Case Study: The Stone of Scone

Case Study 32

The Stone of Scone

David H Caldwell

As part of a programme aimed at improving the exhibition of the Stone of Scone in Edinburgh Castle the writer was invited in 2015 to review what is known about it. It is an object that has been much written about, especially since its recent return to Scotland, but there are surprising gaps in our understanding, some of which can be attributed to a lack of accessibility to the Stone itself. Here we will focus on what the actual Stone itself can tell us. The writer has been assisted in this process by a new report on the Stone by Peter Hill, a stone and historic buildings consultant, updating the original survey he contributed to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland monograph on The Stone of Destiny, Artefact & Icon (Welander et al. 2003).

There can be no reasonable doubt that the Stone now displayed in Edinburgh Castle is the Stone used in inauguration ceremonies of Scottish kings that Edward I of England had removed from Scone in 1296 and taken to Westminster Abbey as a trophy of war. It is also clear that it is of a type of sandstone that comes from the vicinity of Scone. That still leaves major questions that we might hope that a detailed study of the object itself might solve:

  1. how old is it?
  2. how was it used?
  3. has it always been used in the same way?
  4. has it been altered since it was taken from Scone?

At the time of writing in March 2016 the author is not sure what his final answers to these questions will be but hopefully the following comments will help explain how research on this iconic option can be advanced.

Unfortunately, there are no options for scientific dating of the Stone. Possible prehistoric cup-marks on its front face appeared to suggest that its ritualistic credibility was grounded in very ancient times, but after careful analysis and advice from an expert on prehistoric carvings it seems probable that these cups should be interpreted as the result of medieval and later vandalism. When and why the Stone was first cut from the living rock will remain unknown.

The Stone was used as a ceremonial seat for kings of Scots. Documentary evidence suggests that it could have been incorporated in an actual throne, and that is surely what should be deduced from its thickness. With a height of only about 26.5 cm it would have had to have been positioned well off the ground for the king to sit on it with any dignity.

The way it was placed or incorporated in a throne for royal inaugurations in Scotland may have changed with time, and there are areas of damage and wear which may relate to changing use and how it was extracted and carried off to Westminster. There are cut marks made with a sharp blade which may relate to ritual events.

A key area of difficulty is identifying to what extent the Stone has been altered since its removal from Scone. Has it been cut down by the English from a larger stone in order to fit in a predetermined space in the chair commissioned for it by Edward I? Do the iron staples and rings at both ends relate entirely to efforts by Westminster Abbey to prevent the Stone being removed in the 1320s or were they already features of the Stone when it left Scotland? There are compelling arguments both ways.


Figure 1: The Stone of Destiny in the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, 1875. A.D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library, Accession Number: 15/5/3090.00976, Creative Commons