“For 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”.
These are the best-known words in the Declaration of Arbroath, foremost among Scotland’s state papers and the most famous historical record held by the National Records of Scotland. Often referred to as the Declaration of Scottish Independence, it is more correctly entitled “Letter of Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII”, and was dated 6 April 1320. It is one of the great icons of Scotland and is in the form of a letter written in Latin to the Pope from eight earls and 31 barons of Scotland asking him in rousing terms to acknowledge Scotland as an independent nation and to reject the claims of the English king. It sets out the long history of Scotland as an independent state and cleverly tries to persuade the Pope of the legitimacy of Scotland’s case.
The Declaration was ahead of its time as it sets out that the king (previously regarded as appointed by God) could be driven out if he did not uphold the freedom of the country. It also echoed the link to the Celtic past in its concept that independence was the prerogative of the Scottish people. Even if the history that is written may be a little nonsensical in the letter it was used to portray defiance and noble thought that helped persuade a pope to change his mind and remove the excommunication of King Robert and the Realm of Scotland, and also recognise the nations independence.
Despite having soundly defeated King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, King Robert the Bruce and the Scottish people had to continually fight for their freedom from the English. In the propaganda war, the Scots were at a disadvantage in relation to the influential power of the Pope, who was more interested in gaining support for another Crusade to the Holy Land from the English King. The Pope had excommunicated Robert the Bruce over his alleged murder of John Common, a rival to the Scottish throne, on the altar steps of a Franciscan priory. But prompted by the English king some years after, the Pope also excommunicated all the people of Scotland. This was probably the main motivation for the Declaration of Arbroath to win over the support of the Pope and have him change his mind over the excommunication of both Bruce and the people of Scotland. Unfortunately it would take another eight years for the English to recognise Scottish independence when in 1328 under the treaty of Edinburgh and Northampton, Edward III renounced all claims to Scotland, but proceeded to break the treaty in 1333.
Does all this appear familiar with the present day struggle to gain Scottish independence and self-government for the people of Scotland? From a lager more dominant neighbour that does not care how it enforces the polices of a government that Scotland has not voted for onto the people of Scotland. The only difference is Scotland can have its sovereignty back without the violent wars of the past by peaceful democratic means!
It could be argued that the Declaration of Arbroath is some evidence of the long-term persistence of the Scots as a distinct national community, and this the emergence of early nationalism in Scotland. Whatever the true motive of the Declaration, that strong persistence of a free will and determination not to be ruled by any foreign aggressor comes from our Celtic fore fathers who opposed the imperial Roman invasion to remain the land of the free – the last of the free. That is the determination that drives us on to day in Scotland’s desire to be independent and will carry us to that final goal! When we get there Scotland must have a new Declaration of Independence and a fully written constitution that both protects and gives wrights to the people of Scotland, and maintains the sovereignty of the people of Scotland.
The declaration was written in Latin and the National Records of Scotland have the only version to survive in its original form, despite suffering damage through damp, the Conservation staff at the NRS monitor the Declaration to ensure it survives for many centuries to come. Over the centuries various copies and translations have been made, including a microscopic edition. Transcription and translation of the Declaration of Arbroath can be obtained in the National Records of Scotland online webpage with PDF files to download.
There is reason to believe that the Declaration of Arbroath may have been used as a model for the American Declaration of Independence.
Alba gu bràth