MS Kay Mathieson, 67, was a 22-year-old student teacher in 1950, when she played a vital role in smuggling the Stone of Destiny back to Scotland.

When told the news yesterday that the sacred symbol of Scotland's nationhood was soon returning, this time legally, she said: ``This is news to me.''

Glasgow University graduate Ms Mathieson, who now lives in a nursing home at Aultbea, in her native Wester Ross, was the only woman in the group of four young Scottish nationalists, who liberated Scotland's sacred stone from beneath the Coronation Chair in London's Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve, 1950.

Ms Mathieson played a major role in the ``theft'', which sparked off one of the biggest manhunts ever seen, by driving it all the way back to Scotland in the boot of a Ford car, borrowed from a sympathiser.

Speaking from her place of retirement at The Isle View Nursing Home in Aultbea, Wester Ross, she said: ``I had to stay put and lie low in Scarborough for a while, because of the hue and cry. There were police roadblocks on all the road-crossings on the Scotland-England Border. But I drove it back to Scotland once the initial storm had died down a bit.''

The three men involved in the heist of the historic symbol of Scotland's nationhood which had been taken down to London in 1296 by England's King Edward I, better known as ``Longshanks'' or the ``Hammer of the Scots'' during the early phase of the Wars of Independence, were Ian Hamilton, now a QC, Alan Stewart, who went into his family engineering business in the West of Scotland, and Gavin Vernon, who later emigrated.

The 1950 Stone of Scone quartet, who were all in their twenties at the time, had all met as students in Glasgow University.

Yesterday Ms Mathieson, who is still known as ``the Stone of Destiny woman'' was keeping mum as to whether the stone now in Westminster Abbey, which Prime Minister John Major is returning to Scotland after 700 years, is in fact the real one.

She said with a laugh: ``There were certainly copies made.''

The nursing home where Ms Mathieson lives is run by relatives and former pupils of hers.

At the time she hit the headlines Ms Mathieson was teaching at the East Park School, in Maryhill, Glasgow. She taught home economics, physical education and Gaelic and returned soon after to her native Highlands, where she spent most of her professional career.

She taught at the little school in Eriskay, in the Western Isles, and at Benbecula, also in the Outer Hebrides, before lecturing at the now-closed Duncraig Castle College, near Plockton, Wester Ross, where domestic science courses were run for teenage girls from all over the Highlands and Islands.

Before she retired she taught a junior secondary schools in Ullapool and Gairloch, before these were both upgraded to full six-year senior secondaries.

Ms Mathieson, a native of Inverasdale, which lies just across Loch Ewe from the nursing home in Aultbea, said yesterday: ``The lads hauled the stone out from below the chair and carried it out of the Abbbey and put it in the boot of the getaway car, which I had borrowed.

``I was all by myself as I drove that Ford car all the way to Scotland. That was my part in the deal. I suppose it was thought that there would not be so much suspicion of a woman driver. But I still had to lie low for a while in Scarborough, because of the police road-blocks everywhere on the Border.''

Once Ms Mathieson had got the stone on which Pictish and Scottish kings were crowned back to Glasgow, the broken sandstone block was taken under cover to the workshop of the late Mr Bertie Gray, who has a gravestone business in city.

Ms Mathieson said: ``He repaired it, of that I am sure. Yes, there were copies made, but none of the four of us have ever talked as to whether it was the original or a replica which was left later at Arbroath Abbey, where Scotland's famous freedom declaration was written up and signed all those years before. I don't suppose any of us ever will, now that the stone is coming back home to Scotland and poor Bertie is sadly no longer with us.''

Ms Mathieson said that neither she nor the other three ``conspirators'' were ever charged with the ``theft'', which was organised at Christmas Eve, a time when the foursome correctly anticipated that Westminster Abbey security would be laxer than normal.

She said: ``The police had no real evidence. They did not have any fingerprints. We made sure of that.''

Later yesterday Ms Mathieson said: ``John Major has gone up in my estimation as a result of his decision to send the Stone back to Scotland. But I think the Prime Minister is doing this in an effort to win votes, and not as a matter of clearing a guilty concience.

``I have been a lifelong Scottish nationalist, and I will never be satisfied until Scotland has regained its independence.

``The historic Stone is the property of the people of Scotland. It has never belonged to the English, in any case.''

Ms Mathieson added: ``I have absolutely no regrets about what I did in 1950, none at all. My only regret is that Scotland is still not free.''

The four 1950 ``conspirators'' who pulled off a feat which gripped the public's attention for months travelled down to London in two cars.

Once the Stone was safely in the boot of the small borrowed Ford car, Ms Mathieson thinks that, ironically, it was model called an Anglia, the three young men took off into the night, and she was left alone with the precious symbol of nationhood in its boot, until she safely delivered it safely back to Glasgow.

Ms Mathieson was brought up in a croft in Inverasdale, Wester Ross. Her late father John was a a senior marine engineer with the Port Line, whose ships linked Britain with Australia and New Zealand, and croft work was usually done by other family members.

Also involved in the Stone of Destiny repair work, once Ms Mathieson had secretly got the sacred symbol back to Scotland, along with the late Mr Bertie Gray was Scottish nationalist factory boss, the late Mr John Rollo, who later became deputy chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

Ms Mathieson knew him not only through nationalist circles, but also because Mr Rollo's company then had a small factory on the Mathiesons' Wester Ross croft, where parts for the Croftmaster tractor were manufactured.