THE First Minister has made the astonishing claim that the Stone of Destiny is a medieval fake.
Scotland's iconic coronation stone has been seen by tens of thousands of people since it was returned from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.
But in a move which is sure to re-ignite debate across the country, Alex Salmond has made public his belief that the relic is no more than a replica.
The SNP leader, a keen historian, is convinced that the stone, which was looted by Edward I in 1296, was a forgery created to dupe the invading English forces. If so, it would mean that the true stone – which, according to legend, originated in the Holy Land and was used by Jacob as a pillow – still remains undiscovered.
Salmond's intervention comes as a 6m film starring Robert Carlyle and Billy Boyd, which chronicles the retrieval of the stone from Westminster Abbey in 1950, is about to hit cinema screens around the world.
There have been suggestions that a copy of the stone was made during the daring episode, which was led by a group of students, including Ian Hamilton, who went on to become a QC. Many have claimed that the late Glasgow stonemason and councillor Bertie Gray made a forgery of the stone, which was handed back to UK authorities in 1951.
But Salmond favours the argument that a patriotic monk at Scone Abbey duped the English monarch at the end of the 13th century in a hoax that has lasted for centuries.
"There are two questions that are key to the mystery of the stone," he said.
"Did the Abbot of Scone meekly surrender Scotland's most famous symbol to Edward in 1296, or did he allow him to ransack a substitute?
"Was it the real Stone of Destiny that turned up on the altar at Arbroath Abbey in 1951 after being repatriated by Ian Hamilton and friends, or was it a replica made by bailie Bertie Gray? On balance, my view is that the Abbot of Scone furnished Edward with a substitute.
"What I believe cannot be in doubt is that the stone currently in Edinburgh Castle is the one that lay in Westminster Abbey for 700 years."
But Salmond has rejected the idea of using science to get to the bottom of the mystery.
He said: "Neither question can ever be finally answered – and that is why the mystery of the stone is one best left unsolved."
Westminster Abbey spokeswoman Victoria Ribbans said: "Our belief has always been that the stone is genuine and we have no reason to believe otherwise."
The stone was removed on Christmas Day 1950 by four Scottish students, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart.
In 1996, the British Government decided that the Stone should be kept in Scotland when not in use at coronations, and crossed the border on that summer.
From Jacob's pillow to Nats' touchstone
IT IS a mystery that has provoked fascination and wild speculation for more than 700 years.
According to mythology the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Lia Fail, originated in Palestine and was transported through Egypt, Sicily, Spain and Ireland before arriving in Scone in the 9th century where it was used when Scottish monarchs were crowned.
Legend has it that it was used by Jacob as a pillow in biblical times. According to others, it was used as a coronation stone by early Gaels in Ireland, and as a travelling altar by St Columba. It has even been linked to Robert the Bruce and to the Blarney Stone.
The existing documentary evidence describes the stone as round and concave, as would be expected of a seat or throne, while others have suggested the stone was black, shiny and intricately carved. Yet the object at Edinburgh Castle is shaped like a plain grey slab or block.
Professor Ted Cowan, one of Scotland's most senior historians, remained unconvinced by the medieval replica theory. The Glasgow University academic said: "I have discussed this matter with the First Minister and I know his views on this. It is perfectly fine for him to believe that the Stone is a replica, but there is the whole matter of proof. How credible is it that you can just make a replica of something like that in five minutes because Edward I of England is coming to steal the real one?"
A spokeswoman for the British Geological Survey (BGS), an independent organisation which specialises in testing and dating stones, said it would be more than willing to take a fresh look at the artefact.
But the BGS said previous research on the Stone indicated that it was "lithologically similar to the Devonian sandstones exposed around Scone Palace".
Mineralogist Dr Neil Fortey said it strongly resembled sandstone from Quarry Mill on the Scone estate.
The First Minister is championing the view that the Stone of Destiny is a fake. Alex Salmond has revealed he believes the iconic artefact is little more than a 13th-century replica.
The Stone was famously stolen from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1950 by four Glasgow University students and taken to Scotland. The story is told in a new film, titled Stone Of Destiny.
The Stone was returned to a repaired Coronation Chair for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Former Lib Dem MSP Donald Gorrie has long questioned the Stone's authenticity and called for a "sensible scientific study".
The late writer and historian Nigel Tranter believed the object Edward took to London was "a lump of Scone sandstone".
Historic Scotland has always claimed to be "confident" that the Stone is genuine.