Putting a Face to the Name: Robert the Bruce

With the release of Netflix’s ‘The Outlaw King’ there has been a piqued interest in Robert the Bruce. In this blog, Dr Iain Macleod, retired consultant and honorary clinical senior lecturer in dental & maxillofacial radiology, tells us about the process of putting a face to this famous name. 

On the morning of Friday, 5th November 1819 a group comprising the Lord Chief Baron, Mr Barron Clerk Rattray, Sir Henry Jardine [His Majesty’s Remembrancer], local magistrates and the Reverend Peter Chalmers amongst several others gathered in Dunfermline Abbey. Three medical men were also present: Dr Gregory [His Majesty’s first physician in Scotland], Professor Munro [Professor of Anatomy at Edinburgh University] and Mr Robert Liston [Surgeon]. The reason for the gathering was to examine the contents of a tomb that had been discovered in the Abbey, which they had good reason to believe was that of King Robert the Bruce.

Robert the Bruce reigned in Scotland from 1306 to 1329 and is perhaps Scotland’s most renowned King. Born in 1274 he ascended the Throne during the tumultuous period known as the Scottish Wars of Independence. It consequently seems strange that his tomb should have been lost until its accidental rediscovery during refurbishment work in 1818. The only reason offered is that it may have been deliberately or accidentally concealed during a period of religious zealotry during the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Following examination, the remains were reinterred in pitch along with various contemporary artefacts, the idea being to prevent any further disturbance. Various members of the group wrote accounts of the event but it was Robert Liston who in 1821 published the most detailed account of the skeletal remains. It is probably also due to his foresight that a young artist, Mr William Scoular, was invited to make a plaster cast of the skull. The original resides in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University with copies produced for various individuals and institutions including one recently donated to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

 

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A cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull

The quality of the cast skull is exemplary and a credit to the skill of Mr Scoular and is the only truly verifiable object that can be attributed to the exhumation. References to several small bones allegedly having been taken, without consent, and ultimately appearing in various collections are at best unsubstantiated.

The skull is interesting from an osteological perspective and has been subject to much scholarly deliberation over the years, in particular about possible disease processes that may have affected the king. The features that have caused the dispute mostly revolve around the missing upper incisor teeth and apparent erosion of the adjacent alveolar ridge and nasal aperture. Suggestions have ranged from leprosy, syphilis, as well as to medieval battle injuries, the latter favoured by Liston himself who had the good fortune to examine the original skull! No doubt the debate will continue.

The skull has also been subject to a number of facial reconstructions. Beginning with one produced in the 1960’s by the then Professor of Anatomy at Edinburgh University, George Romanes working in conjunction with a sculptor, Charles Pilkington-Jackson who went on to build the famous statue of Bruce at Bannockburn. Although they used anatomical considerations in their reconstruction, no records of these remain. Since then a variety of other reconstructions have been undertaken utilising newer technologies, the last and most “lifelike” by Professor Caroline Wilkinson from the Liverpool John Moores University. Despite the limitations of facial reconstruction, they do provide an intriguing glimpse into a face from the past.

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Facial Depiction courtesy of Face Lab, Liverpool John Moore’s University

Dr Iain Macleod is a retired consultant and honorary clinical senior lecturer in dental & maxillofacial radiology who until recently, worked at the Newcastle Dental hospital and school. During his career, he was involved in forensic dentistry and it was this in conjunction with a long standing interest in history and archaeology that enabled him to get involved in several multi-disciplinary projects investigating ancient human remains. Iain has written one book on the topic and several peer reviewed articles as well as a number for a more general readership.

 

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