HIGHLANDER Kay Matheson was the only woman among four Glasgow University students who “retrieved” Scotland’s historic Stone of Destiny from London’s Westminster Abbey in a dramatic raid on Christmas Day, 1950. Although it was a “theft” under both English and Scots law – “treason” to the English media – Matheson and her three male chums became Scottish Nationalist icons – indeed heroes to most Scots – and no-one dared prosecute them.
The stone, first looted and taken south in 1296 by the English invader King Edward 1 –dubbed “Hammer of the Scots” – is now in Edinburgh Castle alongside the Crown Jewels of Scotland.
Matheson was a 22-year-old student of domestic science, training to be a teacher in both English and Gaelic, when she bumped into Ian Hamilton, Alan Stuart and Gavin Vernon at Glasgow University in 1950.
It quickly became clear that they had one thing in common – a passionate Scottish patriotism – and they joined a movement called “Covenant”, in favour of Home Rule.
Hamilton’s nationalism, in particular, became a huge influence on her. And so she agreed to join the three on more than a sight-seeing a trip to London in December 1950.
The one sight they wanted to see, and remove, was the historic Stone of Destiny, the 336-pound slab of sandstone on which Scottish kings had traditionally been crowned at Scone Palace in Perthshire. Legend had it that the stone was once “Jacob’s Pillow”, on which the biblical figure laid his head while dreaming of a ladder to Heaven.
Whatever the truth, it had found its way to Scotland and, after being looted by Edward 1, had been lodged beneath the carved-oak coronation throne in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey as a scornful symbol of Scottish subservience to England.
After an 18-hour road trip to London a few days before Christmas, 1950, the four students embarked on what initially looked like a student prank but turned into one of the greatest heists in history and a breakthrough for somewhat dormant post-war Scottish nationalism.
Add to that a large dollop of 1950s Ealing slapstick comedy as described in Hamilton’s book The Taking of the Stone of Destiny (first published in 1952 under the title No Stone Unturned), later turned into the 2008 movie Stone of Destiny, featuring Robert Carlyle, Charlie Cox as Hamilton and Kate Mara as Matheson.
After he completed the film, American director Charles Martin Smith crossed the Atlantic and drove to Aultbea in Wester Ross to deliver a copy to Matheson in her nursing home. She had been too frail to attend the premiere.
“We had no money for hotels, and barely enough for food and petrol,” Hamilton wrote later of that 1950 Christmas. At one point we had to phone home and beg for some more. Looking back, the naivety of it takes my breath away, although the young will not think it is naive.
“Truly we did not know the size of what we were taking on. None of us thought that it would still be talked of all these years later.”
On an initial reconnoitre on Christmas Eve, Hamilton hid in the Abbey, crouched behind a statue, when it closed. When a night watchman shone a torch on him, the young student said, without lying, “I’m locked in.”
“I sensed he was as surprised and afraid as I was… but he was a kindly man… he asked if I was homeless, offered me money, bade me put my shoes on, and turned me out the west door.”
Hamilton didn’t go far. Matheson and the other two were waiting nearby.
With the surrounding streets dead later on Christmas Eve, the three male students jemmied their way into the Abbey after dark and managed to prise the big stone out from under the Coronation Chair. In doing so, they dropped it and it broke into two.
At one point, it fell on Matheson’s foot, breaking two of her toes, an injury which affected her for the rest of her life. When Hamilton first came out to the getaway car, a Second World War Ford Anglia with Matheson at the wheel, a London bobby approached.
Hamilton quickly grabbed Matheson, gave her a passionate kiss and told the officer they had been unable to find a bed-and-breakfast. He left them to it with a cheery “Merry Christmas” and they were able to get on with the heist. After loading the two pieces of stone, the four split up, with Matheson driving off with the smaller portion. She later left it with a friend in England, took a train to Scotland, and her comrades went back for it later.
When news of the “theft” broke the following morning, Matheson had to charm her way first through numerous roadblocks and later past police searching her train.
The police sealed the England-Scotland Border roads for the first time since the English pulled out of Scotland in the mid-16th century during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Hamilton also decided it safer to offload the larger piece of stone and hid it in an English field before driving to Scotland. When he eventually went back for it two weeks later, the field housed a gypsy encampment, centred around the stone. After convincing them that “we come from a country of gypsies far up to the north”, the gypsies let them take the stone.
After a tip-off, police visited the home of Matheson and her parents by Firemore beach, Inverasdale, by Loch Ewe, and demanded to know where the stone was. Matheson fibbed that it was in a nearby peat bog, laughing later that she had got all her peat cut by the police for the whole year. In fact, the team had arranged to put the stone back together in one piece.
On 11 April, 1951 they laid the Stone of Destiny on the ruined high altar of Arbroath Abbey, draped in a Saltire, where the Scottish Declaration of Independence – the Declaration of Arbroath – had been signed in 1320. Parts of the movie Stone of Destiny were filmed at the historic abbey.
The stone was swiftly returned to Westminster Abbey and no charges were brought against its “liberators”. In 1996, the Queen agreed to send it home to Scotland, where it now rests in Edinburgh Castle.
Kay Matheson was born in 1928 in the Firemore crofts at Inverasdale, a small crofting settlement on the western shore of Loch Ewe in Gairloch parish, now part of Wester Ross. Her great grandparents had been forced towards the coast during the Highland Clearances when the inland glens were cleared for sheep farming.
As a young girl, she saw her tranquil loch abuzz with Royal Navy vessels assembling to take part in the Arctic Convoys to Russia. It was as a trainee teacher that she headed for Glasgow, met her three comrades and the rest became history.
In later life, she lived quietly as a teacher in the Highlands, but she said: “Our recovery – not theft – of the Stone informed our whole lives.”
Kay Matheson died in a care home on the shores of Loch Ewe, where she had spent the last 20 years, latterly with her beloved dog. She never married and details of family survivors were not immediately known.