In a few days, Scots will step forward to vote on the complex issue of independence. I wish them well whatever the outcome.
But I would like to hark back to a much earlier time, no less complex or divisive, when a group of Scots, albeit magnates and nobles, appended their signatures to a document. Though written in 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath continues to fire the imagination.
“… for as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. 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…”
Abbot Bernard, Scotland’s Chancellor, is believed to have penned these inspirational words, probably at the bequest of the king.
When representatives of the Community of the Realm gathered at Arbroath Abbey, bitterness, doubt and hope must have rippled beneath the surface like an unseen wave. Many had been enemies of Robert the Bruce yet here they faced him, their king, putting aside – for a time – lifelong hostilities, presenting a rare show of optimism and solidarity alongside his supporters. For such a diverse group to gather under one roof no doubt represented the enormous political skill and good will of many influential parties.
The Declaration was an affirmation of Scotland’s past as an independent nation, longer even than that of England. Underlying these conflicts, a yearning for a peaceful future acted as a powerful catalyst for change. Perhaps King Robert’s policy of reconciliation and political inclusion also brought a measure of healing to the land. He was certainly motivated by his desire to be recognised as king and to have all religious punishments lifted from both himself and his people.
It was hoped that Pope John XXII in far off Avignon in France would heed this desperate plea and mitigate on Scotland’s behalf for an honourable peace with their powerful neighbour through recognition of the country’s independence.
One of the most notable aspects concerns the Community of the Realm’s right to throw out the king should he fail to maintain Scotland’s independence; the people could choose someone else in his stead, reminiscent perhaps of the ancient Celtic process of Tanistry and in direct opposition to the feudal concept of primogeniture – the hereditary right of the first born to become king upon death of his father.
Today, the jagged ruins of Arbroath Abbey stand testament to the resilience of these powerful themes. Most fascinating of all, the medieval abbot’s house and the original hall where the Declaration was believed to have been signed are still in existence.
Imagine walking through such history with Professor Barrow – that great historian – to hear his thoughts.
“Certainly, we shall find no clearer statement of Scottish nationalism and patriotism in the fourteenth century. Equally certainly, no finer statement of a claim to national independence was produced in this period anywhere in Western Europe. In this respect, the conservative Community of the Realm stands out in advance of the age.”(ref: Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm)
Did the document achieve its goals you might ask?
In time, Pope John put his considerable political weight behind Scotland’s fight for independence;
‘Not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting but for freedom…”