The following article is Copyright by the Estate of Nigel Tranter. All rights reserved.

Leaves From a Novelist's Casebook

An Liath Fail -- But Which Stone is that of Destiny?


Tranter believes that his novel The Stone has caused more public interest than any other. Here is the background for that work and some of the mystery that surrounds the real Stone of Destiny. This article first appeared in The Scots Magazine for August 1960. Since then, of course, the so-called Stone of Scone has been returned from Westminster to Edinburgh Castle but that doesnľt answer the question, does it? This article is an example of its companions that you will find in SCOTTISH BOOKS including NIGEL TRANTER NEWS. -- Rory Mor, Ed.

In my novel, The Stone, I did not so much work on research as research rather worked for me. The Stone of Destiny has been news for 700 years„ and may well be so for as long again. But which Stone of Destiny? There is the rub. Is the lump of red sandstone at present so jealously guarded in Westminster Abbey by electric eyes, chains and burglar alarms„is that the Stone of Destiny at all? Or just a 700-year-old phony, a piece of local Scone scenery that Edward the Hammer of the Scots took south with him when he could not lay hands on the real stone in 1296„ and which Ian Hamilton and his student friends abstracted in 1950, believing that it would be more fittingly kept in Scotland „ and thereby set Scotland Yard, Scotland and much of England, by the ears? And if so, where is the other, the original, the ancient Liath Fail, talisman of Scotland's kings, pillow of Jacob, St. Columba's altar, holy relic of our ancestors?

I did not start, as it were, quite from scratch. For my sins, I had been slightly involved in the rumpus about the Stone that came back to Scotland so dramatically and in unorthodox fashion. those few years ago. I had nothing at all to do with the abstraction thereof. I knew no more than other and more respectable citizens until the press began telephoning me with the news, demanding comment, information, names:-- for it so happened that I had published a novel called The Freebooters barely a year before, in which I rashly made some of my wild characters propose to do this very thing :-- bring the Stone back to Scotland. That took me a lot of talking-out-of! But I was involved in the bringing of the errant Stone to light at ruined Arbroath Abbey that April day in 1951. I have been blamed for my share in that; but given the circumstances prevailing then, plus the promises that had been given that the Stone would be allowed to remain in Scotland, possibly in St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, for at least a month while tempers cooled and a dignified decision taken as to its ultimate resting place „ given all that, I believe that I would do the same again.

What Might Happen If the Real Stone Was Found?
No one, I need hardly add, was more shocked than I was when, in fact, the Stone was whisked away over the Border in the back of a police car, non-stop, within 24 hours. But that is another story „ and one which one day, perhaps, may be written. What I am pointing out here is that I had some knowledge of the way things would go, popular reaction, how the official mind would be apt to work, etc., if the true Stone of Destiny was indeed to turn up in Scotland today. To make it do so, at least fictionally, and then let the story more or less write itself, was my self-appointed task.

What made me believe, you may ask, that the Westminster Stone, the one that I had got myself involved with and taken certain risks for, was not in fact what it seemed to be, not the original? Well, strangely enough, two factors „ common sense (if I may be allowed to claim a modicum of such which I agree is debateable); and the testimony of no less official and resounding an authority than the late H.M. Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Scotland. The first, common sense, told me, after due reflection, that the Stone which had such a long and stirring history, had been carried about through the mists of antiquity had been described as 'the marble chair,' St. Columba's portable altar, Princess Scota's throne, etc., was not likely to be a mere shapeless lump of soft red sandstone, devoid of all grace, ornamentation or suitably enduring qualities -- for of course it did in fact break down the middle when it was taken out of the Coronation Chair at Westminster. The ancients did not do things that way.

Also, would its original official guardian, the Abbot of Scone, the sort of Archbishop of Canterbury for Scotland, have supinely allowed Edward to come up to Scone and steal the precious relic, without at least some attempt to hide it? It was Scotland's most sacred treasure, after all, and the Abbot had plenty of warning of Edward's intention to take it. That I cannot believe.

Expert Testimony to the Fore
Then I read the treatise on the subject by Dr. James S. Richardson, late Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and an expert if ever there was one, who convinced me once and for all that the original Stone was quite otherwise to the one I had been mixed up with. The scholarly manuscript of Dr. James S. Richardson, late inspector of Ancient Monuments, certainly convinced me that the original Stone was quite otherwise from the one I had been recently mixed up with.

Briefly, his monograph pointed out that all early chroniclers described the Stone as elaborately carved and decorative (whether marble or not), durable and handsome „ whereas the soft red sandstone of the Westminster one, he discovered, is identical with that of the local building material, almost certainly out of a Scone quarry. Moreover, antique sacred stones were nearly always made of meteorites, hard and capable of a hard polish -- which might have been called marble by chroniclers. Then, he pointed out, ancient Great Seals of the early Scots Kings, up until 1296, all depicted the Stone as of a different shape and size from the present one. These seals were meticulously accurate in detail; surely they wou1d not all make the same mistake, over a period of centuries! All of them showed the Stone to be of seat height, almost as high as it is broad; whereas the Westminster one is merely 11 inches high, though 26 inches broad. The sketch above was done by Tranter for his book, Nigel Tranter's Scotland, Richard Drew Publishing, Glasgow:1981.

Dr. Richardson's research satisfied me, at any rate, that King Edward had either had a sham Stone palmed off on him in 1296, or else had quarried one himself to take south „ when he could not lay his hands on the real one „ a subterfuge certainly not past that unscrupulous character, since a Scottish Stone he must have!

Overcoming Logistical Problems
The novel, then, would deal with the coming to light of the true Stone, and the subsequent alarum and excursions in Scotland which would most assuredly follow any such discovery. I ran into snags, of course, straight away. If the true Stone was as the experts suggested, then it was not the sort of thing that readily could be tucked away and hidden in any odd corner, nor transported about discreetly either. The recent purloiners of the Westminster one had found it something of a handful, weighing as it did between 300 and 400 pounds. But the genuine Stone of Destiny would be twice that size and perhaps more than double the weight„ for it would be made of a much denser material. Say half-a-ton. My characters, heroes as they were, could not just lift up that sort of thing and put it in their pockets. Vehicles that I eventually pressed into service included a slype „ or sled, such as farmers use for moving entire haycoles, also a sort of tractor and trailer; an ancient shooting brake „ which not unnaturally came to grief in the process; and a tinker's cart.

Presumably the Abbot of Scone had to convey the precious relic secretly and at night, no one horse could carry the burden „ and wheeled vehicles were not then in use. So I assumed that it must be brought to light somewhere not very far from Scone. But where might it have been hidden for all these centuries, undisturbed? Just to bury it would not do; it must be convincing. I put it, in my story, in the base of ancient doocote -- or pigeon house -- on a purely mythical but topographically accurate estate called Kincaid, a few miles across the Tay from Scone. I floated across the Tay on inflated sheep skin caissons, like the goat skins they still use in the Persian Gulf area. I don't know whether the Scots lairds had started building doocotes as far back as 1296 but so far nobody has torpedoed me on this point. And where is the object to be left when the book is finished?

One cannot just have a thing like the Stone of Destiny in the air -- even one that has been lost for 700 years„ once it is disinterred. London would obviously not have allowed it to remain in a fictional museum or abbey „ even had I invented a plausible one. So I found a nice little patch of bog, with a firm base of rock some six feet down, in a bend of the River Almond above the Sma' Glen, just waiting to receive Scotland's fugitive palladium. I contrived an accident, and it fell, with the peat broth closing kindly over it. Who is to say that it is not there, indeed?

Theories Galore
The book, The Stone, aroused more discussion than any other of my novels „ partly because of the theme itself and partly because it was serialized in one of the daily papers and published in the U.S. as well. (I even had enquiries about translation rights from behind the Iron Curtain, which have not come my way before!). And it has brought to light a number of claims and suggestions as to the true whereabouts of the original Stone. It has, in fact, been quite a surprise to me how widely held has been the belief that the Westminster Stone is not the authentic one. Most of these beliefs, based on tradition, place the relic's hiding place within a fairly close radius of Scone still „ in a cave on Moncrieff Hill, the mouth of which has been hidden by a subsequent landslide; in an underground cell on Dunsinane Hill, at what has been called Macbeth's Castle (though an alternative version of this story says the Stone was unearthed there more than a century ago and sent South for expert examination (experts presumably only living in London! ), from whence it never returned. Certainly excavations were made on this site in 1857, leading to the discovery of a doorway and an underground chamber; but the accounts mention no Stone.

Another account, written in 1951 when this whole subject was so abruptly revived, said the Stone was carried by the monks of Scone to the hill of Dunsinane just outside Perth and hidden in a cave. Here it was said to have been re-discovered some time later, but an untimely landslide prevented recovery. This would seem to be a mix up of the two stories, for of course Dunsinane can hardly be described as "just outside Perth," and the landslide seems to refer to Moncrieff.

A letter written from Dunsinane Estate Office about the same time quotes an extract from the London Morning Chronicle of Jan. 2, 1819, as saying that workers were carrying away stones from excavations on the site of Macbeth's Castle when the ground gave way, and they sank six feet into a regularly built vault, in which was a large stone weighing about 500 pounds, of meteorite or metallic substance. Again came the curious intimation that ~the curious stone had been shipped to London for inspection of a scientific amateur, to discover its real qualities.ĺ Still another article, curiously dated Jan. 7 of the same year, in The Caledonian Mercury, denied all of this, saying that the whole story was without foundation.

None of which greatly clears up the fog of mystery. A more circumstantial account, apparently implicitly believed by my informant, giving documentary evidence of a sort, puts the Stone in far-away Skye. Such a site is not entirely improbable, either „ for the theory is that the Lord of the Isles of Bruce's day -- Angus Og -- took it back there for safekeeping on the King's request. And where could it be safer from the grasping hands of Edward's successor? Angus was indeed one of Bruce's staunchest supporters „ fought at Bannockburn and remained faithful to the end (unlike some). It is not at all incredible that King Robert (dying, as he thought, of leprosy), and anxious for the fate of both his kingdom and the precious talisman of Scotland's line, should entrust his tried Highland friend to take it from its temporary hiding place to the sure security of the Hebrides. My informant believes that it is there still „ and claims to know approximately where, at thatl I wonder?

Here is a good a pace as any to end „ not the story of the Stone, for that is not ended yet, nor likely to be for as long as there are folk who are proud to call themselves Scots. Amazing, is it not, how great the power of this old piece of masonry, to stir the imagination and quicken the pulse? Long may it do so!

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