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Strange Tales from Scotland
My heart will go on


These days most of us are familiar with organ donor programs, by which parts of our bodies can gain an extension on mortality, living on in others. It was a bit different back in the middle centuries of the second millennium. Medical transplants were unknown, of course. But body parts and organs often did have a life of their own, after you died. If you were lucky, it was after you died. Last year around Halloween time we discussed the after-life career of Johannes Brahms's head. This time we'll move down to a different part of the body.

History is strewn with warrior kings, born into times of upheaval, unrest and rebellion, their entire lives spent in battle mode. Robert the Bruce was one of these. A rich mixture of Celtic, Norman and royal Scottish blood flowed through his veins. It was the latter component that came to the fore when Scotland's king John Balliol abdicated in 1296, in favor of Edward I of England. Enraged by Edward's bloody sacking of Berwick, Robert joined forces with William Wallace (yes, Braveheart). His battle record is murky at best, but after submitting for a brief period to Edward in 1302, he once again took up arms, inspired no doubt by Wallace's gory execution in 1304 (Wallace was not one of the lucky ones I referred to before). Two years later he was crowned king at Scone. Robert was stubborn and an early defeat was followed by eventual victory over Edward II, at Bannockburn. It was necessary to defeat England's third Edward before Robert was finally accepted as king, in 1328, gaining Scotland's independence. A year later he died, supposedly of leprosy, more likely of a virulent form of psoriasis.

By this time Robert apparently had gotten so used to a life of battle that he just couldn't let go. He had left instructions that his heart be removed from his body, embalmed, and sent on crusade to the Holy Land. It fell to lot of  Sir James Douglas, known as the Black Douglas because of the terror his name aroused in the English, to carry the Bruce heart, encased in a small casket made of silver or gold, to Palestine. On his way there in 1330, he arrived in Spain just as Alfonso XI of Castile was preparing to do battle against Osmyn, the Moorish governor of Grenada. On March 25th, at Tebas de Ardales the forces of Islam and Christianity clashed. The Scots found themselves surrounded by Moorish cavalry and attempted to break through. Sensing impending defeat, Douglas led a last desperate charge, in the heat of the moment taking the casket from a chain around his neck, cocking his arm back and, in the best action hero style, letting the cardio-missile fly, then charging after it.

The following day, when the main Spanish forces reached the site, the bodies of the Scottish crusaders were discovered on the battlefield. When the corpse of the Black Douglas was turned face up, the casket was found beneath his body, the heart still inside. Robert the Bruce had lead his final charge. His heart would return to Scotland, in the Lowlands, for burial in Melrose Abbey.

This story kindly donated by David Minor.  See his web site here!


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