WHEN the National Trust for Scotland carried out polling in 2020 on the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, it discovered that 51% of Scots had never heard of the Declaration. Although on being informed of its existence, 72% agreed that it was important. In common with other recent polling, the trust’s research indicated that 77% of people in Scotland wanted to know more about our country’s history.

As for so many people businesses and organisations, the last year has been very difficult for the trust. But evidence such as this could not be ignored: in the Declaration’s home county of Angus, it was decided that the redevelopment of the House of Dun would include an exhibition on the Declaration. It is a pity that the Scottish Parliament did not show the same enthusiasm for the significance of this document, with only a dozen or so MSPs supporting Alasdair ­Allan’s motion on its commemoration.

The Declaration of Arbroath is on one level an Angus document. ­The county has associations with several of the signatories, including Sir David de Graham, who held lands at Montrose from the 1320s, Sir Robert Keith, the Marischal, ­William Oliphant, Lord of Aberdalgie and Dupplin and of course Bernard, ­Abbot of Arbroath (1260-1331), who has traditionally been associated with the drafting of the document. ­Alexander de Kininmund, later Dean of Brechin, carried the document to the Papal court.

But on another level, Arbroath is a global document. There have been ­attempts to minimise its importance. There are also maximalist cases: the most familiar of these are that the Declaration underpins the notion of Scottish popular sovereignty and that it was foundational for the US Declaration of Independence (as commemorated in Senator Trent Lott’s Resolution 155 (1998)). The Scottish historian Ranald ­Nicholson called Arbroath “the most impressive manifesto of nationalism that medieval ­Europe produced”; his English counterpart Susan Reynolds more ­cautiously dubbed it “the most

eloquent statement of regnal ­solidarity to come out of the middle ages”. Both are agreed as to its ­importance.

What is the reality which lies ­behind the document? The “liberty alone” passage derives – as has been known for over 70 years – from the Roman historian Sallust: “ ... liberty, which no good man loses unless with the spirit of life itself.” But there is more to be said than this.

First of all, the passage from Sallust is changed in Arbroath so that “anima”, soul or spirit, becomes secularised to “vita”, life. Secondly, the speech in Sallust comes from the mouth not of a baron but a ­plebeian, the former centurion Gaius Manlius: the Scottish v English conflict alluded to in Arbroath is being presented in terms of Roman plebeian v patrician.

Arbroath’s own terms extend ­beyond the baronial signatories to speak on behalf of the community of the realm, and this central passage characterises this community in ­plebeian terms.

Beyond this, there is a deeper and more consistent intellectual approach which appears to be at work in the Declaration: that of Duns Scotus, the blessed John of Duns (1265-1308). A professor at the University of Paris who, in his On The Origins Of Civil Authority, argued that people should choose their ruler by agreeing among themselves as to who the ruler should be and should also choose the principle of transference of authority. This means they can revisit that choice – and that the people can choose as a ruler either a single person or a “community”.

John of Duns was one of the greatest thinkers of mediaeval Europe. He was undoubtedly known to Scottish negotiators for Papal recognition such as Baldred Bisset.

ARBROATH’S language is visible in Scottish documents from Barbour’s Brus of 1375 to the writing of John Mair (1467-1550). Though it cannot be presently proved, the explicit idea of contractual monarchy in Scotland from the 1560s may have descended from the Declaration, which was first printed in translation in the 1680s and then repeatedly through into the 1760s.

It was quoted during the Union ­debates and by James Boswell in ­defence of Corsican liberty. Thomas Ruddiman, who wrote the grammar almost certainly used by Thomas Jefferson, published an edition in 1715. Although Francis Hutcheson’s anti-colonial thinking is the clearest influence on the US Declaration of Independence, Scots among the founding fathers such as John Witherspoon made references to the ability of the community in Scotland to withhold consent from the Crown – while James Wilson appears to quote more or less directly from Arbroath in the defence of America’s “Essential Liberty, which … we are determined not to lose, but with our lives”.

The Declaration remains one of the earliest statements of sovereignty and national rights, as is borne witness to in its inclusion in the Unesco Memory of the World register. In World War II, it was distributed to schools to demonstrate the national rights being trampled by the Nazis. In 1920 and 1970, it was commemorated. The Declaration is not a party-political document and should not be the subject of sectarian partisanship. It is a central document in the history of Angus, Scotland and the world and the National Trust for Scotland are commemorating it as such. For a fuller exploration, see my lecture at www.vimeo.com/492417702.

Murray Pittock works at the University of Glasgow and is a Trustee and Scottish History adviser to the National Trust for Scotland