The Declaration of Arbroath, created in 1320, still resonates around the world. In Scotland it is lauded as the first powerful public statement of nationhood; in the United States, many see it as a direct inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence.
In 2020, the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath will be widely celebrated – and nowhere will those celebrations be as significant as at Newbattle Abbey College in Midlothian. Although the seals of the earls and barons were attached at Arbroath, before the document was sent to the Pope at Avignon, historical evidence points to the Declaration being drafted by the nobles of Scotland at Newbattle.
Those close to the college felt it was important to recognise Newbattle’s role – but how? Terry Brotherstone, one of our board members, hit on the idea of the Newbattle Conversations – a series of lectures and discussions in the five years leading up to the 2020 anniversary, which would be marked by an international academic conference at Newbattle.
It was a hugely ambitious programme for a small college to pull off – but Newbattle has a justified reputation as a centre for high-quality debate and we all wanted to make it happen.
The first conversation was led in autumn last year by Professor Neal Ascherson, who has a lifetime’s experience of discussing Scotland in a European context. His lecture: Scotland into Europe: high and low roads was very well-received and he will be followed on 24 November by another feisty and forensic commentator on Scotland and its relationship with Europe, Scotsman columnist Lesley Riddoch.
Lesley has been a public figure for many years and occupied a prominent role in campaigning for a Yes vote in the 2014 independence referendum – an event which prompted a major political awakening in Scotland and provided another catalyst for the Newbattle Conversations.
The Declaration of Arbroath has not entered the public consciousness as much as the Magna Carta in England, but awareness was heightened ahead of the 2014 referendum, when Newbattle students were energised as I have never seen them before.
I am certain our students will be emerged by the latest Newbattle Conversation. With fellow writer and broadcaster Iain McWhirter in the chair for the Lesley Riddoch event, we look forward to another wide-ranging, stimulating exploration of the complex web of relationships between Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. After the Brexit vote, that relationship has never been more complex and uncertain – and it is crucial that future decision-making is based on high-quality and respectful discussions like these.
Next year’s Newbattle Conversations will coincide with the 80th anniversary of the college’s foundation and allow us to celebrate its role as a national centre for adult education and intelligent debate – “a fountain of fresh thinking” as Neal Ascherson described it.
All this will lead into the major conference in April 2020, when some of the world’s leading authorities on constitutions and charters, and the Declaration of Arbroath itself, will converge on Newbattle to present a range of academic papers. We are working with The Scottish Historical Review to ensure there is a strong record of this important event, while we are also involved in attempts to create a digitised version of the Declaration to allow people to see the numerous versions and the changes made to it. We want to bring in school pupils, local historians and the community too, to make the event accessible as well as academic.
The conversations, and the conference, offer us a great opportunity to shine a light on Newbattle. It is often described as one of Scotland’s hidden jewels -– a beautiful building set in glorious woodland which provides the most wonderful place to learn. The adults who come here, having missed out on higher education first time around, love being here and we believe the environment inside and outside the college helps inspire them to find the right pathway to achieve their goals.
The Declaration of Arbroath, created in 1320, was this year placed in Unesco’s Memory of the World register
In the same way, the 700th anniversary conference and the Newbattle Conversations are about celebrating the past, linking it to what is happening today – and engaging people in high-quality discussions. Through the Newbattle Conversations, we are harnessing our rich history to inform the present and shape the future.
Ann Southwood is Principal of Newbattle Abbey College. If you would like to attend the Lesley Riddoch conversation on 24 November, e-mail email@example.com – tickets are free but booking is required.