Case Study 5: The tomb of Robert the Bruce

Iain Fraser

As part of the commemorations of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 RCAHMS and HS (now united as HES) worked with partners from across the heritage sector to research and reconstruct the lost tomb of Robert the Bruce.

In 1329 King Robert was buried in the choir of Dunfermline Abbey. His grave was marked by a monument, known to have been imported from Paris. This monument was subsequently destroyed, however, in 1818, during the building of the present parish church a skeleton, believed to be that of the king, was discovered. Whether or not the skeleton is that of Bruce or one of the other kings remains unclear. However, between about 1790 and 1818, excavation in the graveyard discovered fragments of carved and gilded white marble, identified as pieces of Bruce’s monument. Six pieces are now preserved in the Hunterian, eleven in the National Museums of Scotland (NMS), and one in Dunfermline Museum. These fragments were little studied and had never been brought together for study in one location, resulting in uncertainty as to whether they were truly from Bruce’s tomb. Together the museums, RCAHMS and HS set out to answer these questions and the original form of the monument was identified as following the model of French royal tombs of the period: an arcaded tomb-chest surmounted by an effigy of the king and canopy, in black and white marble.

A digital image of broken pieces of medieval carving on a black background

Figure 1: Composite image of fragments identified as from Bruce’s tomb. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland research of comparable material in Paris and New York confirmed the pieces as being French work of the first part of the 14th century. With the pieces of the tomb dispersed in three different collections, it was hoped that the project might uncover further fragments. One likely location was Sir Walter Scott’s collection of antiquities at Abbotsford House. Checking of undocumented collections by the Abbotsford Trust resulted in the discovery of an additional piece, hitherto unrecognised. This piece also fitted into, and confirmed, the accuracy of the reconstruction of the tomb-chest arcading.

Using reconstruction drawings and detailed photography by RCAHMS and a 3D scan by HS, the Digital Design Studio, Glasgow School of Art, created a 3D digital model of the monument as it would once have looked. This research, imagery and model will allow all four to reinterpret their own fragments of the monument, and to display them more visually, showing how they would have fitted into the intact tomb.

A digital image of a reconstructed, stone, canopied tomb with gold leaf decoration on the pinnacles

Figure 2: Digital reconstruction of how Bruce’s tomb may have appeared (detail). © The Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation

The digital model, together with a selection of the fragments, was the focus of a display, The Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce, displayed in The Hunterian, Glasgow, 2014–15, Abbotsford House and Dunfermline Abbey Parish Church in 2016.

The advent of digital printing has opened the possibility of access both to physical surrogates of the fragments and to a physical manifestation of the reconstruction. The first proved an invaluable tool in allowing comparison of 3D prints of the Dunfermline fragments with parallels in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, without the complexity of moving the original pieces; the second opens the possibility of furnishing Dunfermline Abbey with a physical representation of the lost tomb.

A digital image of a tomb with a recumbent figure, on a rectangular base, decorated with figures around the bottom, cornicing and gold leaf

Figure 3: Digital reconstruction of how Bruce’s tomb may have appeared. © The Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation

Return to Section 2.4 Later Medieval

Return to Section 3.3: Recording

Return to Section 5.1: Introduction

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