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The Declaration of Arbroath


BACKGROUND  by John Prebble

Arbroath Abbey, founded 1178The Declaration of Arbroath was and has been unequalled in its eloquent plea for the liberty of man. From the darkness of medieval minds it shone a torch upon future struggles which its signatories could not have foreseen or understood.

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.

In its mixture of defiance and supplication, nonsensical history and noble thought, two things make the Declaration of Arbroath the most important document in Scottish history.

Firstly it set the will and the wishes of the people above the King. Though they were bound to him 'both by law and by his merits' it was so that their freedom might be maintained. If he betrayed them he would be removed and replaced. This remarkable obligation placed upon a feudal monarch by his feudal subjects may be explained in part by the fact that Bruce was still a heather king to many of them, still a wild claimant ruling upon sufferance and success. But the roots of his kingship were Celtic, and a Celtic tradition was here invoked, the memory of the Seven Earls, the Seven Sons of Cruithne the Pict in who, it was believed, had rested the ancient right of tanistry, the elevation of kings by selection. This unique relationship of king and people would influence their history henceforward, and would reach its climax in the Reformation and the century following, when a people's Church would declare and maintain its superiority over earthly crowns.

Secondly, the manifesto affirmed the nation's independence in a way no battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race. Man has a right to freedom and a duty to defend it with his life. The natural qualifications put upon this by a medieval baron are irrelevant, as are the reservations which slave-owning Americans placed upon their declaration of independence. The truth once spoken cannot be checked, the seed once planted controls its own growth, and the liberty which men secure for themselves must be given by them to others, or it will be taken as they took it. Freedom is a hardy plant and must flower in equality and brotherhood.


FROM  'The Lion in the North: One Thousand Years of Scotland's History'   Penguin Books.



 
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