IT was a stirring speech delivered at an SNP gathering to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. “We do not ask Scotland to rise and recover liberties from an oppressor. But to recover liberties which Scotland surrendered and which still are Scotland’s. It is not a question of the House of Commons in London having the power to give us devolution of legislation or administration. The power is ours to take that devolution and recontrol.”

These words from Arthur Donaldson, from Forfar, might well be heard at an indyref rally today. But they were heard back in 1950 at Arbroath Abbey, where around 300 SNP members gathered, according to newspaper reports of the time.

Another speaker – George Brodlie, of Aberdeen – told the meeting the results of the last election failing to reflect or indicate in any degree “the feelings of the Scottish people about self-government”.

Seventy years on from that gathering, both the call for an independent Scotland and the popularity of what is widely seen as Scotland’s most iconic document have grown rather than diminished.

The 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath tomorrow was due to be another focal point for independence supporters until plans were disrupted by the coronavirus crisis, with key events cancelled or postponed. After surviving through the centuries there is little danger, however, the letter is in danger of being forgotten any time soon.

It leaves the interesting question of why a document which could be interpreted as a diplomatic intervention of long ago still resonates so strongly hundreds of years on.

Scotland’s leading historian Professor Sir Tom Devine acknowledges it may seem odd to some that a medieval letter to the Pope – in which a number of aristocrats, lairds and senior clerics pleaded for protection from English aggression – should attract so much attention and celebration in 2020.

“Even the term ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ is of relatively recent vintage and for a very long time the letter of the barons and the clergy to the Vatican was mainly forgotten outside the ranks of antiquarians and scholars,” he says.

“But the ringing language of the Declaration can still resonate powerfully across the centuries and down to the present day.

“It is the most eloquent case for national self-determination and freedom from external oppression ever written in medieval Europe.

“A masterpiece of prose originally composed in Latin, in translation it remains succinct, incisive, cogent and replete with both logical argument and memorable phrases.”

There are parts of the Declaration which are instantly recognisable and frequently quoted.

The most famous rallying cry is in the lines: “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.”

IN the run-up to devolution, James Bond actor Sir Sean Connery used a version of the quote to urge Scotland to declare Yes Yes in 1997. Devine says: “The Declaration persuasively advances the case for the universal and timeless human rights of liberty, freedom and those of the governed to oppose tyrannical or duplicitous government.

“It evokes the era of the Wars of Independence, so critically important in the national story of an unconquered Scottish nation and of those who fought to achieve it.

“It is indeed no coincidence that this 2020 anniversary of the signing of the Declaration has attracted more popular interest than ever before.

“The document is well in tune with a Scotland where there is a much stronger sense of national identity and a quest among many to seek a new future for an ancient nation.”

It is clear the letter has resonated through the centuries – but did it achieve anything in the short term?

The document, dated April 6, 1320, was written in the wake of Robert the Bruce’s victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

But the English King Edward II would not drop his claim to overlordship of Scotland and Scottish raids continued on the north of England.

King Robert was also not recognised as king of Scots by Pope John XXII, and when Bruce attacked the town of Berwick it meant a papal attempt to secure peace between the Scots and the English had failed – ultimately leading to his excommunication.

The letter from the nobles urged the Pope to recognise Robert as legitimate king of Scots and lift his penalty from the church. Some consider it as having failed, but Dr Tom Turpie, lecturer in history at the University of Stirling, argues that it did manage to achieve its objectives.

“There are mixed views on it, depending on what you consider to be its aims,” he says. “But its primary aim is to get that sentence of excommunication lifted, which is suspended – so in that case it is successful.

“Its secondary aim is to get the Pope to recognise Bruce as legitimate king and he seems to have been moving in that direction.

“The third aim is to get the Pope to persuade Edward II to get around the peace table so to speak, which sort of works too, with peace talks the following year.

“It is partially successful at least I would say. It doesn’t end the war – but whether that was ever its aim is another matter.

“So on that question there will be mixed views on its level of success. It depends on interpretation.”

One aspect which is clear is that at the time it was written, most of the population would have been entirely unaware of its existence.

Turpie, who launches a new book this week – The Declaration Of Arbroath: What It Meant Then And What It Means Now – says that “99% of the population would have had no idea about it and would never have heard about it – obviously they wouldn’t be able to read”.

He continues: “Politics in that period is the domain of a very small group of people, so there was the king, his followers and a nobility amounting up to maybe 500 people that you could probably point to at any one time who had any sort of involvement in politics.”

The Declaration penned by the nobles was one of three letters delivered to the Pope in Avignon by Scottish envoys in 1320 – with another written by clergy and one by Bruce himself.

The other documents have been lost over time, although there remains the intriguing prospect they could be buried somewhere deep within the Vatican archives.

So it is remarkable the Declaration has survived to this day – although the document which is held by the National Records of Scotland is a medieval copy, with the original having been dispatched to Avignon.

For a few hundred years after it was written the Declaration also became “lost”, likely buried deep in royal archives with seemingly little awareness of its existence.

It wasn’t until the 1680s when it made an appearance again, rising to prominence as an important document in the Glorious Revolution – which saw James VII of Scotland and II of England deposed by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.

“In that period, suddenly a range of people start printing it, they start talking about it,” Turpie says. “They don’t call it the Declaration of Arbroath, they had various names – a letter from Arbroath, all these sorts of things.

“It is then it starts to have this wider significance and since then every political group in Scotland has had some sort of connection with it, it doesn’t matter which part of the spectrum they are in.

“It is taken as a royalist document – people used it to say kings are important and that all states need royal kings.

“The Jacobites use it in their arguments variously – and people that oppose the Jacobites use it in their arguments.

“In the 19th century people more on the left begin to use it, for the angle of popular sovereignty and suggesting that Scotland has had a long tradition of democracy as this document from 1320 shows.

“For the last 300 years it has taken on a life of its own.”

IT is the enduring themes of the document – dealing with tyrants, freedom and small states versus big states – which have made the letter last through the centuries, Turpie argues. “I don’t think the men who wrote this had any idea that their very specific document that was meant to deal with a very specific problem would still be talked about 700 years later,” he says.

“But it is a credit to their style of writing and the power of their style of writing that it is the case.”

It is not known who exactly drafted the Declaration. Written in Latin, it was sealed by eight earls and around 40 barons in lieu of signatures, which were not used at that time. The long list of names represent the wealthy and powerful men of Scotland, but author and writer Sara Sheridan, who specialises in women’s history, points out it is wrong to ignore the women of that time.

She says: “There is this whole missing thing around what were the women doing, as obviously there are no female ‘signatories’ [to the Declaration] and the women’s stories very much aren’t to the fore of traditional history.

“But there were quite extraordinary noblewoman during this period of the early 14th-century period.

“I think the notion of women at this time, we have the notion that women were sort of revered and were terribly dainty.

“That isn’t actually the case of these noblewomen – they were pretty kick-ass a lot of them.”

One example is Agnes Randolph of Dunbar, who lived from 1312 to 1369 and is known for successfully defending Dunbar Castle against a five-month English siege.

“This is not in the same decade [as the Declaration], but it is not far away,” Sheridan says.

“Some of the women are almost like warrior queens – if you were noble and your husband or father or brother was away, you would hold the castle and you would be in charge.”

Seven centuries later, the anniversary of the Declaration is still prompting discussion and debate.

One initiative for the 700th anniversary has encouraged writers to use the document as a springboard to explore the idea of freedom of expression, with the resulting work compiled in a new anthology to be launched this week.

Jenni Calder, who led the project for Scottish PEN, a charity which promotes freedom of expression and literature, says: “What is interesting is it is such a resonant document in terms of its sheer language – it has become part of Scotland’s story.

“Of course it wasn’t addressed to the people of Scotland at the time, who were largely illiterate.

“But nevertheless it is a kind of cornerstone of the notion of national identity.”

Scotland is in lockdown. Shops are closing and newspaper sales are falling fast. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of The National is at stake. Please consider supporting us through this with a digital subscription from just £2 for 2 months by following this link: Thanks – and stay safe.