An independent thinker who shaped his destiny
SCOTLAND’S national bard Robert Burns praises ‘the man o’ independent mind’ in his Scots song A Man’s A Man For A’ That – a line that well describes Ian Hamilton QC, who has challenged the establishment for three-quarters of a century, and still has much to say.
Whether he likes it or not – and he doesn’t – Ian Hamilton is most famous, and probably always will be, for jemmying open the oak door of Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve 1950, beside Alan Stuart and the late Kay Matheson and Gavin Vernon, to ‘steal’, or ‘liberate’, the Stone of Destiny from the Coronation Chair.
This symbol of Scottish sovereignty, a 336lb slab of sandstone on which Scotland’s ancient kings were crowned, was removed from Scone Abbey to England by Edward I in 1296, and did not return until the quartet drove it across the border 654 years later, lifting them, for some, to the status of national icons. Hamilton was charged, but never prosecuted, and the Stone was repatriated to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.
Their audacious amateur heist, told in Ian’s book The Taking of
the Stone of Destiny and recently in a 2008 film Stone of Destiny, is a ripping tale, but to Hamilton himself it is ‘a bore,’ and fairly so: it was 66 years ago, and Ian has led many lives since.
Now 91, quietly retired to North Connel with his wife Jeanette, his books and dog Fleuch (meaning ‘wet’ or ‘damp’ in Gaelic), Ian has more than earned a right to the title ‘man o’ pairts’ too. I want to find the common thread that explains his extraordinary life. I try to sum him up as a ‘rebel’, but the epithet is wrong. ‘Rebels have causes,’ he says. ‘I have very few causes. I don’t think it’s a rebel mind. I think it’s a curious mind.’
Ian Robertson Hamilton, the son of a merchant tailor, engaged in his first, and sole, protest aged just 14 while at school in Paisley, against being ‘conscripted’ to cheer the King and Queen on a visit to Clydeside. As a Glasgow law student, he began his legal career at the bar by challenging the Lord Advocate, raising a (failed) action with university rector and SNP leader ‘ King John’ MacCormick, a fellow conspirator in taking the Stone, to recognise Queen Elizabeth II as Queen Elizabeth I in Scotland.
Ian rose to Queen’s Counsel, but resigned from and rejoined the Faculty of Advocates twice, spending one gap as curator of the J M Barrie museum in Kirriemuir. Appointed a sheriff, he resigned again. ‘I think I was the only one ever to resign,’ he remembers.
‘I had almost no power at all. There is a class of habitual petty criminal for whom we do nothing. What’s the use of sending them to prison? What’s the use of fining them? I am far from sure that the right way to deal with crime is to punish the criminal.
‘I want to see the redistribution of wealth in our country. Tax the rich, and use it to educate the poor. We spend far too much on university education, and not enough on primary and preschool education, and that’s the time when you can really make ideas stick. These people who appeared in front of me as sheriff, they didn’t have a chance.’
One friend, celebrating Ian’s 90th birthday, characterised him as a ‘lifelong representative of the underdog, which he wears as a badge of honour, because in every context he sees the absence of effective opposition as dangerous’. Further, he is ‘a caring, humane man of principle and integrity, who never compromised his principles, even when his own personal and professional best interests were on the line. When [these] coincide life can be comfortable: when they are in fundamental conflict, then you find the measure of the man. Ian’s principles have not changed, but the political climate has changed many of Ian’s views from fringe minority to debatable mainstream’.
Hamilton’s memory seems sharp, and his mind active, taking views on the dramatic changes shaking the world, expressed in the precise language of the legal profession where meanings matter, and simple storytelling as if persuading a jury of his case. You can read his full interview at www.obantimes.co.uk.
Frailty must be frustrating for a man so active; he rode motorbikes into his eighties. Once kayaking the tidal race of Loch Etive, he was caught in a whirlpool below Connel surgery, and swam ashore to the Falls of Lora Hotel and a warm welcome from
the landlady, Jeanette. ‘Her hotel wasn’t really open,’ he explained, ‘but she was kind enough to make tea, and she’s been doing it ever since. That’s 44 years ago.’
Aged 50, he jumped off Connel Bridge for charity, armed with a rescue boat and advice from police divers. ‘Water’s hard when you hit it,’ he recalls. ‘You break the water with your feet, and you go through the same hole. If you do that, you’re alright.’
Hamilton has written two autobiographies, A Touch of Treason and A Touch More Treason, and a play, Tinkers of the World, performed in 1957, which won the Foyle Prize – the following year’s winner was Johnxc Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
In The Taking of the Stone of
Destiny, he reveals: ‘I have always been afraid of the sameness of life in which each day is worn to a thinness, and night brings only the promise of an identical dawn. I wanted to make my life an adventure and already  I was filling it with bright things … I thought that morning that if I always sought adventure I could go on to the end without security. I would have a pageant in my mind of a life lived to the full. I would trade wealth for the richness of life itself even if it meant dying a pauper.’
I wondered what replays in that pageant in his mind, as he sits looking across the loch to Cruachan. ‘ Oh, very little,’ he replies. ‘Just the fact I am lucky in my old age, but it does not stop me saying old is hellish. Nothing to do. Looking back, I feel I have done far, far, far too little.’
Pushed on what makes him most proud, he reflects: ‘I think my independence of mind. Drawing my own conclusions from each set of facts as they are presented to me. I think too many people draw the accepted conclusions. I do have views which are not accepted views, but that is what education is all about. You’re better to follow your own views, even if people disagree with them.’
Finally, I brave the question many would like me to ask: is the stone he returned to Arbroath Abbey the real Stone of Destiny? ‘Well, it was the stone we took from Westminster,’ he replies, acknowledging a possibility the Scots switched stones in 1296. ‘I’ll tell you how I know. An equerry came from the palace to ask the question you have asked. The way you can be sure is this, that until 150 years ago Westminster Abbey was illuminated by open fire, wicks, lanterns and lamps, which leave a deposit. All you have to do is to scrape a bit off the surface of the Stone, a bit off the surface of the Abbey round about it, put them under a comparison microscope and you will find that they are the same.’
Rebels have causes. I have very few causes Ian Hamilton
Ian Hamilton has been described as ‘a caring, humane man of principle and integrity, who never compromised his principles’.