Bruce's heart still in Edinburgh

The following story appeared in the Herald newspaper of Friday January 16th, 1998 under the headlines:

(See update of 18th February at the bottom of this page)

Relic's return demanded

Bruce's heart still in capital

Tony Armstrong

WHEN Robert the Bruce ordered on his deathbed that his heart should be cut from his body and taken to the Holy Land he could hardly have dreamed that, 669 years later, it would be languishing in an Edinburgh laboratory.

It was back in the summer of 1996 that the lead casket reputedly containing the heart of the Scottish hero king was dug up in the grounds of Melrose Abbey. Historic Scotland promised that it would be returned to the abbey after laboratory tests and reburied with due ceremony befitting the memory of the patriot who defeated the English at Bannockburn.

But 18 months later; the casket is still held in an Edinburgh laboratory and the people of Melrose are demanding the return of the precious relic which could be a valuable tourist draw.

Chief executive of the Scottish Borders Tourist Board Riddell Graham is to meet Historic Scotland representatives within the next few days to seek assurances over the return of the heart.

He said yesterday: "I am disappointed that Historic Scotland should hold on to it for nearly two years, despite their original promise to return it promptly. If there are good reasons, they have not given us any. There has been a total lack of communication. Even a simple note to the community would have helped.

"We have already lost last year’s tourist season and now we are being told the heart will not be back in time for this season. At the very least Historic Scotland should have provided some sort of sign saying where the heart is and why it was dug up.

"It could explain the link between Robert the Bruce and Melrose Abbey and help reduce the disappointment of the large number of tourists who come to Melrose after reading in guidebooks that the heart is here."

The saga of the heart started immediately after Bruce’s death in 1329. It was cut and sent in a casket to the Holy Land in the care of Sir James Douglas. But the Scottish knight died in a battle with the Moors in Spain and the heart was brought back to Scotland by his friend Sir William Keith.

It was buried at Melrose - 60 miles from the resting place of the king's body; Dunfermline Abbey.

The casket was briefly dug up in the 1920s and reburied immediately. Then in 1996 came the excavations that saw the heavy lead container dug up and taken to Edinburgh for tests.

Melrose has waited patiently since then for the return of the casket, but that patience is wearing thin. Local councillor Bill Smith says: "Historic Scotland are not well known for moving swiftly, but they seem to be dragging their feet on this."

The chairman of the town’s traders association, Mr Douglas Hardie, says "We want to combine a reburial ceremony with the annual Melrose Festival in June when the Melrose Queen is crowned in the abbey grounds and lays a wreath on the spot where the casket was buried.

"I don’t see the difference between a ceremony in the autumn and a ceremony in June which would come at the start of the main tourist season and give the town a shot in the arm. Nor can I see the case for the heart lying in a lab in Edinburgh or any justification for holding onto it for 18 months. It is part of our heritage and we want it back here as soon as possible."

A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland last night blamed the delay on a competition to design an appropriate memorial stone for the burial site and extended excavations last year to delve into the history of the abbey chapter house.
She said "We hope to be able to announce the winning entry by the end of February, but because we want the work carried out to a higher standard which will take several months, it could be that we will not be able to have a ceremony to rebury the heart until the autumn.

"We are looking for some significant date connected with Bruce, but if the winning memorial design is relatively simple the ceremony could possibly be pushed forward to the summer.

"There was tremendous international interest when the casket was dug up and we intend to make the reburial a major occasion that will be of benefit to Melrose."

For earlier information see Bruce's heart examined in laboratory

Update 18th February, 1998

It was announced on Scottish TV news tonight that the heart of King Robert the Bruce will indeed be returned to its burial place at Melrose Abbey in time for the summer tourist season.

Question from William N Greer (19th February, 1998):-

Q. I would like to know the following: For the many who may be wondering about their genealogical descent from the Bruce, would not a tissue extraction from the heart -- for the purpose of DNA testing -- be very much in order?

A. During the TV news story of 18th February, 1998, it was explained that:

a) The inner container which contains the heart has not been, and will not be opened (see Bruce's heart examined in laboratory ) before it is reburied.

b) All circumstantial evidence indicates that this is the heart of The Bruce - therefore no need to pull it apart to prove it.

Your interesting question raises serious and less serious issues/questions such as:

During the TV story, no mention was made of the competition to design a memorial stone for the reburied (eventually) heart.

Update 23rd February, 1998

It was announced on BBC Scotland Radio news tonight that:

a) The heart was back at Melrose today.

b) A winner has been selected for the memorial stone.

c) The winning design will be realised and installed in a ceremony on 24th June, 1998.

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