DCSIMG

First Stone raider meets his final destiny

THEY were four and now they are three, a dwindling band of romantics who restored a symbol of nationhood 654 years after it was stolen by Edward Longshanks.

It was a temporary restoration, but the "recovery" of the Stone of Destiny by Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Alan Stuart and Gavin Vernon on Christmas Day, 1950, made them nationalist icons.

Sadly, Mr Vernon has died in Canada, aged 77, and yesterday one of his partners on the raid on Westminster Abbey, described his passing as the "beginning of the end of an era". Kay Matheson, 75, said: "Our recovery - not theft - of the Stone informed our whole lives."

And the retired teacher from Wester Ross revealed one bizarre legacy. "My toes are aching today, a result of the Stone of Destiny falling on my foot in 1950," she added.

The escapade became a cause celebre that outraged the authorities.

The Stone’s disappearance led to a massive manhunt which closed the Border for the first time in 400 years.

Recovering the Stone - on which High Kings of Scotland had been crowned, and which was taken to London in 1296 by Edward l - became a national priority.

In 1950, the conspirators - Ms Matheson, and her three colleagues, who were Glasgow University students - were members of the "Covenant" home rule movement.

The quartet hatched a plan to bring the Stone "home" to Scotland. Financed by a Glasgow sympathiser, they set off in two cars.

They went to Westminster to inspect the Stone, which lay under the coronation chair.

A few days before Christmas, Mr Vernon and Mr Hamilton, who became a leading QC, returned to the Abbey, where Mr Hamilton hid.

At 6:15pm, the doors closed and all was in darkness, but "Plan A" failed when a watchman found Mr Hamilton.

Incredibly, he talked his way out of the situation and was allowed to leave to formulate "Plan B".

In the early hours of Christmas morning, the three men broke into the Abbey. In the chapel shrine of Edward the Confessor, they pulled away a barrier and reached the Stone. They tugged it from under the seat but it fell, breaking into two pieces.

The larger piece was dragged down from the high altar on Mr Hamilton’s coat. The smaller piece was carried to Ms Matheson, who was outside in one of the cars, and placed in the boot.

Mr Hamilton got into the car just as a policeman arrived.

Mr Hamilton and Ms Matheson fell into a "lovers’ clinch", which amused the officer.

But he stiffened when he heard a sound. The "lovers" began laughing to smother it.

Behind the officer, Mr Vernon poked his head out of the door but quickly retreated. When the policeman left, the Stone was put in the second car.

Mr Hamilton, now 79, who is in retirement in Argyll, was reluctant to speak yesterday. He said he had not seen Mr Vernon for 50 years and "had made a life outwith the Stone". But he remembers the thrill of it. "We yearned, and like all young people we were inarticulate. We felt that something had to be done, or we would burst," he said.

He added: "In later years, talk of saving the soul of our country, of giving back its identity, was thrust upon us. It was navet as much as faith that took us down that road."

After the raid, the conspirators split up. Mr Hamilton and Mr Stuart hid one piece of the Stone in a Kentish field and returned to Scotland.

Ms Matheson left her car, with the smaller piece, with a friend in the Midlands and returned by train. Mr Hamilton later recovered the pieces and had them repaired.

The Stone was eventually recovered by the authorities months later on the altar of Arbroath Abbey, where, in 1320, the Scots had enshrined their nationhood in the Declaration. The authorities, to say the least, were immensely relieved.

Officially, they described it as a prank; nothing was further from the truth.

The young Scots were eventually identified and interviewed by police, but it was decided not to press charge against them.

A trial, it was feared, would have turned the "jape" into a political issue.

However, in the 1990s, documents uncovered by The Scotsman revealed the authorities’ true feelings.

Police papers, compiled by Detective Inspector William Kerr, who was in charge of the Scottish investigation, revealed the Home Office and Scotland Yard put him under "intolerable pressure".

Ms Matheson added: "It was a thrilling time; it’s sad one of us is now gone."

Mr Vernon, who was from Aberdeenshire, emigrated to Canada in the Sixties, where he pursued an engineering career.

He became famous in his adopted homeland when it was discovered who he was and he once quipped that he "never had to buy a beer again".

Mr Vernon, who leaves a wife and three children, was a VIP guest in 1996, when the Stone of Destiny was ceremonially returned to Scotland at Edinburgh Castle.

The original gang of four

IAN HAMILTON, 79

Mr Hamilton was a law student at Glasgow University, who went on to become one of Scotland’s leading QCs.

He has steadfastly tried to put the escapade behind him, but he described the "recovery" of the stone in his book A Touch of Treason.

However, in 1996, he refused to accept an invitation to attend the ceremonial return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland. He now lives in retirement in the Oban area.

KAY MATHESON, 75

Ms Matheson was a young domestic science teacher and committed nationalist when she joined her fellow conspirators to take the Stone.

She later admitted that she was in awe of Mr Hamilton, although they were never romantically involved.

Ms Matheson, a Gaelic scholar, returned to her home in the Highlands, where she dedicated her life to teaching. Today, she lives in a nursing home in Wester Ross.

GAVIN VERNON, 77

The doctor’s son from Kintore, Aberdeenshire, was an engineering wizard.

He completed his national service in the army before attending Glasgow University, where he studied electrical engineering. He emigrated to Canada in the 1960s and joked that he "never had to buy a beer again" when his identity emerged.

ALAN STUART, 78

The least-known member of the group was also a student at Glasgow University when he joined the plot.

Years later, he conceded that he had fallen into the escapade by accident, but he has never spoken of his role in the raid. Along with Gavin Vernon, he was responsible for dropping the 458lb Stone, which broke into two pieces.

 
 
 

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