Robert the Bruce's heart finds its final resting place

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The Independent Online
THE HEART of Robert the Bruce, the great 14th-century warrior- king of Scotland, was officially laid to rest yesterday in a ceremony heavy with political symbolism.

To the strains of Border bagpipes and medieval poetry in praise of freedom, Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, unveiled a marker stone over the spot at Melrose Abbey where King Robert's heart has been reburied. The shrivelled relic, contained in an ancient casket, has been held in safekeeping in Edinburgh for the last two years following its rediscovery during an archaeological dig.

The ceremony took place 684 years to the day after Bruce dispatched the much bigger army of Edward I back to England to "think again" at the Battle of Bannockburn. Bruce went on to unify the kingdom, earning himself the sobriquet "Good King Robert", a piece of history Mr Dewar would like to repeat.

Though the Secretary of State said he was conscious of the dangers of ascribing to a 14th-century warrior-king the social and moral standards of the opening of the 21st century the parallels, eventually overcame him.

The ceremony was "one of great significance and symbolism for the people of Scotland", he said. "The exciting and dramatic changes we see in Scotland today are, perhaps, a very appropriate extension of those events back in medieval times."

He hoped Scotland was about to enjoy a period of "stability and good government", as it did under Bruce after Bannockburn.

The unveiling of the simple sandstone marker in what would have been the Chapter House of the ruined Abbey marked the end of another chapter in the romantic story of Robert the Bruce.

He had a great affection for Melrose and instructed that his heart be buried there, while the rest of his body was destined for Dunfermline Abbey, the traditional last resting place of Scottish kings. On his deathbed, Bruce asked his knights to go on a crusade and take his heart with them. It was carried by Sir James Douglas, who was killed in battle with the Moors in Spain. The casket was brought back to Scotland and buried at Melrose - an event recorded in John Barbour's epic 14th-century poem "The Bruce".

There is no proof that the heart venerated yesterday is definitely King Robert's, though the casket is of the right age. Historic Scotland have refused to allow tests on it and, as Mr Dewar said, the uncertainty adds to the romance of the story.

"There is a strong and proper presumption that this is the heart," insisted the Secretary of State. "But in a sense it does not matter. The casket and the heart are symbols of the man."

The casket containing a mummified heart was first unearthed by archaeologists in 1921. It was placed in a lead container and reburied, only to be uncovered by another set of archaeologists 75 years later.

Yesterday's unveiling ceremony followed an unpublicised reburial on Monday. Historic Scotland said it had been felt appropriate for the reburial of what were human remains to be a private, dignified occasion.

However, it is also likely that the agency and ministers were keen to avoid the reburial of the heart of one the greatest champions of an independent Scotland being hijacked in a politically motivated stunt.

Though Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, was in the crowd at Melrose, there was no high-profile SNP presence. The party celebrated Bannockburn on the battle site last weekend.

The marker stone was designed by Victoria Oswald, a BBC sound engineer working in London, and carved from Scottish sandstone by the stonemason Hugh Durrant. Rising only a few inches above the turf, it depicts a heart and a saltire and bears an inscription taken from Barbour's poem: "A noble hart may have nane ease. Gif freedom failye."