Let me tell you about a stone. Not that one, we’ll talk about it in a while. Another one, on the edge of Clatteringshaws Loch in Galloway. I was visiting the area with an English friend of mine recently and what happened probably reveals quite a bit about me, and maybe lots of other Scots too.

Basically, my friend and I were going for a walk along the loch and I was especially keen to show her a particular rock. “Ta-da”, I said, as we approached it. “This is Bruce’s Stone.” My friend looked nonplussed. Bruce’s Stone? “It’s where he rested after the Battle of Moss Raploch,” I said. “In 1307. He killed lots of English. Bruce! Robert the Bruce!”

Obviously, I slagged my friend off. Firstly, because she clearly only had no real idea of who Robert the Bruce was (the other one in Braveheart?) Second, because she couldn’t get excited about a lump of granite where Bruce is said to have rested after the battle but let’s face it probably didn’t. And third, because she wasn’t as worked up about ancient fights between the Scots and the English as I was. I cried “freedom!” and we went for a cappuccino and a scone.

What’s going on then? What are we looking for in stones and rocks? I’ve seen a lot of them I must say, like the three slabs of stone on Creag Dhonn in Lochaber. At some point in the past, the slabs fell together to form a cave and it’s said (i.e. probably never happened) that Bonnie Prince Charlie sheltered there after Culloden. I crouched down under the stones and pretended like it was 1746 and that I could hear the sound of gunfire, the shouts of followers and the screams of fugitives.

The Herald: A still from the Stone of Destiny movieA still from the Stone of Destiny movie (Image: free)

And now I’m going to see the greatest stone of them all: the stone that’s been in Scotland, then England, then Scotland, then England, then Scotland again; the stone a lot of us get a bit worked up about; the stone kings and queens sit on from time to time; and the stone the SNP own a bit of, in a cupboard somewhere. The stone is going on show at the new Perth Museum from this weekend and I’ve already planned my visit next month. And I’m excited.

Why? In some ways, it’s quite subtle. I’m not a Scottish nationalist (surprise!) so I’ve never felt an automatic connection to the motivations of the gang of four who removed/stole/liberated the stone from Westminster Abbey in 1951 to highlight their claims for devolution. However, I once had a conversation about the incident with a member of the gang, Ian Hamilton, and although he was thoroughly fed up with the fame/notoriety it had brought him, he told me it demonstrated the power of icons in an increasingly industrialised and automated society.

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I’m sure Mr Hamilton was spot on with that observation and it probably explains why the stone has power for lots of Scots, not just the ones who want independence. I was able to laugh off my friend’s lack of interest in Bruce’s Stone, but these bits of granite and stone, these remnants (imagined or real) of Scottish history, touch on something a lot of us have felt: that the English don’t know, or care, or feel the relationship as much as we do, and why would they? They were generally on the winning and dominant side; it didn’t matter as much, and it’s just a stone isn’t it?

I have felt this kind of stuff, a sort of deep-down Scottish touchiness about our history, as much as the next person, but there are dangers in it, and you see it sometimes with the Stone of Destiny. We’re proud of its history; we’re interested in the ancient line that goes back to at least the 13th century when the eight-year-old King Alexander III was “set on the Stone” at his coronation. The 26-by-16 block of sandstone became a powerful symbol of Scottish kingship and power, which is exactly why Edward I nicked it.

But I think the stone can sometimes be a distraction from Scottish history as well as the focus of it. A lot of our history, a lot of our sense of national identity, and a lot of our politics to be honest, is about our perceived status as victims. We (the Scots) are the ones who suffer and our ancient enemy (the English) are the ones who inflict the suffering and the Stone of Destiny is a symbol of that. And why else would our most famous historical icon be Mary Queen of Scots?

The Herald: Ian HamiltonIan Hamilton (Image: free)

The problem, of course, is that it’s not the whole story, or even the main part. We talk about our lonely imprisoned queens but not so much about our brutal warrior kings. We talk about the Scottish infantrymen fighting on the Western Front but not so much about the Scottish officers who were running the war. And we talk about the English imperialists but not so much about the Scottish ones. As Sir Tom Devine put it, it’s very difficult for a people who see themselves as victims to accept that they have also been oppressors.

Maybe this is what I’ll be thinking about when I go and see the Stone of Destiny next month, I’m not sure. I know I’ll feel some of its power because I’m Scottish and not immune to the old, old story of which it’s a part. But I hope I’ll also be able, even as I revel in it all, to see through the hoo-ha and the big museum and the no-doubt portentous commentary and put the great slab of sandstone in its proper context. The Stone of Destiny is both more than a stone and just a stone, and we shouldn’t believe everything it tells us.