Romancing the Stone: Scots heist destined for Hollywood

IT WAS the heist to beat all others, striking at the heart of the British Empire.

The audacious theft of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950 by four Nationalist students from Glasgow made worldwide headlines and sparked an international police search.

Now, more than half a century later, their story is about to be turned into a big-budget movie, starring some of cinema's hottest young actors and directed by a Hollywood legend.

Director Charlie Martin Smith, who is best known as an actor in The Untouchables, American Graffiti and several westerns, is already in Glasgow finalising casting and locations for Stone Of Destiny. Shooting will begin this month on a budget of around 6m.

The removal of the stone demanded courage and imagination, but the episode also had elements of Ealing comedy about it, as four nave young students rocked the establishment and led the nation's finest police detectives a merry dance.

The students - members of the 'Covenant' home rule movement - broke into Westminster Abbey with ease and chatted to a policeman in the street outside, though they also managed to break the stone and one of the students lost the use of two toes after the stone was dropped on her foot.

The film is being billed as an "adventure-comedy". Sources close to the project say the film will star Kate Mara, who played Shari Rothenberg in the TV drama series 24.

Charlie Cox, who played Heath Ledger's rival and eventual successor in the recent film of Casanova, will also appear. He will be seen later this year with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust.

In an interview with TeenHollywood.com, the young English heart-throb said he was "really excited" about making "a Scottish heist movie". He will play ringleader Ian Hamilton.

"I'm sure he's a very suitable actor - I'm still a teenage heart-throb at the age of 81," said Hamilton, who wrote a book about the escapade, which Smith has adapted for the film.

Hamilton became an eminent QC and stood for the SNP in European and Scottish elections, but has refused to talk about the Westminster Abbey raid. He did, however, say he was "very pleased" with the film's screenplay

There have been several abortive attempts to make a film about the stone's removal.

Hamilton said that the SNP's victory in last month's Scottish Parliament elections was merely a coincidence as far as the story being turned into a film. "There's always a good time for a good story," he said. "I'm extremely fortunate to have Charles Martin Smith both as a screenplay writer and as a director."

Short, bald and bespectacled, Smith has played a string of vulnerable characters and sidekick roles since his teens and co-starred with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery as a government law enforcement agent in The Untouchables.

This is an international co-production, bringing together Canada's Infinity Features, whose previous films include Capote, and English-based The Mob Film Company, which made Hogfather for Sky TV.

It is based at the Film City studio, the former Govan Town Hall, and will shoot in the Glasgow area and at Arbroath Abbey. It is expected to hit British cinema screens next year.

Kay Matheson, the only female member of the gang, is 78 and lives in a nursing home in Wester Ross. She knew nothing about the film until informed by Scotland on Sunday. She said: "I think it will be very interesting."

A retired teacher, Matheson drove the getaway car, a Ford Anglia. She insisted she had no regrets about the incident, "apart from losing my toes".

The Stone of Destiny, or Coronation Stone, is reputed to date back to Biblical times and to have been used as a pillow by Jacob while dreaming about a ladder to Heaven. A plain sandstone slab, weighing about 450lbs, it had been in Scotland since at least the Middle Ages when it was removed by Edward I, Hammer of the Scots.

Hamilton and Matheson were accompanied by two other students, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart, in their raid.

In April 1951 they wrapped the stone in a Scottish flag and deposited it at Arbroath Abbey, where the Scottish declaration of independence was signed, and tipped off the authorities.

The conspirators were never prosecuted, reputedly because court action would have opened up a difficult debate over ownership of the stone.

The stone was returned to Westminster, where it remained until it was moved to Edinburgh Castle in 1996. The old gang were invited to the handover ceremony but only Matheson and Vernon attended.

Where are they now?

IAN HAMILTON Now 81. The former Glasgow University law student (centre in picture, below) went on to become one of Scotland's leading QCs. He wrote about his exploits in a book called A Touch Of Treason but has generally tried to distance himself from the incident. He is now retired, living in the Oban area.

KAY MATHESON The committed nationalist (below right) was a domestic science teacher at the time of the plot. The Gaelic scholar went back to teaching after the raid on Westminster Abbey, and today the 78-year-old lives in a nursing home in Wester Ross.

GAVIN VERNON The engineering expert (below left) emigrated to Canada in the Sixties and later joked he "never had to buy a beer again" after news of his deeds emerged in his adopted homeland. He died in 2004, aged 77.

ALAN STUART The quiet member of the group (pictured with Vernon and Hamilton), he has never publicly spoken of his role that night. His whereabouts remain a mystery.