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The Declaration of Arbroath

View the video of the Declaration of Arbroath on YouTube

This year, 2020, marks the 700th anniversary of the letter to Pope John XXII in Avignon which has since become known as the Declaration of Arbroath. The Declaration is Scotland’s most iconic document and a treasure preserved by the National Records of Scotland.

It is one of the most significant documents, marked by learning and scholarship, that emerged from Mediaeval Europe. It changed constitutional thinking – such that our King was required to rule in the best interests of his people who, through the Declaration, had the right to depose their ruler and choose another.

This fundamental principle in constitutional law of the power of the people remains even to today and applies in all democratic states to Monarch and State Leader alike.

Dr Murray Pittock discusses in this video the long-lasting significance of the Declaration of Arbroath today, both for Scotland and the World.

A major commemoration in Arbroath had been planned for the weekend of 4th and 5th April 2020 leading up to the actual date of 6th April, which was intended to bring together people from all over Scotland and beyond. Sadly the event has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scots broadcaster Lesley Riddoch and producer Charlie Stuart have produced a film at short notice which is available to view on YouTube here : The Declaration of Arbroath

The film is not associated with or endorsed by any political party. According to Charlie Stuart, “We’re making this as Scots who treasure our heritage, history and character and will not let this important moment go unrecognised.”

The film includes interviews with historians Fiona Watson, Tom Turpie and Billy Kay who discuss the significance of the document and the meaning of the text. There are scenes of Arbroath Abbey as it is today with indoor narrative filmed in Bannockburn House. There are glimpses of the surviving medieval document in the National Library of Scotland. A commemorative tapestry has been painstakingly and beautifully sewn during the past two years by the "Red Lichties", an Arbroath ladies group, and has now been mounted as a triptych in a bespoke frame by an Aberfeldy craftsman.

Members of the Scottish public have contributed lines from the Declaration recorded on their phones and brought together through a Facebook page. The film begins with the most famous of the words from the Declaration, recorded by Scots actor Brian Cox, whose lines were sent from his phone in deepest New York State.

The project was made possible by funding from lottery millionaire, Chris Weir. The Scots-born, Oscar nominated film composer Patrick Doyle has produced a fabulous original score.

  An original copy of the Declaration of Arbroath at the National Records of Scotland  

On April 6, 1320 a letter was written to the Pope by Abbot Bernard de Linton from the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey. The letter, on behalf of the Community of the Realm of Scotland was sealed by eight earls and about forty barons. The letter was intended to persuade the Pope of the legitimacy of King Robert's reign over Scotland and, more importantly, the right of the people of Scotland to choose their own ruler despite any claim to the contrary by the Kings of England.

The Scots had defied papal efforts to broker a truce - since the papacy had explicitly supported the overlordship of the English crown over Scotland - in the long war with England. Following the recovery by the Scots of the town of Berwick in 1318, the Pope had again excommunicated King Robert and some of his barons. The letter to the Pope formed part of the Scots diplomatic counter-offensive. In response, the Pope wrote to Edward II urging him to make peace, but it was not until the Treaty of Northampton in 1328 that Scotland's independence was finally and grudgingly acknowledged by the English Crown.

A printed translation from the Latin of the letter was made and published in Scotland near the end of the 17th century. The letter was reprinted many times during the 18th century in Scotland and beyond.

Thus, the Declaration of Arbroath is not just a piece of ancient history. It inspired the Scots "Claim of Right" at the Revolution settlement of 1689 which placed boundaries on the powers of the monarchy, and asserted the right of appeal against injustice. The "Declaration of Arbroath" and the "Claim of Right" have become the constitutional basis of the concept of the "sovereignty of the people of Scotland", as opposed to the English view of the absolute sovereignty of Parliament.

In 1989, a modernised Claim of Right was the founding document of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The Claim of Right was adopted by the Scottish Parliament in 2012. On the 6th September 2016, Patrick Grady, MP. proposed a motion in the House of Commons re-asserting the Scottish Claim of Right. He said "my argument is that the Claim of Right is not, or is no longer, an historical document. It is a concept, and indeed a fundamental principle, that underpins the democracy and constitutional framework of Scotland. It is as relevant today as it has ever been". The motion was adopted without a division.

I am grateful to John Bellassai for highlighting the parallels with 1776, when the principles of the Declaration of Arbroath became the basis of the American Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was himself a descendant of Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, a nephew of King Robert I and a signatory of the Arbroath letter. Jefferson's great friend and mentor was William Small, professor of rhetoric at the University of William & Mary in Virginia. Small, who had been born in Scotland in 1734, had a prominent role in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

The 2020 Tartan Day events in America have also, sadly, been cancelled due to Covid-19. The date of Tartan Day was specifically chosen to commemorate the writing of the letter which has become known as the Declaration of Arbroath on 6th April 1320.
[US Senate Resolution 155 of 10 November 1997 stated that the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence [sic], was signed on 6 April 1320 and the American Declaration of Independence was modelled on that inspirational document ]

Jefferson offered a series of five propositions in the Declaration of Independence:
(1) that all men are created equal;
(2) that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;
(3) that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
(4) that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men; and
(5) that when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
It contains this very Scottish idea - the so-called “self-evident” premise that when a government becomes tyrannical, the people have a right to rebel against it.

Both documents contains a list of grievances against the tyrannical actions of a ruler as justification for the taking up of arms. The Declaration of Arbroath argued that it was the right of the people of Scotland to throw off the yoke of Edward II and to choose their own king; its counterpart in 1776 claimed that the American colonists had the right to reject George III and create a new form of republican government for themselves. Both documents stated that if the new government does not meet the peoples’ expectations, they may change it, yet again.

Finally, there is something more important, a more universal sentiment, at work here, which at its heart makes the strongest connection between 1320, 1776 and the present day. In spirit, if not in form, both documents emphasize "freedom" - that most cherished of all ‘inalienable’ human rights:
“We fight not for glory nor for wealth nor honour, but for that freedom which no good man surrenders but with his life”.

Professor G.W.S. Barrow pointed out that these world-famous words were taken by Bernard de Linton from the writings of the Roman author, Sallust
6. "When the rule of the kings, which at first had tended to preserve freedom and advance the state, had degenerated into a lawless tyranny, they altered their form of government"
33. "But we ask neither for power nor for riches, the usual causes of wars and strife among mortals, but only for freedom, which no true man gives up except with his life."
Extracts from "The War With Catiline" by Sallust (86–35 BC). published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1921 (revised 1931)

Monument to Abbot Bernard de Linton and King Robert I at Arbroath

Bernard de Linton and King Robert I at Arbroath

Transcription and Translation of the Declaration of Arbroath, 6 April 1320 National Records of Scotland, SP13/7

The following translation of the Declaration has been taken from the website of the National Records of Scotland.

To the most Holy Father and Lord in Christ, the Lord John, by divine providence Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman and Universal Church, his humble and devout sons Duncan, Earl of Fife, Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, Lord of Man and of Annandale, Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March, Malise, Earl of Strathearn, Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, William, Earl of Ross, Magnus, Earl of Caithness and Orkney, and William, Earl of Sutherland; Walter, Steward of Scotland, William Soules, Butler of Scotland, James, Lord of Douglas, Roger Mowbray, David, Lord of Brechin, David Graham, Ingram Umfraville, John Menteith, guardian of the earldom of Menteith, Alexander Fraser, Gilbert Hay, Constable of Scotland, Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland, Henry Sinclair, John Graham, David Lindsay, William Oliphant, Patrick Graham, John Fenton, William Abernethy, David Wemyss, William Mushet, Fergus of Ardrossan, Eustace Maxwell, William Ramsay, William Mowat, Alan Murray, Donald Campbell, John Cameron, Reginald Cheyne, Alexander Seton, Andrew Leslie and Alexander Straiton, and the other barons and freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland send all manner of filial reverence, with devout kisses of his blessed feet.

Most Holy Father, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. It journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage peoples, but nowhere could it be subdued by any people, however barbarous. Thence it came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to its home in the west where it still lives today. The Britons it first drove out, the Picts it utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, it took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the histories of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all servitude ever since. In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.

The high qualities and merits of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, shine forth clearly enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after His Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor did He wish them to be confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles - by calling, though second or third in rank - the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.

The Most Holy Fathers your predecessors gave careful heed to these things and strengthened this same kingdom and people with many favours and numerous privileges, as being the special charge of the Blessed Peter’s brother. Thus our people under their protection did indeed live in freedom and peace up to the time when that mighty prince the King of the English, Edward, the father of the one who reigns today, when our kingdom had no head and our people harboured no malice or treachery and were then unused to wars or invasions, came in a guise of a friend and ally to harass them as an enemy. The deeds of cruelty, massacre, violence, pillage, arson, imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns and yet other outrages without number which he committed against our people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no-one could describe nor fully imagine unless he had seen them with his own eyes.

But from these countless evils we have been set free, by the help of Him who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless prince, King and lord, the lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua. Him, too, divine providence, the succession to his right according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our prince and king. To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.

Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions 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 alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Therefore it is, Reverend Father and Lord, that we beseech your Holiness with our most earnest prayers and suppliant hearts, inasmuch as you will in your sincerity and goodness consider all this, that, since with Him Whose vice-gerent on earth you are there is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman, you will look with the eyes of a father on the troubles and privations brought by the English upon us and upon the Church of God. May it please you to admonish and exhort the King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings or more, to leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own. We are sincerely willing to do anything for him, having regard to our condition, that we can, to win peace for ourselves.

This truly concerns you, Holy Father, since you see the savagery of the heathen raging against the Christians, as the sins of Christians have indeed deserved, and the frontiers of Christendom being pressed inward every day; and how much it will tarnish your Holiness’s memory if (which God forbid) the Church suffers eclipse or scandal in any branch of it during your time, you must perceive. Then rouse the Christian princes who for false reasons pretend that they cannot go to the help of the Holy Land because of wars they have on hand with their neighbours. The real reason that prevents them is that in making war on their smaller neighbours they find a readier advantage and weaker resistance. But how cheerfully our lord the King and we too would go there if the King of the English would leave us in peace, He from Whom nothing is hidden well knows; and we profess and declare it to you as the Vicar of Christ and to all Christendom.

But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not give sincere belief to all this, nor refrain from favouring them to our undoing, then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be surely laid by the Most High to your charge.

To conclude, we are and shall ever be, as far as duty calls us, ready to do your will in all things, as obedient sons to you as His Vicar, and to Him as the Supreme King and Judge we commit the maintenance of our cause, casting our cares upon Him and firmly trusting that He will inspire us with courage and bring our enemies to nothing. May the Most High preserve you to His Holy Church in holiness and health for many days to come.

Given at the monastery of Arbroath in Scotland on the sixth day of the month of April in the year of grace thirteen hundred and twenty and the fifteenth year of the reign of our King aforesaid.

The translation is a revised version compiled by Alan Borthwick (2005) based on Sir James Fergusson

The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 (1970) pp.5-11, with reference to A A M Duncan, The Nation of Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (Historical Association pamphlet, 1970), pp.34-37 and D E R Watt (ed.) Scotichronicon Vol. 7 (1996), pp.4-9.

[Whether the Declaration should be commemorated on Saturday 4th or Monday 6th April is moot, as the Julian calendar was in use in 1320. The revised Gregorian calendar was introduced in Catholic Europe in 1582 due to the increasing discrepancy between calendar dates and the earth's precise position in its orbit around the sun. Thus our Gregorian "Tartan Day" on 6th April would be 24th March on the Julian calendar, hence, to be pedantic, the actual 700th anniversary of the letter to the Pope being written in Arbroath is Sunday 19th April.]