On Saturday, 6th May, King Charles III will be crowned at what will be the first coronation for a British monarch since Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2nd June, 1953. Among the many wonderful, historical, traditional features of the ceremony will be the inclusion of what is called The Coronation Chair. This is an incredibly old, wooden chair, also known as King Edward’s Chair, or St Edward’s Chair. This seat of wooden oak is a purpose-built piece of furniture where the monarch sits while being crowned. Over seven centuries old, the Coronation Chair is considered a historical treasure in its own right. But it was actually constructed to enshrine a far more magnificent treasure which sits at its base: The Scottish Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Destiny – or the Stone of Scone — is one of those historical artefacts that has captured the public imagination. Over the centuries, it has been imbued with magical, mystical properties; and wrapped in layers of legend. Taken from its home at the Abbey of Scone during the first Scottish War of Independence in 1296, its story before its removal to England is shrouded behind the murky veil of early medieval, Scottish history. But that is just part of its mystique.

By tradition, the Stone of Destiny is said to have been used as the seat upon which Scottish Kings had been inaugurated since Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century. By implication, it has witnessed some of the most monumental occasions in Scottish history. And certainly, for this reason, it was – and still is – emblematic of Scottish identity.

Many legends have attached themselves to the Stone of Destiny over the centuries. By far the most famous is the story that the Stone of Destiny is Jacob’s pillar – the stone used to establish Bethel in Genesis 28. The Stone of Destiny has also been equated with Lia Fáil, the Irish Stone of Destiny located on the Hill of Tara and used for the inauguration of Irish Kings. As beautiful and romantic as these legends may be, they have been discounted by modern archaeologists and scientists who have studied the stone and its provenance.

The true petrology of the Stone of Destiny is far less romantic than legend would suggest. The stone that is currently housed in St Giles Cathedral, and that will once again lie in the cavity made for it at the base of the Coronation Chair when future monarchs are crowned, is a block of red sandstone ‘wholly compatible with that of the Lower Old Red Sandstone beds exposed in the vicinity of Perth and Dundee’[1].

Yet if science has destroyed the legends surrounding the Stone of Destiny, history nevertheless imbues it with a far greater story: That of Scotland’s historical relationship with England.

In 1296, the Stone of Destiny was seized by Edward 1 as a spoil of war during the first Scottish War of Independence. In 1297, it was resized to fit the Coronation Chair. Throughout the years, as part of the Coronation Chair, it has formed an integral part of the inauguration ceremonies of all the English and British monarchs subsequent to its relocation to Westminster Abbey, with the exception of Edward V (one of the princes in the tower, whose reign was short and whose death remains a mystery), Mary II (who was crowned with her husband, William III, and for whom a new chair was made, one which is now used for the Queen Consort) and Edward VIII (who abdicated before he could be crowned), but including James 1 – whose coronation marked the reunion of a Scottish monarch with the stone.  In 1884, the Stone of Destiny was the target of an Irish plot to steal it. In 1914, it survived a bomb attack on the Coronation Chair. During World War II, it separated from the Coronation Chair and while the Coronation Chair was kept safely in Gloucester Cathedral, it remained in a burial vault in Westminster Abbey. In 1950, it was stolen by a group of Scottish Nationalists, during which time it cracked into two pieces, and – following a quick repair job by a stonemason, and significant angst on the part of the authorities – was eventually returned to Westminster Abbey. In 1996, seven hundred years after it’s removal, it was returned to Scotland.

The verifiable history of The Stone of Destiny – from its initial position as inaugural stone of Scotland, to its removal to England, to its central role in the coronation of English and British kings and queens, to its return to Scotland – is, in my mind, far more amazing than any of the legends attached to it. I look forward to seeing it briefly reunited with the Coronation Chair during the coronation of King Charles III.

[1] The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, Archaeology and Conservation (Westminster Abbey Occasional Papers Book 2), by Warwick Rodwell.

Goodbye to the Old Gum Tree: Kookaburras in Suburbia

The emu may be Australia’s avian representative on the national coat of arms, but it’s the kookaburra, with is its raucous laugh and cheeky grin, who arguably steals the show when it comes to birdlife in the land down under. Some may prefer the magpie, others may prefer the pelican, a fair number of people love the wedge-tailed eagle, and rainbow lorikeets are a perennial favourite. But everyone loves the kookaburra. And for good reason: Kookaburras are full of character. They’re my personal favourite.

Kookaburras don’t feature heavily in the early records of the British colony at Sydney Cove. Watkin Tench, whose journal constitutes an important primary source for our knowledge of the early days of British settlement in Sydney, writes nothing about them in his summary of the natural features of Australia. When it comes to birds, he’s obsessed with the cassowary, allocating five long paragraphs to them. But when it comes to kookaburras, he mentions them not at all, and one can conclude they’re subsumed in the line, ‘of other birds, the varieties are very numerous.’[1]

Yet kookaburras must have quickly made an impression on convict and officer alike for, as Sarah Legge points out, the loud, clumsy bird certainly managed to garner to itself a long list of nicknames, mostly related to its habit of issuing a long, cacophonous song – sounding much like mockery or laughter – in the mornings at sunrise and in the evenings at sunset: ‘Alarm Bird, Breakfast Bird, Settler’s Clock, and Bushman’s Clock.’[2]

Whatever the early settlers thought of kookaburras, today, they are embedded deep within the Australian psyche as an iconic symbol of national identity. The kookaburra is the mascot of our national men’s hockey team – one of only a handful of native birds to be honoured emblematically in Australian sport, magpies and sea eagles being two others. We sing about kookaburras in a song written by Marion Sinclair in the 1930s, that can easily be broken into rounds, and is frequently done so around a campfire. And Olly, a kookaburra, acted as one of three of our mascots in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Kookaburras are well recognised, but perhaps not well known. Their most obvious characteristics are the laugh and a cute, awkward appearance. But the most intriguing features of kookaburras aren’t the ones that are obvious, but are the ones that are less apparent – related to behaviour. For example, kookaburras are cooperative breeders, using a complex system of auxiliary helpers to bring up its fledgelings in a way that is reminiscent of extended families in humans. In any family of kookaburras, it’s only the breeding pair who mate and reproduce. The remaining members of the family – usually progeny of the mating pair from a previous season – help with rearing. This can include taking turns at incubation, bringing food to the hatchlings, and guarding the young after they’ve fledged.

Watching older kookaburras nurturing younger kookaburras is one of the great pleasures of the spring and summer season in Sydney. Everywhere you look in the suburbs of Sydney, you can see fledgeling birds – often high up in the trees, unsure of themselves – looking for guidance and care from an older sibling or parent.

Kookaburras are, I would therefore argue, a magical bird. They have captured the imagination of the people who have built suburbs next to their habitats. They’ve befriended us, bonded with us, and – at times – lampooned us. But although they’ve always seemed like a joke – a suitable jester for a country whose court is the bush – kookaburras are a complex, compassionate animal, worthy of deep consideration.


Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson

Sarah S. Legge, Kookaburra: King of the Bush

Veronica A. Parry, Kookaburras

Tim Low, The New Nature

[1] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, Chapter 17.

[2] Sarah Legge, Kookaburra: King of the Bush, chapter 1.

Things to do in an Empty Garden

For as long as I can remember, a family of kookaburras have lived in my neighbourhood. Some years, there have only been three kookaburras in the family. Other years, there have been as many as five. This year, there are six of them.

The kookaburras live alongside a family of magpies that are much shyer about revealing their presence. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many of them we’ve had over the years, but the numbers in their family group don’t seem to fluctuate as much as the kookaburras’. This year, I count five among their number.

Last year, when Sydney went into its hard lockdown for what seemed like ages, I started watching the birds in my neighbourhood more closely. I took photos. I like to travel and take photos of exotic places, cataloguing new experiences. But while watching the birds, I learned that there’s something calming — even stabilising – about taking photos in the same place, day after day after day.

Each morning, I’d wake up early. While the others in my family slept, I set up my tripod in the backyard. I’d take photos from a different position every morning, the angle of my photo depending on many factors, including the position of the sun and the general state of the light. Then, with a hot cup of coffee in my hands, I’d wait for the birds to fly through.

Initially, when I started watching and photographing the kookaburras and magpies, I didn’t know much about the birds. I had a vague notion that both kookaburras and magpies were territorial. But beyond that, I didn’t have much knowledge. As I watched the birds, though –day after day — I became fascinated by their behaviour. I started to understand why birdlovers could be so enthralled by these wonderful, beautiful creatures. Animals that had once seemed like a picturesque backdrop to a location – who doesn’t love a kookaburra in a gum tree? – became prominent characters in the scene.

Slowly, bit by bit, day after day, I not only got through the lockdown. I started to get used to the fact that my mother had died.

Who in the World is Snorri Sturluson?

From time to time, I’m asked to name my favourite authors. These days, this question is most often put to me on social media, where list-creating games proliferate. But it can happen in real life, too. I’m normally limited to my top ten. Once, I was even limited to seven. And I groan every time I’m asked. Naming your favourite authors is like naming your favourite children. It can’t done. It shouldn’t be done. It should be considered a mortal sin to try.

Yet I do it. And when I do, without a doubt, close to the top of the list is Snorri Sturluson.

“Who?” I hear you ask.


Most English-speaking people educated in literature have heard the names of Europe’s greatest and most influential early modern and premodern writers. Asked to list them, they might say William Shakespeare, Homer, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer. Pressed not to list but to recognise, they’d probably also know Thomas Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Giovanni Boccaccio. Few have ever heard of Snorri Sturluson.

“And why should they have heard of him?” I hear you say.

It’s a valid question. After all, knowledge is vast. No one can know everything. And certainly, no one can know every important piece of literature ever written, or be familiar with every significant author. Certainly, I’m not, and I have PhD in literature.

But there’s something particularly disturbing about Snorri Sturluson’s invisibility. You see, Snorri Sturluson’s main claim to fame is that he wrote the three books collectively known in English as The Prose Edda. The Prose Edda is not only one of the few sources for Norse mythology available to us today, it’s also the main source. Without it, we couldn’t make much sense of the Poetic Edda, Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, or the mythology contained in the sagas.

This means without Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t have Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Marvel’s Thor.

So if, like me, you’re a fan of the Norse pantheon, what should you know about Snorri Sturluson? You should know that he lived in Iceland in the twelfth century, that he’s one of the few writers we know by name from the saga-writing period, that he wrote The Prose Edda as well as The Heimskringla, and that he was a poet with a keen interest in studying poetics. If you’re more curious about this man, you might also want to know that he was deeply involved in Icelandic politics. He served as Iceland’s law speaker, made overtures towards the Norwegian king, and died dramatically by assassination.

But whatever he was — whoever he was – for me, Snorri Sturluson will always be the man who brought Baldr to life in my mind. As well as Loki. And Odinn. I owe the greatest of debts to him, because it is due to his magnificent writing that I can picture so clearly Ratatoskr — by far my favourite squirrel — running up and down the world tree, Yggdrasill, carrying messages. I’d be empty without these rich images. And so, I’ll always be grateful.

In media res

I’ve been meaning to blog for years. As someone who loves words, loves to write, has an opinion about everything under the sun, and has also been an early adopter of technology, you’d think I would have started a blog back when blogs were first fashionable. But, no. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I’ve dragged my heels when it’s come to blogging. Perhaps the idea of a super public forum froze me. As a medievalist,  I’m used to small audiences, not large ones. Or perhaps life just managed to get in the way. For the last decade or so, I’ve been juggling work with motherhood, and although this would seem like the perfect subject to blog about — hello to all the mummy bloggers out there — I was just never organised enough to blog.

I’m here now, though. And as my age hovers around the mid-life mark, I can say that I’ve truly amassed a significant amount of life experience. I started my professional life as a computer programmer, leapt into writing online when the internet was still known as the World Wide Web, became an Old Norse scholar, and then in the midst of all that, decided I wanted to have a family.

Now, many years later, I have two children, and an itch to return to the world of fiction writing that I abandoned twenty years ago. What this blog will be about, I can hardly be sure. What I do know is that as I enter the second half of my life, I’m entering an era that has largely been unmapped for most women. Where do I go from here? I don’t know. And that’s why this is the most exciting part of my life. It’s going to be an adventure. And this time, I’m going to blog about it.

Starting where I should start: In media res.