THE historic Declaration of Arbroath is to be turned into an appeal for tolerance, diversity, openness and respect, according to the composer behind an ambitious celebration of its 700th anniversary.

Speaking following the news that the declaration is to form the centrepiece of Europe’s largest winter music festival, Greg Lawson said the musicians would respond to the idea of freedom in the famous document.

It was announced last week that the 1320 manuscript, which proclaims Scotland’s status as an independent and sovereign state, would be commemorated at a special concert to open the internationally renowned Celtic Connections festival.

The January event will kick-start a year-long celebration of the declaration, which famously states: “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.”

Six brand new pieces by leading Scottish musicians have been commissioned for the occasion, with backing from the Scottish Government’s Festival Expo Fund. They will be played by the Grit Orchestra, an ensemble of 80 folk, jazz and classical musicians founded to continue the legacy of the late Scots-Canadian musician Martyn Bennett.

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Lawson, the orchestra’s conductor/arranger, said the musicians would look at how the notion of freedom of expression could be transplanted into a modern context culturally. “To be really free we need to be equal, we need to be diverse, we need to be tolerant, we need to be open, we need to care so in a way the inspiration is to interpret that aspect of freedom,” he said.

“You could say we are taking the declaration and turning it into an appeal – for tolerance, diversity, openness, respect.

“This isn’t about holding up a clenched fist, it’s about putting out your arms. We all know that if you want to make change, you can’t build a barricade. It simply doesn’t work. If you want to make change you have to take on the things that are uncomfortable and try to understand them.

“That process is exactly the alchemical process of composition. You take on an idea and then you have to somehow transmit that idea to a combination of instruments, and each different instrument combination will sound entirely different. If you get your voicings wrong you present cacophony. If you get all your voicings right, you present this homogeny, which is beautiful and warms people’s spirits.

“So there is that responsibility in music – exactly the same in a way as finding compromise and finding a way to actually do something for other people’s benefit. Music exists for everyone’s benefit, not just those who are making it.”

The National: The Grit Orchestra will star at Celtic ConnectionsThe Grit Orchestra will star at Celtic Connections

Lawson said the Grit Orchestra was interested in bringing together styles that are normally kept apart.

“It’s about taking music that is often segregated into different forms by the challenges of commercialisation and trying to put it into one shared musical space instead,” he said.

The six commissioned Grit Orchestra composers, who will each frame their own response to the notion of freedom, represent a wide range of musical genres and disciplines.

They are Fraser Fifield, a pioneer of the Scottish jazz-folk scene, Scotland-based South-African-born cellist Rudi de Groote, clarsach composer Catriona McKay, saxophonist Paul Towndrow and fiddlers Patsy Reid and Chris Stout.

Reid said it was a “dream come true to be involved”.

“The Declaration is totally inspirational and it’s overwhelming really to have the opportunity to paint the words with such an orchestra – I hope I can do it justice,” she said.

“It’s an honour to be asked and musically the orchestra, being a hybrid of trad musicians and classical, is kind of where I have come from as my background is a mishmash of those styles.” Reid said it was the biggest commission she had ever taken on.

“I am terrified to be honest but everybody involved is very supportive,” she said.

“I am looking into including some words from the declaration, which is amazing. I don’t want to get into political issues – I just want to look at the idea of freedom and the idea of working together.”

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop added: “With funding from the Scottish Government’s Expo fund, this performance will help to raise the profile of one of the defining moments in Scottish history.”

The Declaration of Arbroath was written during the time of Robert the Bruce but he will not be the only Bruce featured in the festival, which will also be a 70th birthday tribute to Bruce Springsteen.

The Born to Run event at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow will feature Lisa Hanningan, Karine Polwart, Craig Finn of Hold Steady, Jonathan Wilson, Ryan Bingham, Phil Campbell and The Rails as well as house band Roddy Hart And The Lonesome Fire.

The festival runs in Glasgow from January 16 until February 2.