The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320-2020

A film and a book to celebrate the700th Anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath.

The Declaration of Arbroath: What it meant then and what it means now by Tom Turpie (Luath Press).

Seven hundred years on from the Declaration of Arbroath – a letter, sent in the name of the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII – Tom Turpie explains why it was produced and why it contains the extraordinary sentiments it does. He sets it in context of a world plagued by war and climate change, and explores how the relevance of this letter has ebbed and flowed over seven centuries. In doing so, this book aims to help readers to understand the single most significant document to be produced in medieval Scotland.

6 April 2020 marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, a document that has ebbed and flowed in relevance throughout history since it was written in 1320. Was it a supreme statement of defiance against tyranny, a seminal declaration of Scottish identity, or merely a (failed) practical response to a diplomatic problem?

‘The Declaration was originally one of three letters delivered to the Pope by Scottish envoys in the summer of 1320 and only became known as the Declaration of Arbroath fairly recently (1904),’ says historian Tom Turpie in his new book, The Declaration of Arbroath: What it meant then and what it means now. ‘The Baron’s Letter, which the Declaration was originally known as… is a triumph of tone, of conciseness and of understanding your target audience.’

Placing the historical document within its own political context, Turpie explores the conditions in which it was produced, in the midst of a political and military deadlock and during the environmental crisis of the Little Ice Age (c.1250-1750). ‘These new conditions caused considerable problems for medieval agriculture and disrupted trade and transport routes… Significant problems with the climate in the years after 1314 meant that the Scots were unable to force a military victory, and the English King, Edward II, was unable to invade Scotland to avenge his defeat at Bannockburn. The difficulties that the Little Ice Age caused for military activity meant that the war of diplomacy, of which the Declaration was an essential part, was even more vital than before.’

Reflecting on the impact of the document since its conception in 1320, Turpie considers the influence it had on the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and whether the letter we now call the Declaration of Arbroath was intended as a statement of national identity for the ages.

The Declaration of Arbroath

A film by Lesley Riddoch

The Declaration of Arbroath from Charlie Stuart on Vimeo.

Comments (21)

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  1. Anne Mackenzie says:

    Absolutely wonderful piece by all involved. Thank you Leslie Riddoch.

  2. Scott caesar says:

    The declaration of arbroath is a beautifully written, and a masterpiece of literature to the pope against tyranny and unjust rule. I’m not saying that Scotland should be independent now but it was once and that fact should be celebrated. I’m from Arbroath and I’m a proud scotsman, but I personally think that Scotland and England need each other now more than ever to keep this nation great. I love Scotland and I love being British, so why fix something that’s not broken

    1. MBC says:

      Ireland, Norway and Denmark are managing just fine without being hitched to England and so too would we be in this crisis if we were an independent nation once more.

  3. meg macleod says:

    brilliant ,thankyou for this.

  4. Angus says:

    Been thinking about ‘civic nationalism, institutional anti-englishness in Scotland and also the connection between misogyny and nationalism and recent events. And the claim that Scot nats are exceptional and above the norm unlike nationalists everywhere else.

    So we have a blog called ‘Bella Caledonia’ publishing thinly veiled nationalist ethno cultural history.

    Bella Caledonia is of course the sexualised, demure and repressed/ female personification of modern Scotland (misogynistic) – taken from a novel which explicitly alludes to reductive racial stereotypes – the rapacious and brutal St Aubrey and Bella’s former husband of course represents ‘the English’. All dressed up in the empirical nonsense of half baked and systemically very problematic, historical deterministic ‘ideology’ i.e.) the pre-modern ‘imperialist’ Ukania. Poor Things of course being a riff on Nairn.

    But the Break up of Britain – Nairn’s thesis – relies on it being univeralised to have purchase: that modernity equates to small ethno cultural states. This of course ignores the fact that the vast majority of people on the planet live in pre-modern multinational states and not the ethno-cultural nation state. And that the ethno-cultural state is itself a European imperialist conceit … see the multinational civilisation states of India, China, Africa, SE Asia, Mid east etc etc – And that most aren’t fond of Balkanisation nor see the prospect as on the horizon. This lack of universality renders the whole Ukania theory nonsense as modernity has fuck all to do with small or big states, nor is there anything special or inevitable about the ethno-cultural state). How cares if the UK is pre-1789 as most modern states are adaption from the pre-modern.

    And now we have leaders of the Yes movement openly and deliberately conflating modern Scottish nationalism to ‘blood and soil’ nationalistic history to compensate for the weakness of their ideological position. And ‘Yes’ celebs referencing ‘the English’ as oppressors (the largest minority in Scotland) and overlords over and over again.

    Can someone please explain to me how this is in essence any different to say Erdogan’s rhetoric on Turkishness vis an vis Kurds and Armenians, or ditto Orban for Hungary or (insert nationalist). Reminds me of Milosovic and his constant reference to Serbian ethno-cultural nationalist history back in the late 80s and the Gazimenstan speech? (he also claimed such weaponising of history was just academic exercise and celebration of aniversary.)

    Bollock innit.

    Isn’t it time we put this shit back in the box?

      1. Angus says:

        Which part isn’t true? And why not try answering the questions? More than happy to be wrong.

        Many *more credible* people before me have pointed this out.

      2. Angus says:

        Just skip to p189

        ‘God has sent the Anglo-Saxon race to purify the globe with fire and sword’:

        Poor Things and anti-Englishness

        … bit.

      3. Angus says:

        I’m genuinely interested?


        1. Why did you choose a female representation for Scotland (with cleavage) for your nationalist blog?

        And …

        2. How is invoking ‘ancient’ ethno-cultural’ touchstones any different from other nationalists?

        1. We live in times of enormous cleavage Angus

          1. Angus says:

            Your inability to answer beyond schoolboy petulance is astonishing?

            At the moment there are thousands (there really are!) of English nurses (from Manchester, Newcastle, Essex etc ) and doctors (of all ethnicity – England is not mono-ethnic) working in the NHS SCOTLAND and your only thought is to whip up anti Englishness?

            Why? Why do it?

          2. Angus says:

            I see on twitter you asked the question why I mentioned the conflation between nationalism and misogyny (and the fact that you chose Alisdair Gray’s – female victim in Poor Things – personification of Scotland) – there is plenty academic including the link I sent you to explain why it is problematic.

            Surely this isn’t hard to understand?

            Elif Shafak (who knows a thing or two about the connection between nationalism/ chauvanism and misogyny can perhaps explain. Google her. )

            Happy to help.

          3. Angus says:

            I mean Bella (Scotland) as a brain dead woman – only saved/ enlightened by an enlightened Scots ‘man’ doctor? The victim of evil England (man again)?


            And you don’t get it?

  5. Finlay Macleoid says:

    Alasdair MacMhaoirn

    Declaration, The Letter of Liberty

    Dìreach an dèidh coimhead air Declaration, The Letter of Liberty, le Lesley Riddoch. Hmm…, ’na bhruidhinn i ri eòlaiche Gàidhealach sam bith? Cha robh guth ann air dualchas nan Gàidheal a dh’aindeoin gu robh an Litir fhèin làn dheth. ’S ann às na Gàidheil a thàinig an cleachdadh gun cuireadh na daoine ceannard a-mach à dreuchd – a rud a bu chudromaiche a bh’ ann san Litir agus sam film. A rèir col’ais bha an cleachdadh dìreach ann, gun ghuth air cò às.

    Bha gu leòr ann a bha inntinneach agus chaidh am film a dhèanamh gu snasail, ach a dh’aindeoin an teachdaireachd làidir mu shaorsa agus mu neart nan daoine, leis an dearmaid air dualchas nan Gàidheal tha seòrsa de cholonachd na ruith troimhe; colonachd ann an Alba fhèin an aghaidh nan Gàidheal. Dìleab à impireachd agus b’ fheàirrde Alba cuidhteas fhaighinn dheth.

    Just after watching Lesley Riddoch’s Declaration, The Letter of Liberty. Hmm…, did she not speak to any knowledgable Gael? No mention of the wealth of Gaelic culture despite the Declaration being a direct expression of it. The whole idea of the people removing a leader comes from Gaelic traditions – the most important thing in the Declaration and in the film. This idea just seemed to appear out of nowhere.

    There was a lot of interesting information in the film, which was beautifully produced but despite the strong message of liberty and the power of the people, the omission of Gaelic traditions leaves a sort of colonialism running through the story; the colonialism within Scotland against the Gael. An imperial inheritance Scotland would be better rid of.

    1. MBC says:

      I thought so too. Earlier traditions were of elective kingship, and not just in Scotland. Kings became more autocratic as the Middle Ages went on but in this period royal power was still quite limited, though becoming more tyrannical and absolute. The English crown particularly so after the Norman conquest when William was able to force an authoritarian military occupation on the English.

  6. Finlay Macleoid says:

    Sgriobh Roddy Maclean (Na leanas agus thog mi e bho post eile)

    Fear de na rudan as cudromaiche mu Fhoirgheall Obar Bhrothaig, ‘s e gun do thaisbeanadh fein-aithne nan Albannach mar cho-ionann ri fein-aithne nan Gaidheal. Leughaibh an teacsa agus tuigidh sibh de tha mi a’ ciallachadh.

    Mura tuigear sin, cha tuigear bunait an sgriobhainn

    The text of the Declaration of Arbroath, if you read it in its entirety, makes it clear that those who wrote it bore a Gaelic identity. They made no distinction between Scot and Gael, but they made a clear distinction between Scots on the one hand, and Picts, Britons, English, Danes and Norwegians on the other.

    If people are ignoring that, then it’s simply a continuation of the Gaels being written out of Scottish history, despite our being fundamental to it.

  7. Finlay Macleoid says:

    Sgriobh Michael Newton na leanas.
    Agus se seachas mu bhunadh nan Gàidheal a tha aig toiseach na litreach. // And it starts with the Gaelic origin legend.

  8. Stroller says:

    It’s a very important point that Finlay MacLeod makes I think. All the kings of Scotland up to and including James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots, would have spoken Gaelic, in fact in most cases we know this is the case, there is documentary evidence. For example, in terms of James IV, we have the testimony of the Spanish ambassador and man of letters, Pedro de Ayala, who mentions that James IV spoke a whole number of languages, including Gaelic. Multilingualism was the norm for most of the history of these isles, and yet Gaelic is still constantly questioned by an ignorant faction of Scottish society today, some even in the independence movement.

    If a person illiterate in Scottish history were to watch this otherwise interesting enough short, then they would probably imagine the Scots nobles were all English speakers and Gaelic just doesn’t exist. As a one time Canadian colleague told me once, with reference to the Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, they were just “weird people” stuck in the past. No doubt that was a prejudice exported from Scotland…

    Finally, no one with any knowledge of human history can take seriously the notion that the right to remove a king was a novel and uniquely Scottish idea. It may have seemed so in the centuries after the Declaration of Arbroath, and it was a very important principle to be defended during the turbulent years of the Reformation and two centuries following it, but to go no more further than the most obvious one, the Romans removed a king to set up a Republic over a thousand years before the Declaration…

    1. Stroller says:

      PS: The omission or marginalization of Scotland’s Gaelic past means that – and tying in to the rather muddled point Angus makes – Scotish history is presented again and again as a tale of heroic resistance of the “noble and plucky” Scots against the “arrogant and ruthless” English… in the same language! But that is a falsification.

      What I’m trying to say is that, the shock of having a foreign military power occupy Scotland as Edward I first did was also, and perhaps above all, a cultural shock…the invader spoke a different language to the Scot of the 12th and 13th centuries. A Scottish peasant wouldn’t understand the words the English soldier spoke to him.

      In short, eliding out of history this fundamental cultural difference between Gaelic Scotland and Anglo-Saxon-Norman England means that the story is reduced to a kind of David and Goliath…. it is cast as a story – in English – of heroes and villains…

      The Scot of the late 13th century would have felt like a totally foreign force, speaking a totally foreign language was trying to colonize them. No different to a Pole being conquered by the Germans say….

  9. ice king says:

    I love what you wrote here

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