Written by Megan Crutchley
In every civilisation across the world, there exist collections of stories that explain why the world is the way that it is. These myths can be stories that span across centuries and can involve characters from antiquity as well as from the Bible or other religious works, but all essentially try to achieve the same goal: to fulfill the universal psychological need to explain one’s place within the world. The people of Scotland are no different; however, their mythological origin story is unique in that there is a material manifestation of Scotland’s history and its claims to sovereignty: the Stone of Destiny, also called the Stone of Scone.
To give a definitive history of the Stone would be difficult, as even its mythological origins are conflicting; it is unknown how old the stone is, or when it was first quarried. The rock seems to match up with the type of sandstone found in Scone itself, so specialists believe this is where the Stone initially came from. But in the realm of mythology, there are two main legends that surround the Stone, one concerning a pharaoh’s daughter named Scota, and the other a Spanish prince named Simon Brecc. In the first myth, Scota takes the stone from Egypt after being told by Moses that whoever possessed the Stone would conquer far off lands. She sets off for Ireland, and after arriving there with a fleet of ships, acquires some companions to join her on her voyage to Scotland. Once in Scotland, she defeats the natives of the land, the Picts, and settles there, naming the country and its people after herself, with the Gaels being named after her husband, Geytholos.
In another telling, made popular by John of Fordun in The Chronicle of the Scottish People in the 1370s, Simon Brecc, the son of the Spanish king, Milo, retrieves the Stone from the sea off the coast of Ireland. He puts down his anchors and when trying to pull them up, loosens a cut stone. As it emerges from the water, pulled up by the ship’s anchors, Simon Brecc is said to have prophesised that wherever the stone shall be, he and his descendants should rule that land afterwards. Simon Brecc subsequently conquers Ireland, naming himself High King, and his descendants bring the Stone to Scotland, where they also rule as kings, fulfilling the prophecy.
Both myths reflect elements of Scottish history, such as the migration of the Gaelic-speaking Scots from Ireland to Scotland in the fifth century, reflecting how contemporary Scottish people saw themselves as being closely connected to an Irish past. True pieces of history are also reflected in Scota’s myth, including the defeat of the Picts in the ninth century. In Scota’s myth, too, there is an attempt to explain the different linguistic groups in Scotland and reconcile them – those who spoke Gaelic and those who did not. In both origin myths, there is an attempt to link a Scottish past with that of antiquity and Biblical stories, which may be an attempt from the Church to make Scots feel as if their native traditions are not separate from the Church and Classical learning.
After learning about these myths, we can now understand how the Stone itself can be considered a physical symbol of Scotland’s sovereignty, being used in coronations for Scottish kings for centuries. Because of its symbolic importance, it became a target for Edward I of England to steal, therefore taking away Scotland’s sovereignty and placing it under the rulership of Edward and England. The Stone was stolen in 1296 and taken to Westminster Abbey, where it remained until the 1950s. There is a theory that these myths and the prophecies within them were created after the Stone was removed, to act as a sort of looming threat over the English for stealing an object of cultural importance to Scotland. This is supported by the fact that there is no written evidence of these prophecies from before Edward I took the Stone.
However, I would argue that the Stone still held cultural and political importance and symbolised the same things with or without the prophecies, due to its use in the coronation of Scottish kings. Edward I, by taking the Stone, was still preventing the line of Scottish kings from continuing legitimately. This can be confirmed by the repeated requests from the Scots to have the Stone returned–the closest these requests ever came to being granted was in the Treaty of Northampton in 1328, where Scotland was promised its return; however, the actions outlined in the treaty were never carried out.
Some people believe that the prophecies surrounding the Stone did come true, however, with the reign of James VI of Scotland and I of England. After the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English royal line ended as she had no heirs, and it was a king of Scotland who assumed rule over a united Britain—a Scottish king ruling over the land the stone was placed in. However, it could also be argued that James was just as much an English king as he was Scottish; he was descended from both royal lines, and his grandmother was Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister.
Whether the prophecy can be said to have come true or not, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland in 1996, exactly 700 years after it was stolen, due to growing discussion around Scottish cultural history. It can now be seen in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle. The discussion the Stone prompts today demonstrates the cultural importance of the Stone to Scotland, and its history as a stolen object serves to comment on the turbulent relations between Scotland and England throughout the centuries. It continues to be a controversial object today. With the coronation of King Charles III coming up, it is being discussed in the Scottish government whether the next First Minister should return the Stone to England for the King’s coronation, with some questioning if Scotland owes this to the Crown since the Stone has already been returned.
Aitchison, N. B. (2000). Scotland’s Stone of Destiny: Myth, History and Nationhood. Stroud: Tempus.
Breeze, D. J., Clancy, T. O., & Welander, R. (2003). The Stone of Destiny: Artefact and Icon. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Ferris, D. H. (n.d.). The Truth about the Stone of Scone. The Dalhousie Review, 201-209.
Gerber, P. (1997). Stone of Destiny. Edinburgh: Canongate.
McCann, D. (2023, March 3). Stone of Destiny ‘should stay in Scotland, not go south for the coronation’. Retrieved from The Times: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/55a6ebce-b9e1-11ed-89e2-a4c715f4739d?shareToken=efd3c665d0fa461f25294f8ff3c01b0a