Robert the Bruce

The Lost Tomb

The Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce

When Robert the Bruce died in 1329 he was buried in the choir of Dunfermline Abbey, and his grave marked by a tomb recorded as having been imported from Paris at the personal request of the late king. This was later destroyed probably in the Reformation era. However during the site clearance prior to the building of the present day Abbey Church fragments of carved and gilded marble, which were thought to be from the vanished tomb, were revealed.  The relics were subsequently passed to museums in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dunfermline and to Abbotsford House.The design of Bruce‘s tomb has been the subject of much speculation. Scottish heritage bodies combined to re-examine the excavated remains in order to present a digital reconstruction of the Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce in its historic setting.  The result is the first ever three-dimensional digital model of the Bruce tomb.  The exhibition and digital reconstruction, which was first shown in the Hunterian in 2014, can now be seen in the Abbey Church.

The Discovery

The Scottish Crown Jewels, known as the honours of Scotland were re-discovered in Edinburgh Castle’s Crown Room on 4thFebruary 1818, just two weeks before Dunfermline’s re-discovery of what were immediately thought to be the remains of Robert the Bruce. It was a remarkable coincidence and the recovery and presentation of the Scottish Regalia was carefully controlled and supervised by the likes of Walter Scott and William Adam, (of Blair Adam). Dunfermline was similar to various growing Scottish burghs where there were increasing signs of political unrest.  So the authorities were probably keen to delay a closer inspection soon after the discovery for fear of creating any threat to the existing order of things. Whatever the reasons, it was to be nearly another twenty–two months before an official inspection of the bones by medical experts took place.  

The Abbey c1790

Robert Burns visited Dunfermline Abbey in October 1787. It was recorded:

 “In the church, two broad flagstones marked the grave of Robert Bruce, for whose memory Burns had more than common veneration. He knelt and kissed the stone with sacred fervour, and heartily execrated the worse than Gothic neglect of the first of Scottish heroes.”

There had been far earlier inspections, in 1766 and 1807, by amateur churchmen antiquaries when at least six elite grave slabs and ancient bones were found, but this had not led to any more systematic investigation and the site of the ruined Church which preceded the present day Abbey Church was several feet deep in rubble.  So it was only when the site began to be cleared that more began to be revealed!

The Tomb is Uncovered

Bruce had left detailed instructions regarding his funeral and ceremonial burial at Dunfermline Abbey in 1329, which included the removal of his heart so that it could be taken to the Holy Land. This was indeed carried out and so when the skeleton was uncovered, its sawn sternum was seen at the time as strong evidence that this was indeed the remains of the Bruce.

The New Abbey Church

The New Abbey Church of Dunfermline  was built to the design of William Burn of Edinburgh and was dedicated in 1821. When in 1818 foundation work for the building was in progress, the tomb of King Robert the Bruce (who had been buried in the Old Abbey in 1329) was rediscovered the remains were carefully reinterred within the new Church. At this stage the design of the tower over the crossing of Nave and Transepts was completely revised by William Burn to incorporate the words “KING ROBERT THE BRUCE” around the top parapet. The tomb is marked by a full size brass gifted by the Earl of Elgin in 1889.