BEFORE I turn to the main meat of this column, namely the aftermath of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, I must first of all write about the National Trust for Scotland’s frankly amazing survey published yesterday.

As revealed in The National, some 1000 people were polled by the trust and 48.7% of people had heard of the Declaration of Arbroath and knew at least something about it. Interestingly, men were more likely to claim some level of knowledge of the declaration, with 14.6% of men reporting knowing a lot about it, compared to 8.3% of women.

That last statistic would have appalled Wendy Wood, the great patriot that I shall write about later this month. Wendy was one of the main promoters of the Declaration of Arbroath and she would have endorsed the findings of this survey that people very much want to know about Scottish history.

According to the survey, only 43% of 16 to 24-year-olds said they had a lot or quite a lot of knowledge about Scottish history, compared to 71% of people aged 65 and over. That, sadly, is all too true, because although there is more Scottish history being taught in our schools, it is nowhere near enough. Are you listening, John Swinney?

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What I found fascinating in the survey was that those born in the EU (other than the UK) were most likely to want to learn more about Scottish history, with a figure of 84%, followed by those born in Scotland (78%). However only 73% of those born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland wanted to do so. Likewise, those who identified as “British only” were the least likely to want to learn more about Scottish history.

Now there’s a surprise. The Britnats always deny that they think Scotland is not a country in its own right, but the survey proves they don’t want to know about that country’s history, especially as a separate independent nation.

These findings are from the survey report: “The history of Scotland is still intertwined with the public today and our research found that current political preferences correlated with attitudes to historical events, including the Battle of Bannockburn, and the Treaty of Union.”Famous dates” were not important to all with “don’t know” the second highest response (after Bannockburn 1314) when respondents were prompted to identify the most significant date in Scottish history.

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“However, we also found there was a broad appetite to learn more about Scottish history across all demographics, with 77% of people wanting to learn more. The preferred ways of learning more about our history were primarily through media (documentaries, books, film and TV dramas), but a majority of people also wanted to visit historic sites.”

The second highest score on dates stated by those who had a preference was 1707 and the Act of Union.

The survey added: “It is striking that the Battle of Bannockburn and the Act of Union, were the two events considered most important, the first an historic battle, between the Scots and the English and the second, a peaceful, if for many an unpopular, union of the two nations.

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“It is evident from this research that Scotland’s history does not just serve as stories from the past or even as lessons to learn, but it still shapes how see themselves. History is a living process, often linked to our social identity and national identity – how we view ourselves in the world and the choices we make.”

I’ve been saying for years that history is important to us NOW so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

I would like to quote at length what Diarmid Hearns, head of public policy at the National Trust for Scotland, said yesterday: “The signing of the Declaration of Arbroath is an incredibly important document in the birth of Scotland as a nation. The survey we commissioned shows that while it may not necessarily be the first historical date that comes to mind, when people hear more about it, they recognise its significance.

“Our research also showed us that when people learn about and experience Scotland’s heritage, they are more likely to value it and want to conserve it for the future. We also found that almost 70% of people prefer to learn about history by visiting historic sites. It shows that there is a huge appetite for people in Scotland – and from further afield – to learn more about Scotland’s history, and the trust is here to help them do that.”

Could not have put it better myself. Well done to all at the trust for this work. It is extremely reassuring that people do want to know more about Scottish history and I like to think Back in the Day is helping just a tad to assist those who want to know. Unfortunately my book of collected columns has been put on hold due to the coronavirus, but I hope to get it out in time for Christmas.

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Meanwhile let’s get back to Arbroath, 1320. Next week I will delve into the controversial matter of whether the declaration really did influence generations of Scots and other peoples around the world, but this week I want to take you back to 1320.

Just as I sat down to write about it, there arrived a missive from Alex Orr of Edinburgh, and I reproduce it in full: “Much has been written and will continue to be written this week to mark the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath.

“However, what few will be aware of is that just four months later a major plot to kill King Robert the Bruce was uncovered, involving five of the 44 sealers to that document. The so-called Soules Conspiracy, involving the Butler of Scotland, William de Soules, posed a massive threat to the Bruce dynasty and was backed by a substantial military force.

“King Robert did not have the widespread support the declaration claimed and it is suspected that many of the barons appended their seals under some duress. The monarch was in a rather fragile position and indeed, it is estimated that only a third of the sealers to the document were in fact pro-Bruce supporters.

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“Since Bannockburn, through the redistribution of land, offices and resources, King Robert the Bruce had been working to create bonds of loyalty to him that underpinned his rule and his dynasty. This however created resentment among some of his subjects, who found themselves out of favour, stimulating rebellion. The likely objective of the rebels was to elevate Edward Balliol, son of the deposed King John to the throne, with English backing.

“With this support and focused around an individual, who could claim both a legal right to rule in Scotland and be of an age to assume immediate authority, this coup attempt posed a considerable threat to the throne of King Robert.

“Had it proven successful the fate of the Bruce family and indeed Scotland’s history may have proven to be very different.”

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That’s a spot-on analysis of a very tricky situation that faced the king, with Edward Balliol, son of King John “Toom Tabard” still extant and very much angling to regain the Scottish thrown. He was not, as some historians have claimed, a lackadaisical type and a pawn of the English King Edward II, though he later become that under Edward III. In 1320, however, he was a man intent on de-throning the Bruce and he had friends willing to do so.

The Soules Conspiracy is evidence that King Robert’s policy of rewarding his loyal supporters at the expense of those who had supported the Balliol family’s claim to the throne was not sustainable, and indeed the records show that while he gave considerable amounts of land to his loyal lieutenant James Douglas, he made no such grants of land and income after the declaration, proving that he was unsure of many signatories’ true loyalty. And all the time there was one family standing by to either support Balliol or one of their own – the Comyns, who felt they had been robbed of the throne by Bruce’s murder of John Comyn in 1306.

Less than four months after the declaration was despatched to Pope John XXII, King Robert had his chancellor Bernard, abbot of Arbroath, call a parliament to meet at Scone. The previous Parliament in 1318 had seen the king force through a law to punish any conspirators or even just people spreading discontent about the King’s rule.

The Black Parliament, as it came to be called, was the result of information being supplied by Patrick, Earl of Dunbar, cousin of the king and the man who had helped Edward II to escape back to England after Bannockburn. He was now a Bruce loyalist, however, and on a trip to France he discovered contacts between French supporters of Edward Balliol and their allies in Scotland.

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The plot would centre around William de Soules, the seneschal or butler of Scotland, whose mother was a Comyn and whose father had been one of the “competitors” for the Scottish crown which King Edward I of England gave to the weak and vapid John Balliol – wonder why he chose him...

De Soules had seen his lands in the Borders given to others such as Douglas, so he had reason to resent the King, but at Scone it seems that even the dogs in the streets knew De Soules was just a Comyn puppet. It was therefore a key moment when, according to chronicles of the time, Countess Agnes of Strathearn, herself a Comyn, turned informer and implicated a band of conspirators. Why she did this is not known, but she may have traded the information to save her life and her children – she was “rewarded” with life imprisonment and died in her jail not long afterwards.

King Robert then embarked on a series of trials and it appears that around a dozen lesser nobles were charged. Stephen Spink in his brilliant book Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation which was published in December, and which I cannot recommend highly enough, tells us what happened next.

“The plotters were arrested, and on 4 August the king assembled a parliament at Scone to hear the testimony of the would-be assassins before his justices pronounced sentence. William de Soules confessed to his crimes, but in an act of clemency, Robert had him sent to Dumbarton Castle, where he was to be perpetually incarcerated, and where he subsequently died.

“Three of the men – Gilbert de Malherbe, John Logie and a squire, Richard Broun – were to face the ultimate sanction, being drawn at the tails of horses before their public hanging and beheading.

“Roger de Mowbray and his brother attempted to flee once they knew the conspiracy had been sprung, but both were killed during their flight. Roger’s body was brought to Scone and presented to Parliament on a litter; his corpse was found guilty and condemned to the hangman’s noose and the headsman’s axe.”

King Robert showed clemency, however, and the corpse was not mutilated.

David, Lord of Brechin, was accused of not telling the king he knew about the plot. Respected as a knight who had fought in the Crusades, he was nevertheless found guilty and suffered the same fate as De Malherbe.

Ingram de Umfraville, another Arbroath signatory, fled the country, officially ending the plot against King Robert the Bruce.

Next week we’ll see how the warrior king used a combination of savage attacks on England and diplomacy to finally bring about what he had always wanted – to be king of an independent Scotland.

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