“VERY DEAF” read the first email.“Historic Scotland has my story on disc copyright free if you find it you need not to come,” read the second, in the same clipped, unpunctuated style. “I suspect one old man is much like another,” added the third.
But I knew that Ian Hamilton was no ordinary old man. Some of the people I met in Scotland referred to him as a “national treasure”; others used the definitive article “the” in front of his name to highlight the fact that he is one of a kind. Because this is the Ian Hamilton who, in his own words, once “held Scotland’s soul in his hands”. He is the man who, almost seventy years ago, broke into Westminster Abbey in London, stole one of the great symbols of Scottish nationhood – the Stone of Destiny – and brought it back to his homeland.
Today, Ian lives in North Connel, a village located a three-hour train ride from Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, on the western coast of the Highlands. The journey takes you through the green, hilly landscapes of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, before depositing you at a small railway station on the south side of an estuary. A lattice-shaped bridge connects the two parts of the town. North Connel is a small place dominated by whitewashed façades, gardens with neatly trimmed shrubs, and colourful flowers. The grass genuinely seems to be greener here.
Ian’s home is a single-storey house at the end of a narrow dirt road. The glass wall of the living room overlooks a small lake and lush, hilly meadows. When I arrive at his doorstep, Ian is having his afternoon nap in an armchair in the living room; his chest wrapped in a blue blanket decorated with a pattern of Scottish flags. He may be a bit hard of hearing, but is clearly far from deaf, as he promptly awakes and heads towards me, with the help of a walking cane, when I knock on the terrace’s glass door.
Inside, the living room is filled with natural light, and very tidy, despite the myriad of objects lying around. A large desk is covered with newspapers; and Ian’s shelves are full of books and various ornaments. Family portraits and photos of children decorate the walls. There is no television – Ian tells me he doesn’t watch TV anymore – but he always has his iPad within arm’s reach. He has made a habit of watching snooker online. “There is not much left for a ninety-three-year-old to do,” he explains.
When Ian Hamilton was growing up in the first half of the 20th century, he thought Scotland was “officially dead”. Scottish history hadn’t been taught in schools, and, as Ian remembers it, there was a general sentiment that Scotland was merely a sub-part of England. “I believe that my effort may have written a new verse to an old song, because Scotland has grown in its self-confidence very, very much in the last seventy years,” Ian explains.
Ian’s “effort” – the removal of the Stone of Scone, or the Stone of Destiny as it is often termed – happened on Christmas Day, 1950, and is now an iconic episode in Scotland’s modern history. According to legend, the stone was once Jacob’s pillow, on which he laid his head while dreaming of a ladder to Heaven. It become one of the central symbols of Scottish pride and independence, over which their kings were once crowned. But in 1296, King Edward I of England seized the stone and had it placed it under the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey in London, where it remained until 1950. Its position beneath the Chair was seen as a symbol of Scottish servitude to England.
Back in 1950, Ian Hamilton was studying law at Glasgow University, and wanted to “wake up the Scots”. In his autobiographical account of the removal of the stone, A Touch of Treason (1990) – later followed by A Touch More Treason (1994) – he described how he grew interested in Scottish nationalism, and his frustrations upon finding that his was almost a lone voice in the wilderness. “When I tried to formulate my thoughts and convert others, I found that everyone saw Scotland only in terms of Westminster’s government, and what could be gotten from there. I wanted a Scotland which would reject Westminster utterly, but I could find no sympathisers ... Shame was what characterised the mid-twentieth-century Scot,” he wrote. “The shame was that we were not English,” he clarified. “We had lost our sense of community. English customs, English pronunciations, English table manners were the mark of success.”
But there were a few other young Scots sympathetic to the national cause. Ian soon bonded with three fellow students from Glasgow who were, like him, members of the Scottish Covenant Association, a group that supported self-government for Scotland. Together, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart decided to drive from Glasgow to London to remove the Stone of Destiny, and return it to its original home. In A Touch of Treason, he described in great detail how cold and scared – but nevertheless enthusiastic – they felt while driving to London; how naive and overconfident they were while preparing for the feat; and how little money they had, which meant they slept in the car on the way down. Finally, he describes the incident in which they accidentally dropped the 152 kilogram stone, and broke it in two.
“Looking back on it, I surely thought: ‘I have achieved something’,” Ian tells me. “But what did surprise me was my fellow Scots, because they had gathered to cheer [us], in great numbers. I was worried that my friends were right – that Scotland was dead. But no, it wasn’t.”