June 2024
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Robert the Bruce’s Heart Buried at Melrose Abbey

In 2000, when we first visited Melrose Abbey, we did not know that the heart of Robert the Bruce, the famous Scottish King who defeated the English army at Bannockburn, on 24 June 1314, was buried there.

Indeed, we didn’t know much about Scotland and its history for it was our first journey there, only seven days in June which left their mark on us forever. Our first impressions of Scottish people, culture, landscapes, cities, monuments and history date back from these days and, since then, our quest for Scotland has never ceased to go on.  Each new travel there, be it virtual or physical, brings its lot of marvels and adds new pieces to our great and beautiful Scottish puzzle…

Melrose Abbey & churchyard © 2006 Scotiana

Melrose Abbey is one of the Scottish marvels, not only because it is an architectural gem but also because it is rich in history and full of mystery. Its red-tinted ruins include the dilapidated remains of a 12th century old Cistercian monastery, the magnificent and well-preserved gothic-style Abbey Church and a graveyard with the usual lot of mossy weathered stones.

Charles S. Olcott The Country of Sir Walter Scott Cassell edition 1913

Spreading herbs and flowerets bright
Glistened with the dew of night;
Nor herb nor floweret glistened there
But was carved in the cloister arches as fair.

Seven graceful arches, forming stalls or seats once used by the dignitaries of the church, make a continuous line along the eastern wall. Above the arches, and joining one to another, are stone carvings of rare delicacy and beauty. Of the more than a hundred separate figures in this frieze no two are alike. There are roses, lilacs, thistles, ferns, oak leaves, and scores of other representations of the forms of nature, all exquisitely carved with inimitable accuracy. Scott admired these arches so greatly that he copied one of them for the fireplace of the entrance hall at Abbotsford.

The ‘steel-clenched postern door,’ through which the monk and the knight now entered the chancel, stands nearly intact. Its three arches rest on graceful pilasters surmounted by capitals, with carved foliage so delicate that a straw can be passed behind the stalks of the leaves. We found it interesting upon entering this door to note the accuracy of the poet’s descriptions, which the guide quoted with great fluency. The pillars supporting the lofty roof spread out to form the great arches, seeming to be ‘bundles of lances which garlands had bound.’

We stood beneath this arched roof for a long time to admire the beautiful East Window, and the guide quoted; –
The moon on the East Oriel shone
Through slender shafts of shapely stone
By foliaged tracery combined.

(The Country of Sir Walter Scott – Charles S. Olcott 1913)

A lot of people, religious or not, have been buried there but most of them have been forgotten since a long time. A few legendary figures still survive however and they can still trigger the visitor’s imagination.  Among them, two Scottish kings and a very mysterious wizard …

Sir Walter Scott Monument Edinburgh © 2007 Scotiana

There are many intriguing tales and legends attached to this old abbey and Sir Walter Scott, who lived nearby and was a recurrent visitor of the place, much contributed to popularize them. The reading of Sir Walter’s books is allowing us to venture in territories which would be quite difficult for us to tread otherwise, I mean, local and national feud and history. But we’ve fallen under the spell of the Magician of the North and, to say the truth, we can more easily follow the steps of Sir Walter in the fields – the battlefields –  of historical fiction, than the more arduous paths of archaelogists, historians and scholars …

Sir Walter received many people at Abbotsford. He was reputed for his hospitality, his cheerfulness, his kindness and, of course, his visitors could not have found better guide to make them visit the neighbourhood. A number of Sir Walter’s visitors were themselves writers and they have left very lively memories of their meetings with the master of Abbotsford. Irving Washington, a well-known American writer, has been one of the most famous visitors. John Lockhart quotes him largely in his Life of Sir Walter Scott. I can’t help to share with you a very interesting extract.

My edition of John Lockhart’s book is rather ancient (1865) , the text is divided into two columns and the letters are so small that I must use my cross-stich magnifying-glass to read it… but it’s worth the effort! This text is one more example of Sir Walter’s entertaining character and we also get acquainted with Johnny Bower, Melrose Abbey’s sexton then and a passionate guide of the place. Such a colourful man must have left his mark in the history of Melrose!

Abbotsford entrance door © 2001 Scotiana

So, let us follow Washington Irving in his visit to Abbotsford and Melrose Abbey…

Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott John Lockhart 1865 Cadell edition titlepage

Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott John Lockhart 1865 Cadell edition frontispiece

“Before Scott reached the gate, he called out in a hearty tone, welcoming me to Abbotsford, and asking news of Campbell. Arrived at the door of the chaise, he grasped me warmly by the hand: ‘Come, drive down, drive down to the house,’ said he; ‘ye’re just in time for breakfast, and afterwards ye shall see all the wonders of the Abbey.’
“I should have excused myself on the plea of having already made my breakfast. ‘Hut, man,’ cried he, ‘ a ride in the morning in the keen air of the Scotch hills is warrant enough for a second breakfast.’
“I was accordingly whirled to the portal of the cottage, and in a few moments found myself seated at the breakfast-table. There was no one present but the family, which consisted of Mrs Scott; her eldest daughter, Sophia, then a fine girl about seventeen; Miss Ann Scott, two or three years younger; Walter, a well-grown stripling; and Charles, a lively boy, eleven or twelve years of age.
“ I soon felt myself quite at home, and my heart in a glow, with the cordial welcome I experienced. I had thought to make a mere morning visit, but found I was not to be let off so lightly.’You must not think our neighbourhood is to be read in a morning like a newspaper,’ said Scott; ‘it takes several days of study for an observant traveller, that has a relish for auld-world trumpery. After breakfast you shall make your visit to Melrose Abbey; I shall not be able to accompany you, as I have some household affairs to attend to; but I will put you in charge of my son Charles, who is very learned in all things touching the old ruin and the neighbourhood it stands in; and he and my friend Johnnie Bower, will tell you the whole truth to believe, unless you be a true and nothing-doubting antiquary. When you come back, I’ll take you out on a ramble about the neighbourhood. To-morrow we will take a look at the Yarrow, and the next day we will drive over to Dryburgh Abbey, which is a fine old ruin, well worth the seeing.’ – In a word, before Scott had got through with his plan, I found myself committed for a visit of several days, and it seemed as if a little realm of romance was suddenly open before me.”

After breakfast, while Scott, no doubt, wrote a chapter of Rob Roy, Mr Irving, under young Charles’s guidance, saw Melrose Abbey and Johnnie Bower the elder, whose son long since inherited his office as showman of the ruins, and all his enthusiasm about them and their poet. The senior on this occasion was loud in his praises of the affability of Scott. “He’ll come here sometimes,” said he, “with great folks in his company, and the first I’ll know of it is hearing his voice calling out Johnny! – Johnny Bower! – and when I go out I’m sure to be greeted with a joke or a pleasant word. He’ll stand and crack, an’ laugh wi’ me just like an auld wife, – and to think that of a man that has such an awfu’ knowledge of history!”
On his return from the Abbey, Irving found Scott ready for a ramble.”
(John Lockhart Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott – ‘Washington Irving – 1817’ –  Edinburgh : Robert Cadell, St. Andrew Square 1865)

Narrative of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart 2010

Hum, Janice ! I think I’m going to invest soon in a new book ! This new edition of John Lockhart’s  book does look good and I must preserve my rare edition of it… as well as my vision too 😉

Melrose Abbey Robert the Bruce's heart casket © 2006 Scotiana

It’s only during our last trip to Scotland, in July 2007, that we’ve had the opportunity to see the emblematic carved stone which marks the place where the leaden casket supposed to be containing Robert the Bruce’s heart has been reburied in 1997.
This round stone, carved with the symbolic design of a heart intertwined with St Andrew’s cross, is the result of a competition launched by Historic Scotland and won by Victoria Oswald, a BBC sound engineer. The golden words engraved in early Scots around the plain circular stone read “A noble hart may have no ease, gif freedom failye” which means in modern language, “A noble heart can know no ease without freedom.” These words come from John Barbour’s long narrative poem The Brus, a historical and patriotic text which celebrates Robert the Bruce and James Douglas, and also focuses on the Scottish victory at Bannockburn.
How can we be sure, you may ask, that it is Robert the Bruce’s heart which is enclosed in the Melrose casket? Many people think it is and that could certainly be proved, or refuted, with DNA tests but is it necessary to lift the veil?
An exhumation of the king’s body at Dunfermline, in 1818, has already showed that the heart had effectively been taken from it, probably to be embalmed and placed in a casket as it was the custom then. Of course, like most venerated relics, it is surrounded by an aura of mystery.

Robert the Bruce portrait Source : Wikipedia

A lot of ink has been spilled over the long story of Robert Bruce’s heart…  let us content to say that, in 1329, while he lay dying, Robert the Bruce asked Sir James Douglas to take his heart to the Holy Land. In 1330, while trying to do so, Sir James was killed in Spain, with a number of Scottish knights, in a heroic battle against the Moors. Before dying, however, and in a desperate effort to prevent the royal casket from falling into the hands of the enemy, Sir James threw it to his fellow knights, shouting. ‘Now pass thou onward before us, as thou wast wont, and I will follow thee or die.’One of the surviving knights was Sir William Keith. He took with him Bruce’s heart casket and the remains of his unlucky companions and went back to Scotland. Some time later, Robert the Bruce’s heart was buried in Melrose Abbey.

The Country of Sir Walter Scott photo Melrose Charles S. Olscott Cassell 1913

Beneath the window lies the heart of Robert Bruce. It had been the desire of the monarch that his heart be interred in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. After his death the body was buried beneath the high altar of the church at Dunfermline, but the heart was taken out and committed to the keeping of James, Lord Douglas, who undertook to carry it to the Holy Land. But James was defeated and killed by the Saracens, and the heart of his royal master was taken to Melrose and buried there. This was as it should be, for the heart of Bruce, figuratively speaking, was always in Melrose. After the destruction of the abbey in 1322 by Edward II on his retreat from Scotland, Bruce made a grant of £2000 sterling, a sum equivalent to about  £ 50,000 in the money of to-day. Because of this munificence the abbey was rebuilt in all the beauty and perfection which Gothic architecture could suggest, so that even in ruins it is still a structure of graceful magnificence. In 1384, the abbey was again destroyed, but later restored. In 1544, 1545, and finally a century later under the Reformation, the abbey suffered serious damage from which it never recovered. (The Country of Sir Walter Scott – Charles S. Olcott 1913)

Clan Douglas coat of arms Source:Wikipedia

It is interesting to note that following the times of this heroic battle in Spain, in the 1330s, the arms of the Douglas changed, now bearing on their shield the heart as an emblem…
A long long time after these events, in 1921, excavations took place beneath the Chapter House of the Abbey and a leaden casket supposed to contain Robert the Bruce’s heart was discovered then. It was  soon reburied in due place but in 1996 it was removed again to be re-examined before being reburied a second time, on 22 June 1998. A commemorative plaque has been put on the site on 24 June, the anniversary date of Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn.

Nigel Tranter Robert the Bruce Trilogy Volume 1 The Steps to the Empty Throne 1st edition Hodder and Stoughton 1969

Since we are speaking of Robert the Bruce I would like to introduce today Nigel Tranter, a very popular Scottish author who has written, among many other books of historical fiction, a trilogy about the great Scottish king. He died in 2000, at the age of 90.  He was a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott and indeed, we discovered this author in 2006, at Abbotsford where a very interesting exhibition was devoted to him in Sir Walter’s bedroom  … but I will let Janice tell you more about this fascinating author…

Abbotsford Nigel Tranter exhibition author's typewriter © 2006 Scotiana

Bonne lecture !

A bientôt.


2 comments to Robert the Bruce’s Heart Buried at Melrose Abbey

  • Hi,
    I came across your page and found it delightful. I am, in recent years, discovering my Scottish roots. I have a few leads and hints to go by but no family to assist so your pages will be explored more. This one is of course a treasure and I thank you for it.

    You might be interested in my Family Tree page, please, enjoy.

    Gilbert Satchell
    Superior AZ

  • Ree Holley

    We were vacationing in Scotland in June 1998 and happened into Melrose Abbey shortly before the ceremony to rebury Robert Bruce’s heart. The staff allowed us to observe the ceremony, a once in a lifetime experience. We were honored and awestruck!

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