The Declaration of Arbroath: 700 Years On

The Declaration of Arbroath

700 years ago today, one of the most seminal documents in Scotland's history was sent from Arbroath Abbey to Pope John XXII at Avignon.

The Declaration of Arbroath was a letter from the baronage of Scotland to the pope, asserting Scotland's right to self-determination and demanding the pope's support against constant aggression from England.  The Declaration is a sophisticated diplomatic initiative whose intention was to counter not only English ambition, but to persuade the papacy of Scotland's case, in the face of a succession of pro-English popes who had taken the English side.

It was signed by eight Earls and 31 Barons, prominent among them Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll, Lord High Constable of Scotland, Chief of Clan Hay and one of King Robert the Bruce's closest friends and most stalwart supporters in his long struggle for Scotland's freedom.

The Declaration of Arbroath is one of the most remarkable texts in history, and not only that of Scotland.  To paraphrase Professor Geoffrey Barrow, it established forever the right of small nations to be free from the aggression of great ones.  It further elevated the debate from chaos and war to introduce such universals as freedom, rule of law, civil liberties and the contractual nature of monarchy, having asserted the right of the nation to remove a king who failed to defend the nation's liberty.

The Declaration's impact reached far beyond its immediate objective, both in time and space.  It forms the basis of the Scottish Claim of Right of 1689.  And in March 1998, the United States Senate passed a resolution recognising that the American Declaration of Independence was founded on the Declaration of Arbroath.  This is the document that first introduced the ideas that now form the foundations of the free world - ideas that would evolve into what we now understand as national sovereignty, the sovereignty of the people, and democracy itself.

Coronavirus has inevitably caused the cancellation of the extensive celebration planned in Arbroath to mark this iconic anniversary.  However, the organisers are doing a fine job of marking it virtually.  Here:  you will here the Declaration read by Angus Macfadyen, the actor who has twice played Robert the Bruce, in Braveheart and more recently in the eponymous film.  Also, look out for Conquered by No-One, a book edited by Neil MacLennan of the University of Aberdeen, published later this month.  It contains biographies of the Declaration's signatories, including a chapter on Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll contributed by Clan Hay Archivist Alan Hay.

"For as long as one hundred of us remain alive, we shall never submit to English dominion.  For it is not for honour, nor riches, nor glory that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no man gives up but with his life."