IF the town of Arbroath was famous only for the Declaration made there in 1320, then its immortal place in Scottish history would be still confirmed.

But as I am showing in this current series, all our ancient towns have much more extensive histories than they are usually accorded.

So it is with Arbroath, never the largest of towns population-wise but with a historical significance that some would say is second to none in Scotland. Today I will be very much dwelling on the early history of Arbroath which, like all the other ancient towns I’ve chosen for this series, has played a role in the history of our nation, and in Arbroath’s case you might argue that role was seminal.

All the ancient towns have to have histories that have been thoroughly researched by proper historians so I can base my writing on their facts, and that is definitely the case with Arbroath. To be included in the series, towns have to have been founded before the Reformation and I am looking at their histories up to the year 1900.

Arbroath is a truly ancient town with a settlement at that location dating to prehistoric times. The original name of Aberbrothock means “the mouth of the Brothock”, with the Brothock Burn running through the town. Over the centuries there have been many variant spellings of the name.

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Some archaeological finds in the area have been dated back to 3500 BC, while many more finds dating from the Bronze Age and Iron Age confirm the antiquity of Arbroath. The settlement, probably the size of a large village, was known as a religious centre in the later part of the first millennium when it was one of the more important locations of the Pictish people.

We know the Picts were the occupants of the area due largely to the many stones with Pictish depictions that have been found over the years in and around Arbroath, the most famous of which is the Drosten Stone.

It is still extant and contains an inscription which has been translated from an ancient Celtic language called Goidelic, there being no examples of Pictish language anywhere. The stone contains a dedication to either a noble called Drosten or a saint of that name who had a following among the Picts.

As Christians, the Picts of the area had their own church or monastery dedicated to St Vigeans, possibly occupied by Culdees, the ancient order of Celtic monks and hermits.

The historian David Miller’s 1859 work Arbroath And Its Abbey (subtitled The Early History Of The Town Of Aberbrothock And Its Abbey) was the first really comprehensive history of Arbroath to be published and he was able to take advantage of the fact that some three centuries of charters and records of the abbey were preserved – right up to the Reformation, in fact, when the abbey fell into disuse.

The National:

Interestingly, Arbroath had been a centre of the Culdees, that mysterious brotherhood of Celtic clerics who dominated Christianity in Scotland prior to the arrival of Margaret (who was later made a saint) as wife of King Malcolm III (Canmore), who set about Romanising the church in Scotland. It was her son, King David I, who effectively forced the Culdees out of Arbroath and many other places.

Miller writes: “In the reign of David I, the Culdees of that place were superseded by English Monks, who soon got possession of Kirkaldy (sic), which is generally believed to have been another Culdee seat, and about the same time that they and the Monks of St Andrews contended for and were allowed to divide betwixt them the lands of Balchristie (Town of the Christians) in Newburn parish, a Culdee establishment of ancient date.

“The register of St Andrews very clearly exhibits the suppression of the Culdees or Hermits of Lochleven, who had received the patronage of King Makbeth, his Queen, Lady Makbeth, (whose true Gaelic name was Gruoch), Malcolm III, and other Scottish monarchs.”

Arbroath received royal favour over many years, and the greatest patronage came in 1178, when William the Lion was really just completing the work of his predecessors by ordering the building of Arbroath Abbey.

Research into this ancient monument – now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland – over the years has shown how the abbey became the centrepiece of the town. It started with King William taking monks of the Tironensian Order from Kelso Abbey – his grandfather David I had introduced them to Scotland – and giving them the funds to start a new abbey at Arbroath, which he also supported with grants of lands in what is now Angus and Fife.

Many of the local nobility followed William’s example and records survive to show how the abbey prospered – at one time it was the richest in Scotland.

King William had several reasons for creating the abbey. He wanted a suitable burial place for himself and indeed that was where he was interred after his death in 1214, even though the Abbey was not finished until 1233. He may also have wanted to send a message to England’s King Henry II because William had the new abbey dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, William’s childhood friend whose murder in Canterbury Cathedral was caused by Henry’s bad-tempered outburst against the archbishop. William the Lion also gave the new abbey a hugely important gift: the Brecbennach of St Columba. This reliquary of the saint undoubtedly went to Arbroath and was given on condition that it would be carried into battle by the Scots. That royal decree, I believe, is what has caused the centuries-old confusion between the lost Brecbennach and the Monymusk Reliquary which is very much extant and is now in the National Museum of Scotland.

Most modern scholars have concluded that the Brecbennach and the reliquary were two different things, but the romantic part of me wants them to be the same iconic item connected to the great saint that was carried at the Battle of Bannockburn.

And that takes us neatly to the Declaration, as one of the Scottish leaders was Bernard de Linton, also known as Bernard of Kilwinning, who became Abbot at Arbroath around 1309. His appointment to one of the nation’s most important religious posts followed on from his support of Robert the Bruce who, as king, had already made him Chancellor of Scotland.

Arbroath Abbey became a meeting place for the leading authorities of Scotland and in April, 1320, it was Abbot de Linton who supervised the drafting of the Declaration by the nation – in fact, around 40 members of the country’s so-called great and good – to Pope John XXII, asserting that the excommunication of Robert the Bruce should be lifted.

More importantly, the Declaration asserted the independence of Scotland, and I never tire of quoting this passage: “As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. 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.”

The Declaration of Arbroath’s influence on history is much debated but its importance to Scotland is incalculable as it defined our concept of popular sovereignty and rule by consent. It also worked – the Bruce’s excommunication was revoked by the Pope, laying open the way for the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton of 1328 that confirmed Scotland’s independence under King Robert I.

With the abbey as the main driver of the local economy, the town grew slowly, with only the bizarre Battle of Arbroath grabbing attention in the 15th century. Effectively a clan battle between the Ogilvys and Lindsays in 1445 – though some say a year later – it appears to have been an arranged conflict to settle the question of who should be “justiciar” (judiciary officer) of the Abbey.

The office had belonged to the Lindsay earls of Crawford but the monks became unhappy at the way Alexander, son of the 3rd Earl, was dispensing rough justice and they replaced him with Alexander Ogilvy of Inverquharity. The Lindsays appear to have challenged their decision, forcing Ogilvy to confront them which he did just outside the Abbey. They lost the 3rd Earl, the Lindsays won the day and Ogilvy himself was pursued and killed.

Though it didn’t happen overnight, the decay and eventual dissolution of the Abbey greatly affected the town in the 16th century. Other abbeys and religious institutions became more powerful but none were able to withstand the Reformation.

The best-known later Abbot of Arbroath was Cardinal David Beaton who became Archbishop of St Andrews in 1539 and was assassinated by Protestants at St Andrews Castle in retaliation for his execution of George Wishart.

Arbroath Abbey was effectively shut down by the Reformation and stone from the abbey was used for a new Protestant church and in some houses around the town. Yet its remains are impressive, and of course the abbey was thrust into the spotlight when the Stone of Destiny was left there in 1951 after its repatriation by a group of Glasgow University nationalist students.

Arbroath the town developed economically until the point where King James VI accorded it the status of a royal burgh in 1599. Its harbour was improved regularly and Arbroath was increasingly seen as a seaport town. By the time of the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46, it was strategically important for Bonnie Prince Charlie, not least because many of the townsmen joined the Stuart cause.

The coming of the Industrial Revolution changed Arbroath, but even before that the town was developing a textile industry. Weavers flocked to the area which was replete with spinning mills and Arbroath became a leader in linen production.

Its importance as a fishing port grew exponentially and fishing and processing remained a major employer well into the 20th century. And of course the Arbroath Smokie became renowned, being first developed in Auchmithie village north of the town, before production mainly moved to the Fit o’ the Toon in Arbroath itself.

Nor can I let this brief history of Arbroath pass without mention of the town football club’s astonishing world record. At Gayfield Park on September 12, 1885, Arbroath FC beat Bon Accord of Aberdeen 36-0 in the first round of the Scottish Cup – a world record for a contested senior match that still stands.