Andrew Redmond Barr – author of the Atlas of Scotland, the Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath and Summer of Independence – gives his verdict on the Perth Museum

THE Stone of Destiny’s new home in Perth feels like a step forward for Scotland, reclaiming the stories of our past and retelling them with creativity, authenticity and imagination.

The new Perth Museum is a reflection of a Scotland increasingly at ease with itself, where Scotland’s artefacts, symbols, and social changes are displayed with both care and inventiveness.

The Stone of Destiny’s starring role as the museum’s centrepiece becomes obvious as soon as you enter the beautifully refurbished hall. A large oak-clad booth stands at the centre of the building, with people queuing up to see the audio-visual experience inside.

The Stone of Destiny was for many centuries the ancient crowning stone of Scottish kings. It was taken from Scone, three miles from the museum, by Edward I of England during the Wars of Independence then installed in Westminster Abbey where it was appropriated into English, and later British, coronations.

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The Stone of Destiny is an interesting example of how one artefact from history can mean different things in different contexts and settings. There are almost two opposite symbols in one physical object, representing very different visions of Scotland and its past, present and future.

The National:

Inside the large oak-panelled booth, visitors are presented with old newsreel footage from Christmas 1950, when four students from the University of Glasgow daringly broke into Westminster Abbey and spirited the Stone back to Scotland. Starting the story with a 20th century heist, rather than the Stone’s medieval past, reminds us that the Stone isn’t all ancient history; that some of its most significant and most exciting chapters are still within living memory. This narrative framing really helps to brings the Stone closer.

The voiceover tells us the heist of 1950 was no student prank but a “co-ordinated act of independence”. Acknowledgement of the political intent feels like an important moment of recognition, not only for the students but also for the broader self-determination movement in Scotland, which doesn’t often feature in official places like museums or heritage sites.

The way this early chapter of the independence movement is represented feels like a step forward for Scottish heritage, recognising that modern-day Scotland is a place where people have hopes and visions for the future which differ and diverge from the old traditional narratives.

This part of the audiovisual experience is compelling but I would have equally welcomed it going a bit further, perhaps examining in more detail why the students felt the need to “wake Scotland up” at that particular moment in Scotland’s history. It could have also been interesting to set the events within a timeline building up to the opening of the new Scottish Parliament, bringing things further up to date.

As the introduction draws to a close, the doors open dramatically into the next room. We’re led through into a second chamber where the Stone sits in a plain glass box, no adornment, no bed, just the Stone in its curious simplicity, dented by centuries of ceremony, dispute, and transportation.

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The Stone is illuminated in a warm light which makes it appear almost golden against the misty blue-grey animated surroundings. We’re transported back to a kind of ancient kirkyard, breeze blowing and birds singing, with ghostly figures moving in the distance.

Soon it becomes apparent that what we’re observing is the coronation of a young Alexander III of Scotland in 1249. We hear the distant words of a bishop, and the commitment of Alexander as he becomes Scotland’s new king.

There’s something powerful in the peaceful simplicity and sincerity of this animated, outdoor coronation. It brings to life a moment of Scottish history which we might otherwise have had difficulty imagining.

This is where I think the museum should be commended for its ambitious and imaginative approach. It might have simply decided to show us the Stone in the context of recent British coronations (there’s plenty of footage, after all) but instead it chose the much more difficult, much more authentic, much more rewarding route of recreating and animating the original Scottish ritual instead.

The National:

This shows a level of respect for what the Stone really is, what it was really for, and what it really meant in the Scottish tradition. It shows an understanding and appreciation for what it means to have a true homecoming. The Stone has come home to Perthshire, but it has also come home in terms of its narrative.

The exhibition doesn’t take political sides but it does feel like a Scotland increasingly at ease with telling its own stories from its own perspectives. In fact, the whole museum seems willing to tell difficult truths and question traditional narratives.

Elsewhere, the signage tells us that Victorian paintings of empty Highland wilderness “disregarded the Highland communities that were still being displaced” by the Clearances. A sign beside an old Gaelic Bible tells us how Gaelic was the majority language of Perthshire until it was suppressed.

But there are moments of lightness and humour in the museum too. A 1953 “Coronation Cake”, shows the English coronation chair made from sugar icing, with the Stone of Destiny underneath it securely attached with a ball and chain (presumably so that nobody else would run off with it).

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Upstairs, the museum presents its debut exhibition on the unicorn and its symbolism throughout history. The unicorn is presented as Scotland’s national animal, from coats of arms and old Scottish currency, to mercat crosses and ceremonial rods from the pre-Union Scottish Parliament.

The exhibition also examines the unicorn as a modern symbol of the LGBT+ community, showcasing humorous and thought-provoking commissions from Scotland-based artists. Using one symbol to explore such a range of topics feels in keeping with this new home for the Stone of Destiny, an artefact which itself spans centuries, countries, and means different things to different people.

This is a museum which feels unafraid to delve deep and have fun with symbols and their meanings, and to reflect the many threads of history in a way which is open and accessible.

All in all, there is so much to admire about the new Perth Museum. The Stone finally has a home which does justice to its remarkable story. The history of Perth is also elevated, bringing a spark of new vitality and recognition to Scotland’s second-smallest city.

Most of all we have a museum which recognises the value of telling Scotland’s stories, and is willing to tell them with courage.