Celebrating Arbroath, 1320-2020
by Ted Cowan

Emeritus Professor of Scottish History and Literature,
University of Glasgow
(Formerly head of Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph)

Professor Cowan preparing for a radio interview

A voice was conferred on the Scottish people due to the unprecedented concatenation of circumstances now known as the Scottish Wars of Independence. That cry was raised in defence of freedom. In order to foil the acquisitive, imperialistic ambitions of Edward I of England the Scots argued, as early as 1301, "that the kingdom of Scotland... has always been completely free." The supreme articulation of the concept is enshrined in a letter, now known as the Declaration of Arbroath, written in Latin and sent to the pope in 1320:

For so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. For we fight not for glory nor riches nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good person gives up except with life itself.

The document was sent by "barons, freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland Communitas Regni Scotie. The letter relates that Robert Bruce, like another Joshua, had set his people free. He had become king through Divine Providence, right of succession and "the due consent and assent of us all," yet if ever he should seek to "make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as a subverter of his own right and ours and make some other man who was able to defend us, our king." This remarkable statement is the first explicit articulation, with reference to a specific political situation as opposed to a theoretical abstract of the contractual theory of monarchy in European history.

When Bruce seized the throne at Scone in 1306 he was, in the eyes of many guilty of usurping the kingship of John Balliol. The new king had to manufacture a novel narrative to indicate the superiority of the Bruce claim to the kingship, while asserting that Balliol, with the connivance of Edward I, was the true usurper. In 1309 Bruce's PR department trumpeted that in advancing his claim, the faithful people of the realm would live and die with him, their true king since he enjoyed the consent of the whole people, consensum populi et plebis, which seems more all inclusive than the term communites regni. It is difficult to ascertain in any historical period what exactly is meant by "the people" but Robert Bruce, for his own pressing reasons, seems to have been intent on making the term as widely inclusive as possible.

Historians have doubted whether the promise of Arbroath, the reciprocal rights between king and people, had much influence on posterity but in fact, as Professor Dauvit Broun of Glasgow University has recently shown, many manuscript copies of, and references to the document survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for example in Walter Bower's massive chronicle, Scotichronicon, in which it is possible to trace the development of notions of popular sovereignty. These, in combination with the inspirational legend of William Wallace as "man of the people" generated Scottish assumptions, or a mythos, about a kind of "democratic quotient" pervading politics, religion, education and many aspects of the national life and character. Wallace, although the younger son of a knight, is always depicted as the man from nowhere determined to stand forth in his country's hour of greatest need However, medieval people believed in the "Great Chain of Bering," the idea that everything from God and the angels down through the different ranks and classes of humanity, to the animals, plants and the rocks beneath our feet, all had their legitimate place, but if one piece was taken out of the chain and placed elsewhere in the hierarchy, there was a danger of fragmentation, resulting in apocalyptic chaos. Wallace thus represented such a threat since one of his rank had no right to be leading the Scottish army. The Scottish aristocracy feared and condemned Wallace just as much passion as did Edward I of England.

Suffice it to say that the central ideas of Arbroath were not forgotten. John Mair in 1525 argued that kings were instituted for the good of the people and not conversely. "It is from the people and most of all from the chief men and nobility who act for the common people, that kings have their institution". George Buchanan, Scotland's greatest expert on the Scottish constitution and the legality of resistance to tyrants, does not mention Arbroath although he must have known about it. He was emphatic that there was indeed a mutual contract between monarch and people but his authoritative writings served to obscure the Declaration and its message. Buchanan's writings damned Mary Queen of Scots who was deposed from office for tyranny. Scottish political ideas were thus practical and demotic, as well as theoretical.

Buchanan's cohort John Knox inspired a Reformation that was emphatically brought about, through popular revolt, in opposition to the wishes of the crown. Largely as a means of self-preservation James VI revived medieval ideas of divine right kingship, developing theories that had earlier been vainly invoked to save his mother. That is why Mary is so conspicuous in Scottish history. She was the first Scottish ruler to be martyred in the name of divine right, which argued that rulers were appointed by God and to resist them was to commit the worst heresy against God himself. James wrote at length about the sanctity of kingship and narrowly avoided assassination. His son Charles the "Martyr" died on the scaffold. Charles II bolstered his position with many tracts favouring monarchy, in refutation of Covenanting claims such as the revolutionary assertion by Alexander Henderson one of the drafters of the National Covenant (1638) that "the people make the magistrate (king), but the magistrate maketh not the people. The people may be without the magistrate but the magistrate cannot be without the people. The body of the magistrate is mortal but the people as a society is immortal." Scots certainly did not believe that there was a divinity which doth hedge a king.

So far as the covenanters were concerned, their political philosophies received manifest endorsement in the "Glorious Revolution" which appeared to sanction their resistance to tyrannical Stewart rule. The Declaration was printed with an English translation for the first time in 1689, the year of the so called "Glorious Revolution," representing a kind of defining moment in the history of the Arbroath letter as it was absorbed into the Whig tradition. So far as the document is concerned, 1689 represents the crossroads of the centuries, looking back to the inspirational rhetoric of the early fourteenth century, and at the same time forward, to the constitutional monarchy, and beyond, to the nationalism of later centuries. 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 is best described as "parahistorical." Thereafter it is frequently quoted in pamphlets, for example during the 1707 union debates. It also appeared throughout the eighteenth century in publications concerned with the ongoing heated dialogue about whether the monarchy was hereditary or elective. Reading the document, the novelist John Galt was moved to observe that whereas the English were a justice-loving people according to charter and statute, the Scots were a wrong-resenting race, according to right and feeling, and the character of liberty among them takes its aspect from that peculiarity. Interest in the document rather cooled in the nineteenth century but two Arbroathians in 1897 and 1904 dubbed the 1320 letter, "The Declaration of Scottish Independence" in homage to the American document of 1776. Thus, the voice of the people was heard once more though academics paid little attention to Arbroath for a further fifty years only taking a truly serious interest in it as the 650th anniversary approached in 1970.

In the 1970s Mrs Jean Watson of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, thought it would be good to add another Scottish Day to the calendar alongside 25 January and St Andrews Day (30 November). She picked 6 April as the date of the Arbroath Declaration.

After a lengthy campaign individual Canadian provinces and then the Federal Government adopted 6 April as "Tartan Day," celebrating Scottish values, and achievements particularly in education. All was well until the Americans got in on the act on 29 March 1998 when Senate resolution 155 declared: "April 6 has a special significance for all Americans and especially those of Scottish descent, because the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of independence, was signed on April 6 1320, and the American Declaration of Independence was modelled on that inspirational document." In Scotland the Press suspected an American right-wing conspiracy to commandeer a Scottish icon inspired by Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Mel Gibson's Braveheart. Soon there were Tartan Day celebrations right acoss America, including Washington, New York and Chicago, concerts, Scottish bands in pubs, a big parade ending in Central Park, Scottish celebs and politicians everywhere. Thanks to the establishment of Tartan Day the Declaration has become global as Scottish values of freedom and constitutionalism are celebrated annually worldwide.

Ever since 1998 Americans, or some of them, have been looking for a direct connection between the two declarations. I can find no evidence that either Americans or Scots-Americans knew of the Scottish Declaration before their own was drawn up in 1776.

However, there is one intriguing link that might be suggested. I mentioned earlier that the Declaration was published with an English translation in 1689, the year of the Glorious Revolution. When James VII and II fled to France to become the first of the exiled Jacobites, the English Declaration of Rights stated that he had abdicated, but according to the Scottish Claim of Right, James "hath forfaulted the right to the crown and the throne is become vacant." The full text states that James by the advice of wicked and evil counsellors "did invade the fundamental constitution of this kingdom and altered it from a legal limited monarchy to an arbitrary despotic power and hath exercised the same to the subversion of the protestant religion, and the violation of the laws and liberties of this kingdom, inverting all the ends of government whereby he hath forfeited the right to the crown" etc. The 1776 declaration drafted by Jefferson states that "George hath endeavoured to pervert the [kingly office] into a detestable and insupportable tyranny." For various specified acts of misrule he "has forfeited the kingly office and has rendered it necessary for the preservation of the people that he should be immediately deposed from the same and divested of all its privileges, powers and prerogatives." The echo here is surely of the Scottish Claim of Right rather than the English Bill of Rights.

The Declaration of Arbroath should hold great significance for Scotland, on its 700th anniversary, as it bequeaths values which are still inspirational Small countries and their values can still make a difference in today's highly complex and increasingly bewildering world.