The hunt for the Bruce

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Wanton desecration during the Reformation saw the tomb of the warrior King Robert the Bruce smashed into pieces and his bones discarded.

The victor of Bannockburn and of Scotland’s long and bloody Wars of Independence had lain undisturbed in Dunfermline Abbey below a magnificent white marble tomb that had been imported from Paris, until the religious conflicts of the 16th century.

In the early 19th century, bones believed to belong to Bruce, along with carved and gilded marble, were discovered. The relics found their way to museums in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dunfermline – and at least one fragment fell into the hands of Borders writer and sheriff Sir Walter Scott. He, of course, was a great collector of just about anything to do with Scotland’s past.

And on Saturday, a remarkable exhibition that will run until November 30 – St Andrew’s Day – opens at Scott’s baronial home of Abbotsford House.

The Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce features the first three-dimensional digital model of the once grand tomb, modelled using original artefacts. It is the culmination of cutting-edge archaeological research carried out by Scottish heritable organisations.

The exhibition comes to Abbotsford as part of the celebrations to mark 200 years since Scott published his epic poem, The Lord of Isles, in which Bruce is a key figure.

Kirsty Archer-Thomson, heritage and engagement manager of the Abbotsford Trust, said: “We are delighted to be bringing this fantastic exhibition to Abbotsford this year, giving both the local community and visitors to the Borders the chance to find out more about the final resting place of Scotland’s most famous king.

“It is fitting that Sir Walter Scott, the man who ignited such passion for Scottish history, acquired a piece of this archaeological jigsaw puzzle.

“Everyone involved in the project is thrilled that the public can see this precious collection of remaining fragments back together again.”

Visitors will see all existing fragments mounted against a dramatic backdrop.

The history of the Abbotsford fragment is a mystery, but not a surprise. Around 1817-18, Scott acquired the entrance hall panelling from Dunfermline Abbey, as well as a cast of Bruce’s skull, so it’s believed the fragment came into his possession at the same time.

The exhibition is just a few miles from Melrose Abbey, where Bruce’s heart is buried.

Bruce died on June 7, 1329, after securing Scotland’s independence from English domination both on the battlefield and by treaties.

He had asked for his heart to be taken on a crusade to the Holy Land.

The heart was embalmed, placed in silver casket, and entrusted to Sir James Douglas and a handful of Scottish knights.

On their way to the Holy Land, many of the Scots were killed.

But the survivors brought the heart of Bruce back to be buried at Melrose.

The Lost Tomb is a collaboration between the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Historic Scotland, Fife Cultural Trust, the Hunterian Museum, National Museums Scotland, the National Records of Scotland, the Abbotsford Trust and the Digital Design Studio at Glasgow School of Art.

Entrance is included in the ticket price to visit Abbotsford.