An in­de­pen­dent thinker who shaped his des­tiny

The Oban Times - - News - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­times.co.uk

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 [1952] 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’.

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