Day 6·Q&A

Why a centuries-old stone from Scotland sits under King Charles' coronation chair

Ewan Hyslop details the Stone of Destiny's storied history, what secrets it still holds under a modern microscope and how the stone was readied for transport from Scotland to London for King Charles' coronation.

The stone has played a role in English coronation ceremonies for over 700 years

A large stone sits on a platform in front of a medieval chair inside a large abbey.
The Stone of Destiny is seen during a welcome ceremony ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, in Westminster Abbey, London on April 29, 2023. (Susannah Ireland/The Associated Press)

The Stone of Destiny was taken from Scotland as a spoil of war by England in the 1200s. English King Edward I then had it fitted into his new wooden coronation chair. 

In modern times it's seen a lot of action. It was hidden in a burial vault in Gloucester for safekeeping during the Second World War, then briefly stolen back by a group of students in the name of Scottish nationalism in the 1950s.

Finally, it was formally returned whence it came to sit among the regalia of the Scottish Crown jewels at Edinburgh Castle in 1996.

Nowadays, the stone (also known as the Stone of Scone) doesn't get out much — except when it's coronation time for a new monarch of Britain. Scotland has sent the stone to Westminster Abbey ahead of King Charles' coronation ceremony on Saturday. It has once again been reinserted under the coronation chair.

"I think there's a number of different opinions about the stone…. Some people who are uncomfortable with this iconic Scottish object going to England," said Ewan Hyslop, research head at Historic Environment Scotland where a team of experts looks after the stone and helped prepped it for its recent journey to London.

"Others feel that it's very symbolic that an object that is literally part of Scotland is playing such a significant role in the coronation.... All that really testifies to the symbolism and the significance that's contained within this rather humble piece of sandstone."

Here's part of Hyslop's conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the stone's storied history, what secrets it still holds under a modern microscope and how they safeguarded the stone for transport from Scotland to England.

The Stone of Destiny sounds grand, important and Disney-like. But remind us, what does the stone look like?

This object that has great symbolism associated with it is actually a very humble piece of sandstone. Quite, quite commonplace, in fact. It's a simple, fairly crudely shaped object… If you took three pillows and put one on top of the other, in terms of size ... it weighs 152 kilograms, which is the weight of two fully grown men.

Man in blue shirt smiles in front of greenery
Ewan Hyslop is the head of research and climate change at Historic Environment Scotland. (Ewan Hyslop)

What makes it so special that it deserves that place underneath the royal bum?

It's literally underpinning the ceremony and the chair, the so-called coronation chair, which … was actually built by King Edward I of England 700 years ago, specifically to hold this stone object.

Can you tell us for how many centuries Scottish monarchs were [crowned] on the stone?

We do have a couple of early written records which describe the stone in use, the earliest of which is in 1285, which describes the inauguration of King Alexander III of Scotland at Scone Palace in 1249. So that's the earliest written record that we have. There are earlier indications of having a role way back … but we sort of lose certainty … and some of them are related to early poems and legends. 

There's even stories that the stone originated from the Middle East or Spain and was transported via Ireland into Scotland.

And there are legends that connect it to the Book of Genesis, correct?

Yes, there are. There's various fairy stories and legends, but those we can't substantiate.

Lets fast forward to more recent history … during World War Two. They buried it. And is it true that a map of the location was sent to [former Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King]?

Absolutely. That's right. For safekeeping. 

Someone did steal it in 1950. What happened? 

There was a group of Scottish students [who] managed to remove the stone from Westminster Abbey in London, and they drove it overnight back up to Scotland … These were young Scottish nationalists anxious to make the case for Scottish independence. Not the first to do so. Nor the last.

WATCH | Scotland celebrated when the stone of destiny was returned

'It was momentous' Scotland celebrated when the stone of destiny was returned : Stuff the British Stole

6 months ago
Duration 0:58
In 1950, one of Scotland's most meaningful royal objects, was stolen from Westminister Abbey by four students and taken back to Scotland.

Since the 1990s, there's been an agreement that the Stone of Scone will live in Scotland, but it travels down to London for coronation ceremonies. What had to be done to prepare the stone for this trip?

[Historic Environment Scotland are the] stewards of the stone. It sits currently in Edinburgh Castle with the Scottish regalia of the Scottish crown jewels … and to prepare it for its journey south, we took a detailed examination of the Stone, which involved detailed analysis of the surface.

The stone has been repaired previously, so we wanted to check the integrity of the object.… We gave it a health check to make sure it was OK for its latest role. 

When you examined the stone, did you find anything that had previously not been known?

We undertook laser scanning, very detailed micro-millimetre scale scanning, of the surface, which has allowed us to visualize the stone in sort of detail never [done] before. We applied various scientific techniques, including surface X-rays and surface microscopy to look in great detail at this stone.

Man in blue sweater holds a piece of equipment scanning an old stone.
The Stone of Destiny is scanned in order to help generate geometric data to build an accurate 3D model of the stone. (Historic Environment Scotland)

Using the new technology has allowed us to visualize the surface markings on the stone, telling us more about how the stone was originally worked and shaped…. We've been able to resolve four or five different chisel types, probably done by different people at different times.

Also we've examined areas of staining. There'd been an attempt at some point in the past to carve a rectangular shaped recess on top of the stone. This was never finished; whether it was to accept a plaque or some sort of carved detail, we don't know.

You created a 3D image of the stone and put it online.… What has surprised you about the way people engage with this 3D image? 

We've had lots of comments, people looking at the various surface markings, interpreting it in their own ways.… We've identified a number of different markings and depressions. There are a couple of early, crudely carved crosses in the stone. [There are] some Roman numerals that were not known before. We don't know when they were carved. We don't know what they mean. So we're very happy for people to, you know, help us interpret some of this and engage with the object.

What will you do if the English decide they don't want to give it back?

Well, we've been reassured it will be coming back. [laughs]

We have a team of very experienced conservators who accompanied the stone down to London and working very closely with the Westminster Abbey team [and] have reinserted it into the coronation chair. Our team will be there to remove it and safely transported back to Scotland.

Radio segment produced by Mickie Edwards. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


Paul Hantiuk


Paul Hantiuk is a producer with CBC News in Toronto.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now