Scotland’s Scone Palace: A Wealth of Regal History
By Barnaby Davies
How difficult can it be to locate a water nymph in a fountain? Between myriad copper and green beech trees – 2000 to be specific, all maddeningly grown to thwart human progress – it is proving trickier than I’d thought. Welcome to Scone Palace’s unique tartan maze.
Escaping from 800 meters (2600 feet) of hedged, right-angled paths lies with seeking the highest point – in this case, the bridge.
From here, I have a clear view of the water nymph, the Palace with its immaculate gardens, and, thankfully, the maze’s exit into the towering conifers of the Pinetum.
From this elevation, a whir of flapping catches my eye. A brace of peacocks launch themselves over an ancient village wall, clipped wings thrashing to maintain forward propulsion.
A mildly distressed squirrel rockets up a tree while the duo continue their sylvan journey, necks bobbing rhythmically back and forth.
Ambling through the immaculate Woodland Garden brings me to a bucolic behemoth: the Douglas Fir. This wonderfully jaunty tree – its single, rakish branch looking as though it was designed to amuse children – nobly ranks among Britain’s fifty most notable trees. Botanist David Douglas (who once worked as a gardener here) sent the seedling from America in 1826.
Rhododendrons and azaleas herald the former Augustinian Abbey gateway, and a view of the ivy-clad Palace. For the Earls of Mansfield, however, this view became a source of disquiet.
In 1773, the querulous Second Earl began to tire of the Palace’s proximity to the village of Scone, complaining that the villagers “come up almost to my doors.”
Thirty years later, the Third Earl’s landscape gardener suggested a marvellously fatuous solution: move the village!
In 1805, every building was knocked to the ground, and 1400 villagers shuffled – burdened under belongings – two miles to the village of New Scone.
Today, remnants of stone buildings still abound in the Palace grounds, which, incidentally, are the best-known breeding locality for hawfinch in Scotland.
Scone’s claim to fame, however, is as the coronation site of Scottish kings and parliaments. Robert the Bruce was crowned in Scone in 1306. And Charles II, in 1651, was the last to accept the Scottish crown here.
Before even these early kings entered the stage, however, there sat a special stone on this site: the Stone of Scone.
Acting as the “crowning seat” throughout the ninth to thirteenth centuries, the Stone’s history is cloaked in mystery and skulduggery, its authenticity seriously in question.
Today the visitor is faced with a 26-inch replica – a stoic testimony to a wealth of regal history. From this vantage point atop Moot Hill, the vista over Perthshire unfolds.
Also known as the Stone of Destiny, the original oblong block of red sandstone – said to be the pillow stone for the Biblical Jacob – has had a chequered past.
From 1296, the facts to the true Stone’s whereabouts become a little sketchy. Edward I of England filched the legendary rock, transporting it to Westminster Abbey in London. But was he fobbed off with a facsimile?
The Stone was then fitted into a wooden chair in Westminster Abbey, upon which every English monarch has subsequently been crowned, except three: Queen Mary I&II and King Edward VIII.
But had the English troops been fooled into taking a substitute in the thirteenth century? Nobody will ever know.
From Christmas day, 1950, the Stone’s true location became even more baffling. What is certain, however, is that four Scottish university students conducted the most daring of capers, right under the noses of England’s finest detectives.
Armed with nothing but a crow bar and a clapped-out getaway car, they returned the Stone – now showing signs of fragility, and broken into two pieces – to its homeland, successfully evading roadblocks at the border with Scotland.
The story of the raid has now been converted into a film: The Stone of Destiny.
Just a few months later, the Stone – if indeed, it was the same one – was discovered on the altar of Arbroath Abbey. London police returned it to Westminster, amid rumours that it had been copied, while being repaired, by a Glaswegian stonemason.
The Stone of Destiny, since 1996, has purportedly resided in Edinburgh Castle – alongside the Crown Jewels of Scotland.
Provision has been made for the Stone to be transferred back to Westminster when required for future coronation ceremonies. Whether genuine or ersatz, the Stone of Scone was last used at the coronation of Elizabeth II.
The Palace, like the Stone of Scone, has had an eventful life, though the Palace of today was only built in 1802. It once bustled with forty staff – this, in 1842, when Queen Victoria visited – and in the ’40s it was occupied as a girls’ school.
Loathsome adolescents subsequently set the Palace on fire – twice. Extinguishing the infernos has irredeemably damaged the silk brocade wall-coverings in the Drawing Room. Sunlight has added to their deterioration.
Attempting swift progress through the numerous staterooms open to visitors, I am forcibly impeded. A hunched lady with thinning hair has come to assist me, bristling with platitudes and inveigling me to look at photographs of monarchs.
As I doggedly edge out of the Library, eyeing a magnificent bed canopy – complete with royal coat of arms, no less – she clutches an arm peremptorily.
“We will soon be performing The Faure Requiem – most uplifting,” she says loftily, referring to the efforts of her local choral society.
I detach myself and take a closer peek at a magnificent child’s Sedan Chair, constructed entirely from papier mache.
Exhibits are on a grand scale in Scone Palace: the bed furnishings in the Ambassador’s Room are French damask silk and took seven years to construct; Boulle cabinets in the Drawing Room are inlaid with tortoise shell and overlaid with designs in brass, pewter and copper; and the Long Gallery, at almost forty-five meters, is the longest room in Scotland.
In poor weather, visitors would once have taken exercise here – a quick stroll to maintain one’s constitution. The garishly stuffed bears (holding donation plates) and mounted elephant skulls in the Inner Hall, however, do little to maintain mine.
As I leave, the gatekeeper is wearing a kilt. “That your bike?” he asks. I nod. “Aye, nay bother.” Pedalling precariously along the cattle-gridded drive, I turn back to wave, and take a lingering look at the Palace.
Though the Stone of Destiny is now painfully absent, the resplendent Palace still sits majestically atop its hill in the Kingdom of Perth and Kinross – the Heart of Scotland.
Barnaby Davies has written for Trucking Magazine (print), bootsnall (online) and theexpeditioner (online). As well as writing articles, 2010 will see him touring Europe as crew for Metallica, AC/DC and U2. He is happiest barefoot and as far from a television as possible.