A tiny drill and a fibre-optic cable get to the heart of the mystery of Robert the Bruce

A lead container found during excavations at Melrose Abbey in Scotland almost certainly holds the heart of King Robert the Bruce inside another lead casket, archaeologists confirmed yesterday.

With the world's press anxious for a simple heart-or-no-heart confirmation from the team of conservationists, yesterday's conclusion would not have impressed a Hollywood producer. After drilling tiny holes in the cylindrical lead container and inserting a fibre-optic cable to look inside, the team from Historic Scotland discovered a small second, cone-shaped, casket. Inside they also found packaging paper and a small copper plaque from 1921. The plaque confirmed that in that year the cone-shaped container had been found in the floor of the abbey's chapter house "containing a heart". The casket was reburied.

Richard Welander from Historic Scotland said that absolute verification of the contents of the cone container as being the heart of the king of Scotland who had led his army to victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314 "was not possible". However he added: "Although we cannot say with certainty this is Bruce's heart, we can say that it is reasonable to assume it is Bruce's heart." Such semantic precision will not worry the Scottish Tourist Board. If it can sell a monster in Loch Ness no one has seen, it can sell the homecoming of the heart of the Bruce.

What is inside the medieval cone-shaped casket will remain a mystery. There are no plans to delve further to analyse what may be a mummified heart or a pile of dust. As was common when casket burials of parts of the famous took place in the 14th century - such as heads - the lead containers were dipped in pitch or tar to help prevent deterioration. From appearance it would seem the cone-shaped casket has survived remarkably well.

Crowned king in 1304, Bruce died in 1329 at Cardross, Dumbarton, possibly of leprosy. He asked for his heart to be buried at Melrose because of his devotion to the abbey. He was buried at Dunfermline but in line with his orders his heart was taken to the Crusades by James Douglas, knighted after Bannockburn. Douglas died en route, fighting the Moors in Spain, but the heart, according to legend, was eventually buried at Melrose Abbey.

Although the excavations at Melrose may have solved one mystery, they have also considerably improved the knowledge of the Chapter House, effectively the business centre of the premier Cistercian home in Scotland at the time. The austere Benedictine order were influential theologians, wealthy and well respected in royal circles.

With Scotland having no defined capital, the court moving to wherever the monarch spent the night, knowledge of the abbey's chapter house is regarded as important. Doreen Grove, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic Scotland, said: "Our understanding has been greatly improved by the excavations. The Bruce casket was just a by-product of our other work."

Although Bruce is reputed to have died of leprosy, DNA tests are being conducted on bone fragments excavated some years ago from Dunfermline to establish a possible cause.

A kinsman of Robert the Bruce, who had no male descendants, is Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrat-held seat of Fife North East. Adam Bruce, 28, a solicitor, claims kinship through the king's brother.

However, he has no truck with talk of home rule for Scotland. "If we were talking in 1314, I know what side I would be fighting on - Scotland's," he said. "But this is 1996. The Union is sacrosanct, and I am prepared to fight for that with as much vigour as King Robert fought for what he believed in."

He and his relations were pleased with the recent developments, he said. "The family has been very happy to see the huge interest there has been in the whole project," he added. "We are glad the casket will be reinterred with due dignity. We hope all this will redress the balance after the unflattering picture that was painted of him in Braveheart, where he was depicted as grasping and ambitious and prepared to sell out."

Life of the legend

t His patience and determination are said to have been inspired by watching a spider spinning its web

t He was born in 1274 and crowned in 1306

t Viewed as a traitor by King Edward I, he was twice defeated in battle in 1306 and three of his brothers were executed

t His greatest triumph came in 1314 when an English army heading for Stirling was defeated outside the town at the Battle of Bannockburn

t The 1328 Treaty of Northampton recognised him as king - and Scotland's independence

t He died, possibly of leprosy, at Cardross, in 1329

t He was buried at Dunfermline but his heart was taken to the Crusades by James Douglas, knighted after Bannockburn

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