By Forrest Pass
Canada has plenty of rocks of our own, but a British stone has long captured the imagination of people on this side of the Atlantic. If you watched the coverage of the coronation of King Charles III, you might have caught a glimpse of it. Known variously as the Coronation Stone, the Stone of Scone, and the Stone of Destiny, the unassuming oblong block of red sandstone enclosed in a wooden throne has been a central feature of British coronation rituals for almost a thousand years.
The Coronation Stone originated in Scotland, where monarchs were crowned upon it for hundreds of years. Although folklore associates the Stone with the legendary High Kings of Ireland and even with the “Stone of Jacob” in the biblical Book of Genesis, geological analysis suggests that it was quarried near Scone, around Perth in eastern Scotland. The forces of King Edward I of England took the Stone as war booty in 1296, and for 700 years it remained at Westminster Abbey, a fixture of English and later British coronations. In 1996, it returned to Scotland, where Edinburgh Castle is now the Stone’s permanent home. However, the 66 cm by 41 cm by 28 cm rock, which weighs 152 kg, travelled temporarily to London this month for the latest coronation.
Although the Coronation Stone has never travelled to Canada, Canada and Canadians have played a part in its story. In 1939, Paul de Labillière, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, where the Stone was kept from 1296 until 1996, quietly hid the Stone in the Abbey’s crypt, to protect it from desecration in the event of a feared Nazi invasion. He drew a map of its exact hiding place and sent the sole copy to Ottawa, where it remained under lock and key at the Bank of Canada. After the war, our predecessor, the Public Archives of Canada, acquired the map. It is now part of Unexpected! Surprising Treasures From Library and Archives Canada, our exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History until November 26, 2023.
De Labillière could not have predicted that the greatest “threat” to the Coronation Stone would be a domestic one. On Christmas Day 1950, young Scottish nationalists “liberated” the Stone from Westminster Abbey and transported it to Arbroath Abbey in eastern Scotland, a symbolic site for their movement. It took four months before police recovered the Stone and returned it to Westminster.
Two years after the Coronation Stone heist, a young woman from Cape Breton Island made a pilgrimage to Arbroath Abbey and met with the original conspirators. She admired their devotion to the cause of Scottish independence, even if she thought that their revolutionary plotting was mere bravado. “No doubt, if I had been born in Scotland, I would have been a passionate Scottish nationalist like [Coronation Stone liberator] Ian Hamilton,” Flora MacDonald wrote of the meeting in her memoirs. “Instead, I am convinced it was my Scottish blood and temperament that made me a passionate Canadian nationalist.” MacDonald would channel that love of Canada into politics; in 1979, she became the first woman to serve as Secretary of State for External Affairs. Her remarkable life and career are documented in the extensive Flora MacDonald fonds at Library and Archives Canada, which includes a diary of her first trip to Scotland.
Flora MacDonald was not the first Canadian to travel to the United Kingdom in search of the Coronation Stone’s meaning. In 1921, Edward Odlum, an eccentric Vancouverite, went to London to examine the Stone’s composition. Odlum was a believer in British Israelism, the theory that Britons are the literal, genetic descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. At best, British Israelism relied on shaky pseudoscience; at worst, it promoted antisemitism and white supremacy. Odlum, who had some geological training, hoped to link the Coronation Stone to the Middle East, and thus support the British-Israelite case.
Odlum enlisted high-level help for his peculiar project. Sir George Halsey Perley, the Canadian High Commissioner in London, convinced the Dean of Westminster Abbey to give Odlum privileged access to the Stone. Odlum’s letters to his son, the journalist, soldier and future diplomat Victor Wentworth Odlum, describe his examination of the Stone with a magnifying glass and “a specially prepared large electric light.” This study complete, he dashed off to Jerusalem to look for similar rocks in the Holy Land. Professional geological analysis of the Stone confirms that it originated in Scotland, but claims that Odlum had “proven” its Middle Eastern origin still circulate in obscure corners of the Internet.
As travelling overseas to view the Coronation Chair and Stone was not possible for most Canadians, two benefactors commissioned replicas for display closer to home. John Ross Robertson, a Toronto-based journalist and Canadiana collector, exhibited his replica, alongside other historical chairs, at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1904. Robertson boasted in the exhibition catalogue that the reproduction was so good that “if placed beside the original it would be impossible to tell it from the genuine chair.”
A second replica of the Coronation Chair made its way to Ontario at the same time as Robertson’s. Its owner was Dr. Oronhyatekha, the famous Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) physician, who had a long-standing connection with the Royal Family. In 1860, as a young man, Oronhyatekha had addressed the visiting Prince of Wales on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and emphasized the importance of the living treaty relationship. Decades later, in 1902, Oronhyatekha travelled to London to attend the coronation of his old acquaintance as King Edward VII. He later joked that his replica of the Coronation Chair was a spare given to him by the Royal Family. According to Keith Jamieson and Michelle A. Hamilton, authors of Dr. Oronhyatekha: Security, Justice, and Equality, the Coronation Chair represented for Oronhyatekha the special relationship between the Crown and First Nations.
Canadians from a variety of backgrounds have given the Coronation Stone new meanings that the Scottish quarrymen who hewed it would never have predicted. Perhaps the Stone’s very modesty explains its appeal. Amid the colour and finery of other coronation regalia, it seems extraordinarily ordinary, and in its simplicity lies its flexibility. In Canada, where bedrock is seldom far from the surface, people have embraced this ancient British artifact, reimagining a seemingly simple stone as a compelling emblem of history, identity and sovereignty.
Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.