On 25 December, 1950 the Dean of Westminster made an announcement on the BBC that the Stone of Destiny had been stolen. A group of young people, led by Ian Hamilton, a twenty-five year old from Paisley. The other members of the party included twenty year old Alan Stuart, the son of the director of an engineering company; twenty-four year old Gavin Vernon, an engineering student; and twenty-two year old Kay Matheson, a teacher from Glasgow.
The group of four started out on the snowy night of Friday, 22 December, and arrived at the Westminster Abbey on the afternoon of the 23rd. Ian had made a reconnaissance of the abbey a short time before, and had come up with the plan to linger inside the Abbey after it would be closed to the public. Then he would be able to simply unlock the door and let the other three inside to commit the theft. The plan seemed very simple and straightforward. But Ian was found by the night watchman and let out. The plan would now have to be changed.
After spending the night in the two cars by which they had come south, they decided to drive one of the cars into the Old Palace Yard, a lane that led past what was known as the Poets’ Door of the Abbey. There had been some recent construction near that spot, and the four took advantage of the construction yard to gain access to the Poets’ Door. They pried open the door without alerting the watchman.
According to the account given by Magnus Magnusson:(
The Coronation Chair which housed the Stone of Destiny stood against the wall of the Chapel of Edward the Confessor behind the High Altar. There was no sign of the night-watchman, and the three raiders moved quickly into the chapel. The Stone had an iron ring stapled into it at each end. It lay in a compartment beneath the seat of the Chair, with a wooden bar across the front of it. The wood splintered without difficulty. Then, with immense effort, the Stone was pulled from the base of the chair; it was heavier than they had expected (152 kilograms), and as it was lowered to the ground it broke into two pieces. Hamilton took the smaller piece, carried it out to the car in which Kay was waiting, and dumped it on the back seat. Then he went back inside to help the others with the larger piece. They dragged it to Poets' Door on Ian's raincoat, but when he looked outside he saw their car moving away down the lane towards the main road. He dashed out to tell Kay to bring it back. 'A policeman has spotted me,' she said quietly. 'He's coming across the road.'
It would be assumed that most of the Scots then living were pleased by the act, despite the fact that the newspapers of the day bemoaned it as a ‘mischievous prank.’
The police soon figured out who had committed the theft by simply checking who had borrowed books about the Stone from libraries in Scotland. Ian Hamilton’s name was revealed in the library of Glasgow’s records. Rumor and gossip eventually gave the police the names of the other three, and they were duly questioned about the theft.
The Stone remained hidden all the while. Four months of discussions and negotiations with the perpetrators of the heist eventually resulted in the Stone of Destiny being delivered to the ruins of Arbroath Abbey:
And so, in the early morning of 11 April 1951, nearly four months after the Christmas Day escapade, the Stone of Destiny, enveloped in the saltire flag of St Andrew, was deposited on the remains of the High Altar in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1320. journalists converged on Arbroath at breakneck speed from all over the country. The police arrived and bore the Stone away on a pallet to Glasgow, where they put it on show at a brief press conference. Then they locked it in a cell in Glasgow's Turnbull Street police station and, at dead of night, whisked it off in the boot of a police car to Westminster Abbey
No arrests were made over the incident; Sir David Maxwell Fife suggested that as the thieves were known, it would not be in the public interest to prosecute them.
There followed some discussions in the House of Commons over the future disposition of the Stone. Hector McNeil, the Secretary of State for Scotland suggested that the Stone be returned and housed in Scotland between coronations, but his proposal did not succeed.. By October, 1951 the majority that the Labour Party held in the Parliament was overturned, and the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill made the decision that the Stone would not leave London, but be once more permanently installed under the Coronation Chair at Westminster.