The 700th Anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath – Drafted in Newbattle, Midlothian

Monday April 6th 2020


Written by Midlothian MP, Owen Thompson

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Extract from the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320

We are all unwillingly swept up in a dark period of global history right now as the Covid19 pandemic continues to take its toll. Everything else pales into insignificance compared with collective efforts to tackle this devastating disease.

As a brief respite from these efforts, it’s worthy of note that today also marks the 700th anniversary of a major milestone in Scotland’s history; something which offered hope for redemption in times of conflict, and something in which Newbattle Abbey in Midlothian takes centre stage.

In the spring of 1320, it is believed the most famous document in Scotland’s history was devised, composed and drafted at Newbattle Abbey: the Declaration of Arbroath.

This iconic text is seen by many as the founding document of the nation. It is the reason why America celebrates ‘Tartan Day’ each year on the date it was signed, April 6. Many historians believe the USA’s own Declaration of Independence in 1776 was modelled on the inspirational Scottish version, some 456 years later.

The declaration is a diplomatic appeal to Pope John XXII for international recognition of Scotland’s independence, its right to self-determination, and Robert the Bruce’s right to rule. Robert the Bruce had been King of Scots since 1306 but this was disputed, not only by rivals within Scotland, but by the continued claims of feudal overlordship by English rulers at the time.

The Declaration led the way in Europe in its claim of right for ‘the people’ to keep or replace their king – replacing the idea of a divine right to rule with that of governing by consent. While it’s fair to say the definition of ‘the people’ at that time was limited to Lords and Nobles, and very far from universal suffrage, this was a ground-breaking moment in medieval European history.

While the declaration takes the name of Arbroath, historians think the decision was taken at a meeting of Robert the Bruce’s council at Newbattle, after which the King’s Chancellor, Abbot Bernard of Arbroath, took the draft back with him. The final production was then sent from Arbroath to the Pope in France.

After this declaration was received, Bruce’s relationship with Pope John significantly improved and eight years later the Treaty of Edinburgh brought recognition from England and a temporary halt to the conflicts of the time.

As with any historical document, academics will continue to debate over its connotations, the context and the relevance now, but few argue against its importance and its eloquence. The Declaration of Arbroath has been globally recognised by the United Nations and placed on its ‘Memory of the World’ register – a programme which aims to safeguard the heritage of humanity.

We live in very different days now and it does not matter a jot your views on the modern debate about independence for Scotland. This is a central piece of Scotland’s history that belongs to everyone – and it has roots right here in Midlothian.

Prior to the current coronavirus outbreak, Newbattle Abbey College had a series of events lined up to mark this 700th anniversary, and their role in it, and I look forward to seeing this after the current crisis is over. I also hope we will still get the chance to view the copy of the document held in our national archives, which was due to be on display at the Museum of Scotland for the first time in 15 years.

While we face some horrible times at the moment, it is always worth remembering and appreciating the history and culture that is around us, that shapes and unites us and connects generation to generation. It brings hope in the darkest of days.

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