Ian Hamilton, 97, who stole Scottish relic from Westminster Abbey, dies

Ian Hamilton, who burst into Westminster Abbey in London with other University of Glasgow students on Christmas Day in 1950 to take back the Stone of Destiny, the rock on which Scottish monarchs had been crowned during centuries until seized by England in 1296, died Oct. 3 in North Connel, Scotland. He was 97 years old.

His death was widely reported in the Scottish media.

Mr Hamilton was studying law when he hatched his plan with three other people to recover the stone. It was not, according to him, a silly getaway or a student prank. An ardent Scottish nationalist, he saw the stone as a powerful symbol of Scottish independence that rightly belonged on Scottish soil.

“The great thing about the Stone is that it transcends politics,” he said in an interview with the Sons of Scotland website at the age of 82. “Regardless of our political views, Scots recognize that there is something that binds us together.”

All he and his crew had to do was break into Westminster Abbey, rip the stone – a block of sandstone weighing 336 pounds – under the coronation chair built by King Edward I to enclose the relic after his conquest of Scotland, and depart cleanly.

The group drove from Glasgow to London on Christmas Eve in two cars. The next morning they left one car in one lot and piled into the second, a Ford Anglia, arriving at Westminster Abbey in the early morning hours of December 25.

At around 4 a.m., Mr Hamilton, Alan Stuart and Gavin Vernon began to attack the pine door at the entrance to the Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. No one saw them or stopped them.

“Gavin put his shoulder to the door,” Mr Hamilton wrote in a 1952 book, “No Stone Unturned,” but he barely moved.

“Jimmy! Mr. Vernon cried, demanding the only tool they had brought with them, a crowbar.

Mr. Hamilton turned to Mr. Stuart: “The jimmy!”

“What?” said Mr. Stuart. “I thought you had it.”

Mr. Hamilton ran to the car to retrieve it.

Soon the woodwork and the padlock on the door gave way.

“You kind of know that when you bring a crowbar to a side door in Westminster Abbey and close the lock, there really is no turning back, right?” Mr Hamilton told Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2008.

They moved quickly through the darkness of the abbey and found their way to the coronation chair. They removed a wooden retaining bar on the front of the chair, but freeing the stone was more difficult. They pushed and jimmied him until they were able to lift him and carry him a yard before realizing he was too heavy to go any further.

They then lifted the stone on Mr Hamilton’s coat, hoping to drag him to freedom. But as he tugged on one of the stone’s iron rings, it came loose, a piece weighing about 100 pounds, another more than double that weight. Mr. Hamilton ran outside, almost dazed, dragging the smallest piece. The fourth member of the group, the driver of the getaway, Kay Matheson, drove up and Mr. Hamilton put him in the back seat.

As she did, Ms Matheson told her urgently that she had been spotted by a police officer. Mr Hamilton jumped into the car and when the officer approached he and Ms Matheson pretended to be a couple in love. Arousing no suspicion, they left. The other two students fled, leaving behind the rest of the stone.

Mr Hamilton later returned with the other car, dragged the remaining stone into it and drove off.

The bold caper has captivated Britain for months.

British police have started a manhunt. Cars were stopped at roadblocks. Water bodies were dredged. The border between Scotland and England through the Cheviot Hills has been temporarily closed.

Ian Robertson Hamilton was born on September 13, 1925 in Paisley, Scotland, just north of Glasgow, to John and Martha (Robertson) Hamilton. His father was a tailor. Her mother fired her nationalism with stories about the Stone of Destiny.

Ian served in the Royal Air Force as a flight mechanic, enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1948 and became one of two million Scots to sign the Scottish Covenant, a petition to the Britain demanding autonomy.

Mr Hamilton found a patron for his raid on the Abbey in John MacCormick, a leading advocate of Scottish self-government, who gave the group £50 towards their expenses.

Radio programs reported the theft over Christmas. For the students, every police car that passed caused concern. Fearing capture, they hid the stone – at least most of it – in an overgrown rural area in Kent, England. A day or two later they moved it to a wooded area in Rochester. Mrs. Matheson had hidden the other piece in Birmingham.

On December 30, the group sent a letter to King George VI, offering to return the stone if repatriated to Scotland, but promising to make it available for future British coronations.

Mr Hamilton and a team of new recruits dug up the stone and transported it to Scotland, anointing it with a splash of Scotch whiskey as they crossed the border. This time it was hidden in the basement of a factory outside Glasgow by a local politician who arranged for the two pieces to be reunited.

The four plotters were questioned by a Scotland Yard detective in March 1951, but they denied any involvement and none were arrested.

In April, deciding he had done all he could to advance Scottish nationalism, Mr Hamilton decided to return the stone anonymously. He, the politician who had repaired it and another nationalist friend laid it on the altar in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, about 100 miles northeast of Glasgow.

A week later, the British government announced that it would not prosecute. Hartley Shawcross, Britain’s attorney general, scorned the group’s “vulgar acts of vandalism” but chose not to charge them and risk turning them into martyrs.

Assured of their freedom, Mr Hamilton, Mr Stuart and Mr Vernon handed statements to reporters in Glasgow identifying their roles in the Stone’s release.

Mr Hamilton completed his legal studies and went on to become a renowned criminal barrister and an active member of Scottish National Party politics. Mrs. Matheson became a teacher, Mr. Vernon an engineer and Mr. Stuart a businessman.

Mr. Hamilton was the last surviving member of the crew.

His survivors include his wife, Jeanette (Stewart) Hamilton; his sons, Jamie and Stewart; and a daughter, Aileen.

In 1996, Mr. Hamilton’s goal was achieved. Britain’s Prime Minister John Major agreed to return the stone to Scotland, and it was taken to a new permanent residence at Edinburgh Castle, on the condition that it be returned to London for coronations. And it will be the same next year for the coronation of King Charles III.

When Mr Hamilton’s book was made into a movie, ‘Stone of Destiny’, released in 2008, he told the Telegraph in an interview that he had rarely talked about the caper in the years that followed.

“Am I proud?” he said. “You bet I am. I felt I held the soul of Scotland when I first touched it.