Ian Hamilton – Stone of Destiny QC
With customary boldness, Ian Hamilton QC, has said that Westminster is “very, very frightened” at the prospect of an independent Scotland.
Hamilton is one of this nation’s treasures. In 1943, he volunteered for active service while still at school and went before a selection board.
Deemed suitable to be a commissioned pilot, he was put on deferred service until a vacancy arose. A few years ago, in an interview, he said: ““Not many people know that Bomber Command killed some 55,000 grammar schoolboys like myself. I spent nearly three years in a barrack hut, just lying about doing nothing. It made me so angry. Some 20,000 men were retained for aircrew training. We never saw any action at all while our contemporaries were being killed. An officer told me he thought there could be another war against the Russians. I said if there was, I would be on the other side. It was the closest I ever came to mutiny.”
The mantel of being the most famous Scot in modern history still sits somewhat uneasily on the shoulders of retired QC Hamilton. His daring feat, on Christmas Day, 1950, with three fellow students, was not done for fame or fortune, but to make a point about Scotland’s true place in the brave new post-war world. And it was there in some lonely RAF base that the daring plan to steal The Stone of Destiny first took shape. A thoughtful, quiet man, obviously proud of his actions as a young man, he is unwilling to be defined by them. Neither is he the sort of person to be carried away by the rhetoric of others. Whether he likes it or not, Ian will always be known as the man who hatched a plot to steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, bring it home thus reawakening the sleeping giant of Scottish Nationalism.
What led up to stealing the stone? “I was at university,” Ian said, “but had hatched the idea on deferred service. After a barrack room, university was an enormous freedom. Life suddenly exploded into meaning for me and the anger I felt gradually gathered a bit like a boil.” At that time the only guard on the stone was The British Empire. “No-one ever imagined anyone would break into the very heart of the British Empire, so, they didn’t bother guarding it.”
Over coffee in his house with stunning views over Loch Na Beithe, beneath Ben Cruachan, he told me how he and three other young Scots, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart stole the stone of destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950 and brought it home to Scotland. The symbolism of what the trio did was not lost on Scots who took to the streets to celebrate, what they saw, effectively, as Scotland’s destiny released from English hands. “I suppose I was a Nationalist but I was always a Scot first. Every single political party these days is nationalist, every single party supports home rule. What is a nationalist but someone who wants extended power for their country? During the war the SNP was run by fascists Dr Robert Macintyre and Arthur Donaldson. They were dotty, completely. They continued to be dotty for about 20 years. The current official line is that we weren’t prosecuted because, to do so, they would first have to establish rightful ownership. Any lawyer knows that is nonsense. With theft you don’t have to prove ownership. Most stolen cars belong to an employer or a hire purchase company. The Lord Advocate does not make the searches to find out who owns the car. We weren’t prosecuted because the Scottish people made it clear by taking to the streets and cheering that there would be riots if we were. It took them three months to find us. The Glasgow Police had no clues, the crime was unique so there was no modus operandi. My father gave me an alibi and because he was a strict Presbyterian, everybody believed him.”
As part of his research, Ian had withdrawn from the Mitchell Library as many books as he could find on Westminster Abbey
”The police concluded that the perpetrator must have had a deep inside knowledge of the Abbey,” he said, “They went to Glasgow University library but nobody had taken out books on the abbey. However, at the Mitchell Library, however, they discovered one person had taken out every single book. The police arrived early one morning and asked me to go with them. I told them the law decreed they must arrest me first. But when they told me they had the other two men and that they would get all the grief, I went. There were a lot of policemen and a chief inspector from Scotland Yard who interviewed me. He held my library slips in such a way that I could see them, whether to intimidate me or just carelessness, I’ll never know. I pre-empted him by saying my main interest was ecclesiastical architecture, true, that I had taken out all the books on Westminster Abbey I could find. It could have been a fraught morning but it wasn’t.”
When first admitted to the bar in 1954 as a young advocate, Ian took another stand and refused to swear the oath to Elizabeth 11. He was told if he refused, he couldn’t become an advocate. In the end, once again, popular opinion forced the authorities to capitulate. He said: “It was bad enough for a young person to defy the establishment,” Ian says, “but when he also forces them to climb down, he is not going to be popular.” Did his rebellion hold him back professionally? “Yes, it held me back for 2 years. Then, by chance, in 1956, someone put me into the appeal court where junior counsel opens for the appellant, with senior counsel only there to sweep up at the end. Within a week, I was offered work by the firm of solicitors who had been on the other side in the appeal court. I worked for insurance companies as well. It was challenging work and I soon built up a big practice. I should have been a writer, like, say, Alan Bennett, the award winning playwright.” In fact Ian is an award winning playwright. In 1957, he won the Foyle award for Tinkers of the World, for the best play in British repertory. The award was won the previous year by Sheila Delaney and John Osborne the following year.” Does he see himself as a writer? “Oh yes, absolutely,” he said, “I do not regard myself as a reasonably successful lawyer but as a failed writer.” In the Nineties, he also wrote his autobiography, A Touch of Treason as well as his republished and unputdownable Stone of Destiny. As an advocate, Ian had a formidable reputation
His biggest murder trials Bluebell woods, in 1986, and the murder of a prostitute, body found in exhibition centre car park, one of six or seven murders of women in the sex trade. “Because of that acquittal, Strathclyde Police became convinced there was no serial sex killer yet the modus operandi in each case was the same. The real evidence just didn’t fit my client. “I have probably done more murder trials than anyone else in Scottish criminal history. Murders tend to happen outside pubs, a phenomenon I call causing death by careless kicking. A young man goes out at night, particularly these days, armed with a knife. I tell you the same person ends up on the mortuary slab as in the High Court on a charge of murder, just because of a flurry of blows outside a pub.”
How does he think Scotland is doing?
“There is a buzz about Scotland because we are getting our self confidence back”, he said. “Nationalism is just another name for self confidence. I believe we will see independence in my time. And we will be able to solve problems like poverty here as well as abroad. In Scotland, you can discount the Tories, the Liberals will always go where there’s a little power and the only election Labour can be sure of winning is the election for a new leader.”
Does he rate politicians? “They are like anyone else although an SNP politician is more likely to be driven by ideals. People vote for two reasons, self interest and idealism. The Labour and Tory Parties have satisfied neither of these in Scotland for all these years. They are imploding on themselves.
“I have always believed independence would come. Becos when I was lying in my barrack hut and the Atlee Government was doing everything to support the British Empire’s hold over the weaker nations, I learned that people are very fond of their own country, and, as soon as you start to acknowledge your country exists, you immediately want a say in its government. Anyway, history is on our side.”