On Monday 6th April, Scotland will celebrate the 700th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. In normal times, were we not in coronavirus lockdown, there would have been great waving of flags, skirling of the pipes and stirring nationalist speeches to mark the occasion. Famous extracts from the declaration would be read out by kilted warriors, their chests bursting with pride: "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. 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".

The Declaration of Arbroath, made in 1320, was a letter in Latin sent to Pope John XXII. Historians argue that it was most likely drafted in the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey by Abbot Bernard. It was signed by eight earls and thirty-one barons, whose seals were attached to the foot of the document. It was then sent by ship to France and delivered to the Pope in Avignon by Sir Adam de Gordon. There is no doubt that the declaration was one of the most lucid, powerful and profound expressions of Scottish nationhood ever written. But it has to be viewed in the context of its time and place in history.

Scotland was at war with England, a conflict that began with Edward I’s invasion in 1296. William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 did nothing to deter Edward’s determination to conquer the Scots and the long war of independence ground on, led by Robert the Bruce who seized the Scottish throne in 1306 and defeated the English army under Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314. Even after this humiliating defeat, the English refused to recognise Scotland’s independence or Bruce’s claim to the Scottish throne.

Robert the Bruce had been excommunicated by the Pope for murdering John Comyn in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306 and Scotland’s relations with the papacy were in crisis. The Pope was angered that the Scots had resisted his demands to establish a truce with Edward II. He was determined that all Christian Princes should be united in their crusade against the Muslims and Scottish defiance was intolerable. He was threatening to excommunicate every single person in Scotland. The Declaration of Arbroath was an attempt at a diplomatic counter-offensive to heal the rifts with the papacy and seek the Pope’s acceptance of Scotland’s position as an independent nation. The document pointed out that Scotland had been independent for even longer than England and that the Scots had suffered appalling atrocities following the unwarranted attack by Edward I. The declaration reaffirmed that it was Robert the Bruce who had delivered the Scottish people from this evil and as such, he should be recognised as the rightful king. It was the revolutionary aspects of the declaration that remove it from the realms of unalloyed nationalism and thrust it into the wider context of British and indeed world socio-political importance. 

Controversially, the document asserted that the independence of Scotland was the prerogative of the Scottish people, rather than their king. This claim was reinforced by the statement: “But after all, if this prince [King Robert] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our king do be subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties.” Scotland’s nobles were stating quite openly that they rejected the principle of the divine right of kings and were prepared to choose someone else to be monarch if Robert the Bruce failed to meet their expectations. It’s incredible to think that this statement, a precursor of contractual kingship in Europe, was made more than three centuries before Oliver Cromwell sought the overthrow of King Charles I and began the English Civil War. There can be no doubt that the Declaration of Arbroath laid the groundwork for our modern tradition where sovereignty belongs to the people and that sovereignty is vested in the British nation state and in the system of devolution it has created.

The Declaration of Arbroath sought the recognition of Scotland’s independence and the protection of the papacy for the Scottish Church. As such it laid the foundation stone for the Treaty of Union in 1707, which guaranteed the safeguarding of the Church, Scots law and our distinctive educational system. It also, 500 years later, provided the inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson who, as a descendant of Malcolm III of Scotland, shared ancestry with Robert the Bruce. The fact that the Queen today holds the role of a ceremonial head of state, rather than an all-powerful monarch, can itself be attributed to the Declaration of Arbroath and underlines Scotland’s heritage as a small country which has pooled its sovereignty and merged with larger entities throughout its history, but still maintained its strong sense of nationhood.

The earls and barons who signed the letter to Pope John, told him that the origins of the Scottish people could be traced back to “Greater Scythia, via the Tyrhennian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules.” They wrote that after finally finding their home in the west, the Scots threw out the Britons, destroyed the Picts, defeated the “Norse, the Danes and the English” and “held itself ever since, free from all slavery, as the historians of old testify.” Stirring stuff, although it took eight years for the pope to reply, finally lifting Robert the Bruce’s excommunication in 1328. In the same year Edward III of England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognised Scotland as an independent nation and Bruce as its king.

When the crowds at Murrayfield yell out the rousing lines about sending “proud Edward's army homeward tae think again”, they are not basking in some upsurge of nationalist fervour, they are proudly showing their support for our national rugby team. Pride in our nation is markedly different from nationalism. That’s why we must not allow the SNP separatists to seize ownership of the Declaration of Arbroath, perhaps the most famous document in Scottish history.