I am inclined to be a bit wary of appeals to history in the service of the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. Events in the distant past must be of questionable relevance to a modern constitutional campaign. I’m ever mindful of the words with which L.P. Hartley opened his 1953 novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”. The past is indeed alien to us. They did things very differently then. It is the most appalling folly to understand accounts of historical events as if they were happening now. At the same time, it is all but impossible not to understand them in this way because now is all we really know. To fully understand past events as they were understood when they occurred we would have to be as immersed in the context of that time as were the inhabitants of this foreign country. That is clearly impossible. We can never have such understanding. The best we might ever hope for is to minimise our misunderstanding.
To be dubious about the relevance to Scotland’s cause of any particular historical reference is to do no more than apply a sensible precaution against facile misunderstanding. This is not to say that history cannot have relevance to a modern political campaign. It is only to caution that whatever relevance there may be, it is something we have constructed using an interpretation of the historical evidence that we have chosen. My reluctance to rely too heavily on history when arguing for Scotland’s cause is very largely down to the fact that I am aware others may find a quite different relevance using their own choice of historical interpretation. There is always the danger that when you use some historical reference to reinforce your case someone else might use the same historical reference to dent or even demolish that case.
This year we belatedly commemorate the 700th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. I’m sure there’s no need to explain why this commemoration is two years late. One might readily argue that a couple of years in seven centuries is neither here nor there. The pandemic has, I suspect, left us well able to take such things in our stride. Numerous events are planned to mark this occasion – as one would expect given the place the Declaration of Arbroath has been afforded in Scotland’s history. It is held to be a document of huge significance not only to Scotland but to the very principle of democracy. Among these events is a march and rally in Arbroath organised by All Under One Banner. The Declaration of Arbroath is, unsurprisingly, very important to the nationalist movement in Scotland.
While the document is obviously important to independence campaigners this is not the same as being significant for the cause of restoring what those campaigners hold to be Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. The rightful constitutional status which has been denied to us for more than 300 years by the Union. That significance depends entirely on our perception of the Declaration of Arbroath. It depends on what it means to us. It will mean different things to different people. And there are people who will try to make it mean whatever serves their agenda.
On the one hand, we have those who regard the Declaration of Arbroath as Scotland’s declaration of independence. On the other, we have those who dismiss it as something of academic historical interest only with no bearing whatever on the constitutional issue in the 21st century. This is a massive oversimplification of course. But it serves to represent the breadth of possible interpretations. Most of those perceptions will lie somewhere in between these two extremes.
To better illustrate the way in which the significance of the Declaration of Arbroath is minimised by those who oppose the restoration of Scotland’s independence I’m taking a wee dive into history myself. Maybe not a dive, exactly. Perhaps a wee paddle would better describe it, as I’m only going back as far as 2014. In August of that year – almost exactly a month before polling day in the first independence referendum – an article appeared in the West Highland Free Press under the title Hiding Under a Myth: Independence and the Declaration of Arbroath. As you may discern from the tone of the piece the author – one Donald Macleod – is no friend to Scotland’s cause and seems indifferent at best to the democratic process. Mr Macleod took great offence at Alex Salmond being photographed holding a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath. Although it’s not clear what offended him most – Salmond, the document, the independence campaign or the great inconvenience caused to him by the people of Scotland exercising our right of self-determination. The following passage gives you a flavour of the piece. You may prefer to suck lemons.
There’s one thing clear about the Declaration of Arbroath: whatever it was, it was not a declaration of the Scottish people. It was a declaration of the nobility, signed by 18 earls and 31 barons; and the voice we hear is not the voice of the people, but the voice of the land, speaking in defence of property. The people knew little about it. It was, after all, written in Latin.
It goes on in much the same vein. Having tutted and huffed at the signatories and the language he goes on to scoff at the ethnicity of those signatories, the not unblemished record of their activities and their motives in signing the document. As an example of failure to appreciate the difference of context twixt then and now this article is as complete as we might hope for. Can you stand some more?
But perhaps the oddest thing about the Declaration of Arbroath is its totally mythological account of Scottish history: a ‘laughable fiction’, as John Prebble called it. Apparently we came from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules. Heroes, we were, of classical antiquity. Then, by a marvellous transformation, we became the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea; as an encore we became the first nation to embrace Christianity; and to crown it all we were confirmed in that faith by ‘the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Beloved Peter’s brother’ (which must have been very difficult to arrange, considering that in the days of Saint Andrew the Scots were still in Ireland, in the loins of their ancestors).
There you have it! If the Declaration of Arbroath wasn’t drained of all significance to Scotland’s independence movement by Alex Salmond’s wee photo-opp, it must be rendered insignificant on account of the “laughable fiction” of contemporary beliefs about the origins and historical journey of Scotland’s people. Or at least the portion of Scotland’s people claiming aristocratic status. Not at all incidentally, John Prebble did indeed refer to the account of Scotland’s history in the Declaration of Arbroath as a “laughable fiction”. But again context is everything. The full quote puts those words in a rather different light. Emphasis is mine.
The author of this noble Latin address is unknown, though it is assumed to have been composed by Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland. Above the seals of eight earls and forty-five barons, it asked for the Pope’s dispassionate intervention in the bloody quarrel between the Scots and the English, and so that he might understand the difference between the two its preamble gave him a brief history of the former. The laughable fiction of this is irrelevant. What is important is the passionate sincerity of the men who believed it, who were placing a new and heady nationalism above the feudal obligations that had divided their loyalties less than a quarter of a century before.The Declaration of Arbroath 1320 by John Prebble
Needless to say, John Prebble ‘gets it’ in a way Donald Macleod seems incapable of. The historian moves past the stuff relevant only in the context of the world as it was 700 years ago and gets to the abiding principles which give the Declaration of Arbroath abiding resonance.
The Declaration of Arbroath is abundantly meaningful if one has enough wit to realise that the “laughable fiction” of its pocket history of Scotland can be dispensed with and replaced with a modern historical account without in any way diminishing the import of the document’s fundamental message. Similarly, the fact that it was written in the then lingua franca of international diplomacy is a matter of the utmost triviality. We simply translate it into a language that isn’t dead. Duh!
The Declaration of Arbroath is significant in terms of Scotland’s cause if one has the imagination to perceive that we, the people, are the modern equivalent of the earls and barons who appended their seals to the document. Broadly speaking (how else should we speak?), the rights and privileges enjoyed by those nobles now belong to all of us. Social and political progress has seen the franchise widen to give every man and woman in Scotland over the age of 16 a say in determining the constitutional status of our nation. what was then the province of a select few is now regarded as a universal and inalienable right – the right to choose the form of government which best accords with our needs, priorities and aspirations.
The Declaration of Arbroath has great significance for the people who will march in Arbroath to commemorate its signing because it marks a vital step on that journey from feudalism to democracy. The document was little short of revolutionary in an age of divinely ordained monarchy. It challenged the existing order then in a manner essentially the same as the way the modern independence movement challenges the established power of the British state. It asserted Scotland’s right to be distinctive among nations then just as demands for the restoration of Scotland’s independence assert our right to a distinctive national identity and political culture now.
The Declaration of Arbroath deserves to be appreciated as more than a historical artefact of mere academic interest, and certainly as more than a totem of Scotland’s independence movement to be waved like a placard. It deserves to be appreciated as a statement of principles which are ageless and absolutely essential to Scotland’s understanding of itself.
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