IT might sound strange to say it now, but at the beginning of the year many of us hoped the Declaration of Arbroath’s 700th anniversary would be one of the most memorable events of 2020.

The anniversary weekend, focused around April 6, was lining up to be a colourful and creative celebration of one of Scotland’s most important historical artefacts, with a number of cultural and political events being planned.

My own preparations for 2020 began way back in the spring of 2018, when I started work on The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath, a commemorative book designed to tell the story of the Declaration in a creative and accessible way.

I was keen for the book to reflect what the Declaration meant in its own time, but also what it has meant to people ever since. For that reason I travelled to Oban to interview Ian Hamilton, who many will remember was part of the group of Glasgow University students who ­removed the Stone of Destiny from ­Westminster Abbey in 1950.

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 independence.

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It was a real honour to be able to ­interview Ian, who was then 93 years old, and to speak to him about Scotland’s ancient artefacts and their ongoing influences – “the power of icons”, as he put it. The interview remains one of my favourite parts of the book.

The Saltire Society agreed to publish The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath, and a year later, in November 2019, the finished project was launched at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.

But as the Declaration’s anniversary drew nearer there was a real sense among friends that there should be a collaborative cultural event to mark it. Teaming up with the writer and presenter Alistair Heather, and Arbroath folk musician ­Steve Byrne, we set about organising a top-class cultural event for Arbroath’s Webster Theatre. The line-up was ­announced by Christmas 2019, featuring music from Byrne, the award-winning folk band Breabach, the Dundonian singer Sheena Wellington, renowned for her stirring rendition of A Man’s a Man at the 1999 opening of the Scottish Parliament, and a speech from writer and broadcaster Billy Kay. An original piece of theatre by Donald Smith was also ­arranged, and I was due to present a short segment on The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath.

The event was lining up to be the major cultural show of the anniversary weekend, and our 500 tickets were quickly sold out. We also made plans for a ­discussion panel, chaired by the writer and translator Ashley Douglas, with contributions from Lesley Riddoch, history professor Roger Mason and myself. By January 2020 the whole line-up was looking promising, and excitement and anticipation was starting to build towards April.

The year got off to a powerful start with Celtic Connections dedicating its opening concert to the Declaration’s 700th anniversary. The GRIT Orchestra, set up in memory of the musician Martyn Bennett, delivered a moving and uplifting concert at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, featuring stirring readings from the ­Declaration by Liz Lochhead and others.

By early March, I had already done a number of book talks the length and breadth of Scotland. This would be just the start, or so I hoped, of a year-long effort to spread the word about the ­Declaration’s history and significance. Coronavirus was beginning to appear in the news, but it seemed far-off and distant, something happening elsewhere. Then everything started to change.

For those of us making final preparations, the weeks leading up to the April anniversary were becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. The first positive case of coronavirus in Scotland was confirmed in early March, followed by the first signs of community transition not long after. By the end of the month ­Scotland had entered lockdown. The Declaration’s 700th anniversary was on the very cusp of these dramatic changes, and commemorative events were among the first in the country to be called off.

The pro-independence group All Under One Banner cancelled its march and ­rally through the streets of Arbroath, which was expected to draw well over 20,000 people. If the march had gone ahead as planned it would have been the biggest public event the town had ever seen. ­Hotels and B&Bs for miles around had already been booked months in advance.

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Unwilling to let the anniversary pass unmarked, Riddoch and filmmaker ­Charlie Stuart quickly set about ­making a documentary film to be streamed online, featuring interviews with myself and others. The last-minute effort was remarkably quick and efficient, and the finished film ended up being a brilliant highlight of the anniversary weekend, giving people something to watch online whilst stuck at home.

A wonderful three-part documentary series by Kay was also broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, exploring the Declaration’s broader reach and influence.

When the day of the anniversary finally came on April 6, the streets of Arbroath were as empty as everywhere else in the country. After two years of planning, writing, drawing, and imagining what the anniversary would be like, it was a strange and surreal moment of quiet.

Working in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland and the National Records of Scotland, I had also produced a schools pack full of fun learning activities based around the Declaration story. As schools shut down, parents and teachers started to download the free resource online so that children could learn about the Declaration from home.

In the end, the real story of the Declaration’s 700th anniversary was one of people using their own initiative to ­celebrate this important part of Scotland’s ­history. So much of what was planned for 2020 was self-starting and self-made. I’m proud of all those fellow travellers who contributed their own time and effort, using their own skills and resources, to celebrate the Declaration, because collectively we believed it was too important not to.

We tried our best in difficult circumstances, and with little backing, to mark the anniversary in whatever way we could. Global pandemics have a way of putting everything in perspective, but I still believe this is a part of Scotland’s history worth celebrating and remembering.

Despite everything, there seems to be a real public appetite for learning and engaging with this part of our history – the crowds expected in Arbroath and the speed at which tickets sold out was just a small taste of that. That alone is hugely encouraging, and has left me determined to do more.

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