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Gavin Vernon Engineer who helped return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland

Gavin Vernon was the doctor's son whose audacity in helping to remove the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey at Christmas in 1950 brought light and laughter to post-war Scotland.

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The feat of the four who snatched the stone earned covert admiration in Scotland and led police on both sides of the border a merry dance. King George VI sent a reprimand to the Dean of Westminster and folk singer John McEvoy composed The Wee Magic Stane in honour of the event. The return of the Stone helped regenerate national identity, a factor which half a century later was taken up by Michael Forsyth as secretary of state of Scotland, when the Stone was accorded state recognition in triumphal procession up the Royal Mile on St Andrew's Day 1996. Short and dapper with an easy-going temperament, Vernon was an engineering student at Glasgow University, when he was recruited in December 1950 by a fellow student, Ian Hamilton, to join Kay Matheson, a Gaelic-speaking domestic science teacher from Inverasdale, Wester Ross on the mission. The three became four when Hamilton and Mathieson went to collect Vernon on the afternoon of Friday, December 22, and another student, Alan Stuart, pleaded to join them, even offering his car as a second vehicle. All were members of the Scottish National Covenant, the organisation pledged to seek home rule, and were given some financial assistance by Robert Gray, then a councillor on Glasgow Corporation. Though Hamilton had reconnoitred Westminster Abbey, nothing went right for them on the night. Exhausted by the 18-hour drive in two Ford Anglias from Glasgow, the four convened, and Hamilton agreed that he should hide inside the abbey and later let the others in. But he was discovered by a night watchman - who, incredibly, believed his story that he had been locked in. Early on Christmas morning, Hamilton, Vernon and Stuart jemmied their way into Poets' Corner, Mathieson remaining in one car at Palace Yard, with Hamilton's car at Millbank. The three entered the chapel of Edward the Confessor, passing the tomb of Edward I, who had removed the Stone from Scotland in 1296 in the first place. In extracting the Stone from the compartment underneath the coronation chair, the chair itself was damaged, but, catastrophically, the Stone broke into two pieces. Vernon and Stuart used Hamilton's coat to hold the larger portion, with Hamilton carrying the smaller piece outside to Kay's car. As he closed the boot, a policeman emerged. With quick thinking, Hamilton climbed into the passenger seat with Mathieson to confuse the law into thinking they were a courting couple. A few minutes later, she was able to pull away alone, heading with the precious portion of the Stone for friends in Birmingham, with Hamilton going to collect the spare car from Millbank. But the car keys had been in the coat they had used to drag the Stone out of the abbey and had fallen out of the pocket. Hamilton went back inside to look for them, at first groping and then striking matches to look. He was about to give up when he stood on them. The Anglia could not accommodate the Stone and three men, so, they agreed that Hamilton and Stuart would remain while Vernon phoned home for his fare. The remaining two hid the stone in a wood in Kent. Expecting arrest, they posted a map of where the Stone lay to friends in Glasgow, and headed north. Two weeks later, Hamilton and two companions retrieved the Stone in another foray, bringing it to Glasgow from where they telephoned Baillie Robert Gray. Bertie Gray's business was that of a stonemason, and he reunited the two sections, inserting a brass tube containing a piece of paper into the Stone before completing the operation. What is on the piece of paper inside the tube remains a secret that Gray took with him to the grave in 1975. Glasgow City Police headed enquiries, with Detective Chief Inspector William Kerr in charge. Vernon was one of the many interviewed. Later, Kerr would refer with regret to having been placed in charge of the operation to recover and return the Stone. Not only was no-one charged, but the four became heroes, Vernon recalling that he ''never had to buy a beer again'' at the university union. In April 1951, after a tip-off to police, the Stone appeared on the site of the High Altar in Arbroath Abbey. It was re-instated in Westminster Abbey in February 1952, shortly after the funeral of the king. Ian Hamilton went on to become a distinguished QC. Kay Matheson maintained the connection with her native Inverasdale all her life, and lives in a nursing home in Aultbea. Educated at Strathallan School and a graduate electrical engineer, Vernon led the life of a happy wanderer for several years, working in engineering projects in Saskatchewan, Vancouver, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, London and offshore Aberdeen, before finally settling in British Columbia. A gregarious man, he was a church elder, freemason and Burns aficionado, as well as a prime mover in establishing the Western Canada Group of Chartered Engineers. He organised some of the group's more popular soirees - including a whisky tasting at which he explained the relationship to chemical engineering. But when asked to make a presentation on his experience with the Stone under the topic of ''small rock movements'', he declined, preferring to let the legend of the repatriation of the Lia Fail speak for itself. When asked to define himself, Vernon would quietly say he preferred to be regarded as a patriot. Vernon was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, but he and his wife, Anne, continued their social life until a few weeks ago. He maintained his characteristic humour and bonhomie up until his last hours, and died at his West Vancouver home. He is survived by Anne and their son in addition to her children from a previous marriage.

Gavin Harold Russell Vernon; born August 11, 1926, died March 19, 2004.

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