Experts reconstruct the face of the Scottish ‘warrior-king’ Robert the Bruce


An incredible collaborative effort from the historians from the University of Glasgow and craniofacial experts from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) has resulted in what might be the credible reconstruction of Robert the Bruce’s actual face. The consequent image in question (derived from the cast of a human skull held by the Hunterian Museum) presents a male subject in his prime with heavy-set, robust characteristics, complemented aptly by a muscular neck and a rather stocky frame. In essence, the impressive physique of Robert the Bruce alludes to a protein-rich diet, which would have made him ‘conducive’ to the rigors of brutal medieval fighting and riding.


Now historicity does support such a perspective, with Robert the Bruce (Medieval Gaelic: Roibert a Briuis) often being counted among the great warrior-leaders of his generation, who successfully led Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence against England, culminating in the pivotal Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 AD and later invasion of northern England. In fact, Robert was already crowned the King of Scots in 1306 AD, after which he was engaged in a series of guerrilla warfare against the English crown, thus illustrating the need for physical capacity for the throne-contenders in medieval times.

Reverting to the reconstruction in question, the ambit of physical strength was ironically also accompanied by frailty, with the skull analysis showing probable signs of leprosy which would have disfigured parts of the face, like the upper jaw and the nose. Once again bringing history into the mix, scholars have long hypothesized that Robert suffered some ailment (possibly leprosy) that significantly affected the Scottish king’s health in the latter stages of his life. During one particular incident in 1327 AD, it is said that the king was so weak that he could barely move his tongue in Ulster; and only two years later Robert met his demise at the age of 54.

Interestingly enough, in many ways this reconstruction project was inspired by the previous historical recreation that entailed the famous discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III of England (in 2012) beneath a parking lot. As a matter of fact, Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of LJMU’s Face Lab, who was responsible for reconstructing the face of King Richard III, also helped with the effort of recreating the Scottish king’s visage. Dr Martin MacGregor, a senior lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Glasgow, and the head of the project, said –

I was aware of previous attempts to recreate the face of the skull linked to Robert the Bruce. The case of Richard III revealed how far the technology had advanced. I saw an opportunity to apply the technology to the Hunterian skull held here at Glasgow: first to test the credibility of its connection to Bruce, and then to try to add to our knowledge of Scotland’s greatest king.

However, as with most historical reconstructions, the experts have admitted that the recreated scope has some percentage of imbued hypothetical data – especially when it comes to the color of Robert’s eyes and hair. As Professor Wilkinson herself stated –

Using the skull cast, we could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face. But what the reconstruction cannot show is the color of his eyes, his skin tones and the color of his hair. We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy. He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face, as this is not documented.


The Hunterian cast of the original skull.

Now these facial factors could be established by using the original DNA of the individual. But in the case of the Hunterian skull, the object is just one of the very few casts of the actual head of Robert (pictured above). In that regard, the original skull was excavated way back in 1818-19 from a grave in Dunfermline Abbey, but was later sealed and reburied (after some casts were made). However in spite of the ‘drawback’, the researchers tried their best at recreating the presumably authentic features of the medieval Scottish warrior-king. Professor Wilkinson made it clear –

In the absence of any DNA, we relied on statistical evaluation of the probability of certain hair and eye colors, conducted by Dr MacGregor and his team, to determine that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes. There have also been a number of advances in facial reconstruction techniques since previous depictions of this Scottish hero, including better facial feature prediction and more advanced CGI. This is the most realistic appearance of Robert the Bruce to-date, based on all the skeletal and historical material available.

Source/ All Images Credit: University of Glasgow

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