotland in a bid to retake the two kingdoms. Cromwell then invaded Scotland. Charles II was crowned in haste at Scone, but the Honours could not be returned to Edinburgh Castle, as it had recently fallen to Cromwell's army. The English crown jewels had already been destroyed by Cromwell and the Honours, symbols of the Scottish monarchy, were next on his list. His army was fast advancing on Scone and the new King ordered Sir John Keith, the Earl Marischal [the "High Marshall," later to be made Knight Marischal and Earl of Kintore] to take the Honours and many of his personal papers to safety at Dunnottar Castle. The Earl Marischal oversaw all ceremonial activities in the Scottish Court, including coronations. It was not long before Dunnottar was under siege and a scratch garrison of only seventy men held out for eight months against the invading forces. Soon it became obvious that the castle would fall, and that something must be done to save the Honours. The crown, sceptre and sword were lowered over the seaward side of the Castle and received by a serving woman, there on pretence of gathering seaweed. She took them to Kinneff, a village several miles to the south, where they were temporarily hidden at the bottom of the bed in the Rev. James Grainger's house. The minister and his wife then wrapped the jewels in linen cloths and buried them at night under the clay floor of Kinneff Kirk [church]. Every three months the minister and his wife would dig up the Regalia at night to air them and preserve them from damp and injury. The Honours remained hidden for nine years during the Commonwealth while the English army searched for them in vain [and thus the Scottish crown jewels were preserved through the Rock of the church, while the English crown jewels were destroyed by the sword!—MRB]

When Queen Elizabeth I died, King James VI of Scotland became the King of England, thus uniting England and Scotland. From that day forward there has been no King or Queen of Scotland who is not primarily the King or Queen of England, and the English Crown Jewels have sufficed for the entire "United Kingdom," with the result that the Scottish crown jewels were no longer used. The Treaty of Union on March 7, 1707 dissolved the Scottish Parliament and stipulated that the Scottish regalia would remain in Scotland, but soon after the Treaty of Union was signed, the crown jewels mysteriously "vanished." Many Scots believed the English had purloined them. In 1818 the Prince Regent, who later became George IV, gave one of Scotland's most famous literary personages, Sir Walter Scott, permission to rummage through Edinburgh castle in search of them. The jewels were found in a "little strong room" where they had been wrapped in linen cloths, locked in an oak chest, and walled up. The were found "exactly as they had been left in 1707." It seems Walter Scott was both the Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes of his day!

Now, on to unraveling the mysterious shroud surrounding the Stone of Destiny! The following article is taken from Brigadoonery Canada with marginalia added in square brackets ...

According to legend, it [the Stone of Destiny] came from the Holy Land, where Jacob supposedly used it as a pillow in Biblical times. Transported through Egypt, Sicily and Spain, it was taken to Ireland, where Saint Patrick himself blessed this rock for use in crowning the kings of the emerald isle.

[According to the Old Testament, Jacob, who later changed his name to Israel and thus became the first Israelite, lay his head on a stone "pillow" at Bethel, fell asleep, and had a dream of "Jacob's Ladder," upon which he saw angels ascending and descending. A  tradition that explains the kingmaking aspect of the stone goes like this: Jacob used the stone as a pillow. While sleeping on it, he received a vision from God, who claimed that his seed would spread across the Earth and rule as kings until their return to the Promised Land. Jacob took the stone after awaking and anointed it with oil, as kings are anointed with oil. For a time the stone rested in the temple at Jerusalem. In 602 BC, Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. It is said that Jeremiah along with two daughters of King David's line escaped with the stone, and after a journey through Egypt, Sicily and Spain, the stone arrived in Ireland. That the one stone seems to have disappeared from Israel shortly before the other stone appeared in Ireland is of interest, if the dates are correct. Also of interest is the Irish story of the Tuatha de Danann, which when translated apparently means "the people of Danann." One of the twelve tribes of Israel was known as Dan. There is even a prophecy that the Stone will be returned to Israel ahead of a great number of its people, and that when it does, the Temple of Jerusalem will be rebuilt! ... For a very interesting, and very mysterious, timeline of the Stone "from Jacob to today", please click here.]

It is certainly possible that the Stone may have been used in the coronation ceremonies of the Irish Kingdom of Dalriada from roughly 400 AD until 850 AD, when Kenneth I, the 36th King of Dalriada, moved his capital of his expanding empire from Ireland to Scone (pronounced "scoon") in what is now Perthshire, Scotland. The Stone was moved several times after that, and used on the remote, western island of Iona, then in Dunadd, in Dunstaffnage and finally in Scone again for the installation of Dalriadic monarchs.

The Stone was last used in a coronation in Scotland in 1292, when John Balliol was proclaimed King. Four years later, in 1296, the English monarch, Edward I (infamous as the "hammer of the Scots," and nemesis of Scottish national hero William Wallace) invaded Scotland. Among the booty that Edward's army removed was the legendary Stone, which the English king apparently regarded as an important symbol of Scottish sovereignty. The present Coronation Throne was made to house the stone in 1301.

According to the treaty of Northampton of 1328, peace was restored between the warring neighbors, and King Edward III of England [yes, yet another Edward!] promised to return the Stone to its rightful owners forthwith. But somehow the English never got around to fulfilling their end of the bargain, and the Stone of Destiny remained in London until British Prime Minister John Major, with the approval of Her Majesty the Queen, arranged to right this persistent, historical oversight last fall [1996].

But is the stone that finally rests securely in Edinburgh Castle the real Stone of Destiny? After so many centuries, it is impossible to know. According to one legend, the Stone never left Ireland at all. One tale suggests that the original Stone of Destiny was white marble, carved with decorative figures—in no way resembling the plain slab of yellow sandstone with a single Latin cross carved on it that sat beneath the throne in Westminster Abbey for these past seven centuries. To make matters more confusing, there may have been several copies made down through the ages! It is entirely within the realm of possibility that some canny Scots fobbed off a fake on Edward I, seven hundred years ago, hiding the original coronation stone where it would never be found. One story particularly satisfying to Scottish nationalists with long memories claims that Edward actually took the rough rock used to hold down the cover of the cess-pit at Scone Castle, and that subsequent English monarchs have ceremoniously seated themselves on this medieval plumbing accessory for their coronations ever since 1308! At least one acknowledged copy of the "Westminster" Stone exists, on public display at beautiful Scone Palacein Perthshire, where it serves as a favorite roost for the elegant peacocks and camera-toting tourists who stroll the grounds.

Are there additional copies? On Christmas Day, 1950, four Scottish students, inspired by nationalist sentiment, heisted the Stone from under the Coronation Throne in Westminster Abbey, dumped it in the trunk of their car, and drove off with it. About four months later the rock was recovered from the Arbroath Abbey, where it had been deposited by the stone-nappers. Or was it? Rumours have always persisted that there was plenty of time for the students to fashion a replica to be “returned” to Westminster, while the original Stone was spirited north to a secret location in Scotland. One seemingly far-fetched theory even suggested that the actual stone was hiding in plain sight for decades—that the purported replica on public display at Scone Palace was in fact the real Stone of Destiny!

Only the thieves would know for sure. Alan Magnus-Bennett recently wrote us to say that the evidence that the Stone was in fact returned to Scotland and eventually left in Abroath Abbey to be returned to the safe keeping of the Church of Scotland is to be found in Ian R. Hamilton's book, No Stone Unturned, (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1952). This is an autobiographical account of how, when and why the Stone was heisted.

Lingering doubts about the provenance of the Stone are unlikely to be resolved: fables are always much more fun than mere facts. But few would debate the symbolic significance of restoring what is at least presumed to be the original Stone of Destiny to Scotland. Most Scots were pleased, if somewhat bemused by this unexpected turn of events, although some express reservations about the legal niceties surrounding the return of the pilfered artifact. Technically, under British law the Crown still "owns" the Stone—the assumption apparently being that, after seven centuries, possession is ten tenths of the law. However, Her Majesty has decided to lend it permanently to her Scottish subjects, on the understanding that it can be temporarily taken back to London whenever it might be required for future coronations.

The last time the Stone was used was in 1953 for the formal Coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II , who had succeeded to the throne the previous year on the death of her father the King. Whomsoever this hefty rock really belongs to, Her Majesty's Canadian subjects hope that the famous “Stone of Scone”—whether it be the fabled original or a reasonable facsimile thereof—will not be needed again for official duty any time soon. God Save the Queen!

Seton Gordon relates a tale (perhaps a tall tale) that might explain why the Stone of Scone we now have seems of local Scottish origin (excerpted and slightly reworded):

An interesting tradition had been given me by the Earl of Mansfield, whose family have owned the lands of Scone for more than 300 years. This tradition, which has been handed down through several generations, is that, somewhere around the dates 1795-1820, a farm lad had been wandering with a friend on Dunsinnan, the site of MacBeth's Castle, soon after a violent storm. The torrential rain had caused a landslide, and as a result of this a fissure, which seemed to penetrate deep into the hillside, was visible. The two men procured some form of light and explored the fissure. They came at last to the broken wall of a subterranean chamber. In one corner of the chamber was a stair which was blocked with debris, and in the centre of the chamber they saw a slab of stone covered with markings and supported by four stone "legs". As there was no other evidence of "treasure" in the subterranean apartment the two men did not realise the importance of their "find" and did not talk of what they had seen. Some years later one of the men first heard the local tradition, that on the approach of the King Edward I, the monks of Scone hurriedly removed the Stone of Destiny to a place of safe concealment and took from the Annety Burn a stone of similar size and shape, which the English King carried off in triumph. When he heard this legend, the man hurried back to Dunisinnan Hill, but whether his memory was at fault regarding the site of the landslide, or whether the passage of time, or a fresh slide of earth, had obliterated the cavity, the fact remains that he was unable to locate the opening in the hillside. It may be asked why the monks of Scone, after the English king had returned to England, did not bring back to the abbey the original Stone of Destiny, but the tradition accounts for this, explaining that it was not considered safe at the time to allow the English to know that they had been tricked, and that when the days of possible retribution were past, the monks who had known the secret were dead. This tradition, it is held, explains why the Coronation Stone [at that time] in Westminster Abbey resembles geologically the sandstone commonly found in the neighbourhood of Scone.

In closing, I would like to point out an interesting coincidence and paradox, keeping especially in mind that the Scottish Coronation Stone lay beneath the English Coronation Throne for so many years. In the following account, the two Andrews and their two flags seem both significant and highly symbolic ...

On St Andrews Day, 30th November 1996, Scotland's coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, was installed in Edinburgh Castle. About 10,000 people lined the Royal Mile to watch the procession of dignitaries and troops escort the stone from Holyrood Palace to the castle. In a service at St. Giles Cathedral, the Church of Scotland Moderator, the Right Reverend John MacIndoe, formally accepted the stone's return saying it would "strengthen the proud distinctiveness of the people of Scotland.

Once inside the castle the stone was laid on an oak table before the grand fireplace of the early 16th century Great Hall. The Scottish Secretary of State Michael Forsyth ceremoniously received it from Prince Andrew, who was representing the Queen.

Outside the castle, under clear blue skies, a twenty-one gun salute was fired from the Half-Moon Battery, echoed by the HMS Newcastle lying anchored off Leith harbour in the Firth of Forth. When asked of an official why the Scottish flag, the Saltire (St. Andrews Cross) was not flying at the highest point, he replied that because Prince Andrew, (second son of the Queen) was inside, the flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, had to fly on top.

This seemed to summarize the paradox: The Stone of Destiny, traditional coronation stone of Scottish Kings and Queens, was stolen by English King Edward the First 700 years ago and is still a powerful symbol of Scottish independence. But its return comes with no promises of real or even partial independence for today's Scotland.

And yet perhaps the Stone of Destiny has spoken, and still speaks! Here's another account, again excerpted and slightly reworded ...

Dalriadic Kings were enthroned at sacred ceremonies in which the enthroning stone, blessed by St. Patrick, was used. The Stone embodied St. Patrick's message that wherever the Stone lay, the race of Erc should reign. Hence the Stone's title—Stone of Destiny. Erc was the first King of the Antrim Dal Riata tribe, and Antrim is, of course, in Ireland. After many years and battles with the Picts, Britons and Saxons alongside others, Kenneth I, 36th King of Dalriada, moved his seat to Scotland. He moved it, in fact, to Scone, in Perthshire.

The Stone was used at Iona, Dunadd, Dunstaffnage and Scone for enthroning Dalriadic monarchs. In 1292 John Balliol became the last King to use the Stone in Scotland, as it was removed by Edward I of England in 1296, taken south and placed in Westminster Abbey. Edward believed, mistakenly, that possession of the Stone gave him sovereignty over Scotland. In 1328 the Scots seemed to have won the Stone's return under the Treaty of Northampton, but the Stone never moved from underneath the Coronation Throne in the Abbey, as the English reneged on the promise.

So, by now you might be asking yourself why St. Patrick's blessing embodied in the Stone has Failed? Well, it hasn't really. If you'll remember that wherever the Stone rests, the race of Erc shall rule, we'll go on.

The Scottish Kings were descended from the Irish Kings. It follows that the royal line of Scots are descendants of the first Dalriadic King—King Erc. The English royal line Failed with Elizabeth I in 1603; thereafter, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. Apart from a brief spell between 1649 and 1660, when the English refused to hold Charles II of Scotland as their monarch, the Scots have been the true descendants of what is now held to be the British royal family. So Elizabeth II, the present Queen, is in fact a descendent of Erc. St. Patrick's blessing seems to have worked, and the Stone of Destiny has fulfilled its promise. King Erc's family still reigns.

From 1603, when James VI of Scotland took the throne in England, to the present day, the Stone of Destiny has been used in the Westminster coronation of every single 'British' monarch.

Or has it?

Perhaps Elizabeth II, whose coronation was held in Westminster Abbey in 1952, should have travelled to Scone! [In the eyes of many Scots, the "legitimacy" of kings and queens to rule over Scotland depends on whether or not the current Stone of Scone (currently ensconced at Edinburgh, not Scone) is the true Liath Fàil, the true Stone of Destiny. If the true Liath Fàil is still at Scone, the Scots may yet be able to prove the English monarchs to be "illegitimate."—MRB]

If you're interested in "things mysterious," you may be interested in these other Mysterious Ways pages:

No Hell in the Bible
A Direct Experience with Universal Love
Two Tales of the Night Sky
Michael, Wonderful and Glorious
The Poisonous Tomato
Of Mother Teresa, Angels and the Poorest of the Poor
Thy Will Be Done (Iron Lung)
Did Jesus Walk on the Water?
Mysterious Ways Index

Sources for this article:
Brigadoonery Canada
Edinburgh Castle and the Scottish Royal Regalia
The Stone of Scone/Destiny
The Stone of Destiny
The Highways and Byways of Central Scotland by Seton Gordon

The HyperTexts

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