News Analysis

A Scottish saint goes under the microscope

The shoulder of St Margaret of Scotland (Nick Drainey)

Part of St Margaret of Scotland’s shoulder bone has been removed from its reliquary by archaeologists seeking to find out more about the life of one of the country’s most venerated figures.

The experts will use 3D scanning technology to try to discover more about the 11th-century Queen of Scotland’s lifestyle, as well as producing an exact replica which people can hold without fear of breaking an ancient artefact. St Margaret, known as the Pearl of Scotland, led a pious lifestyle and gave much help to the poor, as well as introducing refinements to the country.

Now, Lauren Gill from the University of Glasgow and Martin Lane from Cardiff Metropolitan University have had the opportunity to begin researching the holy relic which is kept in an ornate reliquary at St Margaret’s RC Memorial Church in Dunfermline. Gill, a final-year degree student, says permission had to be given by Archbishop Leo Cushley before work could begin. She will use the 3D scan to recreate St Margaret’s relic.

“You can tell already she was very small, and that is normal for a woman of her era,” Gill says. The team will also look for signs of disease such as gout or osteo-arthritis.

After Margaret was declared a saint by Pope Innocent IV, a shrine was built at Dunfermline where she laid intact until the 16th century. That was when Mary, Queen of Scots asked for her head to be sent to Edinburgh, to bring the queen help as she gave birth to the future King James VI. Her head was then taken to a Jesuit College in Douai, France, but was never seen again after the French Revolution.

As the Reformation threatened to destroy Catholic churches and abbeys, the rest of her body had been secreted away in the 16th century, ultimately being taken to Escorial Monastery by Philip II of Spain. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Bishop James Gillis of Edinburgh sought permission from Pope Pius IX for a relic to be brought to Scotland.

Fr Chris Heenan, parish priest at St Margaret’s RC Memorial Church, said: “They sawed a piece of the shoulder bone off and they sealed it with the seal of the Escorial which you can still see today.”

Bishop Gillis brought it back to Scotland to be placed in St Margaret’s Convent in Edinburgh but when the convent closed it was moved to St Margaret’s RC Memorial Church in Dunfermline in 2008.

Fr Heenan hopes the research following the scan will unveil more of St Margaret’s piety: “She could be quite hard on herself in regards to fasting; you might be able to tell something about her diet.”

Jack Pryde, an expert in Dunfermline history who runs Discover Dunfermline walking tours, says St Margaret – who was born in Hungary ­– is not appreciated in Scotland as much as she should be. “She introduced things that we use every day, like forks and knifes. She was appalled that we didn’t have them here; we just used what God gave us – hands.”