An archaeology student studying a more than nine-centuries-old shoulder bone fragment of St Margaret of Scotland hopes her research will bring people closer to one of Scotland’s most venerated figures.
Lauren Gill from the University of Glasgow received special permission from the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, in order to carry out 3D scans on the precious first-class relic, as part of her study into relic veneration, and to find out more information about the 11th century queen.
“My dissertation is focused on how useful 3D scans of saintly relics can be to archaeology,” Ms Gill told The Catholic Universe.
“Since the rise of the ‘cult of relics’ in the Medieval period, relics have become less accessible to worshippers – understandably, as they are now considered of historical importance,” she added.
However, Ms Gill explained that having a 3D scanned model of a relic would allow people to handle such a precious object without fear of damaging it.
With this in mind, Ms Gill approached Fr Chris Heenan, parish priest of St Margaret’s R.C. Memorial Church in Dunfermline, where the relic of a fragment of St Margaret’s shoulder bone is housed.
She outlined her long-standing fascination of saintly relics to the priest and explained that on an academic level they engage in all of the areas of archaeology that interest her – Catholicism, community, phenomenology and belief.
The student noted that St Margaret was particularly special to her, mostly due to her value to Scotland.
‘In a time where Scottish identity is developing and strengthening constantly, I believe that adding to knowledge of strong figures of relevance to Scotland (such as St Margaret) is in the public interest, as well as the Church’s,’ Ms Gill told Fr Heenan.
She went on to ask if she could be granted permission to study the relic of St Margaret, including photogrammetry – creating a 3D scan of the bone.
Fascinated by Ms Gill’s request, Fr Heenan decided to contact Archbishop Cushley, whose archdiocese oversees parts of Fife, including St Margaret’s R.C. Memorial Church.
“I consulted Archbishop Cushley and we were both intrigued and excited by the project,” Fr Heenan told The Catholic Universe.
The archbishop asked Fr Heenan to meet Ms Gill, which he did, and she explained her idea in full, giving him the necessary reassurances that the scan would be completely safe and would not damage the bone.
Following this meeting, the archbishop granted his permission and on 1st March the reliquary was opened for the first time since 1938 and Fr Heenan removed the relic from the crystal theca that holds it.Then, on 12th March, Martin Lane, from Cardiff Metropolitan University, scanned the relic in the Lady Chapel of the church.
“From a technical point of view, I wanted to get as much accurate data as possible to create a whole 3D image so that Lauren could have the best start when recreating the piece,” Mr Lane told The Catholic Universe.
“There are certain areas that create problems, shiny surfaces and dark areas can leave voids in the model that are then interpreted by the software, this wouldn’t give a true reflection of the bone but with perhaps some divine intervention we persisted to rotate the model and stitch the meshes together to create a great finished piece.”
Ms Gill revealed that after a short visual analysis of the bone no trace of disease could be seen from the scapula. However, she said its very small size could possibly suggest malnutrition, maybe relating to her fasting and to the poor diet of the era.
Noting her own particular interest in St Margaret, Ms Gill explained that the 11th century queen’s relics are of great interest to many people, and she hopes her work will help bring people closer to her.
“She was an interesting, powerful and pious lady, who achieved many things throughout her life; and who is credited as a national heroine. Therefore I believe her relics are of considerable interest to the people of Dunfermline, to Scotland, and to the worldwide community,” she said.
“Having a 3D-scanned model of a relic means that visitors to St Margaret’s R.C. Memorial Church can handle the scapula of St Margaret as it was originally supposed to be handled, without endangering the safety of the bone.
“Physical contact with relics was originally considered important to worshippers and pilgrims, and I would like to utilise modern technology to recreate that.”
Fr Heenan noted that while many people will be interested in touching this exact replica of the relic, it will be particularly beneficial to younger people.
“We often have school groups visit our Church. They love the story of Margaret. To be able to give them this exact replica to touch will be of great benefit in helping them come close to this wonderful woman who has done so much for Scotland – and does still,” he said.
Fr Heenan said the relic is kept in a chamber in the altar of St Margaret’s R.C. Memorial Church’s Lady Chapel.
He also noted that Turgot of Durham, St Margaret’s biographer, revealed that her last words were the prayer of preparation of the priest for Holy Communion – ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, your death brought life to the world. By your Holy Body and Blood, deliver me…’.
“Whenever, I celebrate Mass on that Altar and pray that same prayer I experience so many emotions, to be the first person to touch this physical part of her in more than 80 years was awesome and humbling,” he said.
“I hope that this study helps to make this amazing woman better known, more appreciated and increases the faith, hope and love that were the hallmark of her life.”
St Margaret of Scotland
Born c. 1045, St Margaret, known as the ‘Pearl of Scotland’, became Queen of Scotland around 1070 when she married King Malcolm III.
A very pious Roman Catholic, St Margaret carried out many works of charity, including visiting and caring for the sick and having hostels built for the poor.
She also introduced Benedictine monks to Dunfermline, in Fife, and North and South Queensferry are named after her due to her establishment of ferries at Queensferry and North Berwick to assist pilgrims travelling from south of the Firth of Forth to the shrine of St Andrew in Fife.
St Margaret died in Edinburgh Castle on 16th November 1093 and her body was brought back to her beloved Dunfermline by way of the ferry that she had endowed to transport the pilgrims. She was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity that she had caused to be built and was canonised in 1249.
A shrine was built behind the High Altar of the Abbey Church, so that pilgrims could come and venerate her relics and seek her intercession. Her relics were translated to the new shrine in June 1250.
Dunfermline Abbey became a great place of pilgrimage and Robert the Bruce paid for a lamp to burn in front of her shrine. Dunfermline succeeded Iona as the burial ground of the Kings of Scots, with Robert the Bruce himself buried in Dunfermline Abbey, desiring to be close to St Margaret in death.
In March 1560, the monks of Dunfermline received word that the Reformers were coming to “cast down” the Abbey, so they removed the relics of St Margaret and her husband, Malcolm III, and took them to the Abbot’s House at Craigluscar, above Dunfermline. They remained there for several years.
The reliquary containing St Margaret’s head was brought to Mary Queen of Scots, to help her when she was in labour with her son, James VI, in Edinburgh Castle. This relic was sent to the Scots College at Douai and was enshrined at an altar there. It was lost at the French Revolution.
However, the relic of St Margaret’s scapula came to Scotland after having been taken to El Escorial by King Philip II of Spain. It was brought back to Scotland by Bishop James Gillis in 1862, and delivered to the care of the Ursuline Sisters, in Edinburgh.
In 2008, the relic moved to its current home, in St Margaret’s R.C. Memorial Church, in Dunfermline.
Picture: The process of scanning the relic. (Fr Chris Heenan).