Statue of king Robert the Bruce in front of Marischal College, Aberdeen.

Statue of king Robert the Bruce in front of Marischal College, Aberdeen.L E X Commons / CC

The Declaration of Arbroath is of huge importance to Scottish history and at the time was called "the most eloquent case for a nation’s claim to freedom produced anywhere in medieval Europe”. Forbes Inglis takes a look.

Today, Arbroath appears to be little more than a typical east coast Scottish town but in its heyday, the local people made their living from the sea and the Arbroath smokie, haddock smoked over smoldering beach and oak chips, which is still a popular delicacy.

Originally, Arbroath, or Aberbrothock as it was then called, was simply a settlement outside the walls of the Abbey, founded in 1178 by King William the Lion and dedicated to the English martyr St Thomas a Becket.

By the beginning of the 14th century, William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce had secured Scotland’s independence from England and, following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, England’s claims to Scotland were at an end. However, Edward II, like his father Edward I, was intent on adding Scotland to his kingdom and was still claiming that the northern territory was his by right. Faced with this continued threat, the Scots felt the only way forward was to petition the Pope, John XXII, to accept their view that Scotland was an independent country, free of English interference and that Robert the Bruce should be recognized as its rightful king.

The world of 14th-century diplomacy was rather different from today. Religion still weighed heavily on kings and commoners alike and the rulings of the Pope could be as important as winning battles. This was a fact not lost on the Scots and they responded to Edward’s claims with a letter to John XXII, then based in Avignon, France, rather than Rome, outlining their side of the argument.

It seems clear that there was no great gathering of Robert the Bruce and his noblemen at Arbroath and indeed the letter may not even have been drafted there, although the work is generally credited to Abbot Bernard de Linton. Certainly, the seals of the Scottish aristocrats were attached but even that was not straightforward as the names in the document and the seals attached did not coincide. However, the version sent to the Pope may have been correct for the surviving document is simply a contemporary copy.

The letter, now known as the declaration of Arbroath, was to make the name of the town famous throughout Europe and beyond, renowned as the birthplace of what has been described as “the most eloquent case for a nation’s claim to freedom produced anywhere in medieval Europe” was made up of three distinct sections. The first part gave a somewhat fanciful account of the origins of the Scottish nation, styling the Scots as a chosen people to bolster the country’s claim to be independent.

Text from the Declaration of Arbroath.

Text from the Declaration of Arbroath.

The middle sector of the declaration is the best-known part, certainly the most quoted and with words often mentioned in relation to the US Declaration of Independence. It contains the well-known sentences: “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 man gives up except with his life.”

That was all stirring stuff but the business part was yet to come. It suggested that Edward’s slanders should be ignored and Scotland to be left, literally, in peace. Famously too, the text provided that any king of Scotland who allowed the nation to be subjected to English rule could be deposed.

The jury is out on the connections with the US Declaration. Certainly, some words and concepts used in the Arbroath work appear in its American counterpart but they were probably not original, not even in 1320. That said, two of the signatories to the US document, James Wilson and John Witherspoon, were brought up in Scotland and, as educated men, may well have been aware of its Scottish equivalent. Thomas Jefferson is also thought to have been inspired by the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment so there too is a further possibility of Scottish influence.

Whatever the truth of the possible relationship between the two declarations, celebrations on April 6 - Tartan Day on both sides of the Atlantic - probably means that the idea has been generally accepted, at least by those who are not professional historians.

Irrespective of the possibility of a Scottish - US link, Scots in general and “Red Lichties”, the nickname for inhabitants from the town Arbroath, are rightly proud of their association with the declaration and have been heavily involved in planning a program of celebration for the upcoming 700th anniversary.

A specially commissioned choral work will be performed by a choir of around 300, in the abbey grounds as darkness falls on Saturday 4 April. The following day, a grand procession of hundreds of people, including descendants of signatories to the original declaration, will make their way from the abbey to the harbor to hear a reading of the letter and witness a facsimile being “dispatched” on a ship, as if being sent to France. It seems likely that plans have not been finalized, that there will also be a reenactment of the signing of the letter, in keeping with the annual pageant commemorating the event has taken place for many years.

The organizing committee is also looking to create more permanent memorials including two works already in preparation. A group of ladies are engaged in embroidering a three-panel tapestry, with each panel representing a part of the history of the declaration, the importance of the abbey and the life of Arbroath itself. Designed by Andrew Crummy, the designer of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, this work is currently underway and it is anticipated that the ladies will have completed around 2,000 hours of work by the time it is finished.

The centre panel reflects life in the time of Robert the Bruce, while the left side depicts the connection between the abbey and the local fishing community. On the right panel is a compilation showing the many trades required for the upkeep of the abbey and a depiction of nobles setting out for Avignon with the declaration.

Lastly, but by no means least, well known Scottish artist Alan B Herriot has designed and produced a bas relief, a large bronze sculpture. 

The piece will tell the story of the town from early Pictish settlements, through to the building of the abbey, and the construction of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse - one of the seven wonders of the Industrial World. It will also feature the trades and industries such as fishing, textiles and engineering, all of which made the town what it is today. 

This feature will be on permanent public display outside the abbey and, using the words of local schoolchildren, it will tell the story of Arbroath, its people and what they have given to Scotland and the wider world.

The Declaration of Arbroath is probably the most important document in Scottish history. It confirmed and cemented the legacy of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and, without it, Scotland might not even exist as a nation today.

Arbroath invariably has something to offer tourists but this summer, from April onwards, it will be showcasing a rich seam of Scottish history for visitors from home and abroad.