Why the Declaration of Arbroath has echoed throughout human history – Lesley Riddoch

Whatever you think about Scottish independence, the Declaration of Arbroath is an important document about liberty and should be celebrated for that reason, writes Lesley Riddoch.
This year is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath (Picture: NRS/PA)This year is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath (Picture: NRS/PA)
This year is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath (Picture: NRS/PA)

Should Scots be celebrating the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath? The question hovers over any non-coronavirus story in these sombre, straitened times.

But the global pandemic is not the only thing preventing due recognition of Scotland’s most famous historical document today.

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Given its primary purpose of contesting the English king’s claims to overlordship of Scotland, the most famous line of the Declaration can sound uncomfortably anti-English and erring on the wrong side of Braveheart triumpahlism to some.

Others suggest the self-serving antics of a few medieval barons has been wrongly valorised and perhaps it’s inevitable (if unfair) that controversy attaches to a document arguing for independence, given the divided nature of opinion in Scotland today. That could be why the official celebrations, overseen by Conservative-led Angus Council, sidestepped any analysis of the Declaration. Indeed, it probably seemed easier for all the authorities to plan low-key celebrations, since cancelled by the coronavirus shutdown, or avoid opening Pandora’s Box altogether.

Is that why STV and the BBC failed to commission any TV documentary to mark the occasion? Writer and broadcaster Billy Kay has produced a three-part series for Radio Scotland (first part today 1.30), but besides this and minor efforts online, BBC Scotland has no TV programme marking the big anniversary today, on BBC1 Scotland, the BBC Scotland Channel or BBC Alba.

That’s a big miss.

Mel Gibson may have strayed from historical fact with Braveheart, others may have glossed over Robert the Bruce’s many faults and the Wars of Independence may have unhelpfully eclipsed every other period in Scotland’s history. But here was an ideal opportunity for broadcasters to unravel some of this, sort the wheat from the chaff and examine diverse opinions about this singular historic event. A chance for the BBC to do what it’s financed by the licence fee and bound by charter to do: educate, inform and entertain.

But BBC Scotland hasn’t marked the Declaration’s 700th anniversary. Official celebrations have been postponed till 2021, but there was a failure to commission long before the coronavirus lockdown began, and in the current terrible circumstances it feels rather petty to even ask why.

Could it be the Declaration wasn’t that important a moment in Scotland’s history?

Clearly, having made a film documentary posted online this weekend, I would disagree.

But more importantly, so do historians. Of course, they debate the motives and meaning of the “letter fae the barons” – and disagreement is usually fruitful ground for programme-makers – but no-one suggests it was insignificant.

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According to historian Dr Fiona Watson: “This was the earliest European assertion of the right of a nation to self determination.” Medieval specialist Dr Tom Turpie says: “It’s one of the most significant documents to come out of the British Isles, if not Western Europe in the Middle Ages.”

Perhaps BBC commissioners felt a dry medieval letter was too boring a focus for younger viewers. That’s a shame, because such fascinating human stories lie within. The letter’s big objective was to persuade the Pope – supreme adjudicator of international disputes – that Scotland should be recognised as an independent kingdom with Robert the Bruce its lawful king. In 1320, that was quite an ask.

The Pope had excommunicated Bruce three times – once for killing a rival – and summoned him to face the music, in person, several times, in vain. As a result, the whole of civic Scotland was facing a papal interdict that would stop official ceremonies like marriage. Another factor was pushing Bruce towards peace. His brother Edward had died in battle, leaving King Robert without an obvious heir – exactly the same kingship crisis that started English incursions 30 years earlier. Suddenly, Scotland might be up for grabs again.

So, despite the victory of Bannockburn, King Robert had to turn to the Scots clergy, relatively under-acknowledged actors in the Declaration story, to provide the words and diplomatic guile to mollify an infuriated Pope. Three letters were written and only the last remains, now known as the Declaration of Arbroath. Written in Latin, it carried the seals of Scotland’s barons to give at least an impression of unanimous support. And it did succeed – eventually.

In 1324, Pope John XXII recognised Robert as king and and four years later peace terms were agreed with the English.

Importantly, Bannockburn didn’t deliver peace. Bruce realised he couldn’t beat Edward into submission, so words came to the rescue. It was the Declaration that sealed the deal, adding an important extra dimension to Scottish identity as canny peace-makers, shrewd persuaders and eloquent writers, as well as fierce fighters.

According to Tom Turpie, the Jacobites saw the Declaration as a royalist document; “They used it to say that all states need monarchs. But in the 19th century people more on the left begin to use it, from the angle of popular sovereignty, suggesting Scotland has had a long tradition of democracy. For the last 300 years [the Declaration] has taken on a life of its own.”

So, its key messages are contested – used by different groups to bolster different political arguments over each passing century. But that should make the Declaration more interesting, not less so.

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Did it influence the American Declaration of Independence? There’s no direct proof of a connection, but the US Congress decided to hold Tartan Day on 6 April because they believed Scotland’s Declaration influenced their own Declaration of Independence. As Billy Kay points out, many of those American framers were of Scots descent and the Declaration of Arbroath had been published in more than a dozen books in the run up to 1776.

It’s another fascinating dimension.

The Declaration of Arbroath is the letter that helped win peace where war had failed and – even if the barons had no desire for democracy and King Robert no intention to be set aside – it made history as the first medieval document to define a nation as its people, not just the property of a king.

And however folk feel about Scottish independence today, those historic words about liberty, freedom and the right to self-determination still inspire folk around the world.

Surely that’s worth celebrating?

“Declaration; the letter of liberty” is available online http://vimeo.com/401599947

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