Blogs > Cliopatria > The Scientist Who Stole (Allegedly) the Toe from the Corpse of Robert the Bruce

Aug 8, 2005 1:02 pm

The Scientist Who Stole (Allegedly) the Toe from the Corpse of Robert the Bruce

Yakub Qureshi, in (March 7, 2004):

HE STOLE into the abbey in the dead of night, intent on stealing a personal memento of Scotland's greatest king.

Not a thief nor a grave robber but a respected town dignitary and"man of science", Joseph Paton found himself irresistibly drawn to the body of this icon of Scotland's 14th-century fight for independence.

Reaching forward, he snapped off a toe from the remains of Robert the Bruce and held aloft the trophy before wrapping it in a fragment of the king's golden shroud. In satisfying his urge to steal the Royal digit, Paton was risking his reputation by defiling the Bruce's skeleton, which had been uncovered by workmen in 1818 where it lay inside Dunfermline Abbey.

He was supposed to be one of the eminent local worthies ensuring the body was well treated. Now this remarkable story of a man's urge to keep a piece of history for himself is behind a new exhibition at Glasgow's Hunterian Museum. There have been many tales, some of them tall, about the so-called remains of the great Scots king, and it could be this is the latest.

What is known, however, is that the toe was bequeathed to the museum by Paton's grandson, Diarmid, a professor of physiology at Glasgow University, who donated it following his death in 1928. It then gathered dust and only came to light again when a young apprentice was trawling through old bones in a drawer at the Hunterian last year. A label said it was Bruce's toe, and while 20-year-old Archie Henderson was sceptical, he decided it was worth checking.

Experts have no way of knowing definitively if the toe is genuine. DNA tests cannot be carried out because it is in such a poor condition. But they believe it is the real thing because of historic documents, which also suggest Paton - a wealthy industrialist and pillar of Dunfermline society - was the thief.

The public had been kept clear of the tomb, and it is unclear what level of access there had been to the king's remains before they were replaced in a new sepulchre.

What is certain is that, as a high-ranking town worthy, Paton would have had few difficulties gaining access to the abbey when no one was around to carry out his plan. As well as stealing the bone, Paton took for himself a piece of the gold-coloured linen shroud that wrapped the body, and fragments from the coffin, including a handle and iron nail.

Dr Sally-Anne Coupar, a Hunterian curator involved in preparing an exhibition about Robert the Bruce, with the toe as its centrepiece, said Paton appeared to have been overcome by his fascination with the king's remains and had stolen the digit when no one was watching.

"It's a tradition that stretched back to Robert the Bruce himself. Any medieval church worth its salt would have at least one bone or memento supposedly belonging to a saint," she said."In Victorian times, people would still have been quite relaxed about pinching bits of human remains as souvenirs. Nobody had any compunction about helping themselves. This man tore off a bit of the shroud and we are probably being too polite when we refer to him as ‘acquiring' the bone."

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