The Declaration of Arbroath is Alive and Kicking in Modern Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 28th 2020

This year is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. This seminal and pivotal point in Scottish history, in the making of our nation and collective imagination, still says something about each and everyone of us to this day. It has echoed down through the years, along with William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn and the Wars of Independence. These are all part of the foundation stories and myths of what Scotland is and what it means.

The Declaration was designed to secure papal recognition from Pope John XXII in Avignon of Scotland’s independence from the English vassalage of Edward II, son of Edward I, the supposed ‘Hammer of the Scots’. As important as this the words and rhetoric of the document chime and have resonance with debates and how Scotland sees itself through the years, and our autonomy, self-government and nationhood.

The great historian of Scotland T.C. Smout in his landmark ‘A History of the Scottish People’ said of the Declaration that it ‘expresses all the fierce nationalism of the 14th century’, while Geoffrey Barrow in ‘Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland’ wrote that it offered ‘no clearer statement of Scottish nationalism and patriotism in the 14th century’. Ted Cowan, author of a history of the Declaration has claimed that the document represents ‘the first national or governmental articulation, in all of Europe, of the principle of the contractual theory of monarchy which lies at the heart of modern constitutionalism.’

The Declaration matters, still speaks to us and to historians and their many interpretations of Scotland. Yet this overwhelming consensus is not completely universal today and was even less so in the past. The importance of the Declaration has waxed and waned over the years, and it has at times been marginalised, then rediscovered and reinterpreted.

There could in fact be seen to be several Declarations of Arbroath, after the original document was signed by an assembly of nobles at Newbattle Abbey in March 1320 and then the final text sent by Bernard of Linton, Chancellor of Scotland and Abbot of Arbroath, dated April 6th 1320.

For one the Declaration was rediscovered and reclaimed when the original Latin text was published in 1680. The context of this is the decades before the Treaty of Union of 1707, and in the immediate period beforehand various English authorities were yet again trying to dispute the legal standing of Scottish independence, with the Scottish Parliament responding by publishing and invoking various documents pointing to the basis of Scotland being a self-governing nation.

In the history of Scotland post-1707 the Declaration is seen as one of the pillars contributing to the distinct strands of how we understand Scotland as a nation and community – and seen as such and referenced by unionists and nationalists alike. Such was the dominance of unionism until recent decades that key totems such as the Declaration were seen as a backdrop to the distinct political tradition here becoming part of and informing unionist Scotland.

This is the way that previous significant anniversaries were marked – such as the 600th in 1920 and the 650th in 1970. But by the latter dissent began to appear with the great and good gathering in Arbroath in a typically low-key affair – one headed by then Secretary of State Willie Ross, who liked to see himself as a modern day ‘Hammer of the Nats’. In this setting the nationalist campaigner Wendy Wood stood up and, as Ross was about to begin his speech, uttered a single word ‘Hypocrite’ that echoed through the still abbey, was heard by everyone and cut through the fussy proceedings.

This anniversary – the 700th – feels significant given Scotland’s constitutional status, its disputed nature, and the state of the union and the politics of the UK. It has seen the welcome publication by the Saltire Society of the book ‘The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath’ – a beautifully produced and designed creation written and put together by Andrew Redmond Barr. As well as that Ted Cowan’s classic ‘The Declaration of Arbroath 1320: ‘For Freedom Alone’ is being reprinted in a new edition.

Andrew Redmond Barr comments on why he wrote his account that ‘all the existing books on the Declaration were academic in nature’, and that he undertook this project ‘with a view that our history needs room to breathe outwith academia, and that artistic interpretation can aid our understanding of the past.’

He thinks that the document, and the multiple myths and readings of it mean that it has ‘resonated with different people at different times, often for quite different reasons’. He observes that: ‘The Declaration comes from one specific time and place, but it also speaks about ideas of freedom and humanity in the broadest and most universal terms, making it easily understood, even centuries later, far beyond Scotland’s own borders.’

More importantly, Barr thinks the document is still hugely relevant: ‘The Declaration is not only one of the primary foundation stones of Scottish identity, it is also the original document of Scottish democratic thought, a thread of which has found its way through centuries of cultural and political change to this very moment.’

The relevance of a 1320 document has to be carefully handled. Scotland of course then was not a democracy in any sense of the word. The Declaration is about a dispute in the narrow confines of the ruling classes and elites of Scotland and England – and hence has similarities with Runnymede and Magna Carta of 1215, the power of barons and monarchs, and the issue of vassalage and the claim of the English king to the Scottish throne. It is also about a very masculinist tradition of citizenship – one seen the world over and critiqued in feminist analysis such as Carole Pateman’s ‘The Sexual Contract’.

Allowing for the context of 1320 and that at the time this was not a document in words or intent aiming to invoke the notion of popular sovereignty – because it was an alien concept to all concerned – from the Scottish barons and king to the English, no such statement in its meaning remains fixed and static through time.

Rather the Declaration like many other key historic texts the world over has become through the history that has followed, the power of the words within it and the political rhetoric it has invoked, a living document relevant in the present, cited over and over again: ‘For, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we 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 – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’ These words at the time rejected the absolutism of the age and divine right of kings and proposed a conditional, contractual form of constitutionalism, monarchy and power, making it an audacious, radical, even revolutionary document.

It should not be surprising that the Declaration – which was not really about such far-reaching notions as popular sovereignty – should be reappraised and read in this light. It has been a contributor to the distinct lineage of a Scottish political and regal tradition – one which has consistently refused to be assimilated even in the days of the high watermark of unionism.

Despite all this the Declaration to this day – while remaining inspiring for many and a central reference point – still produces for some embarrassment or a desire to turn a new leaf and not cite such supposedly nationalist inspired documents. You might think in today’s Scotland that the villains of the peace in this would be the usual suspects: the Tories and the perpetually embarrassed Labour Party on all things Scottish, but you would be in for a surprise if you thought that.

The main culprits keeping quiet about the 700th anniversary of the Declaration are unbelievably the modern day SNP. There are, as I write at the end of January 2020 with days to go before the UK leaves the EU and Scotland is dragged out of the EU against its democratic will, no major national commemorations or celebrations of this august moment and document beyond the annual marking of it in Arbroath.

From the Scottish Government and SNP, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, there is nothing but a deafening and perplexing silence. It is as if they have turned full circle in the Scottish cringe. First, we had to talk about these things and mark them to break through the wall of silence of official Scotland and claim these key totems as belonging to the people and speaking through the years to all of us in the present. But then having done that the modern SNP seems to have an embarrassment about things that are too obviously Scottish, romantic, sentimental and kitsch. It is almost as if having agitated for all of us to get out our boxes, they want us to climb back in them and be polite and respectable for fear someone might cry ‘Braveheart.’

This deafening silence has been noted in unlikely circles. Magnus Linklater, no friend of all things SNP wrote in ‘The Times’ a couple of weeks ago that: ‘A document full of emotive stuff about freedom does not really chime with the image of the SNP today: they may be keen on the riches, but not so much the glory.’

He went on to say with words of penetrating accuracy that: ‘a country that takes no interest in its history is one that fails to draw on its lessons. There is a lack of intellectual curiosity here, and a worrying dilution of culture and identity.’ The publisher Hugh Andrew who runs Birlinn put it pithily when he asked: ‘Am I the only one to find it extraordinary that a nationalist government cannot find it in itself to celebrate one of the world’s great documents about nationhood, liberty and freedom?’

There is a glaring tension running through the modern SNP which this exposes and this is between cultural and political nationalism. The SNP as we have grown to know it post-Hamilton is rooted in being a party of the latter with little to nothing to say about the former. Indeed, look at the empty cultural shards of policy of the party in government over more than a decade. The SNP is all about respectability, competence and the here and now, not noting that this is never enough in politics let alone the cause of independence.

The Declaration is about all of us. We are more than the claims of politicians and Parliaments. We are more than playing it safe, citing the latest buzzwords about ‘sustainable growth’, ‘well-being’ and ‘social justice’ while doing little of substance on them. And we are more than worrying about how we are portrayed by people inside or outside Scotland trying to embarrass us and prevent us having a grown up debate about how we run our own affairs.

We have a shared heritage – one that we can draw upon and that incomers can become part of. We have inclusive traditions and reference points, irrespective of background, of where we are from or our view on the present day constitutional question.

The importance of the Declaration is that it reminds us where we came from, who we are now, and what we are all part of. We are at our best a nation capable of asking penetrating questions, of invoking rich arguments and principles which resonate down through the years, and as Wendy Wood did all those years ago speaking out in the silence of the abbey and saying what needed to be said.

We need to rekindle and restate those characteristics in the present. We need to remember where we have come from, why we are here and what our collective stories, songs, poems, myths and folklore are. The Declaration of Arbroath is part of every single one of us and we should celebrate that and act upon its enduring legacy. We are all part of something bigger, richer and more noble than the present.