WITH recent anniversaries this year already including Culloden and, of course, the annual Bannockburn assembly, the battle over Scotland's past has taken on a more potent significance. Yesterday's announcement that the Stone of Destiny would be returned to Scotland after Edward I took it in 1296 - exactly 700 years ago - has shown that the battle over Scotland's future in the run-up to the next General Election is really hotting up.

The symbolism of the Stone is ripe for political point-scoring. In its recent past it has been used by nationalists, who first stole it on Christmas Eve in 1950 before it turned up in Arbroath - the setting, of course, for the Declaration of Arbroath. Then in the 1970s nationalists chained themselves to it in a bid to have it returned to Scotland.

Now, for a party which in recent years has been so staunch in its defence of the status quo as the best means of propping up the Union, the Conservatives have made a very symbolic gesture. It may be the 700th anniversary of the Stone's removal from Scotland, but the timing of this announcement, a week after Labour's U-turn on a devolution referendum, is more than coincidence.

The Stone is, or course, officially the property of the Crown and whether the Queen has been asked about this plan is open to conjecture. However, it cannot be seen as an isolated decision, despite the fact that, in itself, it can only be described as of minimal political significance. Over the past three months, Michael Forsyth may have continued his attacks on opposition plans for Scotland's constitutional future, but at the same time his party strategists have begun to move the Scottish Tories towards a more overt expression of Scottishness.

The Fighting for Scotland campaign has seen a marked shift away from the image the Scottish Tories had under Margaret Thatcher and during the early years of John Major's premiership. During these periods, the Tories have declined from just over 31% of the vote in 1979 to a poll rating in this week's System Three survey for The Herald of 15%.

One of the key reasons for this has been the failure of the ``same medicine'' approach from successive Tory governments - in other words, a pursuit of very similar policy strategies and campaigns both north and south of the Border. This has been against a background of a growing exploration of ``Scottishness'', both politically and culturally, over the last two decades.

As a result, in a recent poll by Gallup for the Daily Telegraph, a third of Scots branded the Tories an English party governing in the interests of England. The tartanisation of the Tories in Scotland, given these political facts, is almost inevitable.

As a foundation, the Scots Tories must be seen to be more sensitive to Scottish opinion.

One indication of this has been Michael Forsyth's introduction of the ``roving'' Scottish Grand Committee. While this has not made a significant impact on the balance of Scottish decision-making, its higher media profile has brought this little understood part of Scottish government to a wider audience.

Such moves have been dismissed as superficial by opposition politicians, and indeed the Stone of Destiny's return to Scotland is likely to be dismissed in a similar manner. However, these small steps are part of a more general move towards a more tartan Scottish Conservative Party. However, there is a danger in indulging in what the opposition would term as ``gesture politics''. While many Scots will greet yesterday's decision with a ``quite right'' attitude, at the hard end of political life, voters' concerns are about their jobs, the Health Service, education and a number of other central concerns. It is unlikely that the Stone of Destiny will make them feel much better about these issues, and if not accompanied by real attention to Scottish opinion it may simply be dismissed by voters.

The legend goes that Jacob used the Stone of Destiny as a pillow. It must have been cold comfort. In a year's time its return to Scotland may still be cold comfort for the Conservatives.

Malcolm Dickson is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Strathclyde.