THE Declaration of Arbroath, dated April 6, 1320, takes the form of a letter to the Pope from “the barons and freeholders and the whole community of the kingdom of Scotland”. It asks him to recognise their independence and acknowledge Robert Bruce as their lawful king.

The appeal came after more than 20 years of almost non-stop war between Scotland and England, starting with William Wallace’s rebellion in 1297. Ever since Bruce’s crushing victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, it had been clear he was the winner of this war. Military action now amounted to little more than destructive raids into England, burning and looting, as far or as often as the Scots wanted. The English had no answer to them.

There was even the opportunity to open a second front. In 1315, Bruce sent his brother Edward to claim the Kingdom of Ireland. He landed in Ulster with a force of Highland Gaels and others. He was killed in 1318 before achieving much, except to show the Bruces were mounting more than a marginal mutiny against the Plantagenet dynasty in London and its futile attempts at empire-building over the rest of the British Isles.

Edward Bruce sent an address to the Welsh who, with the Scots, “proceed from one root of origin or kinship and country in the beginning”. They should make common cause against the thwarted English pretensions. Yet nothing was to come of a Celtic alternative. The prevailing English notions remained unreal, because King Edward II simply would not drop his claim to be overlord of Scotland. This drew the attention of Pope John XXII who, from his seat at Avignon, sought to do good in the world by being a peacemaker. He intervened after Bruce recaptured the English-occupied town of Berwick in 1318. He issued letters in 1319 summoning the king and four Scottish bishops to attend the papal court. The Pope had not at this point actually recognised their titles, and they refused. They were excommunicated.

The National: Robert the Bruce, in a painting by George JamesonRobert the Bruce, in a painting by George Jameson

While this kind of unseemly wrangling went on, Robert could never be completely secure. Late in 1318 there was still talk of an internal conspiracy and coup against him in Scotland. In 1320, Parliament dealt savagely with the leaders. They meant to oust Robert, but it is unclear who else they wanted. Historians speculate they preferred Edward Balliol (son of another former competitor for the throne, King John Balliol, who had ruled himself out in 1296).

The Declaration of Arbroath was part of the Bruces’ diplomatic counter-offensive. Its 1000 or so words were probably drawn up during a meeting of the king and his council in March 1320 at Newbattle Abbey, south of Edinburgh. So as to last, the text was written in classical Latin on durable sheepskin, and an early copy is preserved in the National Records of Scotland.

It is “of Arbroath” because that is where, according to its own text, it was committed to the sheepskin. The king kept his chancery here under the abbot, Bernard of Kilwinning, who had been a key member of his government since it was set up in 1306.

A long-standing supporter of the Bruces, Bernard had recently headed an embassy to Norway, where he re-opened official trading links between the two northern nations. The actual author and scribe of the Declaration may have been somebody else, perhaps a bookish friar capable of sifting trenchant phrases out of classical sources.

Documents of this status were signed with seals. Signatories could either take the seals along to the monastery or send them in. Today, 19 seals are attached to the parchment, against 50 or so at the outset. The rest have just dropped off over the centuries.

The text stresses Scotland’s long history as an independent Christian kingdom. It reminds us that Robert’s regime had a strong Catholic character. Not only did he show great personal piety, he was also committed to the Church of Scotland as a national Church, which it certainly would not have remained if the English had conquered Scotland.

The Declaration then contains a brief account of the mythical origins of the Scots. They had overcome many difficulties in their journey from their original home of Greater Scythia (to the north of the Black Sea) via Spain to Scotland. They had lived in freedom and peace till Edward I (father of Edward II) invaded Scotland and caused havoc.

But Robert Bruce is saving the Scots. Now they will defend him as a king who above all upholds their values: “As long as only a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition 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.”

The Pope is asked to tell Edward II to leave the Scots in peace. In that case, they will join in a planned papal crusade. If not, he would have to answer to God.

IN fact, nothing happened before Edward II was deposed and murdered in 1327. Rebel factions plunged England into chaos. One of the few positive policies available was to come to terms with Scotland. The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328 aimed to bring about a “final and perpetual peace”.

It included the recognition of Robert as king of an independent nation. In 1329 the Pope issued a bull allowing the anointment and crowning of the King of Scots by the Bishop of St Andrews as the Pope’s representative, an important concession. Robert could now consolidate his power. Yet the two neighbour countries were at war again by 1332.

Independence was to be, over the next 300 years, a great fulfilment for this generation of Scots and a triumph over harsh medieval realities. It still did not make the nation absolutely secure, as the fierce, ceaseless arguments of seven centuries show.

In important respects, Robert Bruce made himself King of Scots in the same way as the rest of Europe’s kings won their crowns and their thrones. They might have been lucky enough to get God to choose them too, helped by their noble descent, personal valour or political wisdom. But the struggles in Scotland added an extra dimension, of popular sovereignty. At the root of Scottish nationhood lay the will and consent of the people.

The Declaration of Arbroath says that, should the king not be able or willing to defend us, then we will choose a successor who can and will: “Yet if he [King Robert] should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or to the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king.”

Over seven centuries the Declaration has from time to time been lost from view, so that it does not always reflect or describe a reality when it argues in terms of popular sovereignty. Still, deep down it preserves a political concept essential to a true historical understanding of Scotland, and so helps to shape our thoughts today.