The Significance and Power of the Declaration of Arbroath

FEATURE | 20.03.26

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One Celtic Connections performance paid tribute to the Declaration

THE past, as we are regularly reminded, is a foreign country where things are done differently. Meanwhile, the distant past, the past far beyond living memory, is not so much foreign as ungraspable. This is how Scotland of 700 ago seems to me.

Historians tell us that it was largely tree-covered and uncultivated and that people were relatively few. Where they existed roads were rough, towns were more like hamlets, and when darkness descended only the intrepid and foolhardy ventured forth.

Glasgow, for example, in the 14th century, was a huddle of rudimentary buildings situated on the banks of the Clyde. Edinburgh, albeit already accepted as the country’s capital, was centred on the Castle Rock around which the population huddled for protection. In contrast, say, to Florence and Tuscany, where the Renaissance was already in full swing, Scotland was a primitive backwater.

The reasons for this are many and complex, involving not only history but geography. For many foreigners, and indeed for many Scots, much of the place that came later to be known as “North Briton” was terra incognita. In my mind’s eye, I imagine it as the Wild West was to trailblazers. Who knew what lay beyond the pockets of what passed for civilisation? Shakespeare, writing in the 16th century, may never have ventured across the Border but Macbeth gives a good impression of what others believed Scotland to be like: “Bleed, bleed, poor country!” howls the unfortunate Macduff. “Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure, For goodness dare not check thee.”

BUT whatever Scotland’s failings, it did, even by the 13th century, have a clear sense of itself as a nation. William Wallace, for example, was described in 1297, as “a true champion of the kingdom for the independence of its people”. The country was coalescing, becoming less factional and fractious and, consequently, more governable.

It was a kingdom, albeit one tightly controlled by a small group of people. As the historian Michael Lynch has remarked, Scotland had a “a distinct sense of its own identity”, which was carefully scrutinised and examined. “Kings,” added Lynch, “were tested as never before, in their dual roles as warlord and good lord of their subjects. The peoples of the kingdom – from magnates to freeholders, husbandmen or burgesses – were for the first time dragged on to the national stage for a long period.”

Of course war with England was a constant threat, and a debilitating and distracting factor. For decades Scotland lived with the neurosis of attack from its nearest neighbour – as South Korea does today from North Korea.

This is the context in which the Declaration of Arbroath was composed. What are now known as the Wars of Independence raged for years. The initiator was Edward I, who, in Flower of Scotland, must be sent homeward to think again. Seizing the opportunity of a power vacuum, he laid claim to Scotland, wreaking havoc and killing wantonly.

The Stone of Destiny was seized and taken to Westminster Abbey. Scotland, as well as Wales and Ireland, was to be subjected to English rule. Subsequently, in 1305, Pope Clement V recognised Edward’s claim of overlordship of Scotland and excommunicated Robert the Bruce for the murder of his rival John Comyn in Dumfries in 1306.

It was in a bid to have Bruce’s excommunication lifted that the 39 signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath – eight earls and 31 barons – petitioned the new pope, John XXII, who was then based in Avignon in France. Written originally in Latin just six years after the Battle of Bannockburn, it eloquently expressed the heartfelt anxieties and wishes of the country’s leaders. Who its principle author was we cannot be sure, though it has been popularly assumed to have been one Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath. Its style is ornate, as papal protocol demanded, but its sentiments are clear, as articulated in its most famous and sonorous passage: “Yet if he [Robert the Bruce] should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

In all, the Declaration runs to a little more than 1200 words. Like a newspaper editorial, it took a point of view and stuck to it.

The origins of the Scots, the signatories informed Pope John, could be traced “from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules”. For a while, they continued, our ancestors dwelt in Spain “among the most savage of peoples”. Never, however, were they subdued.

Thereafter, 1200 years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, the ancient Scots made their way north to what would become their homeland. Often “assailed” by would-be usurpers, including the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they fought them all off, holding it “free of all servitude ever since”, “through the reigns of 113 kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner”.

What the pope made of all of this is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that there was no rush to respond. Eight years passed before a reply, sanctioned by John XXII, lifting Bruce’s excommunication, was received. The Declaration – today accepted as “the most celebrated document in Scottish history” and “a surrogate Scottish constitution” – had served its purpose but soon sank into obscurity. Centuries passed before it was disinterred and its near-mythic status was achieved.

Much of its enduring appeal, argues Lynch, is due to the simplicity of its language, condensing the mythology of the nation’s past with “a compelling vision of the relationship of kings of Scots and the Scottish people” and summarising “the history of the present struggle” as one in which the key issue was liberty. It is an idea to which everyone in the country, irrespective of their position, can relate.

SIMILARLY, the tone of letter (it was not designated a Declaration until the 20th century), while respectful, demonstrates that no person is above reproach, not even a king, who owes his position to the will of the people.

It is they who will decide whether he is worthy of their support. They will not tolerate any treachery or decline in standards. There must be no wheeling and dealing for personal favour. It is a precursor of the age-old, homespun attitude to those who believe themselves superior, summed up in the phrase “ah kent your faither”. Even kings, the Declaration implies, are subjects and must be judged as such.

Its sentiments run through Scottish life. At its core is the word freedom – libertas in Latin. Defining it is not easy. Freedom from what? Tyranny? Slavery? An unwelcome union? Societal constraints? Conventions? Expectations?

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” sings Kris Kristofferson in Me and Bobby McGee. “A life without freedom to choose is not worth having,” wrote the recently deceased Alasdair Gray. In Hamish Henderson’s poem, The Freedom Come-All-Ye, it is seen as a universal right, in which the peoples of the world are united, irrespective of creed or colour or class: “So come all yi’ at hame wi’ freedom, Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom.

In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room.”

Bemused visitors to Sandy Bell’s bar in Edinburgh would often be treated to its composer singing it a cappella and lustily like an anthem that belonged to all countries. In that regard Henderson was reimagining the Declaration for a century in which there had been two calamitous wars. It was a call not to arms but to lay them down and work in the common good. It also contained more than an echo of Robert Burns’s A Man’s A Man for A’ That, which Sheena Wellington sang at the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999: A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis duke, an’ a’ that; But an honest man’s abon his might, Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!

For a’ that, an’ a’ that, Their dignities an’ a’ that; The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth, Are higher rank than a’ that.

Burns may not have read the Declaration of Arbroath but Hamish Henderson most certainly did. The rise of nationalism in the twentieth century led to a revival of interest in such documents. Paul Henderson Scott, the nationalist commentator, described it in 1997 as “the foundation of Scottish political thought” and traced its influence on countless other pronouncements, including several Claims of Rights.

It was also believed to have helped shaped the American Declaration of Independence, given the contribution of Scots Americans to the drafting of that document. But while some historians believe this credible others dismiss it. Suffice it to say it divides opinion.

As, indeed, does the interpretation of the document. As time passes, the meaning of words change. What people thought and believed in the 14th century is very different from our perspective. To that extent, the past defies comprehension and resists imagination. It is the backdrop of historical novelists and professional historians. In his book The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, the American historian Arthur Herman notes that William Robertson makes no mention of the Declaration of Arbroath in his History of Scotland, published in 1759.

This may well be, of course, because the period covered by Robertson was not the 14th century but the second half of the 16th. Herman argues that Robertson ignored the Declaration “not because he was a brainwashed Anglophile, but because he saw it in a historical context, as a well-worded defence of the old Scottish feudal regime by its oligarchic regime.” But if that was the case, then why didn’t Robertson say so?

It all depends to some extent on which side of the independence argument you sit. History is as open to distortion and revision and manipulation as other human endeavours.

(Source: The National)

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