Home News Ian Hamilton, 97, Who Stole a Scottish Relic from Westminster Abbey, Dies

Ian Hamilton, 97, Who Stole a Scottish Relic from Westminster Abbey, Dies

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Ian Hamilton, who broke into Westminster Abbey in London with fellow University of Glasgow students on Christmas Day in 1950 to take back the Stone of Destiny, the rock upon which Scottish monarchs had been crowned for centuries until England seized it in 1296, died on Oct. 3 in North Connel, Scotland. He was 97.

His death was reported widely in Scottish media.

Mr. Hamilton was studying law when he hatched his plan with three others to recover the stone. It was not, in his view, a silly escapade or a student prank. An ardent Scottish nationalist, he viewed the stone as a potent symbol of Scottish independence that rightly belonged on Scottish soil.

“The great thing about the stone is that it transcends politics,” he said in an interview with the Sons of Scotland website when he was 82. “Regardless of our political views, Scots recognize that there is something that binds us together.”

All he and his crew had to do was break into Westminster Abbey, wrest the stone — a sandstone block weighing 336 pounds — from beneath the Coronation Chair built by King Edward I to enclose the relic after his conquest of Scotland, and get away cleanly.

The group drove from Glasgow to London on Christmas Eve in two cars. The next morning they left one car in a lot and piled into the second, a Ford Anglia, arriving at Westminster Abbey in the dark early morning hours of Dec. 25.

At about 4 a.m., Mr. Hamilton, Alan Stuart and Gavin Vernon began to attack the pine door at the Poets’ Corner entrance to the abbey. No one saw or stopped them.

“Gavin put his shoulder to the door,” Mr. Hamilton wrote in a 1952 book, “No Stone Unturned,” but it barely budged.

“The jimmy!” Mr. Vernon cried, demanding the only tool that they had brought with them, a crowbar.

Mr. Hamilton turned to Mr. Stuart: “The jimmy!”

“What?” said Mr. Stuart. “I thought you had it.”

Mr. Hamilton ran back to the car to retrieve it.

Soon the door’s woodwork and padlock gave away.

“You sort of know that when you take a crowbar to a side door of Westminster Abbey and jimmy the lock that there really isn’t any going back, don’t you?” Mr. Hamilton told British newspaper The Telegraph in 2008.

They moved swiftly into the darkness of the abbey and found their way to the Coronation Chair. They pried off a wooden retaining bar across the front of the chair, but freeing the stone was more difficult. They pushed and jimmied it until they were able to lift it and carry it for a yard before realizing that it was too heavy to take any further.

They then heaved the stone onto Mr. Hamilton’s coat, hoping to slide it to freedom. But as he pulled at one of the stone’s iron rings, it came apart, one chunk of about 100 pounds, another more than double that weight. Mr. Hamilton ran outside, almost giddily, lugging the smaller piece. The fourth member of the group, the getaway driver, Kay Matheson, drove up, and Mr. Hamilton laid it on the back seat.

As he did so Ms. Matheson urgently told him that she had been spotted by a police officer. Mr. Hamilton hopped in the car, and when the officer approached, he and Ms. Matheson pretended to be an amorous couple. Arousing no suspicions, they drove away. The two other students fled, leaving the rest of the stone behind.

Mr. Hamilton returned later with the other car, dragged the remaining stone to it, and drove off.

The audacious caper captivated Britain for months.

The British police began a manhunt. Cars were stopped at roadblocks. Bodies of water were dredged. The border between Scotland and England across the Cheviot Hills was temporarily closed.

Ian Robertson Hamilton was born on Sept. 13, 1925, in Paisley, Scotland, just north of Glasgow, to John and Martha (Robertson) Hamilton. His father was a tailor. His mother fired his nationalism with stories about the Stone of Destiny.

Ian served in the Royal Air Force as a flight mechanic, enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1948 and became one of two million Scots to sign the Scottish Covenant, a petition to Britain demanding home rule.

Mr. Hamilton found a patron for his raid on the abbey in John MacCormick, a leading advocate of Scottish autonomy, who gave the group 50 pounds for their expenses.

Radio programs reported the theft on Christmas. For the students, every passing police car prompted concern. Fearing capture, they hid the stone — at least the larger portion of it — in an overgrown rural area in Kent, England. A day or so later, they moved it to a wooded area in Rochester. Ms. Matheson had hidden the other piece in Birmingham.

On Dec. 30, the group issued a letter to King George VI, offering to return the stone if it were repatriated to Scotland, but promising to make it available for future British coronations.

Mr. Hamilton and a crew of new recruits dug up the stone and ferried it to Scotland, anointing it with a splash of Scotch whisky as they crossed the border. This time it was hidden in the cellar of a factory outside Glasgow by a local politician who arranged to have the two pieces rejoined.

The four plotters were interrogated by a Scotland Yard detective in March 1951, but they denied any involvement and none were arrested.

In April, deciding that he had done all he could to advance Scottish nationalism, Mr. Hamilton decided to surrender the stone anonymously. He, the politician who had repaired it and another nationalist friend laid it at the altar in the ruins of the Abbey of Arbroath, about 100 miles northeast of Glasgow.

A week later, the British government announced that it would not prosecute. Hartley Shawcross, the attorney general of Britain, scorned the group’s “vulgar acts of vandalism” but chose not to charge them and risk turning them into martyrs.

Assured of their freedom, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Stuart and Mr. Vernon handed out statements to reporters in Glasgow identifying their roles in the stone’s liberation.

Mr. Hamilton finished his legal studies and became a renowned criminal lawyer and an active member in Scottish National Party politics. Ms. Matheson became a teacher, Mr. Vernon an engineer, and Mr. Stuart a businessman.

Mr. Hamilton was the last surviving member of the crew.

His survivors include his wife, Jeanette (Stewart) Hamilton; his sons, Jamie and Stewart; and a daughter, Aileen.

In 1996, Mr. Hamilton’s goal was fulfilled. Prime Minister John Major of Britain agreed to return the stone to Scotland, and it was taken to a new permanent home at Edinburgh Castle, with the provision that it would be returned to London for coronations. And so it will be next year for the crowning of King Charles III.

When Mr. Hamilton’s book was made into a movie, “Stone of Destiny,” released in 2008, he told The Telegraph in an interview that he had rarely talked about the caper in the intervening years.

“Am I proud?,” he said. “You bet I am. I felt I was holding Scotland’s soul when I touched it for the first time.”

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