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Ian Hamilton KC

Ian Hamilton KC

Isobel Lindsay – 7th October 2022

I am sure it would give Ian Hamilton great satisfaction if his death encouraged new interest in the historical background of the Scottish independence movement. The modern SNP is unusual for a nationalist party in the lack of knowledge and interest among many of its members about its founding parents and early activists – John MacCormick, Roland Muirhead, Cunningham Graham, Wendy Wood, Neil Gunn, Oliver Brown   –  just some of those who should be familiar to all of us.

Ian and his friends are among those who should be better known.  The theft of the Stone of Destiny in 1950 was brave, bold and imaginative but it did not take place in isolation.  It came just months after the Scottish Covenant movement had launched their national petition for a Home Rule parliament and they achieved almost two million signatures.  These were gathered house to house, in street stalls, at football matches, outside factories.  The response from the Labour Government was completely negative.  They claimed that the issues were too complex for people to decide in a referendum.  The Conservative opposition offered a Royal Commission which they did later establish with a very limited remit.

The theft of the Stone of Destiny caught the Scottish imagination and for many it was a source of pride that some of their fellow citizens(they didn’t know who had done it for some months) had the nerve and ingenuity to carry it out successfully.  This was the anti-deferential Scots asserting their identity and history. The accession of the Queen produced more rebellion because of the E11R title.  The numerous attacks on post boxes eventually forced the Post Office to stop using the title on Scottish boxes.

Because these activities and sentiments did not express themselves in party politics in the following period, they have often been dismissed as just gestures without impact.  I think this is mistaken.  Sustaining the Scottish perspective helped to prepare the ground for the major political successes in the late sixties and in the seventies.  Never underestimate the effect of telling a story with imaginative symbolism.

Ian went on to have a distinguished legal career, giving political support over the decades, writing and speaking for the independence cause.  He didn’t choose to play senior party or electoral roles.  But we can say that he and his fellow students made an outstanding contribution by lifting the morale of many Scots and reminding the British establishment that we were still capable of a bit of rebellion.

A very interesting post-script which I am sure Ian would have commented on was the decision of Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland, to persuade the British Cabinet to transfer the Stone of Destiny to Scotland in 1996.  He thought this would be very popular in Scotland and show how responsive the Conservative Government was to Scottish opinion. It was brought back with great military display.  Scotland shrugged its shoulders – nobody gave a damn.  Stealing it was significant; being given an old stone of questionable origin  –  who cared?

Isobel Lindsay

9 thoughts on “Ian Hamilton KC”

  1. Rather disappointing to read the terms “theft” and “stealing” in Isobel’s otherwise fine article. What Ian and Co did was surely a restoration rather than a burglary.

  2. Ian Davidson

    Isobel. Yes, SNP history is important; folks like yourself devoted to a cause which was unpopular, and until last few decades, unlikely to enhance personal career prospects in a Labour dominated civic Scotland!
    Hope to hear more from you and other “more life-experienced” indy supporters!

  3. This was quite a negative essay, celebrating the contribution of Iain Hamilton. Like the first commentator, I would point out that the use of “theft”is misplaced. Perhaps a line or two about the history of the Stone of Scone would have set this “theft” in context. It is amateurish to infuse a written piece with your own particular gripe, which is what this essay smacks of – the prevailing theme was SNP Bad. I don’t think the SNP stands out particularly as disregarding their Indy past, in fact Nicola Sturgeon has often pointed out former leaders upon whose shoulders she stands, like Winnie Ewing. If this piece was supposed to venerate Iain Hamilton, it failed in that and just gave way to cynicism, which contributes nothing to anything.

  4. I have two things in common with Ian Hamilton, supporting Scottish Independence and having a common grandson who has Palestinian heritage. Ian often discussed the Palestinian NAKBA with my daughter, brought upon by the colonialist British government which he disapproved of. He was interested in the world outside Scotland and with countries of similar histories.
    While you mention early activists please also remember Paul Henderson Scott a devoted Scottish nationalist and internationalist.

  5. Very disappointing to read of Hamilton, Vernon, Matheson and Stuart’s actions in retrieving the stone being described as “theft”. I expected better from the author.

  6. Those who become queasy at the thought that Ian Hamilton and his comrades “stole” the Stone should consider wether this implies that they cannot conceive of an unjust law. It’s true that Hamilton has said: ” I don’t consider that retrieving my country’s property was breaking the law.” But the fact that the gang were not prosecuted was an act of realpolitik – the Stone was returned, a big stushie had been created – they closed the border between England and Scotland! There’s no doubt it was theft in the view of the establishment, but they did not want to create a group of martyrs to the cause of Scottish Independence.

    It took courage to break the unjust law protecting the Stone’s decreed place at Westminster Abbey and as a prank it achieved a huge impact. Probably more in symbolic terms and publicity than the far more serious Land Raids of Lewis in the 1880s-early 1900s, which were aimed at (unlawfully) correcting injustice and hardship in the living conditions of crofters. Although very different in cause and ambition, there were similar levels of cheek; in one raid they killed some of the laird’s deer and had a barbecue! The effect of those raids was eventually to change the way land is managed, though much remains to be done and land reform is in my view more important to the cause of Independence than the incarnate shibboleths of monarchy. But the Taking of the Stone had a resonance that provided inspiration for the Independence movement as a whole.

    The dumping of the Stone in Arbroath Abbey had the dual implications of a reference to The Declaration of Arbroath and a kind of contemptuous shrug: “It’s here if ye really want it” – implying an understanding of its dubious provenance. It is Perthshire sandstone, so unlikely to have been brought from Ireland by Kenneth MacAlpin, if that legend is to be believed. In appearance it resembles the sort of thing that would be dropped into a harbour to anchor a mooring buoy, which would at least make it an object of utility. The final paragraph in Isobel Lindsay’s fine and interesting obituary is perhaps the most telling – the significance of the stone itself is spent, the act of defiance of Ian Hamilton and his comrades consumed all of the magic hitherto attributed to this object and used the energy to enliven a different project, one which finally seems to be drawing towards fruition.

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