“The Declaration of Arbroath was and has been unequalled in its eloquent plea for the liberty of man. From the darkness of mediaeval minds it shone a torch upon future struggles which its signatories could not have foreseen or understood.
“Firstly it set the will and the wishes of the people above the King… Secondly, the manifesto affirmed the nation’s independence in a way no battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race.”
That’s the much-quoted opinion of John Prebble in his 1971 “personal” overview of Scotland’s history, The Lion in the North. Whether or not it still holds, with its Dark-Ages overtones and will-of-the-people interpretation, one thing can’t be denied: that the Declaration of Arbroath is now, centuries years after it was written, a hugely significant historical record.
1. It’s 700 years old
It’s generally believed that the document was drawn up at Arbroath Abbey by the abbot, Bernard of Kilwinning, who was Chancellor of Scotland under King Robert I (Robert Bruce), and dated 6 April, 1320. A total of 39 Scottish nobles are named in the text and most or all of them would have attached their seals to the bottom, along with the seals of 11 others not mentioned.
2. It was a letter to the Pope
At this time during Scotland’s wars of independence, Robert Bruce and his supporters were campaigning on two fronts: to lift his recent (and second) excommunication and to have Robert recognised as king of an independent Scotland. This document was a letter, one of three sent to Pope John XXII, of which only the Declaration survives. Its aim was to persuade him to support Robert in both these points and to convince the Pope of the antiquity of Scotland’s independence as a sovereign nation.
3. It wasn’t a declaration
The name ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ is a recent one, dating from the late 19th century. In fact, according to the University of Glasgow’s Laura S Harrison, “there was relatively little mention of the Declaration by any name prior to 1920” – nearly 600 years after the event. It’s possible that the name was coined to link this document to the United States Declaration of Independence.
4. It wasn’t always treated with respect
The document we now think of as the Declaration of Arbroath is the only surviving copy made in 1320. The Vatican’s has long since been lost, and this, the ‘Tyninghame’ copy, wasn’t given the veneration that it now has.
During the 17th century, repairs were carried out to Edinburgh Castle, where the national records were kept. The Declaration was taken for safekeeping to Tyninghame, the home of the Lord Clerk Register , the official in charge of the records (presumably Thomas Hamilton, 1st Earl of Haddington, whose residence it was). While there it was damaged by damp and rodents’ teeth, as you can see from the image near the bottom of this page. The document was returned to the custody of the Deputy Clerk Register in 1829.
5. It’s been reinterpreted many times
For nearly 400 years, few translations were made from the original Latin into English that historians are aware of now.
Then in (presumably) the early 1640s a translation of the Vatican copy was made by the Irish Franciscan Fr Luke Wadding, in which the words “Yet if he stops what he has begun, exposing our kingdom to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a usurper of his own right and ours, and make we will make another man our King…” are underlined.
This was done at the time of the Irish rebellion of 1641, during which the ‘Old Irish’ Catholic gentry’s attempt to seize control from the English administration escalated into ethnic and religious war. Historian Benjamin Hazard suggests that the text, particularly the underlined section, could be used to justify rising up against a non-Catholic king; though he adds that Wadding doesn’t seem to have made use of it. But here we have a translation of the Declaration being repurposed for religious/political uses.
Later that century, another translation was used to justify revolution in Scotland. In 1689 a version by the Lord Advocate, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, was published. Ironically, given that Mackenzie was a supporter of James VII (and II), his interpretation of the same passage was used to justify the declaration that King James had forfeited his right to the throne of Scotland and that it could be offered to William of Orange and his wife Mary.
In a further twist, this translation was used against William after the failure of the Darien Scheme a decade or so later, and was utilised again in 1703, when the Scottish government threatened to choose its own successor to Queen Anne – one of the triggers that led to the Union of Parliaments in 1707.
As Edward J Cowan writes: “The association with 1689 renders the Arbroath letter mythic, as it becomes part of a process which will eventually transform it into an oath, a manifesto, a sacred charter, and a declaration of independence to attain a status that can only be described as ‘parahistorical’.” (For Freedom Alone: The Declaration of Arbroath)
6. Its most famous passage was adapted from another document
“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.” (Translation from the original Latin by National Records of Scotland.)
Abbot Bernard’s stirring words, the most often-quoted passage from the Declaration, were adapted from Sallust‘s Conspiracy of Catiline, which was written between 44 and 40 BC, in which the Roman historian wrote: “But at power or wealth, for the sake of which wars, and all kinds of strife, arise among mankind, we do not aim; we desire only our liberty, which no honourable man relinquishes but with life.” (Translation by the Rev John Selby Watson, 1867.)
7. It failed
Well, it failed in its attempt to get the Pope to lift the excommunication and recognise Robert as King of Scots, although he did so later. But it also succeeded: the Pope did write to Edward II of England, urging him to seek peace. In 1328, the treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton recognised the independence of Scotland and Robert I as king. And a year later, John XXII issued a bull permitting the King of Scots to be anointed and crowned in his name; a major propaganda victory.
And its influence is greater now, seven centuries later; greater than could ever have been hoped for in the Abbey of Arbroath all those years ago. Indeed, as National Records of Scotland says, it’s “widely seen as Scotland’s most iconic document“.
8. Many Scots don’t know about it (but would like to)
If you hadn’t heard of the Declaration of Arbroath before now, you’re not alone. Recent research commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland shows that just under half (48.7%) of the 1,000 people surveyed had heard of the declaration and knew at least something about it. However, when told about the document, 72% agreed it was “important or very important for Scotland’s development as a nation”, with 77% of people wanting to know more.
9. So what is it?
Perhaps one way to look at it is as a document which (not unlike Magna Carta) has been reinterpreted to mean what people needed it to mean at the time, whether that’s a justification for rebellion, a political precedent, a transatlantic inspiration, or evidence of nationhood, nationalism and independence stretching back over many centuries.
10. And it is, of course, a great national treasure.
Events to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath have been postponed because of Covid-19, but organisers, including National Records of Scotland, hope to reschedule them once it’s safe.
Declaration of Arbroath (‘Tyninghame’ copy): Scottish Government via Flickr, perspective adjusted
Arbroath Abbey: gailhampshire via Flickr
Robert the Bruce statue, Bannockburn: kim traynor via Geograph
Seal of Robert I, King of Scotland: via Wikimedia