Robert Bruce: In Life and Death

Meeting date

Dr Martin McGregor, University of Glasgow

Meeting report

And they shall see his face: In search of Robert Bruce.

Dr Martin McGregor from the History Department of the University of Glasgow presented a most erudite and enjoyable lecture to the society on Friday 17 November 2017.

Dr McGregor took as his early inspiration Professor Geoffrey Barrow's seminal work, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland and he has since become a leading authority on Bruce and the period in which he lived. Professor Barrow recounted the Bruce story but also tried to get close to the man himself. Dr McGregor continued this theme in his lecture. He noted the element of ambivalence towards Robert Bruce prevalent in Scottish society when compared to figures such as William Wallace and Robert Burns. Bruce was a complex character in a complex period of history. It is unlikely that any king before or since has shown such an intensity of relationship to the land of Scotland and its people. He travelled to every corner of the realm throughout his life and his first-hand experience was put to good use. He was brought up as a leading feudal nobleman and could perhaps have looked forward to a life of plenty. This proved not to be the case and Robert Bruce suffered great personal hardships whilst on campaign and 'on the run'. He lost all four of his brothers and his sister was imprisoned in a cage for many years. He suffered from ill health, especially in his later years. Despite this, Barbour, his first biographer, could describe him as humane, generous and firm. To these characteristics Dr McGregor added courage, patience, a willingness to learn, humour, generosity and magnanimity and he supported his lavish praise by examining events throughout Bruce's life, especially post Bannockburn 1314. He answered the critics who have accused Bruce of being a warmonger by asking whether Bruce had any choice. Once he became King he was met with opposition and intransience both by the King of England and by many nobles within his own realm. Nevertheless he was accepted by his people, as demonstrated by the meteoric rise from a handful of supporters in 1306 following his seizure of the throne to an army of 10,000 to 15,000 men just two years later.

Dr McGregor continued to scrutinise Bruce's character using examples showing the wry humour Bruce possessed in his responses to a visiting papal legate whilst utilizing his diplomatic skills in finally achieving legitimacy and national independence in the eyes of the English King Edward III, as shown by the treaty of Edinburgh and Northampton 1328.

After the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in a Leicester car park new technology was able to reconstruct his face. In 1818 a tomb, buried in front of the High Altar of Dunfermline Abbey, was discovered and examined. It was believed that the skeleton was that of King Robert Bruce and a plaster cast of the skull was taken. This plaster cast resides in the University of Glasgow and led to Dr McGregor and others pursuing the idea of using the same technology to reveal Bruce's face. The main issue was whether, in fact, the skeleton from Dunfermline Abbey really was that of King Robert Bruce. Historians were divided on this matter but Dr McGregor gave a convincing argument that the skeleton was indeed that of King Robert.

And they shall see his face!

And we did.