Sackville resident plays key role in changing history

Corbett helps prove Robert the Bruce did not have leprosy

Published on March 2, 2017

Sackville’s Christian Corbet works on a clay bust of Robert the Bruce, an artwork that included collaborative research with Western University bio-archeologist Andrew Nelson. The bust is the first commissioned by the Bruce family, based on evidence from a cast of the king’s skull. The collaborative research project was undertaken to prove once and for all if the rumour that Robert the Bruce suffered from leprosy was fact or fiction. CHRISTIAN CORBET PHOTO

SACKVILLE, N.B. –A Sackville artist has played a key role in dispelling a myth about one of Scotland’s most legendary figures.

Portraitist Christian Corbet was part of a Western University team that debunked the 700-year-old rumour that Scottish warrior-king Robert the Bruce did not have leprosy.

The suggestion their national hero may have had the disfiguring, contagious disease has long been a fly in the ointment for many Scots.

It was one of the worst things you could call a person. It was the lowest derogatory term you could express to someone because lepers were shunned and separated from society. Portraitist Christian Corbet

Leprosy has lost much of its stigma in recent years, but things were much different in the 1300s.

“It was one of the worst things you could call a person,” Corbet said. “It was the lowest derogatory term you could express to someone because lepers were shunned and separated from society.”

While in Scotland several years to do a portrait of Lord Elgin, Corbet asked members of the family if he could assemble a team to prove what the family’s investigations had revealed – that King Robert did not have leprosy.

Corbet left Scotland with a plaster cast of the king’s skull made when his bones were inadvertently disinterred in 1818. Robert the Bruce, who was featured in the movie Braveheart starring Mel Gibson, fought for Scottish independence from England. He died in 1329 after 23 years on the Scottish throne.

Working with Western University bio-archeologist Prof. Andrew Nelson, the pair were able to prove the king didn’t have the dreaded disease.

“I brought the skull back to Canada with me and took a series of high quality images of it and then the skull was sent out to the various researchers. Everyone started to study whether he had leprosy or not,” Corbet said. “After a few short months it became clear there were no signs of leprosy.”

A clay bust of Robert the Bruce, created by portraitist Christian Corbet as part of a collaborative projected with Western University paleoanthropologist Andrew Nelson, shows the Scottish king as he might have appeared almost 700 years ago. The bust is the first commissioned by the Bruce family, based on evidence from a cast of the king’s skull. Nelson’s research concluded the skull shows no signs of leprosy, despite contemporary and later rumours Robert the Bruce had the disease. PHOTO SUBMITTED

Nelson, who also worked with paleo-pathologist and leprosy expert Dr. Olivier Dutour of France and Dr. Stan Kogon (a professor specializing in forensic dentistry), said the bone around the nose area is teardrop-shaped as it would be in a healthy person while images of the metatarsal bone in the foot showed it to be normal.

The analysis enabled Corbet to shape a bust that shows King Robert as a fierce and battle-scarred warrior, one without the skin lesions common in leprosy.

The bust will be unveiled at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland on March 23 – near the place where Bruce routed the much larger English army under King Edward at Bannockburn in 1314.

Corbet said it would’ve been impossible for the king to carry heavy weapons into battle if he were suffering from leprosy, let alone ride a warhorse with proficiency.

“If he were leading troops into battle with leprosy there’s no way he would’ve been able to carry what he carried,” Corbet said. “These things were heavy.”

Corbet said it’s a history-changing discovery, and while some will continue to claim the king had leprosy, science has now shown otherwise.

This is going to change the public record as well as the history books, he said, adding the story is a significant one for Nova Scotia, considering many Scots moved to the province in the 1700s and 1800s as a result of the Highland Clearances. Many Scots in Nova Scotia trace their heritage back to Scotland for centuries and continue to hold Robert the Bruce in high regard.

“For so many . . . it’s a big part of their history,” he said. “People have been writing me and are very passionate about this and so appreciative that something’s been written that’s so definitive. This is history being re-evaluated and re-examined.”

darrell.cole@tc.tc

Twitter:@ADNdarrell