A TOUCH OF TREASON
Born in Paisley, Scotland, his parents were Martha and John, a successful merchant tailor. Ian attended private school.
He said he fell in love with Scotland when his mother used to read him historical stories as a young boy.
His first rebellion came at the age of 14 when all the pupils were ‘ordered’ to go onto the streets to wave to King George 6th on a visit to Paisley – and Ian refused to go. From that moment he thought of himself as a Republican.
His father campaigned successfully for a memorial to be erected to Marjorie Bruce, the daughter of King Robert the Bruce, in Gallowhills, Paisley.
During the war, he attempted to volunteer for the RAF as a pilot but was told he was too young. Instead, he served as a flight mechanic. He said this rejection left him with a sense of being left out.
After the war, he went to Glasgow University to study law and it was there that he first became politically active. He joined the university Scottish Nationalist Association and other groups dedicated to Scottish independence.
By now he was a chain smoker.
He joined the Scottish Nationalist Party which at the time had under 200 members.
At Christmas time 1950, along with three other students, Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart, a plan was hatched to steal the ‘Stone of Destiny’ from Westminster Abbey and return it to its rightful home in Scotland.
The stone had always been used for the coronation of Scottish monarchs until King Edward 1st of England stole it in 1296, declaring himself the King of Scotland – 631 years ago.
Tradition was that Scotland could never flourish without the stone. Indeed, England and Scotland were formally united when King James 6th of Scotland was also crowned King James 1st of England in 1603.
The Act of Union 1707, stated that the stone would be used as part of the coronation of any British monarch, hence it being moved to Westminster Abbey where it was lodged under the Coronation Chair.
Ian hid in the abbey on Christmas Eve. The plan was that after the church was closed for the night he would let the other three conspirators in through a side door and they would steal the stone.
But he was discovered hiding behind a statue by a night watchman. Fortunately, the man believed Ian’s story, that he had been locked in by accident, and let him go.
The following day, Christmas Day, the four of them broke in through a side door. Ian said, “If you break in at night, the Abbey is so desperately dark…so dark you could almost cut the atmosphere into squares and carry it away with you”.
He remembered tiptoeing through Poet’s Corner until they reached the Coronation Chair.
They had a difficult job prising the stone (which weighed 336lbs) out from under the chair, and then they dropped the stone, breaking it in two pieces. They dragged the pieces out on Ian’s coat. Then they then put the stone in the back of two cars. The theft was not discovered until Boxing Day.
A hue and cry went up and a nationwide manhunt was launched. Roadblocks were set up on every route into Scotland. A description was put out – look for a young man and young woman, “said to have Scottish accents”, who were driving a Ford Anglia.
Hotels, boarding houses, pubs and restaurants were all thoroughly searched by the police. All ports and airports were watched for about three months.
But the thieves had outwitted the police and did not head to Scotland at all. One half was in the Midlands, the other buried in a field in Kent.
Ian always said he had not stolen the stone, just ‘liberated’ it.
A few weeks later, the two halves were spirited back into Scotland separately and a stonemason (Bertie Gray of Glasgow), employed to put the stone back together.
The press and establishment were outraged and there were demands for long imprisonment terms for the crime of treason, once they were caught.
On April 11th 1951, the stone was handed back to the Church of Scotland at a ceremony at Arbroath Abbey. This venue was deliberately chosen because in April 1320 it was where the original Scottish Declaration of Independence had been signed.
They left a letter on the stone, addressed to King George 6th. It said the theft was not to, “cause indignity or injury to the king, but was a cry for Scottish independence”.
And then the 4 conspirators were arrested and charged with theft (not treason). The press were told they were not arrested but, ‘helping the police with their enquiries’.
There was a debate in Parliament as to whether to put them on trial. The Home Secretary called them ‘vulgar vandals’. Years later Ian said, “That’s been a phrase that I’ve always enjoyed all of my life”.
In the end it was decided not to prosecute them. If they were tried and found guilty, they would become Scottish Nationalist martyrs. If they were tried and found not guilty, they would be heroes. So instead, they were released and all charges dropped.
Nevertheless, Ian said it was an action that stayed with him all of his life. He could never put it behind him – it was all everybody wanted to talk to him about. His son Stewart (at his funeral) said, “He was carrying that stone with him all of his life”.
Ian was admitted to the bar in 1953, but he refused to declare allegiance to the new Queen, Elizabeth 2nd. This was because he didn’t recognise her title. He said she was Scotland’s Queen Elizabeth 1st – the original English Elizabeth 1st (1558-1603) had never ruled Scotland.
He often quoted a Scottish ballad – “How can you have a second Liz, when the first has never been”.
It became a noted court case – MacCormick vs The Lord Advocate. Ian was joined by local rector John MacCormick in the case. He was Ian’s close friend, who had unsuccessfully stood for the SNP in a Paisley by-election in 1948. The dispute went as high as the Scottish Court of Session but they lost to the Crown.
The Court said that the Monarch’s title was her sole prerogative and that the number of the monarch comes from the larger country in the United Kingdom i.e. England.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill intervened, bizarrely saying which ever number the monarch held that was the highest, should be the one used. He was ignored.
However, despite the ruling against them, from then on, on all official documents (and postboxes), the monarch was only ever referred to as ‘Queen Elizabeth’, north of the border.
In the meantime, Ian became a practising lawyer. It was initially very difficult for him to establish himself as the Scottish legal hierarchy resented both the theft of the stone and the MacCormick case.
He married Sheila Fenwick and they had three children.
In his spare time Ian used to write. One of his plays, ‘The Tinkers of the World’, was performed at the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh in 1957. It won him the Foyle Prize (which was won the following year, 1958, by John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’).
He left the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to join the Labour Party for a brief spell but soon returned to the SNP fold.
Sheila and Ian got divorced in the early 1970s.
His hobbies were motorcycling and kayaking.
In 1973, he was participating in the Loch Etive kayak tidal race, when he got sucked into a whirlpool. He managed to extricate himself and swam ashore landing by the Falls of Lora Hotel, where the landlady, Jeanette Stewart, helped him. “Her hotel wasn’t really open but she was kind enough to make me a cup of tea…and she’s been doing it ever since”.
They were married soon after and went on to have a son.
In 1975, just turned 50, Ian took a bet in a bar and jumped off the Connel Bridge into the loch (for charity), despite being warned against this by police divers. Mind you, the water was so cold he never did it again.
Ian became a very successful lawyer and a member of the Faculty of Advocates. He acted as both prosecution and defence, but always supported the underdog. On one occasion he became disillusioned with law and resigned from the Faculty – the only living person to have done so. “There is a class of habitual petty criminal for whom we do nothing. What’s the use of sending them to prison? What’s the use of fining them?”
He then became curator of the J.M.Barrie Museum in Kirriemuir, before realising he could do more good in the legal profession, so he rejoined the Faculty of Advocates.
He stood for the SNP as candidate for Strathclyde East in the 1994 European Parliament elections, and again as candidate for ‘Greenock and Inverclyde’ in the 1996 elections to the Scottish Parliament, losing narrowly on both occasions to Labour.
At the same time, he had become Rector of Aberdeen University (1994-96), and was awarded the status of Doctor of Laws.
He stood for the Rector of Glasgow University but lost the election to actor Ross Kemp.
Ian remained politically active, once being arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons at Faslane.
In the 1990s, Ian had written two autobiographies, ‘A Touch of Treason’ (1990) and ‘A Touch More Treason’ (1994). A third book was entitled ‘The Taking of the Stone of Destiny’. This last book was turned into the film ‘Stone of Destiny’ in 2008. Ian was played by actor Charlie Cox, but had a cameo in the film as an English businessman.
In 2009, he sued the Royal Bank of Scotland (RSB). The previous year the bank had a £12 billion rights issue. Ian had bought himself and his wife 640 shares at £2 each – just before the 2008 financial crash.
He claimed they had persuaded him to invest, “concealing the true state of their finances”. He said they were, “negligent in representing themselves as solvent at all material times when in fact they were insolvent”.
The RSB swore to defend themselves against his charges in court. But the Small Claims Court refused to hear the case saying it was too big an issue for them. Rather than pursuing this to a higher court, Ian dropped the case.
He continued to kayak and ride his motorbikes well into his eighties. One of his later hobbies was walking his dog Fleuch (which is Gaelic for wet or damp).
He was appalled by Brexit. He said, “For a thousand years the youth of Europe have fought one another. It was Churchill who said we must do something; we must have a united Europe. We cannot go on fighting one another”.
He also cautioned SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, in person, against the 2017 independence referendum saying it was, “too early”.
However, he continued to support the Scottish independence cause right until his death, running a blog and posting on Twitter. He was always pro-Scottish but never anti-English. He was adamant you didn’t have to be one to be the other.
He was a man of firm opinions who believed compromise led to mediocrity. And yet, he never had an unkind word for anybody.
And he absolutely loved Westminster Abbey, calling it, “one of my favourite places”.
He was the last survivor of the four ‘conspirators’. Gavin Vernon died in 2004, Kay Matheson in 2013 and Alan Stuart in 2019.
Just before his death, he went from being a QC (Queen’s Counsel) to a KC (King’s Counsel). He was against the Stone of Destiny going down to London for King Charles’ coronation. He said Charles would have to come to Scotland…but he never lived to see it.
Towards the end of his life, Ian said, “To do something for your country that spills not a drop of blood, is something to be proud of”.
The Stone of Destiny was repatriated to Scotland by Prime Minister John Major in 1996. Despite an invitation to attend the ceremony, he refused to go, calling it ‘tokenism’. It is currently in Edinburgh Castle but will be moved to Perth City Hall in 2024.
At his death Nicola Sturgeon said, “Ian is a legend of the independence movement…one of many giants on whose shoulders the modern SNP stands”.
The Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop KC, pointed out Ian had been their oldest member. “Ian was a formidable advocate, a great friend to many and a lovely man. It is with deep sorrow that we bid him farewell”.
RIP – Rector’s Independence Plan