In late 1950, a group of students from Glasgow traveled to London and managed to pull off one of the most famous thefts in British history – the Stone of Scone in Westminster Abbey. The stone resided in the coronation chair constructed for Edward I, and it is the chair upon which all British monarchs are crowned. The 396-pound stone had been the traditional stone where Scottish monarchs had been crowned; Edward Longshanks of England took it in 1296 and carried it off to London. The Scots didn’t forgive or forget.
Novelist Michael Phillips centered Legend of the Celtic Stone, part one of the two-volume “Caledonia” series, on the Stone of Scone. Published in 1999 (and recently republished), the theft of the stone if fast-forwarded to the late 1990s, when Queen Elizabeth has abdicated and Charles is now king. The theft is connected to leaders in the Scottish National Party, not unlike the original, true theft story, in which there was some shadowy involvement of a political leader.
But this isn’t simply a story of contemporary British politics and the theft of the stone. Phillips aims a bit higher – at the legend of how Scotland came to be, weaving the various threads of Celts, Picts, Romans, Irish, Vikings, Englishmen, and Scots into a coherent narrative that is fascinating. His point is that the past is never past – it still influences the present in surprising, unexpected ways.
Andrew Trentham is a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, representing Cumbria, the English lake country not far south of the Scottish border. He comes from an old family, and his mother has had ambitions for him ever since the death of his older sister. Andrew finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the party leadership role – and because of a murder connected to the theft of the stone. His leadership responsibilities arrive at the same time he is wrestling with who he is and where he comes from. The answers he finds have much to do with Scottish history.
Phillips pairs the imagined stories of the first Celts to arrive, the Picts battling the Romans, and the various battles and wars between the Scots and the English with the contemporary story of Andrew Trentham to provide a broad (and fictionalized) sweep of Scottish history. The second volume, An Ancient Strife, completes the two-volume account (and will be reviewed next week). Phillips also add a possibility of romance for Trentham with an American journalist working for the BBC.
Phillips is the author of 23 works of non-fiction. He’s edited 27 works of the Scottish writer George MacDonald, whose books had such an impact on C.S. Lewis. He’s edited five works of Harold Bell Wright and Ralph Connor. He’s also co-authored 13 novels with his wife Judith Pella, and written more than 40 original novels on his own.
Legend of the Celtic Stone is a broad, fictional but realistic sweep of Scottish history and contemporary British politics. It’s also one dandy read.
Top photograph: The Stone of Scone in the coronation throne, also known as King Edward’s throne.