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Ian Hamilton - An Appreciation

Ian Hamilton KC, who has died at the age of 97, was one of the most significant figures of post-war Scotland, not just in the annals of political activism, but also for a legal career that saw him become the oldest member of the Faculty of Advocates and one of the country’s top lawyers.

Born in Paisley in 1925, Ian’s father was a tailor who, besides raising a remarkable son was key in having the monument to Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce, erected on Renfrew Road, at Gallowhill.

After attending the John Neilson Institution he spent his last two years of secondary education at Allan Glen’s in Glasgow. After enlisting in the RAF at the age of 18, he went on to complete 3 years of National Service in the RAF, an experience which he later reflected was not his happiest but was grateful for anyway.

On his return to civilian life he enrolled in the University of Glasgow, graduating with a degree in Law. While there he became friends with John MacCormick, then one of the leaders of Scotland’s tiny home rule movement and who had stood in Paisley at a by-election in 1948.

It is almost impossible from today’s vantage point to appreciate how marginalised and fragile the national movement and the cause of Scottish independence were in those days. Today the SNP has won 11 elections in a row and is the third biggest party in the House of Commons. In the 1950s the membership was no higher than 200 hardy souls and just two candidates could be found to stand at general elections.

Hamilton’s involvement in the national movement and his working with MacCormick are noted for two things; the case of MacCormick v Lord Advocate, which resulted in the monarch of the day being known as Elizabeth rather than Elizabeth II in Scotland, the 16th century queen ruling on in England – or as the song of the time had it, “how can you have a second Liz when the first yins never been?” – and the liberation of the Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Scone was first stolen by King Edward I of England following the first War of Independence. Under the Treaty of Northampton, England were bound to return the stone to Scotland, but reneged on their promises. From then on in it sat in Westminster Abbey under the coronation chair.

In December 1950, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart made the 18 hour journey from Glasgow to London. After a few days scouting Westminster Abbey and formulating a plan to take the Stone, on Christmas Eve they succeeded in gaining entry to the Abbey and, eventually, bringing the Stone home.

The action caused a sensation here and down south. While sympathy here was with those who sought to right an historic wrong and return the Stone to its rightful place, the UK Establishment were apoplectic with fury. At a time when the idea of Scotland as a nation was in danger, here was an act that not only harked back to an earlier time when Scotland’s independence had been fought for and won, but that reminded millions of Scots that they were part of a nation, not a region.

On 11th April 1951, three men returned a stone to Arbroath Abbey and notified the authorities of its whereabouts. It was taken by police to Forfar Police Station, and onwards back to Westminster.

In the intervening period the Stone was taken to Bertie Gray, owner of a monumental masons yard on Sauchiehall Street, where repairs to the Stone were made and – allegedly – copies made.

To this day rumours persist that what was returned to Westminster was not the original Stone of Scone but rather a copy made using skilled craftsmanship, with the original still somewhere in Scotland, where it belongs.

Ian Hamilton did an incredible amount in his near-century of life; his books are remarkable one-offs, a unique insight into a young man’s journey into adulthood, activism and ultimately the history books; his work as a QC spanned several decades and took into courtrooms across the country, advocating for both prosecution and defence; his political campaigning eventually took him to stand for both Europe and Westminster as an SNP candidate and be elected Rector of Aberdeen University in the 1990s.

As a son of Paisley he became of the pivotal figures in post-war Scotland, a hero to those who supported Scottish self-government, a lawyer of the very highest calibre, and to the end took up the causes of those unable to fight their own battles.

I was never lucky enough to meet the man, but I’ve spoken to plenty of friends and colleagues who were, and although they each have their own individual recollections to cherish, to a man or woman they all say that he had the sharpest of intellects with a warm, thoughtful and humorous character to boot.

Ian was proud of their 1950 act of liberation saying, “to do something for your country that spills not a drop of blood, is something to be proud of”.

He was a true Scottish patriot. May he Rest in Peace.


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