‘WE fear, and we try to counter, material weapons, that have never been so formidable as now. We do not fear enough the mental weapons, that make the most devilish of the material as mild, by comparison, as a small boy’s squirt. To counter these, we must clean the poisoned minds, and feed the healthy, clear-cut knowledge, precisely fashioned shapes of human freedom.”

Thus wrote Agnes Mure Mackenzie in an essay “On the Declaration of Arbroath” (Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 1951), recollecting perhaps Walter Scott’s epigraph to Chapter XIII of Rob Roy (1817): Dire was his thought, who first in poison steep’d The weapon formed for slaughter – direr his, And worthier of damnation, who instill’d The mortal venom in the social cup, To fill the veins with death instead of life.

As Dauvit Broun says in an essay in the book The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Significance, Setting, edited by Geoffrey Barrow (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2003): “The account of Scottish origins in the Declaration of Arbroath, as the pedigree of Scottish self-determination, was not a statement of biological descent or ethnic affiliation. It was the pedigree of an allegiance.”

This was an allegiance to an authority characterised by responsibility to the people who were pledging their allegiance.

In other words, it was an act of loyalty not merely to a particular leader in a state or kingdom or an area on a map, but to an idea which has its own history, in Broun’s words: “an idea which people have engaged with, recreated and adapted.”

This idea in its articulation in 1320 may have had little in common with what we understand today by the word “democracy” or with the meaning of that word as applied to the slave-owning societies of ancient Greece and Rome or of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Or in some of its various applications today. Nevertheless, in the evolution of the priorities of giving voice to those denied representation, and to listening and acting upon what those voices speak of, the intrinsic idea is a thread through many labyrinths of social, political and geographical circumstance, and widely far-apart territories.

In 1967, when a Scottish National Party member gained a Westminster parliamentary seat and the nationalist 1320 Club was founded, the interpretation of the declaration as an affirmation of independence was established. Of course, the document’s historical data and context insist that we must read the letter in its own time and place, but equally, its power as an assertion of priority has mythical status, about which we are wise to be careful, but from which, also, we might draw strength.

For it is, for me, not only a document from history, nor the prismatic shapeshifting text at the mercy of its exploiters of whatever disposition: it is rather a work of literature, words organised by laws of both self-conscious rhetoric and emotional intuition, lastingly memorable, which commands respect and imaginative engagement, as much as it demands to be located specifically in itself and in the uses identified in its deployment.

As conservative a man as the judge and historian Lord Cooper (1892-1955), in an address to the Scottish History Society in 1949 published in his book Supra Crepidam: Presidential Addresses delivered to the Scottish Historical Society (London: Thomas Nelson, 1951), indicated in detail the formal use of Latin prose rhythmic structures in the original document, the “ars dictaminis”, which would have been familiar to the papal chancery to whom the original letter was addressed.

He describes three patterns of words arranged to effect emotional meaning, structures that generate cadences, arts of persuasion that have to be convincing. They cannot be merely manufactured, but they have to fit what he calls “the substance of the message”. The three “primary forms” as he calls them, or the “three keys” are as follows: the “Cursus Planus” for narrative (as in “servants departed”) , the “Cursus Tardus” for solemn invocation (as in “perfect felicity”) and the “Cursus Velox” for passages of deep urgency or strong feeling (as in “glorious undertaking”). These rhetorical devices signify highly developed literary sensibilities at work in the document’s composition and that it was designed for an intensely literate reading.

Also, there is a subtle modulation of a crucial quotation from Sallust (Gaius Sallustus Crispus, 86-35 BC, a Roman historian, politician and opponent of the old Roman aristocracy). In his work, The War with Catiline (probably written between 44 and 40 BC): “At nos non imperium neque divitias petimus, quarum rerum causa bella atque certamina omnia inter mortalis sunt, sed libertatem, quam nemo bonus nisi cum anima simul amittit.” Or in English, as translated by JC Rolfe, from the Loeb edition: “But we are seeking neither power nor riches for the sake of which all wars and strife arise among mortals, but rather freedom, which no upstanding man gives up except together with his life.”

The literary sophistication at work here is an extraordinary example of what writing can do. Cooper describes it as a “remarkable manifesto”: “Read it again, and judge for yourselves whether it does not deserve on its merits to be ranked as one of the masterpieces of political rhetoric of all time.”

AGNES Mure Mackenzie’s distinction between “material weapons” and “healthy, clear-cut knowledge” is perennially important, never more so than today, and especially here, in Scotland. And that diagnosis that a poison of imagination is even more deadly, far more deadly, in fact, in Walter Scott’s words, a “weapon formed for slaughter”, filling veins with “death instead of life”, is as accurate in the 21st as it was in the 14th century. So that “mortal venom” (drawn from fear itself, sometimes, and usually from its origin, ignorance) needs to be opposed by a self-determination given to affirming identity through allegiance rather than, or beyond, the social strata into which you were born, your place of birth and upbringing, your given world. Your affinities are elective as well as given. It’s not only an insistence, it’s also your choice. And the context of requirement in any act of self-determination is always present tense.

Beyond the given, perhaps the only allegiance worth making comes through knowledge and wisdom, which is why education is crucial, and the dignity of diversity in cultural identity, always and everywhere, is the only real diplomacy that works.

In the public debate at Oxford University on December 3 1964, Hugh MacDiarmid spoke alongside the black American revolutionary Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, to approve the motion that “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of Justice is no virtue.” You can hear him online at: https://soundcloud.com/gairmscoile MacDiarmid quoted the last sentences of the declaration (“For as long as a hundred of us remain alive…”) and then he said, “My people, the Scottish people, have done little but betray that oath ever since.”

BUT things have changed a bit since then. There are a lot more than a hundred of us now.

The National:

The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath, by Andrew Redmond Barr, pictured above left with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is available to purchase from AndrewRBarr.com priced £14.99

Andrew Redmond Barr, in his account of the declaration in this new publication, The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath (Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 2019) draws a fine line threading between the material of historical objectivity, the engagement of his own personal story, including his own family background, and the affirmation of priorities of political allegiance, which means that this book is his own and yet feels both commemorative and of immediate significance. In this regard it is a natural successor to his first book, Summer of Independence: Stories from a Nation in the Making (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2016). That work was remarkable: a lucid, vanity-free, episode-rich autobiographical account of 2014. If it were fiction, it would be a “bildungsroman”, a story of young man’s era of finding out – about Scotland, politically, geographically, about people, on doorsteps, in the streets, in “the bonniest company”, about history, and about what happens next. Beautifully written and illustrated, it has the clarity of youth, the intrinsic optimism of curiosity and an utterly unforced sense of hope.

Like that book, this one is the work of a keen aesthetic intelligence, characterised by humane sympathy and outward-looking national commitment. It is an investment in matters of value, like the original declaration itself.

In his book, Here Is Where We Meet (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), John Berger recollects his mother saying to him: “Everything in life, John, is a question of drawing a line, and you have to decide for yourself where to draw it. You can’t draw it for others. You can try, of course, but it doesn’t work. People obeying rules laid down by somebody else is not the same thing as respecting life. And if you want to respect life, you have to draw a line.”

Andrew Barr is someone who knows how, and where, to draw a line, and why you have to do so, to use it to connect things, to make distinction between things, to safeguard what we value and keep what would oppose such value out. And to pull on that line what is of greatest worth from a personal, political, and national past, up into a present we have to learn how to inhabit well, “to respect life” now, and in the dignity of all its diversity, all that life can give.