Within Scotland, the town of Arbroath - on the coast between Dundee and Aberdeen - has two major claims to fame. One is for the Arbroath smokie, a local smoked fish that is notorious for clearing kitchens with its rich aromas (and for that reason rarely found on restaurant menus - if you want to try it, pick up a smokie in a fishmonger and cook it in the privacy of your own home!).
But the second claim to fame is for being the location for the signing of Scotland's early statement of independence from England, known as the Declaration of Arbroath, which kickstarted seven hundred years of Scottish struggle for autonomy. And the date it happened - 6 April - is still celebrated in North America as Tartan Day.
Signed at Arbroath Abbey on 6 April 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath document is one of the earliest formal expressions of the Scots' desire to operate as an independent nation. The text is in the form of a letter to the Pope, detailing the history of Scotland as a self-governing nation, having raised "one hundred and thirteen kings ... without interruption by foreigners".
The letter seeks the Pope's support in standing against the English king, Edward I, and asks him to:
"warn the king of the English, that he ought
The letter makes the case that the Scots would use military might to meet any attack from the English, and asks the Pope to recognise their right to do so (despite the Pope having excommunicated King Robert I, known as Robert the Bruce, and given express right to Edward I of England to claims on Scotland as its overlord).
Interestingly, the letter isn't written directly from Robert the Bruce (who had been excommunicated for murdering John Comyn in the church at Dumfries in 1306) but from a cabal of lords and nobles, expressing a collective expression of sovereign independence, writing on behalf of the people of Scotland rather than from one single figurehead. Moreover, the lords write that if their king should move towards a position of English support, "we would immediately take steps to drive him out as the enemy ... and install another King who would make good our defence".
This is a notable assertion - to the Pope, of all people! - at a time when kings were generally believed to be appointed by God directly, and to operate with His blessing and support. The people of Scotland are telling the Pope that they will appoint a king to rule them - suggesting an assertion of the Scots' will not just against England but against the church itself.
Mostly, though, it is an expression of a collective will and a collective voice, arguing from the point of view of the common man, who wouldn't actually be given any formal political voice until over five hundred years later.
And most famously the letter contains this passage that is often cited, but which may not be an entirely accurate rendering of the original Latin text:
"whilst a hundred of us remain alive,
It's a line straight out of the Braveheart playbook of Scottish history! And so began the long struggle for independence for Scotland, a battle waged by the people of Scotland over the last seven centuries.
Barely three hundred years later, Scotland and England would be brought into a union - firstly of shared monarchy in 1603, and then of joint government, in 1707 - that survives today.
But there is still a strong drive for Scotland to be able to stand apart from outside governance, and many people in Scotland continue to seek greater powers for the modern Scottish Parliament, furthering the devolution of political control from the British government at Westminster.
The latest formal public debate on the idea of independence took place in 2014, when the people of Scotland voted narrowly in favour of retaining the union as it stands. With developments in the Brexit situation since 2016, when Scotland voted to retain EU membership, there have been renewed calls for a further referendum on Scottish independence to be held.
So it is a debate that continues to be heated and divisive at times, but certainly one which shows no signs of abating.
No one can accurately foretell the future of Scotland - especially in 1320, before much of the political and social tumult which followed - but it is an interesting example of how Scotland's history manages to be bother distant and contemporary, as discussions that were being had seven centuries ago remain on the political agenda today.
Explore more of Scotland's political history with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Comments are closed.
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour? Buy me a coffee!
Search the blog archive...