The Declaration of Arbroath 

Declaration of Arbroath statue

And the Orkney Connection

By John Mowat

Celebrations to mark the 700th Anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath were planned, in Arbroath over the weekend of 4th & 5th April and on the actual day on Monday 6th  April 2020.

Scottish Wars of Independence

The Scottish Wars of Independence took place following the sudden accidental death of King Alexander 3rd of Scotland on 19/03/1286.  The Scotland, as we know it, today, was taking shape, during King Alexander’s reign. His armies defeated the Norwegian King Haakon Haakonson’s forces at the Battle of Largs , on 2nd October 1263. Caithness, Sutherland, much of the West of Scotland, the Inner Hebrides & the Western Isles became part of Scotland, having previously been Norwegian for hundreds of years.

The defeated Norwegian King, Haakon, died in the Bishops Palace, in Kirkwall, in late December 1263. Orkney and Shetland remained Norwegian for over 200 years more, before becoming Scottish.

Bishops Palace

Bishop’s Palace Kirkwall

King Alexander did not leave a direct heir to the Scottish throne.  King Edward the 1st, of England saw this as an opportunity to take over Scotland, arranging  for the marriage of his son, Edward II, to Princess Margaret of Norway. Her mother also Margaret was a Scottish princess married to King Erik II of Norway.

Edward 1st armies attacked Scotland, defeating the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar in early 1296, leaving King John Balliol, a King, in name only, but without power; Tomb Tabard, the empty cloak.

Edward’s armies laid siege to Berwick, previously a major Scottish seaport, leaving it in ruins. The large scale slaughter of the Berwick population, of all ages, believed to have been well over 10,000, including all women & children was intended to send a message to the Scots.  Berwick never recovered as a major port, ever again.

These extremes of violence and brutality had the opposite effect. Today, such ethnic cleansing, would have been regarded as unnecessary and unjustified. By today’s standards, this massacre  would  have received widespread international condemnation.

William Wallace and Robert the Bruce

The story of William Wallace and his unsuccessful Scottish challenge to King Edward’s armies is well known, and was covered in the film, Bravehart, even although it is not 100% historically accurate.

Wallace 3 001

Scotland Forever

Scottish resistance to Edward, later centred around Robert the Bruce who won the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314 against the much larger  English armies, led by King Edward 2nd.

Robert Bruce And William Wallace Edinbrugh Castle

Robert Bruce And William Wallace credit Md.altaf.rahman

An uneasy peace followed, during which time the Scots were obliged remain vigilant followed. 5 years of harsh weather and poorer harvests in both Scotland and England may also reduced the risk of conflict.

The Scots were also keen to receive the support of France, which was itself  in conflict with England, due to the presence of English garrisons, in parts of France.

King Robert 1st, Robert the Bruce, became King of Scots in 1306, until his death in 1329. Robert proved to be a good, wise and competent King, commanding respect people, in Scotland and beyond.

King Robert had been excommunicated by the Pope, following his role in the murder of a rival, John Comyn in 1305, in Dumfries.

Edward II continued to lobby on his behalf and against Scotland, in the early 1300s, in European circles. This both annoyed and frustrated the Scots.

The Declaration of Arbroath

A group of leading Scottish nobles, including, King Robert met in Arbroath and drew up the “Declaration of Arbroath” in 1320.

Arbroath Abbey 2 (3)

Arbroath Abbey

The Declaration was dispatched, from Arbroath, on 6th April 1320, by ship, on the way to the Pope, in Avignon, in Southern France.

The intention was to set the record straight.  Scotland  wished  to receive full recognition from the Pope & other European Countries, of its right to its independence and self determination.

The Declaration of Arbroath states that  :

“ For as 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 man gives up but with his life.” 

Declaration of Arbroath FGThe wording of man, clearly means mankind, in today’s language.

King Robert enjoyed widespread support and respect from the Scottish population, at large, along with the clergy.

What is unusual, in medieval times was the implication that the King was there, as Leader, by popular acclaim. If a king were to become unpopular or lost this support and respect, the suggestion was that the monarch would be replaced. This is an expression of the fact that it is the people and not the king who are sovereign. It is an early expression of civil rights where everyone had a right to fair treatment freedom of expression and respect.

This had not previously been expressed so clearly and concisely, in any other country.

Burns imageSimilar Scottish sentiments were restated during the Reformation and later by authors and poets, such as Robert Burns, in the 1700s. These sentiments persist until the present day.

One can imagine the intense lobbying, on both Scotland and England’s behalf, taking place throughout, Europe, to the Pope and the Roman Catholic church. Three letters, in all were dispatched to the Pope. The Pope was clearly impressed by the strength of the Scottish case.  Edward II of England was basically told to back down and respect the sovereignty of his northern neighbour.

The whole process may well have lasted for a few years but this arbitration was decisive.

The Pope, at that time, would also have been interested in troops from many countries, including both Scotland and England, participating in Crusades to the Holy Land. Conflict between these neighbouring countries would thus be unwelcome and a diversion.

Recognition of King Robert as the rightful King of Scotland, by the Pope, was clearly important in international relationships.

One is always pleased when the diplomatic route, rather than further conflict, proves to be successful.

Another factor appears to have been the weather, which was wet, stormy and poor in 1315, 1316 & 1317. This would also have helped to make war and conflict, less likely.

King Robert’s reign continued successfully, until his death, in 1329. He was replaced by his son King Robert II of Scotland.

The Legacy of The Declaration of Arbroath

The Declaration of Arbroath confirmed Scotland’s right to exist as an independent country, by popular support, rather than be gobbled up by its bigger stronger southern neighbour. Similar scenarios persisted, in mainland Europe, in the years that followed.

Even today, there is much in the British State that one can regard as somewhat medieval. People are regarded as subjects of the Crown, while in Scotland and Northern Europe, they are regarded as citizens. It is the people that are sovereign.

The Brexit Bill which was finally passed by the present Tory Government, in January 2020, depended on some dubious legislation,  which dates back to the days of King Henry VIII of England, who died way back in 1547, when democracy was  much more limited. This date was, of course, well before the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 and more importantly the Union of the two Parliaments in 1707, which enshrined many of the rules to be followed, thereafter.

Even to this day the UK does not have a written Constitution, in the normal sense of the word, unlike most other countries. This has proved to be a disadvantage, at times, in international and national relationships.

Another recent event of recent interest  was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Plan to shut down the Westminster Parliament for a period of 6 weeks, later in 2019, to limit the Brexit debate.

SNP MP and senior Scottish Q C, Joanna Cherry, led the successful legal attempt to reconvene Parliament, with considerable cross Party support. The legal justification for this decision predates the 1707 and the Union of the Parliaments and enshrines those earlier Scottish rights dating back to 1320.

The United States of America’s Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776 and the subsequent U S Constitution leans heavily on the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath.

These sentiments were restated, in Scotland, in the years after the Reformation. They also appear in written Constitutions of many other European Countries.

Tartan Day, on 6th April, annually, originated in Canada and was later also adopted in USA. It celebrates Scottish influence,culture and traditions in North America, which are still strong, today.

It is significant that the date of Tartan Day, 6th April, coincides with the date of the Anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath.

The 700th Anniversary Events Festival, over the weekend 4th to 6th April, were planned to be centred on Arbroath, recently.

These celebrations were, of course, cancelled due to the present corona virus emergency, thus receiving more limited publicity.

It is hoped that the 701st Anniversary will now take place in 2021. A new tapestry has been made by a group of women, in Arbroath, and will be on public view. Intricate, Three-Panel Tapestry Celebrates The Declaration of Arbroath

Declaration of Arbroath Tapestry HES

Thousands of people had been expected to descend on Arbroath for the Festival which would have included a cross Parties and no Parties March, with flags.  These marches are designed to give expression of a desire for more control by Scots, in Scotland, of its own affairs.

Even today, one still gets a strong sense of history when visiting places, such as Arbroath, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Stirling, Linlithgow, Aberdeen, Glasgow  and indeed Kirkwall.

The Earl's Palace Kirkwall

The Earl’s Palace Kirkwall

Scotland had a line of 113 of its own Kings, over many years, similar to what took place in many other European countries.

At the time of the Declaration of Arbroath, in 1320, the largely autonomous Lords of the Isles, descended from Norwegian Earls, remained in charge of the Hebrides, Western Isles and parts of Western Scotland for many years thereafter. They nominally supported the Scottish kings and were expected not to threaten them.

One can imagine the Norwegian language and culture slowly being replaced by Gaelic, but English is likely to have been understood too.

Orkney and Shetland

Here, Orkney, along with Shetland, remained Norwegian and later Danish until 1468 / 1472, before becoming part of Scotland.

Battle of Largs

Battle of Largs by William Hole

The 1263 Battle of Largs should be seen as a defeat for Orkney, Shetland and the rest of Nordic Scotland. The Orkney Earldom was split between two countries for over 200 years.  One can imagine the diplomatic challenge facing the Earls, with Caithness and Sutherland being in Scotland while Orkney and Shetland were still Scandinavian. Professor Barbara Crawford, of  St Andrews University, has taken a close interest in that period.

Scotland Today

In present day Scotland, the feeling of fairness, the right to education, mutual respect and civil rights still runs strongly.

This has been given a greater focus following the re-convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Scottish Parliament in 2003

The Scottish Parliament reconvenes image: Scottish Parliament

Legal, educational and church matters have remained quite different from those, in England.

Two of the most significant events in living memory, have both happened recently, in Brexit and the Covid-19 emergency.

Scots opposed Brexit by almost 2 : 1, on 23/06/2016, with similar results in Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

These, along with Ireland and the Rest of UK are all expected to be affected negatively, economically by the aftermath of both of these events. Experts are predicting an economic recession on a scale not seen since the 1930s.  There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind once the evidence has been seen to stack up. Remaining in Europe is clearly a better option that Hard Brexit, by Christmas 2020.

We now know how amazing the NHS & its workforce are as Boris is now telling us. Life at the front line is hard for the families too !

Actually , there are lots of  amazing public servants in education, care, social work etc;  unsung & have been undervalued for years !

The Declaration of Arbroath is still regarded as a significant event, not only in Scotland, but in the rest of UK, Europe and North America.

Roll on 6th April 2021 for the 701th  Arbroath Festival.

Download of transcription and translation: Declaration of Arbroath

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Declaration of Arbroath statue



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