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How Robert the Bruce's Toe Bones came into possession of the Paton family

On the 750th Anniversary of the birth of Robert the Bruce, the curious story of two of his toe bones has come to light - and the present day location of the bones has been unearthed.

27th May 2024

A short walk from the Patons' home at Wooers’ Alley Cottage was the historic site of Dunfermline Abbey and its Palace, where many ancient kings had been buried over the centuries. The local stories from long ago ignited in Sir Noël Paton a lifelong passion for Dunfermline’s history and its heroes, as demonstrated in his design for the West Windows of the Abbey – featuring William Wallace, Malcolm Canmore, Queen Margaret and Robert the Bruce.

 

In 1818, with the building of the new Dunfermline Abbey, the tomb of an ancient king was excavated. On examining the skeleton, it was found that the ribs of the left breast had been sawn open to take out the heart, thus it was identified as the great Robert the Bruce.

At that time, various local historians collected relics from the tomb and took plaster casts of the skull. It appears that not long afterwards, two of the two bones of Robert the Bruce's skeleton came into the possession of Joseph Neil Paton, the father of the artist Sir Joseph Noël Paton. The bones were put on display to the public at Wooers' Alley Cottage. They caught the eye of a visiting Rev Dr George Goyder, a phrenologist and Swedenborgian minister who mentioned the experience in his book 'My Battle For Life'' (1857):

"On retiring to rest I was not a little startled at the furniture and ornaments, perhaps I ought rather to say relics, of my bed chamber... On one side of the door-window, resting on a small antique table, was a crystal dish (from Holyrood Palace), and in the dish a small bone of King Robert the Bruce, which had been taken from his remains, that were found among the ruins of the Holy Trinity Church, when the foundation was being prepared for the new church, then about to be erected. On the other side of the window was an ebony cross, and below it a skull and cross bones, a Bible, and some ancient religious books.... Ponderous two-handled swords were arranged in different groups; pistols with ancient matchlocks; instruments of torture, such as thumb screws etc... I certainly felt a little nervous, and could have wished I had been placed in another apartment; but occupying the position of a minister of the gospel, I forbore to complain". 

You may be wondering where Mr Paton got the toe bones from…

 

An extract from ‘Tales of a Grand-daughter’ by MH Noel Paton (Moravian Press, 1970) tells the story. The local postman in Dunfermline, a Mr Angus, confessed that as a young man doing his rounds past the open tomb of the Bruce in the Abbey kirkyard, he couldn't resist sneaking the toes of the great king into his postbag and keeping them for many years. Finally on his death bed in the 1830s, he handed them over to Mr Paton:

 

“A Dunfermline postman lay dying and sent an urgent request to Mr Joseph Paton, the weel-kent collector and antiquarian, to come and see him. Mr Paton sat by the old man's bedside and was told in a hoarse whisper how, in his younger days, the postman, an ardent admirer of the Bruce, had extracted two toes from the jumble of bones in the exposed coffin, had taken them home and treasured them as would a pilgrim a holy relic. But now he was dying and felt he must confess the sacrilege he had committed. As the coffin had long since been re-interred he wished to consign the precious objects to the keeping of one who would appreciate and cherish them. And that is how, eventually, my grandfather and his brother Waller each came to possess a toe of Robert the Bruce”

 

After the death of Joseph Neil Paton in 1874, all his possessions from Wooers' Alley including the bones were sold off at auction. However the precious bones were bought back by his two sons Sir Joseph Noël Paton and Waller Hugh Paton.

 

The bone in Joseph Noël Paton's possession (confirmed to be a metatarsal) was inherited by his first son, Professor Diarmid Noel Paton - then on his death it was passed to The Hunterian Collection in Glasgow, where it is kept to this day, along with various other relics from Robert the Bruce’s tomb. 

 

The whereabouts of the other bone - once in the possession of Waller Hugh Paton - had long been forgotten, until recently. A letter dated 1895, from Waller Hugh Paton's wife, was rediscovered not long ago in the records of St Conan’s Kirk in Loch Awe - in which it was confirmed that the bone was given to the church on the death of Waller Paton. To this day it is enclosed in a shrine of Robert the Bruce, carved by Waller Paton's son Hubert Paton.

So that is the story of the two toe bones of Robert the Bruce. But this little footnote might be of interest. On inspecting the bone in the Hunterian last year, we noticed it still has a label attached which reads "Lent by Mrs Noel Paton". So in theory the Patons of Dunfermline family could claim the toe bone back.... But we think it is probably in the best place, and we wouldn't want it cluttering up the living room, so we won't be asking for it back any time soon!

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