THE Declaration of Arbroath has resonated throughout history. In the final chapters of my new book, The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath, I take a look back at how it has been remembered and commemorated over the last 100 years, and how each commemoration has been set against a background of changing culture and politics in Scotland.

One of the interesting things about the Declaration is the way it has resonated with and inspired different people at different times, often for quite different reasons. It comes from a specific time and place, but also speaks about ideas of freedom and humanity in the broadest and most universal terms, making it easily understood, even centuries later, and far beyond Scotland’s borders.

It was in 1920 – 100 years ago this year – that Scotland witnessed its first major commemoration of the Declaration for its 600th anniversary. With the exception perhaps of the Scottish Home Rule Association, the majority of official guests at Arbroath Abbey would not have been particularly interested in political nationalism.

The first formation of a Scottish nationalist party, the National Party of Scotland, a pre-runner to the SNP, was still eight years down the line. This was a Scotland where the British Empire was at its height and many of the day’s speeches were tailored to fit the imperial story.

The opening sentiments of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland were decidedly pro-empire, praising Scotland’s “strong, robust character” which contributed so effectively towards the imperial project.

Interestingly, one dissenting address was given by the Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, who related the Declaration’s message to nations around the world pushing for self-government. The true lesson from Scottish history, he argued, was that it was not only wrong but impossible to govern a people against its will, and that self-determination was a human and natural right applicable to all nations. This was met by applause in the abbey.

So even as early as 1920, people were beginning to dispute what the Declaration really meant, and what should be taken away from it.

Later in the year, in October 1920, an early pro-independence organisation known as the Scots National League held an alternative gathering at Arbroath. It was supposed to be led by the aristocratic Scottish nationalist Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr but, due to an illness, he had to step down and was replaced by the famous socialist John Maclean, who drew a considerably larger crowd.

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It was not until several decades later that the Declaration re-entered the public imagination when, in 1950, four students from the University of Glasgow travelled to London to remove Scotland’s ancient Stone of Destiny from beneath the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. A long police chase ensued, and the Anglo-Scottish border was closed for the first time in hundreds of years.

The Stone only re-emerged months later when the students decided to deposit it within the grounds of Arbroath Abbey. It was a symbolic gesture, and a deliberately political one, giving up the Stone to the authorities but doing so in a place associated with an ancient plea for Scottish self-government.

The leader of the heist, Ian Hamilton, wrote of the episode in his book Stone of Destiny. In of 2018, I visited Ian at his home to interview him for my book. He was 93 years old and I was 26. I asked Ian about his decision to leave the Stone on the grass at Arbroath Abbey and whether it was solely due to its connection with the 1320 Declaration.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said.

It was one final symbolic act, he explained, one last gesture to connect the ancient past with contemporary political desires. In his book, Ian recalled the moment they turned to walk away from the object they had risked everything for. They stood for a moment at the abbey gate and, looking down the ruined nave, they heard the words of 1320: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

“I never saw the Stone again,” he said.

We spoke in some detail about the 700th anniversary and the fact that the words of the Declaration held meaning for so many despite hardly anyone ever having the chance to see the artefact in person. I suggested it was, like the Stone of Destiny, more important as a symbol than as a physical object, to which Ian replied: “Ah yes, the power of icons. They seem to have power to evoke the past for people. In a way, it would be one way of defining a Scot. A Scot is someone who believes in the icons.”

The thought of national identity being linked in some way to recognising visual cues, such as stones or declarations or other symbols, interested me as an artist.

Before I left, I asked Ian what his advice would be to today’s young people who wanted to change the way things were, in Scotland or elsewhere. He replied: “Oh, go ahead! If you don’t, who will? It’s your generation that matters, so for God’s sake make it count!”

As I returned home I thought about the “power of icons”, whether in stones or declarations, and the way in which people could become swept up in objects and ideas from a time many centuries before their own. I was fascinated by an idea that the meaning of ancient artefacts didn’t always expire with time, nor were they necessarily confined to a single moment in history, but could reappear, re-purposed and attributed to new hopes and causes, in the ever-evolving story of a nation.

The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath is now available to order at for £14.99

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